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Miss Willmott's Water Lilies

'Lily Pool', Plate 16 from Ellen Willmott's book of her own photographs titled 'Warley Garden in Spring and Summer', published 1909

Those of us who research and write about the famous gardener, Miss Ellen Willmott (1858-1934), and spend a lot of our free time wondering what her garden at Warley Place in Essex used to be like in its heyday [obviously having nothing better to do...], sometimes overlook the plants she grew aside from her great loves: roses and narcissus. For myself, I mostly research her activities in the gardening world as reported in the horticultural press of the time, and her published photographs. Most of the plants she exhibited at the regular fortnightly Royal Horticultural Society's shows were either from amongst her favourites or, just occasionally, something a bit different, like orchids.

And a while ago, I posted about Miss Willmott's Orchids. Whilst scouring the horticultural press for references to them, I came across tantalising mentions of water lilies (nymphaeas) growing at Warley Place. These references include mentions of the newly introduced colourful hybrids from French nurseryman, M. Latour-Marliac, which, by the late 1880's, were the latest 'must-have' plants for the fashionable gardener. And after consulting a copy of Willmott's Plant List for Warley Place of 1908 – her record of the plants growing in her gardens at that time, I found no less than 27 different water lilies listed, including 13 Latour-Marliac hybrids.

Note: all the water lilies pictured in this post appear on Willmott's Plant List.

Latour-Marliac advertising postcard, depicting the nursery c. early 1900's

Introduction to Waterlilies

I’ve never really thought much about water lilies before but, like all plants, they do have an interesting history. Water gardens go back thousands of years. Nelumbos (or the Lotus) are known to have been in China from around 2,700 BC, having both religious connotations and medicinal properties. These later spread to Egypt where the lotus, as well as nymphaeas and papyrus, are widely represented in tomb paintings. However, what's generally referred to as the 'Egyptian white lotus', believed to be the original sacred lotus of ancient Egypt, is not a member of the nelumbos family at all, but is actually a water lily, Nymphaea lotus – while the 'Egyptian blue lotus' is Nymphaea caerulea.

Fragment of a wall painting from the tomb of Nebamon c.1350 BC. The garden surrounds a pool containing white and blue Egyptian ‘lotus’ – 'N. lotus' and 'N. caerulea' respectively. Courtesy British Museum

Once gardens became more ornamental rather than a necessity for growing food, water gardens became an important part of the gardens of the upper classes and aristocracy. And by the late 18th and 19th centuries, a flurry of new nymphaea hybrids arrived in Europe from around the world, increasing interest in water lilies.

Water lilies are of two types: tropical and hardy. Tropical water lilies, often having to be kept in heated tanks within glasshouses, are also divided into 'day' and 'night' bloomers, while hardy species are all 'day' bloomers. Perhaps one of the most famous water lilies, even today, is Victoria regia – the Amazonian water lily [now Victoria amazonica], which caused a sensation when it was successful cultivated by Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth in 1849. Such was the excitement when it first flowered, that news of the opening of its first bud was even sent to the Queen, after whom the plant had been named.

While on the subject of Paxton, I've found no evidence that Willmott grew Victoria regia at Warley Place, although she did grow one of his other famous hybrids – see Water Lily Species at Warley Place below. However, N. lotus, the 'Egyptian white lotus', does appear on Willmott's Plant List, but under another of its names, N. dentata.

'Nymphaea dentata', t.4257 from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', 1846. Also known as the Tooth-leaved Lotus, this water lily has large white flowers held above the water

By the end of the 19th century, although much of the cultivation and study of aquatic plants was going on in England, Belgium and Germany, it was a Frenchman, Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac (1830-1911) who created hardy water lily hybrids that set the standard for all those that followed. While another Frenchman, Antoine Lagrange (1843-1914), created wonderful tropical hybrids. Many are now lost to cultivation. The popularity of water lilies also spread to the US where several nurserymen, such as Henry Dreer, took to cultivating them.

