If I ask you to name the most famous of all flowers painters I very much doubt you’d reply Winifred Walker, yet that’s how she was described by a national newspaper a century ago in 1919. The description might be a bit of an exaggeration but there’s no doubt she was certainly a more than accomplished painter who illustrated seed and nursery catalogues and gardening books as well as being an “official” artist for the Royal Horticultural Society.
Yet her story confirms one of the things I learned quite early on writing this blog, and indeed doing garden history research more generally, that it’s often more difficult to track down information about the comparatively recent past than it is about the 18th or 19th centuries. It also shows how difficult it can be to trace the lives of many of the botanical artists who figure in the story, even if they are significant, and it’s usually doubly difficult if they are women.
My first attempts at serious research were quite fruitless but eventually a collection of horticultural catalogues – both British and American – held by Oregon State University showed a way forward. Although by the 1920s such catalogues are generally being illustrated by photographs, including the occasional colour shot, a few were still being illustrated by paintings, especially for the covers or for more unusual or new varieties. As the OSU site says: “these paintings are in general, much more evocative of the romance and delicacy of flowers than photographs”. Most of the images are anonymous and unsigned but there are examples commissioned from well-known artists of the day including Beatrice Parsons who I have posted about previously ….and Winifred Walker.
Winfred Walker was effectively a mystery, unwritten about and unresearched, until in 1997 RJ Clevely of the British Heather Society wrote a short article about her for the society’s journal. Their work was thestarting point for this post.
Winifred Ethel Walker was born in 1882, her mother was a headteacher in Hampstead who pioneered the educational ideas of Friedrich Froebel which stressed the importance of play and practical experience. Winifred benefitted from that. The family home backed onto Hampstead Heath and she was encouraged to explore nature. In the process she obviously fell in love with plants and began drawing and painting them. She enrolled at Camden School of Art and after graduating became an art teacher before, like me, realising the error of her ways and escaping! It was at that point she turned her talents to a career in producing botanical illustrations for a range of horticultural publications, including nursery catalogues, seed packets and books.
It wasn’t long before she was no longer Miss Walker but Mrs Ernest Fryett. I’ve just discovered that in 1905 Winifred and Ernest were both new members of the Hampstead branch of the Selborne Society, which was Britain’s first national conservation organisation, so maybe thats where they met. They were married in 1907, although she continued to use her maiden name professionally. However they divorced in about 1930 when their daughter, Pax, was 12.
The couple moved to Hammersmith and later to Worthing where Winifred exhibited her work in local galleries as well as in London. By 1919 she was exhibiting at the Royal Academy and being described by The Globe as “well-known at the famous Westminster Flower Shows… When a grower is exhibiting some rare flower, it maybe the only one of its kind in the world, she is ready at hand to paint its portrait.” She was soon doing the same thing at the Chelsea Flower Show. Describing herself as a “specialist in flower portraiture” she also began teaching botanical art from home.
Commercial commissions began to arrive from seed and nursery companies too, including Blackmore & Langdon, Bee’s of Chester, Fidler’s of Reading, Toogood’s of Southampton and Ryders of St Albans. Ryders picked up on the Globe’s praise of Winifred’s work using her work in their catalogue, in January 1924, saying that she was “the most famous of all flower painters”, and they sold prints of her paintings as well as offering an album of some of them to customers who purchased more than £1’s worth of seeds. She also illustrated 8 cultivars for Maxwell & Bean, a heather nursery, which appeared in no less than 26 of their catalogues and were still being used in the 1960s.
Nor was it just British horticultural businesses. She was also commissioned from American companies. She had travelled to the United States in 1928 and went again in 1934 to see the seed trial grounds in California as well as meeting nursery and seed companies. Her work appeared in catalogues of Peter Henderson’s, Ryneveld, and Vaughan’s of Chicago and New York.
But plant catalogue art was largely an unsung business. Her big breakthrough came when she did the illustrations for a book by John Guille Millais, the son of the artist, John Everett Millais. JGM was a natural historian who travelled extensively and specialised in birds although he was also interested in plants. Millais had created a garden at Compton’s Brow near Horsham on an original two acres site, extending it by a further six acres in about 1915 for a forest garden.
