In the early 1960s a shy Devon clergyman was persuaded to send in some of his drawings and watercolours of British wild flowers to a publisher. They agreed to publish but could hardly have been expecting the public response to the book. It was an immediate best-seller and became a standard reference work almost overnight, and hardly out of print ever since. My own copy bought when I was still at school with Christmas or birthday present money is a bit battered but still much loved and used. The idea may have been simple, but the layout, classification and notes were impeccable, and the drawings themselves both accurate and delicately beautiful.
I’d guess most readers of a certain age in the UK will have known instantly from the image which book I’m talking about and the name of its author, who died 50 years ago this coming week, but if not read on to find out more…
If you hadn’t already guessed, the author and illustrator was William Keble Martin, who was born in 1877, the son of a clergyman who was the head of Radley College, a public school near Oxford. His father had previously been vicar of Dartington and the family home there is now, very appropriately, Schumacher College, a world-leading centre of transformative education in ecological and social change. One of his grandfathers was bishop of Salisbury and other more distant relations were part of the Martin’s banking dynasty.
Educated at Marlborough College, William Keble Martin went on to Christ Church, Oxford in 1896, to read philosophy and botany, before being ordained in 1902. He became vicar of Wath upon Dearne, near Rotherham, Yorkshire in 1909, the same year he married Violet Chaworth-Musters. He served as an army chaplain in France during the First World War and then in 1920 moved to Devon as rector of Haccombe and Coffinswell, near Torquay. This was a small parish and he found himself with time on his hands so began botanizing seriously. He clearly fell in love with Devon [well who wouldn’t] and his later appointments were all in the same county, firstly at Great Torrington, and finally Combe in Teignhead with Milber. His autobiography Over The Hills explains his botanizing in each of his parishes in turn. When he retired from the full-time ministry in 1949 he remained in Devon, settling firstly in Gidleigh on the edge of Dartmoor and later in the village of Woodbury near Exeter.
At Oxford one of his tutors was Arthur Church, now largely forgotten, but a great scientific and botanical artist who encouraged greatly encouraged him in his recording of native plants. Martin also became friends with Claridge Druce, now probably best remembered as a variety of cranesbill, but who was another leading English botanist, who also encouraged him in this pursuit, and later sent him “many rare local flowers from all over the British Isles.’ Flowers, especially wild ones, became an obsession and Martin began to draw and catalogue them very precisely. The first drawing or what was to become the Concise British Flora was made in 1899, and was unique because it was the only one made of flowers and leaves of different species. In the end there were about 1800 original sketches drawn over 60 years.
He was anxious that his depictions should be seen as scientific and so arranged them into groups showing related plants, in order to highlight the differences and similarities between species. Some of these illustrations were exhibited at the International Botanical Congress held in Cambridge in 1930, and bought him to the attention of wider botanical circles, although he already become a fellow of the Linnaean Society in 1928. He took a leading role in the Devonshire Association and during the 1930s worked as editor of Flora of Devon, which was eventually published in 1939. This was one of the first modern county flora’s and served as a model for others. Otherwise, however, he showed no great inclination publicizing his work further, although he did occasionally exhibit drawings. During the Second World War Keble Martin was also one of the Harvey Committee which produced proposals for national parks and nature reserves in Devon. His special contribution was to report on thirty sites considered to be deserving of protection from a botanical angle.
It was not until tragedy struck him late in life that things changed. In 1960 his daughter died of leukaemia and so he probably did not take a great deal of notice of the attention his work was receiving. In 1959 he had exhibited a series of coloured drawings of British flora at a Royal Horticultural Society show in Vincent Square where they were seen and admired by Sir David Bowes-Lyon, the Society’s President. Bowes-Lyon began a move to get them published, and now perhaps encouraged by this, and by his friends as a way of assuaging his grief he began drawing new specimens.
Despite being, in theory at least, long retired Keble Martin was still acting as a stand-in priest for parishes temporarily without an incumbent and noted that “the circumstances of my life lent themselves to completing and improving the work of building up the 100 coloured plates of wild flowers. Botanical correspondents were still sending me specimens of the rarer species which had long been on the desiderata list.”
Over the whole half a century that he was developing the project as many as 82 botanists sent him some 360 specimens which he either used for a first drawing or for the improvement of those he had already made. In all he had some 1500 sketches and drawings. But attempts to secure a publisher failed. No-one was prepared to take on the expensive risk of producing so many colour plates and so in March 1961, encouraged by friends he began an early form of crowd-funding, appealing for people to support his endeavours to get his work into print. The response was impressive.
Those who backed him included the head of botany at the Natural History Museum, the Director of Kew and President of the Royal Society. His son helped too and, apart from raising money towards the project, contacted the Duke of Edinburgh who was known to have a great interest in natural history. In response a request came to see some of the plates and 33 were sent of to the palace in August 1963. There was then a long silence with no further contact but Martin was in no state to pursue the matter because he was devastated by his wife’s death shortly afterwards.