The Latour-Marliac Hybrids

One of the things I particularly love about garden history, especially if you concentrate on a particular period as I do, is the connections between people and plants. I first came across mention of these hybrid water lilies while researching my posts on the gardens and arboretum at Castlewellan in Northern Ireland – and wrote about them in Castlewellan Part 2: Castlewellan's Glasshouses.

These new colourful hybrid water lilies, being in colours not known in European water lilies, were created by crossing European species with more colourful ones from America and the tropics. First shown at the World’s Fair of 1889 in Paris by Latour-Marliac, the new hybrids were the plants Claude Monet used to stock his newly created water-garden at Giverny – ordering directly from the Latour-Marliac nursery. The nursery still exists, and today proudly displays the original lists of the water lilies Monet ordered from them on their website []. As is well known, water lilies became Monet's passion and he spent the rest of his life painting them and, in so doing, did much to popularize them.

Photograph of Claude Monet near the Japanese bridge in his garden at Giverny c.1905

'Water Lily Pond' by Claude Monet, 1900

These new hybrids, in shades of white, rose, crimson and soft yellow, created something of a sensation in the horticultural world. And by the early 1890's, English horticultural and gardening journals were full of articles and discussion about these new hardy hybrids.

William Robinson, owner and editor of The Garden, was a fan of the new hybrids, growing them at his home, Gravetye Manor in Sussex, and going to the expense of having colour images of them produced for his magazine – often depictions of his own plants.

Latour-Marliac's Paper to the Royal Horticultural Society, 1898

In August 1898, Latour-Marliac read his paper titled ‘Hardy Hybrid Water Lilies’ to a meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society. Willmott, as a Fellow of the RHS, would doubtless have read the paper in its entirety (if she was not actually present at the meeting) in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society for that year, or the extract published in The Garden in March 1899. However, Willmott was already aware of these exciting new plants as she was growing one of the new Latour-Marliac Laydekeri hybrids at Warley Place in 1894 [see 'Notes from Warley Place' below].

Latour-Marliac's paper provides a good description of hardy water lilies and their cultivation as shown in the excerpt below.

Excerpt from Latour-Marliac's paper from the 'Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society', vol.XXII, 1898-1899

Water Lilies at Warley Place

As Latour-Marliac pointed out in his paper, countries outside the tropics, most notably Europe, only had white water lilies – like N. Alba (image below): “very pretty, it is true, but too much alike to excite any violent rapture over their cultivation”. But it was old species like N. Alba and others that were the foundation of Latour-Marliac’s many-coloured hybrids – 27 of which, already known to the horticultural world, he named in his paper. Another 7 were, at the time, still unnamed and not yet commercially available. [See Notes for the Latour-Marliac hybrids listed in Willmott’s 1908 Plant List, together with his descriptions of them.]

The Evidence

I've found no published remarks from Willmott herself about these plants, but there are several sources of evidence for water lilies growing at Warley Place:

Miss Willmott's 1908 Plant List

When it came to her plants, Willmott was a meticulous record-keeper, and her typed ‘Catalogue of Plants’ at Warley for 1908 provides the main source of evidence of what nymphaeas she had growing at Warley Place. Usually referred to as the 1908 Plant List, it lists 34 different types of nymphaea growing at Warley Place, including specific Latour-Marliac hybrids. Some of these nymphaeas often had slightly different names even at the time, and those that still exist today may have been renamed.

'Notes from Warley Place' – published in The Garden

In the late 1890’s, Willmott’s gardener in charge of her cherished alpines, Jacob Maurer, published a few articles in The Garden. Titled ‘Notes from Warley Place’, they were brief updates on the plants and gardens. Not surprisingly, Maurer mostly wrote about Willmott's alpine plants, but did occasionally mention water lilies. In June 1894, we get a rather curt: “Nymphaeas are just coming into bloom”, while in August of that year, he's a little more forthcoming: “Nymphaea Laydekeri rosea has been very showy for some time, and is evidently very hardy”. This is one of Latour-Marliac's new hardy hybrids, introduced in 1892 and described as one of the finest in colour of all the pigmy nymphaeas. Unfortunately, Maurer doesn't give us any clues as to where in the gardens these water lilies were growing although, as it's hardy, it would probably have been in one of the ponds out in the open.

