The love of plants runs in the blood, or so it might appear from the life of William Caparne teacher, painter, plantsman and iris fanatic.
A very private man, but who travelled widely in Europe and met and was befriended by Monet, he eventually gave up teaching and moved to Guernsey to paint landscapes, gardens and the flowers which he grew and bred in his nursery there: above all botanical paintings of his beloved iris. Despite his horticultural achievements he and his work were soon forgotten, and have really only been bought back to their deserved place in the pantheon in the last 20 or so years.
William was born in 1855 and although his father was a music teacher many of the rest of his family, including his grandfather and uncle Thomas were involved in horticulture as seedsmen and nurserymen in Nottinghamshire. Their horticultural business developed, according to their local paper, the Newark Advertiser, into one of the most prominent in the East Midlands in the 19th Century. William used to spend time on their nurseries and accompany them to local flower shows. However it was his father’s garden full of “iris that were above his head, and had to be looked up to”, according to William’s obituary in Gardeners Chronicle in 1940, that “made an indelible impression”. Uncle Thomas was also an amateur artist and one can only wonder if he encouraged the other passion in William’s life too.
After studying art at the Slade School of Art in London, and the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, in 1877 William landed a job teaching drawing at Oundle School, a public school in Northamptonshire. He also set-up a small private drawing school to supplement his income. One of his pupils there was Louisa Atkins and within 2 years he had married her and started a family. Their daughter Winifred was born in 1880 and their son Edward in 1885.
However William’s interest in horticulture remained strong if not stronger than his interest in teaching – and in 1880 he started a small nursery on an acre of overgrown land owned by the school. He began collections of plants including iris and daffodils, and built an unheated greenhouse where he began to experiment with hybridizing plants, especially iris. By 1884 Caparn was advertising himself as ‘Bulb and Seedsman of Benfield, Oundle’. He was also painting everything he grew, noting all the details down on the back of every drawing and keeping meticulous records in a file for cross-referencing. These paintings of flowers in bloom won him several Royal Horticultural Society medals,
Around this time too Caparn met Peter Barr, the pioneering daffodil grower and nurseryman. Their friendship grew and lasted for the rest of Barr’s life, with Caparn going to Scotland in 1909 to deliver a funeral eulogy. Barr had rescued the rare collection of another specialist daffodil Edward Leeds and then commissioned William to paint portraits of all of them for the 1884 daffodil conference. [Sounds a bit dull but its a good story and one I’ll write about one day], Caparn then painted all of Barr’s new introductions. Many of these daffodils are now extinct so his sketches are the only record.
His painting career developed in parallel with his teaching. He took painting tours, sometimes with his pupils, to the Scillies, Channel Islands, Devon and Cornwall, the Lake District and North Wales. Very soon he was submitting work for sale in galleries and for exhibition including those held by Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and the Royal Botanical Society.
After one exhibition he was approached by Henry Tate, the sugar magnate who came to Oundle to meet him, and having seen his work and garden, commissioned him to visit him in Surrey and paint some iris in his own garden, presumably at Park Hill. Sadly the pictures were not in Tate’s collection when he bequeathed it to the nation.
Through his RHS connections William met Prof Michael Foster, a bulb specialist, and commissioned to provide some illustrations for his book on Bulbous Iris. Other specialist growers including GF Wilson of Wisley, also asked him to paint parts of their collections.
So the 1880s and early 1890s were good times for Caparn. He had a job he enjoyed, a wife and young family, sufficient money and two absorbing hobbies – painting and horticulture.
But 1894 marked a terrible change in fortune. Oundle appointed a new headmaster who switched the emphasis of the curriculum firmly towards science and engineering. A drawing master was still needed but for mechanical rather than artistic drawing, and Caparn was given notice. Worse was to follow that autumn when Louisa died at the age of only 46.
Caparn left Oundle in 1895, selling up his nursery stock and, leaving the children with his in-laws, moved to a cottage on Dartmoor and began painting. Over 200 watercolours date from the few months he was there, with more drawings and paintings of the north Devon coastline, before he moved again, this time to Guernsey in August 1896. It’s at this point that he added the ‘e’ to the end of his name.
Guernsey was to prove the perfect spot for him. It was quiet and tranquil with a climate ideal for growing bulbs, especially daffodils and iris. He bought a small house and some land which was to be home for the rest of his life and Winifred soon came to join him . He now began regular painting expeditions around all of western Europe which continued right up until the first world war. Some of these trips were commissions from contacts in the Royal Horticultural Society or the Royal Botanical Society to paint villas and gardens around the Mediterranean, but others were purely for the pleasure of painting landscapes, gardens and plants. They also led to his discovery of French post-impressionism which was soon reflected in his approach to his own work.
