How Orchids became a Librarian’s Nightmare

Renanthera coccinea, the first orchid in Bateman’ collection.
photo from Flickr by Luiz Filipe Varella, 2017

It maybe a strange title but this is really the story of a rich young man and his passion for plants or rather one particular kind of plant.  James Bateman was the grandson and son of rich industrialists who had made their money out of  steam power, coal and iron. They owned mills and mines before moving into banks and land. All this meant  James did not have to lift a finger to be, and stay, rich, and that he could indulge his love of  plants.

His parents were keen gardeners at their home, Knypersley Hall in Staffordshire and even as a student at Oxford James was collecting and learning about plants. In particular he visited the nursery there of Thomas Fairburn who had been gardener to Joseph Banks. Fairburn introduced him to orchids:

“Of course, I fell in love at first sight, and as Mr. Fairburn asked only a guinea for his plant (high prices not yet in vogue), it soon changed hands and travelled with me to Knypersley, when the Christmas holidays began. I had caught my first orchid….”

Bateman soon found himself  “impatient at the tardy rate at which new species crossed the seas” so with his father’s encouragement, although still a student,  he sponsored a plant hunting expedition led by Thomas  Colley, who worked for  Fairburn, to Demerara on the northern coast of South America in 1833.  I say plant hunting, what I really mean, is orchid-hunting.   The expedition managed to get some sixty species of orchids back to Britain alive, with 20 of them new introductions, several of which  were included in the Botanical Register  in 1834. “To one of them, the ugliest as it happens, Dr. Lindley affixed the names…of the employer and collector.”  A short account, by Bateman of Colley’s trip was published in The Gardeners’ Magazine in 1834, which includes the comment that “little, probably, remains to be obtained from that quarter of the world.”   That may be a sign of the ruthlessness with which Colley stripped the forests, and a sign of the ecological disaster that was to follow just a few decades later as orchid fever swept the west.

This is because Colley was not the only collector looking for orchids in the same place at the same time. He found a tree covered with a new species Oncidium lanceanum,  and fearing that another collector would also discover it as well,  took or destroyed every specimen he could find.  Bateman later  exploited this since “everyone was prepared to go down on their knees…offering their greatest treasures in exchange”  for one of his plants.  Apart from this it wasn’t a bad start to a botanical career, and it was to get even better.

James was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1833, and then stunned the botanical world, at the age of just 26,  by commissioning probably  the greatest orchid books ever published.

The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala  cost 20 guineas and was issued in parts on subscription between 1837 and 1843. Only 125 copies were printed, and of these only 55 are  known to still survive.  Dedicated to Queen Adelaide, the Queen Dowager, the subscribers list is impressive to put it mildly with the King of the Belgians and the Grand Duke of Tuscany leading the way followed by 5 Dukes, 5 Earls and a host of other bigwigs as well as wealthy orchid collectors.

It was the first major published sign of  European obsession with  exotic orchid species that Bateman himself recognized as “Orchido-Mania”  which he said “now pervades all (and especially the upper)  classes to such a marvellous extent.” He added that “houses for their accommodation are rearing in every direction, and as a matter of course are included in all designs for a complete residence; pots for their exclusive use are already sold in the shops in London; their blossoms are even now imitated in the establishment of some of the most fashionable manufacturers of artificial flowers; and prizes, the most munificent, are offered by all horticultural societies…”  In short Bateman reckoned this mania was set to exceed tulipmania  “on a better foundation.”


It was  the greatest orchid book in most other senses too. Its size alone was extraordinary, at  30” x 22” it’s probably the “largest botanical book ever produced with lithographic plates” (The Art of Botanical Illustration, Blunt and Stearn 1994, p249) and at 38lbs in weight it was amongst the heaviest books ever produced, making it difficult to lift. It even included  a witty cartoon by George Cruikshank, playing on the fact.  Its Greek caption translates as “a big book is a big evil”.  This  quickly led to the book becoming   known as “The Librarian’s Nightmare”.

Most of the  orchids featured in the book were collected for Bateman by George Ure Skinner who was not a plantsman like Colley but an English merchant in Guatemala whose main business was dealing in cochineal and other local produce.  As a sideline, however, Skinner  was already collecting natural history specimens for museums in Britain.  Knowing this, Bateman wrote to him  asking him to extend his searching to orchids,  and was later to write: “From the moment he received the letter he labored incessantly to drag from their hiding places the forest treasures of Guatemala and transfer them to the shore of his native land. In pursuit of this object there was scarcely a sacrifice he did not make, or a danger or hardship he did not brave. In sickness or in health, amid the calls of business or the perils of war, whether detained in quarantine on the shores of the Atlantic, or shipwrecked on the rocks of the Pacific, he never suffered an opportunity to escape him of adding to the long array of his botanical discoveries.”