Nymphaea Laydekeri rosea, Plate 950 drawn by A.F. Hayward in open water at Gravetye Manor, Sussex, the home of its editor, William Robinson. From 'The Garden', February 24, 1894

In August of the following year, 1895, an unnamed author of ‘Notes from Warley Place’, wrote that Willmott’s alpine garden had been extended “down to the little lake… [where] a little stream runs down the centre, here and there broadening out into a pretty pool where the new hardy Water Lilies and other choice aquatic plants have already been planted”. This is probably the South Pond, and I've annotated both a 1904 map and today's map of Warley Place below [now a nature reserve], so you can see where it – and the other pools and boating lake mentioned later, are situated.

Main part of the Warley Place estate from a 1904 plan. Courtesy Berkeley Family and Spetchley Park Gardens Trust

Annotated Warley Place Trail Guide 2018. Courtesy Essex Wildlife Trust

Articles by Correvon and Shenstone

The two most often quoted first-hand accounts of the gardens at Warley Place – articles by Henri Correvon and J.C. Shenstone, include the most detail about Willmott's water lilies.

Correvon, the Swiss alpine nursery-man, friend, and mentor to Willmott, published a series of detailed articles about Warley Place in The Garden in August 1905. These concentrate on the plants growing in her famed alpine garden, but he does mention "the Water Garden, fed by a natural spring, [and which] stretches to the south of the park” [so probably the South Pond]. He describes various kinds of plants around its edges “while from the water rise flowers of the newest and most beautiful Nymphaeas. The whole is grouped with such excellent taste that one loses the sense of a garden artificially arranged”.

Correvon also mentions an “extensive space outside the farm” [although I’m not clear where this 'farm' was on the estate], where a large new kitchen garden had been made ”with pergolas and a central tank [probably used by the gardeners as a water source, rather than to house water lilies], flower borders, and a rill and pond destined for the bog and water flora of all England”.

A few years earlier, Correvon included an image of one of the pools at Warley Place in his book of 1895, Les Plantes Alpines et de Rocailles [Alpine and Rock Garden Plants]. This rather poor quality image, probably an engraving from a photograph, is titled 'Water Scene from Miss Willmott's Garden, at Warley, England'. It does show some water lilies, but only mentions the pools at Warley Place in passing, as it concentrates on her alpine and rock gardening activities.

‘Scene aquatique du Jardin de Miss Willmott, à Warley, Angleterre’, from Correvon's Les Plantes Alpines et de Rocailles, 1895

Shenstone's 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, is a little more forthcoming. Members had visited Warley Place a number of times over the previous few years, and Shenstone seems to have taken this opportunity to write a lengthy, detailed article, in which he provides a great amount of information about many of the plants he had seen growing in the gardens during the Club's previous visits – as well as during the most recent.

He writes of an “old Watergate-pond” from which, in times gone by, the villagers of Great Warley [the local village] drew their water, it being at the end of Willmott’s alpine gorge. This pond [again, it's the South Pond] stretched southward, fed by “a little stream of pure water”. No longer used by the villagers, this pond was “now devoted to the welfare of aquatic and moisture loving plants. The pink Nymphaea sphaerocarpa from Sweden [syn. N. alba rosea], mentioned and figured in the Flora Danica, is grown here, and also many of the hybrids raised by Latour-Marliac and Lagrange...”. Shenstone also writes that the stream, running through a series of “picturesque gorges” is home to the beautiful red N. froebelli, and the dark red American variety, N. ‘William Falconer’ [see Water Lily Suppliers and The American Rivals below].

The pink waterlily, 'Nymphaea sphaerocarpa', T.141 from 'Flora Danica', 1874 and, right, N. froebelli

Water Lily Suppliers

It’s known that Willmott corresponded with the Lagrange company in October 1900 regarding plants supplied to both herself and her sister, Rose Berkeley [see Note 2]. On-line, I've only found their catalogue from 1912, as shown below. I've not found any recorded direct correspondence with Latour-Marliac, but Lagrange did supply Latour-Marliac hybrids as well as their own, so perhaps Willmott sourced them from there? There's also correspondence with another nurseryman renowned for new water lily hybrids, Otto Froebel in Zurich – although it's not dated. His best known nymphaea being N. froebelli, as shown above, created from a single seedling.