In 1905 William went to Giverny to meet Monet and a group of his friends, and was asked to paint with him. On another visit he took a basket of iris bulbs and was given some drawings of iris in return. The two artists shared the same philosophy of the relationship between flowers and art. Monet famously said “It is probable I became an artist because of flowers” whilst Caparne less famously said ” there could never be art without flowers.” It was Monet who suggested that Caparne tour Brittany, the Riviera and Normandy – in other words the very places that he himself painted. Work by Caparne exists from all these locations as well as Giverny itself and he also knew Lucien Pissarro who came to visit him on Guernsey.
Meanwhile he established another nursery to continue his hybridizing and probably provide some supplementary income which was much needed since he now refused to deal with galleries or even to exhibit his work at commercial shows. Luckily the horticultural world still demanded his work. He still exhibited at RHS shows and Michael Foster continued to commissioned drawings and paintings as did other growers and nursery customers, including several foreign nurseries including Van Tubergen, and Leichtlin of Baden.
Caparne built two 60ft greenhouses on his land which he filled with orchids and every other kind of ‘exotic’ he could find, and, as usual, everything he grew he painted. He started hybridizing iris again, attempting to improve and widen the colour range, and the size and number of blooms, sending new sorts to Wisley every year. In the process he bred an entire new class – the ‘intermediate’ bearded irises, which fill the flowering gap between the early dwarf kinds to the later flowering taller flag iris. His horticultural knowledge led him to giving a paper on ‘The Daffodil in Art’ at the 1896 RHS Narcissus conference which Gardeners Chronicle reported as displaying “quite a paternalistic fondness for the flower”, and one on Iris in conjunction with an exhibition of his iris paintings. All this led to him being elected a fellow of the RHS in 1899,
As you might expect the nursery was successful and within a short while he issued a catalogue offering a ‘New Race of [Intermediate] Irises’ By 1901 his ‘Iris Plant & Bulb Company’ offered 30 new intermediate iris of his own breeding, and contained detailed illustrated botanical descriptions and an account of how they were discovered and bred. The following year there were 35 of these intermediates, and he travelled to RHS shows to exhibit them and speak about them. By 1905 there were 42 varieties and these were exported round the world to both collectors and specialist commercial nurseries.
He had particular success in exporting iris to America where his name did not vanish from sight on his death. Indeed exactly the opposite. The American Iris Society named a medal after Caparne and thinks that the majority of dwarf bearded iris, grown in any garden in the first quarter of the 20thc was probably a product of Caparne’s hybridising. In all he is estimated to have introduced as many as a hundred new iris varieties into cultivation.
He turned his attention back to daffodils, and by 1910 had an acre and a half given over to breeding them, offering 41 varieties. All these were painted. Some went to his cousin Harold Apreece Caparn in New York who in 1912 was appointed landscape architect for Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, where he worked for the next 30 years.
Caparne now finally seemed in his element. He and Winifred lived on a shoestring but he was happy growing plants and painting them, using an old tramcar as a studio.
In 1919 he acquired more land – on an exposed cliff top, windswept and with poor soil, being told that nothing would grow. But of course being a real plantsman he knew what to choose and what to experiment with.
The result was another minor triumph – a mix of New Zealand shrubs and pines, together with succulents, cacti and south african bulbs all held together with a carpet of mesembryanthemums of all things.
He did not slow down very much as he grew older, continuing with Winifred’s help to develop his ‘Intermediate’ irises through into the mid 1930s. This gained him all sorts of medals and awards from the British Iris Society. In 1929 at the RHS iris show he exhibited the largest collection of iris paintings ever assembled: 245 from his life’s work including virtually every known living variety and many that already disappeared.
And all the time he was painting. Yet not really for public consumption or sale. There were just two exhibitions locally, the second a total disaster and organized against his wishes. He was painting essentially for himself, occasionally giving pictures as gifts but rarely selling. Most were landscapes and plants but a few captured the local horticultural industry – things like the insides of the packing sheds and greenhouses of commercial nurseries – almost all long since gone.
Then in the mid-1930s his eyesight began to fail and by 1937 and virtually blind, and probably in need of some cash, he offered his entire collection and library of iris studies to the British Iris Society, who reluctantly declined for financial reasons.
William died in 1940 and an obituary appeared in Gardener’s Chronicle. Winifred inherited his estate including all his artwork some 7,800 pieces – but she too remained reclusive so that it was effectively lost to public sight. She moved to Devon finally dying in 1972 at the age of 92. She bequeathed the collection to the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral who saw no great value in it and sold it on to a local firm of art dealers. They went bust and eventually the collection was split up and sold piecemeal in batches at auction houses around the country.
Some of his surviving work is in the RHS Lindley Library and in 1980 a substantial number of pieces were acquired by Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery. They have held several exhibitions, which together with Robin Fenner’s biography A Genius Undeclared have begun to re-establish Caparne’s place as both a landscape and botanical artist. There is also a website dedicated to him, although unfortunately it has not been updated for several years.
Ah…my favourite flower!