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Miss Willmott's Orchids

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

One of Miss Ellen Willmott's few existing 'autochromes' c.1908. The plant featured was identified recently by experts at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew as the orchid, 'Stanhopea tigrina'. By kind permission of the Berkeley family and the Spetchley Gardens Charitable Trust


This is another of my blogs regarding aspects of Miss Ellen Willmott’s (1858-1934) myriad horticultural activities – and this time I'm writing about some of the orchids she grew in her gardens at Warley Place in Essex. It's a follow-up to a recent blog by Sandra Lawrence (author of last year's new Willmott biography, Miss Willmott’s Ghosts), about some of Willmott's unpublished 'orchid' photographs unearthed from the family archive – including the one above of Stanhopea tigrina. Please do read Sandra’s very interesting blog at And, if you are unfamiliar with Miss Willmott, please have a look at my other blogs that relate to her.

With this blog, I'm hoping to complete the 'Willmott-orchid picture' as it were, by looking at the reports and articles in the horticultural press about some of the other orchids Willmott grew at Warley Place, as well as those she exhibited at RHS shows. I also give a little background to her autochrome of Stanhopea tigrina. However, for some background to orchids themselves, and to the somewhat bad, mad, and downright despicable world of Victorian orchid collecting, you'll have to wait for my forthcoming blog, The Orchid-Hunter's Tale!

Warley Place's Orchid House

In the first Willmott biography, Miss Willmott of Warley Place: Her Life and Her Gardens, written in 1980, author Audrey Le Lievre wrote that the last of Willmott's hothouses to be maintained, once her finances faltered, “…was the orchid house, so there was always a magnificent silver bowl of spray orchids on the table” [spray orchids being Phalaenopsis dendrobium.] It was only later in the 1920’s, when Willmott’s financial situation became more acute that "the orchid house at Warley had to be abandoned”.

Spray orchids in a silver bowl. Courtesy Jane Maples Florist, 2018

However, on a map of the Warley Place estate commissioned by Willmott in 1904, the so-called 'Walker Map' (shown below), there's no mention of a specific orchid house despite the 'key' to the map listing a variety of glasshouses, including 'stoves' (i.e. hot houses), greenhouses, a carnation house, peach house, an orangery, and a palm house. The orchid house may have been a later addition, although I doubt it; more likely, I think, is that the orchids were in one (or more) of the ‘stoves’ or ‘greenhouses’ – depending upon the species and the temperatures they required. While some species may have been quite happy in Willmott's conservatory, which was attached to the house and probably heated during the winter as she's known to have written her prodigious amounts of correspondence from there. [For an update on the orchid house, please see Notes.]

William Walker's Map of Warley Place, 1904. Pen, ink and watercolour. Courtesy Essex Wildlife Trust

Although the exact location of Willmott’s orchid house isn't certain, it was probably to the north of her walled garden just behind the pergola, which can be seen in Alfred Parsons’ well-known painting of some of her beautiful daffodils (below). The glasshouse can just be seen to the left of the pergola. Neither the glasshouse nor the pergola have survived.

'Warley Place' by Alfred Parsons, c.1904. None of Parsons’ several watercolours of the garden at Warley Place were given titles

Unfortunately, there's little mention of the various glasshouses at Warley Place in articles that do provide lots of other detail about Willmott and her gardens. However, there are a few worthwhile little snippets. Firstly, an article in William Robinson's The Garden published in 1895 (by an unnamed author), makes brief mentions of her “plant houses” where he could see much that was “uncommon and beautiful” – without telling us what. He also writes about Willmott's large collection of scented pelargoniums, and a “little [glass]house” devoted to ferns which was “very charming” – its back wall entirely hidden by Maidenhair ferns. There was also a “stove” (hothouse) for many climbing plants of great beauty, but he mentions neither orchids nor a specific orchid house.

Enlarged section from an engraving of Warley Place dated 1900, showing the house, walled garden, and some of the glasshouses at Warley Place. The conservatory is at the back of the house, and its single storey sloping roof can just be seen on the left

I’ve also reviewed the many articles in the horticultural press written by Willmott’s Head Gardener, James Preece, but he's silent regarding the glasshouses and orchids. Articles in gardening magazines about Warley Place generally focus on daffodils and roses, Willmott's two great loves.