Lagrange 'Aquiculture' catalogue for 1912

The American Rivals

N. ‘William Falconer’

The well-established US company, Henry A. Dreer Nurseries, ventured into aquatics during the early 1890’s, and one of their best-known introductions, bred by William Tricker, was N. ‘William Falconer’ in 1899, said to be one of the first American hardy hybrids to rival Latour’s creations. Willmott corresponded with the Henry A. Dreer nursery in Philadelphia in December 1902, from where she may have purchased this lily.

Front cover of Dreer’s Garden Calendar for 1902 and, right, page detailing 'Novelties in Hardy Nymphaeas'. As can be seen from this page, Dreer's also stocked some of the new French hybrids

Water Lilies in the Landscape at Warley Place

Water lilies were also to be found in the boating lake at Warley Place, as well as in the various ponds, many of which would have been the new hardy hybrids as well as more established, older, species. Colourful water lilies are depicted in the watercolour of the boating lake by Alfred Parsons below. Parsons painted a series of garden views of Warley Place, including this one, during the two summers he spent time there while engaged to paint many of the rose species grown by Willmott to illustrate her book, The Genus Rosa, published in parts between 1910 and 1914.

‘Warley Place’, watercolour by Alfred Parsons, c.1904. This painting by Parsons shows water lilies on the boating lake at Warley Place. Courtesy Berkeley Family and Spetchley Park Gardens Trust

Two articles published in Country Life also provide some information. Firstly, a long article by Willmott's friend, Gertrude Jekyll, published in November 1910. While describing many of the features in the Warley Place gardens and Willmott's skills as a gardener, it also reviews her book of photographs published in December 1909. Titled Warley Garden in Spring and Summer, it comprises 40 plates of Willmott's own photographs of various views and plants in her gardens. There's no text in the book, Jekyll being of the opinion that ”each scene of border, rock and wild garden, pool and water margin, speaks for itself” [for more on Willmott's book, see my post In Focus: Miss Willmott's published photographs].

While not mentioning any plant names, Jekyll describes “Lily pools... cleverly placed, little paths leading down to them, and, by promontories of stepping stones, actually taking the path into the pool for a yard or two, so allowing of another and different point of view of the marginal planting. Here, [are] the lovely Water-Lilies…”. Although Jekyll says nothing further about water lilies, in Willmott's photograph below you can just see stepping stones in the water (bottom left).

'Gunnera by Pool', Plate 23 from Willmott's book, 'Warley Garden in Spring and Summer', published in 1909

As Jekyll wrote, Willmott's book features several photographs of pools and marginal planting, with a few featuring water lilies. However, the one at the top of this post is the only one to feature water lilies in flower.

'Reed Pool', Plate 20 from Willmott's book, 'Warley Garden in Spring and Summer', published in 1909

'Pool in the Alpine Garden', Plate 17 from 'Warley Garden in Spring and Summer', published in 1909

Secondly, in an article by the editor of Country Life, H. Avray Tipping, published in May 1915, he writes that Warley Place is “a crowded gallery of masterpieces that Miss Willmott hangs all over her many gardened acres…”. Although there’s no mention of water lilies, the article is accompanied by several lovely photographs of Warley Place by the pioneering plant photographer, Reginald Malby, who visited the gardens several times.

The photograph below is of particular interest as it provides a good image of one of the larger ponds at Warley Place –- Tipping describing the giant beeches and chestnuts sweeping “down to the birches by the water’s side…”. Although no water lilies are in view, Parsons painted a similar scene which does include large clumps of them.