Once again he threw himself into work, redrawing many of the plates because they were originally done on poor quality paper, whilst more than 200 names also had to be erased and rewritten because of taxonomic changes made by the latest International Botanic Conference.
Eventually, a year after the plates had been sent to Buckingham Place Keble Martin wrote to ask for news. He must have been surprised to hear that literally the day before he had written they had been shown to the innovative publisher George Rainbird. Rainbird immediately saw the potential and according to Martin responded “they were just what was wanted … Every schoolboy will want a copy”. He was right. Publication was agreed and soon afterwards Keble Martin heard by telegram that Prince Philip had offered to write the book’s forward.
As the date of publication came closer the BBC seemed to foresee its popularity. Martin reported in his autobiography that “Mr Kenneth Allsop and some assistants came to Broadymead, Woodbury for a whole day, taking photographs and getting conversation out of us to make a film. So on 6 April we unwillingly appeared in a television prog called Tonight.” Keble Martin didn’t have a television since “watching it seems to be just doing nothing for anybody… [so] we did not see it afterwards… but it probably increased the sales for the Concise Flora and Mr Kenneth Allsop was very kind about it.”
The Concise Flora was published in May 1965 when Keble Martin was 88. It became the year’s bestselling book, with a library edition of the book being signed by Prince Philip and presented to Martin. It was soon suggested that a paperback pocket sized version also be produced for easy use on field walks. This was published in 1972. An exhibition at Spinks, the prestigious West End art dealers , included 6 of Keble Martin’s original plates and the Illustrated London News commented “Seeing the actual paintings, one is amazed at how much has been lost even in good reproduction. Surely this saintly clergyman is the Thomas Robins of our day.” Its success was the equivalent of a wedding present to Keble Martin who had recently remarried.
Keble Martin was made Hatchard’s Author of the Year and awarded an honorary doctorate by Exeter University in 1966. The Botany Department at Oxford University put him on a par with two other ex-students, Joseph Banks and Sir John Lawes the founder of Rothampstead Institute. The book’s runaway success also led to the Post Office asking him to submit designs for a set of four commemorative stamps for the Royal Mail. These appeared in April 1967.
Keble Martin and his new wife, appropriately named, Flora, must have been so surprised, but clearly not in the slightest bit fazed, as he became a rather reluctant celebrity. He featured in magazines and newspaper articles and was interviewed on both radio and television. In 1972, 3 years after his death, at the suggestion of Flora, hundreds of his meticulous sketches were selected and edited for publication by John Caldwell and Wilfred Blunt as Sketches for the Flora.
So why was the book so successful? I think it’s partly because although it is effectively a field guide it is so much more than that. It was clearly a labour of love. Not only was Keble Martin an accurate and talented artist but he had a marvellous sense of design. Each plate was thoughtfully arranged by form and colour which revealed the intricacy and detail in every plant depicted. Perhaps even more than that it captured the zeitgeist of the times. It appeared at just the time that environmental awareness was growing sharply, just a few years after Silent Spring in which Rachael Carson starkly pointed out the destructive impact of modern farming, notably from pesticides, on the worlds flora and fauna. His book was a visual reminder of the wild flowers that were in danger of disappearance – and indeed that’s even more the case today. On a very simplistic level Look through its pages and ask yourself when was the last time you saw….xxxx on a country walk. I can only guess what, fifty years after his death, he would have made of the effects of climate change or population growth, to say nothing of developments in farming practice, land use and transportation on the countryside, but I suspect it might have tested clerical restraint in his language!
The success of the Concise Flora led to calls for him to write his autobiography, Over The Hills, and this was published when he was 91, shortly before he died at his home, Broadymead, in Woodbury on 26 November 1969.
This year to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, residents of the village organized a celebration of his life and his book with a year-long programme of events – Woodbury Wide Awake . This has reflected on how the landscape has changed but how we are still inspired to go out and enjoy our natural heritage. You can find out more about that on the village website.
Almost 1,000 specimens from his herbarium and his vasculum, the metal canister with a strap used for storing plants during collecting in the field, are in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter where in 2016 they were joined by some of the original illustrations, purchased by the Friends of the Museum.
However depressed we might be about the havoc that has been wreaked on the natural world we should perhaps take heart from the very last paragraph of his autobiography: “And so, in my ninety-first year, I look back on a happy and busy life…. I trust not only that my ministry has been helpful, but also that many young people, and those not so young, will be inspired by The Concise British Flora to recognise and love the wild flowers, to roam over the moors and mountains and seasides, discovering for themselves the wealth of flowers in our beautiful country. They would find it a healthy interest which they would never regret.”