Two other often quoted sources about the gardens at Warley are Henri Correvon and J.C. Shenstone.

Henri Correvon, the Swiss alpine nursery-man and friend of Willmott’s, published a series of articles about Warley Place in The Garden in August 1905. These detailed articles perhaps not surprisingly concentrate on the plants growing in her famed alpine garden [a lot of which he supplied – at great expense], but don't mention her glasshouses or orchids. Unfortunately, the same is true for a detailed article on a visit to Warley Place in 1912 by the Essex Field Club (of which Willmott was a member) written up in their journal, The Essex Naturalist, by J.C. Shenstone. He goes into a great amount of detail about many of the plants growing in the gardens – including some hardy orchids growing outside, which I’ll discuss later. However, towards the end of his article he writes, somewhat frustratingly, that “space will not permit of reference to the extensive range of glass-houses, frames, and hot-beds…”. Not helpful...

But before I continue about what we do know, just a word about these various glasshouses and the differing temperatures required for orchids. E.T. Cook’s Gardening for Beginners of 1902 [see Note] helpfully provides an explanation. There were, he writes, generally 3 types of orchid house: the ‘cool’ house, with a temperate range of 45-60 degrees fahrenheit (7-15c); an ‘intermediate’ house, 50-65f (10-18c); and the ‘heated’ or ‘stove’ house at 60-70f (15.5-21c) in the winter.

Orchids in the Warley Place gardens

In Shenstone's article, he writes of clumps of various kinds of cypripedium, or slipper orchids, growing outside in Willmott's gardens, including the American ladies-slipper orchid, Cypripedium spectabile. At some 18 inches high with fine pink slipper-like flowers, he thought that "they are as thoroughly content with their present conditions in the old world as they were in their North American home".

A clump of Cypripedium spectabile, also known as C. reginae, photographed in Vermont, 2013. Photograph courtesy ‘Orchidhunter1939’

Fortunately, we have one of Willmott's own photographs from a few years earlier of these orchids growing in her bog garden at Warley. Published in The Garden in January 1898, it accompanies an article about these plants written by someone else. Native to the meadows and bogs of North America, the article describes it as “among the beautiful and interesting species of the hardy Lady’s Slippers. The excellent group in the illustration…affords the best proof of the conditions under which such a plant shall thrive”. Also, another interesting little snippet of information in this article mentions, in passing, how these native North American plants (usually just the roots) were shipped to the UK in barrels.

'Mass of the Mocassin Flower (Cypripedium spectabile) in the bog garden at Warley Place. From a photograph by Miss Willmott'. 'The Garden', 29th January, 1898

Large White Lady’s Slipper, Plate 1666 from 'Edwards’ Botanical Register', vol. 20, 1835

Shenstone's article also mentions various species of Cypripedium: C. calceolus from "Savoy", C. macranthum, C. jasciculatum and C. punctatum which were, he thought "thoroughly well established, and show increase from year to year". He also mentions Orchis laxiflora from the Lac de Bourget. And it's perfectly possible that Willmott had obtained the orchids from Savoy and Lac du Bourget herself.

The lake, and nearby village of the same name, are located in the French region of Savoy (or Savoie in French). Willmott and her sister, Rose, had been visiting this area from the 1880's later buying a property in nearby Tresserve [now the local 'mairie' or town hall], just a 10 minute walk from the shores of the lake. At Tresserve, Willmott continued her gardening activities and it's known she often sent plants back to Warley from there.

Another orchid Shenstone mentions that features in photographs in the horticultural press is Orchis foliosa or the Madeira orchid [now Dactylorhiza foliosa], as well as several other species of orchis – which is a family of around 20 species of orchids mostly native to Europe and north-west Africa.

'Orchid foliosa flowering in Miss Willmott’s garden, Great Warley, Essex', by professional plant photographer, Reginald Malby. 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', November 4, 1916 and, right, 'Orchis foliosa', t.5074 from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', 1858 by Walter Hood Fitch

Cypripedium calceolus, mentioned in Shenstone's article, is another interesting orchid. Native to Europe and Asia, it’s the largest-flowered orchid species in Europe. Once widespread across the UK in the wild, by the beginning of the 20th century it had declined to just one single plant in one location. So when it was growing in Willmott's garden, it was a rare plant indeed.