‘Birch trees sweep down to the water’s edge at Warley Place’, photograph by Reginald Malby published in 'Country Life', 8th May, 1915

'Warley Place', watercolour by Alfred Parsons c.1904

Water Lily Species at Warley Place

Willmott's collection of water lilies didn't just include the new, fashionable hybrids – but also some well-established older species, including N. Devoniensis, an early hybrid produced by Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth. Described in Paxton’s Flower Garden, vol. 3, 1853, as “a very brilliant hybrid aquatic, with crimson flowers”, Paxton had crossed 2 species water lilies and obtained seeds of the new hybrid in 1850. The following summer the new water lilies flowered, and he named the beautiful new hybrid for his patron, the Duke of Devonshire. The journal mentions earlier, somewhat unsuccessful, experiments in water lily hybridisation and natural crosses, so Paxton’s new hybrid was certainly newsworthy at the time.

'N. Devoniensis – The Duke of Devonshire’s Water Lily', Plate 98 from 'Paxton’s Flower Garden', vol. 3, 1853

Other water lilies of note from Willmott's Plant List – and pictured below, are N. gigantea, N. Alba, N. capensis var. zanzibariensis, N. stellata, and N. tetragona:

'N. gigantea', T.4647 from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', May 1852 illustrated by Walter Fitch Hood

N. gigantea, a native of New Holland (New South Wales in Australia), was first described in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1852 by William Hooker as "a magnificent aquatic, with blue flowers". N. Alba, the European white water lily, has leaves up to 12” in diameter and flowers from 4-6” across, while N. capensis var. zanzibariensis, is the famed ‘blue water lily of Zanzibar’ with its exotic perfume.

'Nymphaea alba' from 'Atlas des plantes de France', 1891, and right, 'Nymphaea capensis Zanzibariensis', unsigned artwork c. early 1800’s. Courtesy Botany Library at the Natural History Museum

An article in The Garden in August 1898, titled ‘The Water Lilies of Egypt’, features yet another exotic water lily on Willmott’s list – N. stellata, the 'Blue Star Water Lily'. Described by the author as having "exquisite shades of blue and green in the petals, stalks, and veined sepals…”.

'N. Stellata' from 'Flore des serres et des jardins de l’Europe', vol. for 1852-53

N. tetragona is a variety of pygmy water lily, ideally suited for a small pond or container, with white, or sometimes red or purple flowers.

Herbarium specimen of ‘Nymphaea tetragona’ from 1918

Another species nymphaea included on Willmott's Plant List is N. odorata. This water lily, a native of North America also known as the ‘American’ or ‘fragrant’ white water lily, is described in The Garden in 1889 as having “pure white, deliciously fragrant flowers”. Willmott's list also includes 5 varieties or hybrids of odorata: minor being a smaller white version, and rosea, described in an 1885 Catalogue of Rare Water Lilies from Edmund D. Sturtevant in New Jersey, US, as "the famous Pink Water Lily of Cape Cod".

Two of the odorata varieties listed are actually Latour-Marliac hybrids: exquistiaThe Garden describing it in March 1891 as a “magnificent new variety… the flowers are of a finer rose colour, and the underside of the leaves is of a still deeper purple colour”; also odorata rosacea – with abundant leaves and large flowers of a “soft rose colour”. The two other varieties, N. odorata exoniensis and rubra, I have been unable to track down. They possibly no longer exist, or were renamed.

Coloured Plate showing '1&2 the common white form of N. odorata, and 3 the rose-coloured variety' [so possibly N. odorata rosea or rubra]. From 'The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in their Botanical, Horticultural, and Popular Aspects' by Thomas Meehan, 1880

Water Lilies at Warley Place – the Technicalities

At its height, Warley Place had some 14 glasshouses where Willmott grew a variety of plants, flowers and fruit. While none now remain intact, over the years various surveys have been carried out on the few structural remains. In 1999, a survey was done on a group of 4 interconnected glasshouses with an adjoining boiler house located north of the main house, as shown in this diagram [courtesy Ray Cobbett], although it’s not known when these glasshouses were built.

This glasshouse complex [not now accessible to the public] is a few feet below ground level and one house ('c' on the diagram) measures 35ft by 15ft and contains a raised brick pool – 24ft by 8ft, with a depth of nearly 5ft. The pool contains 3 brick pillars probably used to support pots or urns of flowering plants or ferns. These glasshouses were heated by cast iron water pipes, in addition to a heating pipe actually running right around the inside of the pool (and which had its own control valve, presumably to control the temperature).

