Orchids galore

An an incredible treasure trove of orchid-related art is about to be revealed to the wider public for the first time in its 118-year history

Aerangis citrata 'Boissy' 1997 Cherry-Ann LavrihWhen I accepted a job with the RHS in June 2014, my first task was to catalogue their collection of prize-winning orchid portraits, from 1897 to the present day. A slightly daunting task, given that there were more than 7,000 of them…

Now, with the European Orchid Show & Conference (which will be held in the Royal Horticultural Halls) just around the corner, and I am at the end of my project on this little-known, but hugely important collection.

The collection started life in 1897, eight years after the RHS Orchid Committee was established. An official Orchid Artist was appointed, and a portrait of every RHS prize-winning orchid (of an Award of Merit or a First Class Certificate) would be made. 

A lifetime of art

Cattleya loddigesii ‘Superba’ - Nellie Roberts, 1897The first of these artists was Nellie Roberts. Initially appointed in 1897 for six months, Nellie continued as Orchid Artist for an incredible 56 years until 1953, recording 4,500 orchids. Several Orchid Artists have since followed, and the present RHS Orchid Artist, Deborah Lambkin, is the ninth appointment, having been in post since 2005.

The Orchid Committee continues to use the collection when assessing potential new award-winning orchids. An orchid must be at least as good as any already awarded in the past, so the potential prize-winning orchid will be compared with previous portraits. In this technological age, you may wonder why a photograph would not suffice; however it is felt that a painting captures the extraordinary beauty of these amazing flowers better than a photograph could. 

Today, approximately 30 orchids are painted each year and the result is a vast and unique working collection. It is both a fascinating record of botanical art, and of orchid history; in some cases species and hybrids have become extinct or forgotten. 

One of the current aims of the committee is to have a list of all award-winning orchids, and their paintings, available to consult digitally on the RHS website. We are well on the way to achieving this and hope it will not be too long before these images are accessible online, for anyone to view. I hope then that this amazing collection will be enjoyed by many more people for years to come. 

The European Orchid Show & Conference will take place from 9 – 12 April 2015.

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