'Cypripedium calceolus' from 'Album des Orchidees de l’Europe centrale et septentrionale' by Henri Correvon, 1899 – and, right, photographed in Lithuania in 2006, courtesy 'Algirdas'

This spectacular orchid was (and remains) highly prized by plant collectors, leading to plundering by collectors, over-zealous gardeners, and botanists on such a scale that it's been driven to the brink of extinction across Europe. It's also suffered, like many plants, from loss of habitat. Fortunately, it became a protected species in the UK in the 1970's, and has since been the subject of successful reintroduction projects in the UK and European countries.

Orchids exhibited

Miss Willmott was an active and well-regarded Fellow [member] of the Royal Horticultural Society, belonging to both its Floral and Narcissus Committees and, later, its Lily Committee. She also occasionally exhibited at meetings of the Scientific and the Orchid Committees.

The first mention of Willmott exhibiting orchids actually comes from The Orchid Review [see Notes] of May 1905 (rather than the horticultural press), which reports that she received a Botanical Certificate for the rare Oncidium Brienianum, which is described as having “dense spikes of flowers, with some red-brown on the lip”. This particular orchid seems to have several synonyms, including Baptistonia brieniana, and was mentioned in The Gardeners' Chronicle in January 1881 under ‘New Garden Plants’ which said of it: “This is a curious species, very distinct… [with] short flower-stalks. The flowers are a clear light bright sulphur colour. It comes from Paraguay and has lately flowered in the Pine-apple nursery, Maida Vale, of Messrs Henderson". I've not managed to find an image of this orchid from Willmott's time, although I include a modern image of Baptistonia brieniana. This image is from a scientific paper, and is one of the very few I've found.

Photograph of 'Baptistonia brieniana' from an article by Guy R. Chiron, ResearchGate, 2008

[see References]

In July of that same year according to The Garden, Willmott showed Maxillaria picta Warley variety and, again, received a Botanical Certificate.

However, I can only find information on the species, Maxillaria picta, 'the Painted Maxillaria'. Described by William Hooker in 1832, it's native to Brazil and Argentina, where it usually grows on trees [i.e. epiphytic] in mountainous regions characterized by temperate to cold temperatures. According to the first entry for this orchid in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1832, this new orchid was sent to a Mrs Arnold Harrison by her brother in Brazil, where it flowered in her ‘stove’ in the winter. However, M. picta was also said to do well in a 'cool' house, only needing to be kept free of frost. Curtis's were of the opinion that this orchid, with “exceedingly beautiful” colour and markings was therefore “eminently deserving [of] a place in every collection”.

'Maxillaria acutipetala' [one of the synonyms for M. picta] , T. 3966, from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine',1843. Illustration by Walter Hood Fitch

Just a word here about the RHS's certification process. I’ve never quite got to grips with what all the different awards and certificates given to plants during this period meant [apart from the Award of Merit, with which gardeners are still familiar today]. Even Brent Elliott, in his book, The Royal Horticultural Society: A History [see References], remarks that, at the time, the RHS itself seemed to be a little ‘confused’ about the whole thing, and that “the Scientific and Orchid Committees fought for a quarter of a century over who should award Botanical Certificates for orchids”. Aside from the infighting, I assume these certificates were awarded for orchid species and varieties that were ‘botanically’ interesting. However, if anyone has more information on this, please do let me know!

In July 1907, both The Orchid Review and the horticultural press report on an RHS show in June where Willmott “sent” a fine specimen of Sobralia x Veitchii Warley variety (so presumably didn't attend the show herself). I can find no information on the Warley variety, but Sobralia x Veitchii is a hybrid registered by the famous Veitch nurseries in 1894. And in the December of that year, she (again) “sent" a handsome form of Cattleya x Minucia” – another Veitch hybrid, this time from 1892. This orchid is a cross between C. loddigesii x. C. warscewiczii, and is considered a ‘primary hybrid’ as it’s a cross between 2 species.