The authors of the report [see Note 2] thought this pool was probably for "ornamental carp", and noted that a raised platform at one end of the pool, which would have been at the same level as the water, was large enough to accommodate several chairs. With an iron grille nearby providing warm air, it would have been, they thought, an ideal place to sit and enjoy the fish.

This pool is quite deep for water lilies – they only require a depth of between 10 inches to 4ft, depending upon the species. Latour-Marliac writing that for water lilies grown in an ornamental pool, 2ft was usually sufficient. However, some articles in the horticultural press of the time write of keeping water lilies in tanks of water much deeper. Also, 'ornamental carp' – which usually means koi carp, don't require particularly warm water. They can be kept outside in unheated ponds, just becoming less active during the colder months. Famed French botanist, Maurice de Vilmorin, even thought, writing in The Garden in 1891, that keeping a few goldfish in water lily tanks would help keep the water fresh – although he cautioned that they enjoyed eating the nymphaea seeds!

Remains of one of Willmott’s heated glasshouses at Warley Place with raised pool. Possibly an ornamental fish pond, but could have contained tropical water lilies [or both]. Photograph courtesy John Cannell

'Lilies' by Childe Hassam, 1910

Another reason I think it's possible this pool could have contained waterlilies, is that while researching this post I came across an American book, The Book of Water Gardening of 1907 which provides “practical information necessary to the selection, grouping and successful cultivation of aquatic and other plants required in the making of a water garden”. It helpfully includes diagrams showing how a small “water lily basin” or tank could be planted up – adding that N. froebelli would be a good candidate, having freely flowering squarish blooms 4” across of burgundy-red, orange-red stamens, and bronze pads turning green. It’s also noted as being good for tubs and pools that include fish.

Diagrams from 'The Book of Water Gardening', Peter Bisset, 1907. The one below shows a water lily 'basin' planted up with different species of water lilies in boxes or baskets

The book also includes a chapter on ‘Heating the Tropical Lily Basin’ and includes 2 diagrams showing how a pool could be heated and planted up with water lilies. The diagram below even shows hot water pipes running off from a boiler house and around the inside of the pool, very similar to the arrangement at Warley Place.

The diagram below, showing 'A Suggestion for a Heated Pool', recommends the water level be at below ground level – again, similar to the arrangement at Warley Place, as an older photograph of the steps leading down into the glasshouse complex shows.

As to the temperatures that tropical and sub-tropical water lilies required, of interest is an article in Flora and Sylva in 1903 written by James Hudson, Head Gardener to Lord Rothchild at Gunnersbury Park in London. Hudson writes of growing N. gigantea in a tank, heated from below, which was kept at between 70-80f (21-26c) during the growing season, and allowed to fall to between 55-60f (12-15c) during the winter when the plants were dormant.

N. pygmaea var. helvola

Latour-Marliac's hybridising efforts increased the popularity of water lilies generally, including tropical species. Therefore, as Willmott was always one to keep up with horticultural 'Jones' [when she was not setting trends herself], I'm sure she would have had a heated water lily pool somewhere at Warley Place as several tropical species feature in her Plant List, even if not in these particular glasshouses. Several of her smaller water lilies were also better adapted for tubs or pools, such as N. Laydekeri rosea, and N. pygmaea var. helvola, pictured here.

Water Lilies in published sources and the Horticultural Press

Latour-Marliac was obviously a canny businessman as well as a talented nurseryman, as he reached out to many horticultural heavyweights of the day to publicise his new hybrids. Most successfully, in 1887, he introduced himself and his new hybrids to William Robinson, writing that “Today has been a good one… with the flowering of what appears to be a magnificent Nymphaea amongst the innumerable seedlings that I trial every year” – and sending Robinson a box containing specimens. The two men quickly forged both a professional and personal friendship, and according to one author [see Note 3], Robinson became Latour-Marliac’s greatest ambassador. Robinson not only bought many of the new hybrids for the lake at his home at Gravetye Manor, but featured them in his gardening journals, The Garden and Gardening Illustrated.