When the first consignment arrived Bateman was ecstatic:  “Never shall I forget my intense delight in the opening of that box.” Every plant that arrived was new to cultivation in England and they formed the basis of Bateman’s collection.

Skinner widened the reach of his specimen hunting, moving through all of central America, and as far north as Mexico and south as far as Peru.  At first he only collected  for Bateman, but later was introduced by him to William and Joseph Hooker at Kew, the Duke of Bedford, Lord Derby,  John Lindley, and other well-known orchidophiles. Skinner also regularly travelled back to Britain, boasting at one point that he had crossed the Atlantic 39 times, bringing [as well as sending] plants back on his own account for sale by auction in London.

The two men’s friendship lasted until  Skinner’s death from yellow fever some 30 years later, and it led to the introduction of about 100 new orchid species to cultivation.   Unfortunately most of the correspondence between the two men has been lost, but is known about from surviving parallel letters between Skinner and  Kew.

Bateman did not only have plants specially collected from the wild, he was also a frequent visitor to nurseries particularly that  of George Loddiges in Hackney, saying “I doubt whether any man ever loved the plants as much as he.”



Nor did Bateman  just collect orchids for the sake of it. He was interested in their taxonomy and history, as well, of course, in their cultivation and propagation. The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala  offered not only detailed scientific descriptions in both Latin and English, but practical information for the grower looking after them as well.  

Sobralia macrantha,                                        The Large Flowered Sobralia

The  40 orchid illustrations were mainly done by Augusta Withers, who was flower painter to Queen Adelaide, and Sarah Anne Drake, although there were also two by Jane Edwards and one by Samuel Holden.  Eleven of the species included  were previously completely unknown to western science, and for most of the remainder  it was the first time they had been illustrated.

The initial drawings  were transferred onto elephant folio-sized lithographic plates, and once printed each page had additional hand-colouring and/or varnishing to create a depth and richness that was extremely uncommon at the time.

In addition to this there were little intra-textual sketches by George Cruikshank, which included people, natural history subjects and some views of Mexico and Guatemala.

The book immediately  attracted universal admiration.  Sir William Hooker, Director of Kew and editor of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine dedicated the next volume to Bateman, “author of the magnificent Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala, a work of which it is hard to say whether the beauty of the subjects represented, the execution of the figures, or the taste displayed in the typographical department, is more to be admired.”

Bateman married the same year the first plates were published and moved from his parents home at Knypersley to a  house he built at nearby Biddulph where he was to live until 1860.  [More on that in another post soon]

He also became a fellow of the RHS  Elected to the Royal Society in 1838.

His interest in orchids continued. He was a frequent contributor to Gardener’s Chronicle and  wrote the descriptions and notes for 100 other new orchids to  Paxton’s Botanical Magazine. These were later issued with others  hand-painted as a bound and boxed volume in 1867 as A Second Century of Orchidaceous Plants.

Odontoglossum coronarium from Monograph on Odontoglassums

He published a Guide to Cool Orchid Growing in 1864, and the same year began publishing his study of one particular orchid family. 30 plates towards his  Monograph of Odontoglossums appeared between 1864 and 1874, with plates by Walter Hood Fitch, but his plan to include an overview of all its known species did not come to fruition.

James Bateman

Just as there was there was an environmental; downside to the widespread collection of specimens on the ground, there was a social downside too. Bateman was, despite his many great qualities, something of a plant snob.  He writes in the preface to Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala that “It is probable that Orchidaceae culture will always continue in a comparatively few hands; and that it will, therefore, be pursued with the same ardour in the upper walks of life, that already in a humbler sphere attends the cultivation of the many beautiful varieties of the tulip, auricula, and carnation. Few will value what all may possess. Each class has its own enjoyment.”


This attitude was quickly challenged. Gardeners Chronicle carried an article – “Orchids for the Million.”- by Benjamin Williams which argued that “I was struck with some of his prefatory remarks… that the difficulty and expense of growing orchids will always keep them among the aristocracy of gardeners… I believe that we shall soon find keeping the more easily cultivated orchids reasonably damp and well-exposed to light and air whilst growing and giving them a good rest, will make this class as common as they are beautiful… We must have them for the million.”

And that is precisely what happened.    Williams was to go on and write a best-selling guide, The Orchid Grower’s Manual, in 1850 and which went through 6 more editions in the following 50 years.

But, and for all the truth of William’s predictions, and despite the fact that nowadays common orchids are micropropagated, piled high and sold cheap in supermarkets,   But the librarian’s nightmare  still commands huge interest because it captures the excitement and exclusivity of those first introductions in such a spectacular way.

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2 Responses to How Orchids became a Librarian’s Nightmare

  1. Pingback: Pretty Orchids: Ugly History – The Very Green Gardener

  2. cboot says:

    You might also like to see an article by Paul Baker on — James Bateman, a tale of gardens, orchids and ceramics in GHS news 87, p.21-23

    Click to access GHSNews87lite.pdf

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