'Sobralia x Veitchii' from 'Lindenia Iconographie des Orchidees', vol. 16, 1900 – and, right, Cattleya x Minucia

Another type of Maxillaria, Maxillaria porphyrostele, described as a “pretty dwarf species” [similar to M. picta] was shown by Willmott in May1908. As reported in The Gardeners' Chronicle, it would seem that this plant was not entered for an award from the Orchid Committee, as it’s listed under ‘Other Exhibits’. However, Willmott was in good company, as other contributions under this category were from Sir George Holford, orchid fancier and owner of the famed Westonbirt Arboretum, and Reginald Farrer, garden writer and famous plant-hunter.

'Maxillaria porphyrostete', T. 6477 from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', 1880

According to James Veitch & Sons’ Manual of Orchidaceous Plants Cultivated under Glass in Great Britain of 1887-94, Maxillaria porphyrostele was introduced from Brazil by William Bull of Chelsea, in whose nursery it flowered in 1873. Willmott is known to have corresponded with both nurseries, so may have purchased her orchids from them – if so, it's likely she would have had catalogues like that shown below. Note the key next to each species which indicates whether they're suitable for the 'Stove', 'Intermediate House' or the 'Cool House'.

William Bull of Kings Road, Chelsea, 1894 Catalogue of New, Rare and Beautiful Plants and Orchids – and, right, list of their orchid prices

The last time the horticultural press records Willmott exhibiting an orchid is in January 1916, when The Gardeners’ Chronicle reports that she “showed a good specimen of the old, but now rare, Oncidium Cebolleta, with thick cylindrical leaves, and pretty yellow flowers. The plant is widely distributed in the West Indies and South America, and is known in some gardens as O. juncifolium". It's common name is the Round-leaved Oncidium and its botanical name today is Trichocentrum cebolleta. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine of 1837 report that this plant first flowered in the UK in “the stove of the Glasgow Botanic Garden in April 1836” from a plant collected in Trinidad.

'Oncidium Cebolleta', Plate 4 from 'Edwards’ Botanical Register', vol.28, 1842

Miss Willmott's Autochromes

Miss Willmott was not only an outstanding horticulturalist, but also an accomplished photographer with well over a hundred of her photographs published in both the horticultural press and in books by both Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. She also published her own book of photographs of Warley Place, Warley Place in Spring and Summer, in 1909. However, I won't go into any great detail here about her photographic activities, as you can read about it in my blog In Focus: Miss Willmott's published photographs.

Willmott is also known to have experimented with early colour photographic processes such as the Sanger Shepherd process – long since forgotten, as it was superseded by the superior autochrome. The autochrome [see Note for the technical explanation], was produced by the French Lumière brothers, and is considered to be the first commercially viable photographic process that brought colour photography within the grasp of well-heeled amateurs. Autochromes were first exhibited in the UK at the Royal Photographic Society in November 1907 to great acclaim. Only demonstrated publicly in Paris in June of that year, such was their popularity that sales outstripped supply, delaying its availability in the UK until later that year.

The orchid, 'Stanhopea tigrina', the subject of Miss Willmott’s autochrome, from 'Edwards’s Botanical Register', Plate 1, vol.25, 1839

The introduction of the autochrome set a new standard for colour photography, and gardens were a popular subject due to the requirement for plenty of light. It seems logical that Willmott would experiment with the new process, and invoices do record that she purchased autochrome plates only 8 months after they first became available in the UK. The invoices, dating from July and August 1908, show the purchase of various photographic equipment from Adams & Co. in London, who described themselves as ‘wholesale and retail dealers in every kind of photographic & lantern materials’.

Invoice dated July 1st, 1908. One of 3 invoices from Adams & Co., of Charing Cross Road in London. They supplied photographic equipment, including autochrome plates, to Miss Willmott. By kind permission of the Berkeley family and the Spetchley Gardens Charitable Trust

The common name for the orchid in Willmott's autochrome, is ‘the tiger-like’ or ‘tiger-spotted’ Stanhopea, named by The Garden in 1908 as “one of the most handsome Orchids known…”.