In The Garden in December 1893 for example, Robinson wrote that the new Latour-Marliac water lilies were perfectly hardy in his own garden, although if grown in colder areas of the country they could be kept in glasshouses in the winter and "turned out" during the summer. So it's possible that Willmott kept any less hardy water lilies in baskets or tubs outside in the warmer months, and inside heated glasshouses during the winter.

Robinson later dedicated the 44th volume of The Garden to Latour-Marliac in 1894, writing that he had “brought the lovely colours and forms of the water lilies of the east to the waters of the north…”

Many others also extolled the virtues of the new and exciting water lily hybrids. In the same year, F.W. Burbidge [Curator of the botanic garden of Trinity College Dublin at Glasnevin], published an article in The Garden titled the ‘New Hardy Water Lilies’. Latour-Marliac had, Burbidge wrote, sent him several “very distinct and beautiful” blooms which were, even as he wrote the article, “floating in a big bowl of water”. He describes in detail several of the new hybrids, including N. robinsoni, named by Latour-Marliac for William Robinson. This small water lily is pictured below.

Nymphaea ‘Robinsoni’, a Latour-Marliac hybrid introduced in 1895. Photograph by Peter Evans

Robinson took the opportunity to feature another coloured plate of water lilies by Henry Moon (below), including the new hybrid named for him, to accompany an article published in The Garden in 1897. Written by Rothschild's Head Gardener, James Hudson, in praise of the new water lilies, he wrote that he was “more than ever increasingly impressed with their beauty, their utility, and their novelty”.

‘Two Water Lilies: N. marliacea albida and N. robinsoni’, Plate 1147 drawn by H.G. Moon at Gravetye Manor. From ‘The Garden’, December 4, 1897. Both feature on Willmott's Plant List

Gertrude Jekyll, ever the practical gardener, published Wall and Water Gardens in 1901 which also includes detailed information on growing water lilies. Jekyll was also, she wrote, of the opinion that a “heavy debt of gratitude” was owed to Latour-Marliac for producing “a large variety of beautiful forms" and that “the recent remarkable development of the Water-Lily as a garden flower has already had a marked effect on garden design, in that an important modern pleasure ground is scarcely complete without its Lily tank”.

Rothschild also took to them with enthusiasm, even exhibiting them at RHS shows. For example, he [and his gardener, Hudson] showed a group of 26 Latour-Marliac hybrid water lilies at an RHS Hybrid Conference held in July 1899. Arranged in spacious pans, The Garden described them as probably “the most fascinating group in the entire exhibition”.

Other enthusiasts included G.F Wilson, the original owner of the garden at Wisley before it was later gifted to the RHS. His article, ‘Making a Water Garden’, was published in Country Life in August 1899. He first purchased Latour-Marliac hybrids in 1894 noting their beauty and that, without them, “this phase of gardening would lose its most charming aspect” – despite their being “very expensive”.

As already mentioned, it's known that there were water lilies growing in the boating lake at Warley Place – and, in quoting Wilson from his article, I like to image Ellen Willmott and her sister Rose enjoying a lazy summer afternoon on the lake: “how pleasant it is to punt near the water-lily groups on a hot summer day… and peer into those wondrous circles of petals. A new world is revealed when hundreds of the big blooms are seen basking in the sunlight, and closing as the shadows of evening creep across the garden”. The new hybrids flowered for weeks on end.

'Women in a Rowboat' by Francis Coates Jones, c. early 1900's

The overgrown and dried up boating lake at Warley Place – although steps down into it and the brick surround still survive, as can be seen in this photograph

Water lilies were also used as cut flowers, and Wilson describes, like Burbidge, using nymphaeas as decorations, floating them in shallow bowls in the house. James Hudson, also writes of using water lilies as cut flowers in this way, and I can imagine Willmott doing the same.