This eventually contained some 5,000 rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias. He was also a friend of Sir Edmund Loder of nearby Leonardslee, and was to be awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1927. [Compton’s Brow was demolished in the 1960s, and the whole site re-developed as housing.] In 1917 he published the first of two volumes on rhododendrons and their various hybrids, with the second coming out in 1923.
It was a luxury project limited to just 550 copies in elephant folio format: 16 inches high and 12 inches wide with the two together taking up 5 inches of shelf space standing, and weighing about 14 lbs. There were plenty of photographs but also 17 full colour plates by Winfred Walker.
The acclaim from the first volume ensured her success with Millais stating that he had “been so fortunate to secure the help of Miss Winifred Walker, whose work is well known to all lovers of flowers.”
She went on to illustrate a series of other books including A.J.Macself’s Hardy Perennials in 1922 and his Alpine Plants of 1923; John Weathers’ My Garden Book in 1924, a new edition of The Gardener’s Assistant, edited by William Watson in 1925; Fyfe Maxwell’s book on heathers, The Low Road in 1927; and Geoffrey Henslow’s Gardens of Fragrance, 1932.
By 1929 she became one of the the official artists for the Royal Horticultural Society. She remained with them for the ten years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939. Her work for the RHS involved painting a record of plants which had been awarded the Award of garden Merit, and there are about 160 of her works in the RHS collection, notably large numbers of narcissus, chrysanthemums and rhododendrons. She gained about 15 gold medals for her work as well as certificates and awards from other shows including some in France. By that time she had also been elected fellow of the Linnean Society.
Alongside all this she was pursuing her own interests. The flowers mentioned by Shakespeare was the first major one and she held exhibitions of her paintings on that theme in the 1938 and 1939.
When war looked imminent Pax says her mother decided “not to stay in Worthing and be bombed” but to return to America and take her exhibition of Shakespeare’s flowers with her. Winifred booked a passage for the two of them in September 1939 on the Athenia from Liverpool. It was torpedoed 250 miles off the coast of Ireland, the first passenger ship to be sunk during the war, and although the two of them were rescued the paintings went to the bottom of the Atlantic.
After being stranded in Galway for some time they were eventually able to take passage on another ship and finally reached New York. There her daughter recounts how her Royal Horticultural Society connections paid off. They had obviously lost their passports and so visited the British consulate to get replacements. This took several weeks and when they went to collect them the junior official on duty tried to get them to pay. Winifred refused, went back to the hotel and contacted both the Queen and her brother, Sir David Bowes-Lyon, who was to become President of the RHS in 1953, both of whom, according to her daughter, she knew well. The move worked and a few days later the passports were issued gratis. Then she sat down and began recreating the Shakespeare paintings all over again.
They were effectively refugees and so headed for California where she had friends near the seed trial grounds at Santa Maria between San Francisco and Los Angeles and she began painting, exhibiting and lecturing to pay for their keep until Pax got a scholarship at Drama School in Los Angeles and then small parts in films so they moved there. [ For more on this see Pax Walker-Fryett’s recollections on the Imperial War Museum website.] Winifred somehow became artist-in-residence at the University of California in 1943 where she won acclaim for painting a large new collection of the state’s indigenous flowers.
On her return to Britain she was asked by Illustrated London News to paint a series of plants past and present, including those of the weeds that grew on bomb sites which were published in the magazine’s supplements between 1952 and 1954. Alongside that the magazine also included some plates from her latest long term project: biblical plants.
This led to the publication of Plants of the Bible, with black and white images in 1957 later reissued with with colour plates in 1976.
“From earliest childhood I had been swayed by the rhythm of the words from the Scriptures,” she says in the introduction “What, I wondered, were the costly frankincense and myrrh borne by the Wise Men from the East on their pilgrimage to the Babe at Bethlehem? I determined to locate every plant mentioned in the Bible, and five years of research made it possible for me to paint the illustrations in this book.”
All the illustrations in the 121 plates were from life, she said except the balm, bdellium, spikenard and frankincense, which had to be portrayed from pressed specimens from the University of California herbariums. Accompanying each illustration is a full description of the plant along with its place in history, its growing habits and usage.
Her work appears occasionally in auctions and is clearly collectible. The Lindley Library has a collection of the pieces she did for the Royal Horticultural Society and examples are still being used as exemplars and illustrations. But apart from that I’ve found very little more recent trace of Winifred who died in 1965. So if anyone has more information please let me know.