This tender orchid was introduced to the UK by Messrs. Low of Clapton in 1836 from Mexico. By 1894, they were referred to by The Gardeners' Chronicle as the "famous" Hugh Low of Clapton which specialised in orchids. Willmott may well have sourced orchids from them, as there is correspondence with the firm documented in her family archive.

The plant itself features in the pages of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1845, which describes the large size of its flowers and their powerful fragrance which could scent “the whole stove”. Curtis’s additionally advised its readers that this orchid was, like other Stanhopeas, easy to cultivate. And, being an epiphytic plant, it was best grown in a wire basket filled with sphagnum and other mosses suspended from a beam in the stove, intermediate house, or even a warm conservatory as depicted in the painting below.

'Il Penseroso' by John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1875. Note the orchids in hanging baskets


Orchids are one of the largest families of flowering plants on the planet, and have some of the most complex structures in the plant world. Botanists also generally agree that one feature above all others differentiates them from virtually all other flowering plants, and that is the fusion of the male and female portions of the plants. Their seed is also very fine, like dust, which enables them to readily cross-fertilize with other species, especially in cultivation. This is probably how Willmott’s orchid 'varieties' arose. There is no mention in the horticultural press reports of the differences in the 2 'Warley varieties' shown by Willmott; however, any differences could have been quite small, such as a larger sepal or flower than the original species or hybrid. Such varieties would not have been commercially taken-up, so Willmott's orchid varieties probably died with her.

Please do read Sandra's blog about Miss Willmott's orchids that I mentioned at the beginning, as many of Willmott's photographs are rather beautiful. Orchids are, as you may have gathered from this blog, sometimes rather difficult to pin down as they have so many synonyms or complete name changes over the years. Therefore, finding historical information and images of the various orchids Sandra describes in her blog, will have to wait for another day!


Images of a span and 3/4 span greenhouse from a 1900 glasshouse catalogue

Since writing this blog, Fiona, one of the very knowledgeable Warley Place volunteers, has pointed out to me that a sales catalogue for the buildings at Warley Place from May 1935 (after Willmott's death) includes the following paragraph: "The Glasshouses, some of which are in disrepair, include: span-roof Orchid House, large span-roofed Hot House, 3/4 span Fernery, 6 span-roofed Hot Houses, and a similar building in 2 divisions."

A garden writer, E.T. Cook was co-editor of The Garden magazine, with Gertrude Jekyll, from 1900-1902

The Orchid Review is the world’s oldest existing periodical devoted to orchids. It was founded in 1893 as a monthly, and concentrated on orchid cultivation and the increasing hybridisation of orchid species. It also reported extensively on the exhibition of orchids. It still exists today, although it’s now published quarterly under the auspices of the RHS.

Autochromes: When you look at a reproduction of an autochrome 'photograph' today, it's sometimes difficult to believe they are often over a hundred years old, as the quality and colours are extraordinary. There are plenty to find on the web, so please do have a look. In the meantime, here's the scientific explanation:

An autochrome is a glass-plate negative evenly covered with a wash of minute grains of potato starch dyed red, green and blue and covered with a standard black-and-white emulsion. Once exposed, a photographic image in rich natural colours was produced, although the exposed plate itself became the finished transparency best viewed with bright illumination via projection.


Orchid Seeds: Nature's tiny treasures, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The Royal Horticultural Society: A History 1804-2004, Brent Elliott, 2004

An example of endemism in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest: Baptistonia Barbosa Rodrigues (Orchidaceae, Oncidiinae) – taxonomy, phylogency and conservation biology. Article by Guy R. Chiron, ResearchGate, January 2008

Further reading:

For general background on glasshouses and conservatories of this period see my blog 'Gardens under Glass': The Victorian conservatory

212 views4 comments


Twigs Way
Twigs Way
Mar 28, 2023

Fabulous article-I hope you will be publishing it as an article somewehere?


Sue B
Sue B
Mar 24, 2023

Another widely researched article Paula. This must have taken a considerable time to produce and will be a valuable research source for orchids and Willmott. A great achievement.

Mar 24, 2023
Replying to

Thanks Sue!


Mar 22, 2023

Brava! I am so glad you did this - an excellent winkling-out of material. I have never seen that photography receipt before, what a find!

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