‘Waterlilies as Cut Flowers’ from chapter ‘Water-Lilies and other Aquatic Plants’ by William Tricker from the book ‘How to Make a Flower Garden’ by Wilhelm Miller, 1905 and, right, N. Seignoureti, a small copper hardy waterlily, introduced by Latour-Marliac in 1893

On the question of the expense of buying and keeping water lilies, an article in The Garden in July 1908, titled ‘Water Lilies’, provides some information. While appreciating the new Latour-Marliac hybrids and others, it pointed out that existing water lilies, grown under glass, had a “stateliness of growth, brilliancy of colour, quality of flower, and sweet scent…”. Although, the author, a Mr. Owen Thomas, conceded that, before the introduction of the new hardy hybrids, these older species could often only be enjoyed by “the few on account of the expense incurred in their culture”. Now, Thomas added, "thanks to the enterprise of our American and French hybridists, they may be had by all who possess a garden, or even a sunny back yard large enough to hold a tub of water”.

This article also mentions another 2 Latour-Marliac hybrids on Willmott's Plant List: N. Ellisiana, a dwarf water lily, which also “grows well, flowers freely, and is one of the most handsome, a brilliant red in colour, with bright orange stamens”, and N. Gloriosa – the article including a photograph of it (below).

The dwarf water lily, 'N. Ellisiana', a Latour-Marliac hybrid introduced in 1896

‘N. Gloriosa’ from ‘The Garden’, July 11, 1908, a Latour-Marliac hybrid introduced in 1886

Willmott's published photographs

Apart from the plates in Willmott's book of photographs showing water lilies in the ponds at Warley Place, two photographs of hers published in The Garden in 1903 and 1904 respectively feature water lilies, most probably at Warley Place. Unfortunately, neither of the articles they illustrate actually discuss these plants.

‘Tree and Shrub by Waterside, with Water Lily Group Near’, photograph by Ellen Willmott. From ‘The Garden’, September 19, 1903

However, in the same month that the above photograph was published in The Garden, an article titled ‘Water Lilies in 1903’ also appeared in the magazine. Its author, W. Townsend of The Gardens at Sandhurst Lodge in Berkshire, extolled the virtues of the new hybrids, as well as water lilies in general, and encouraged readers to establish a water garden. Townsend was Head Gardener to Sir William Farrer, another noted "enthusiastic cultivator" of water lilies, and solicitor to Queen Victoria. The gardens at Sandhurst Lodge were well known at the time for their succession of 8 ponds containing blue nymphaeas, the lotus, and Latour-Marliac hybrids. Townsend writes of introducing new varieties into the ponds every year – with many visitors coming specifically to see them, as well as tropical water lilies kept in a series of tanks.

‘Nymphaea marliacea albida in the gardens at Sandhurst Lodge’, from ‘The Garden’, September 5, 1903. A Latour-Marliac hybrid from 1879

Townsend describes their method of growing the water lilies in water not deeper than 2 ½ ft in baskets made for the purpose. His article also features this photograph, left, of another Latour-Marliac hybrid grown by Willmott, N. marliacea albida, noted for its "gigantic snow white flowers surrounding golden stamens".

'An English Waterside – Spirea Gigantea Boldly Grouped in the Distance', photograph by Ellen Willmott. From 'The Garden', 10 September 1904


At the end of the 19th century, the new water lily hybrids introduced by Latour-Marliac and others attracted a great deal of attention in the horticultural world, and changed the way these plants were used in ponds and glasshouses across Europe and the US. And they were, of course, mostly famously brought to the public's attention by Claude Monet.

As I've taken the names of water lilies grown at Warley Place from Willmott's 1908 Plant List, it only serves as a snapshot of the plants she had at that particular time, rather than a complete picture of what other species and hybrids may have been in her ponds and glasshouses over the years.

Water lilies had historically been expensive plants, limited to grand gardens. Even Rothschild's Head Gardener, Hudson, notes their high cost in an article, ‘The Newer or Lesser Known Water-Lilies’, published in The Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1898. He mentions that a few years previously, having reading about N. alba-rosea in the horticultural press, “I long desired to posses a plant; but the price was too prohibitive”. This being another name for the pink Nymphaea sphaerocarpa, noted by Shenstone as growing in the South Pond at Warley Place.

The new hybrids, although initially equally as expensive, eventually decreased in price and became available to more and more gardeners. For Willmott, money was no object when it came to plants [as with everything else, it must be said], and she no doubt spent lavishly on the Latour-Marliac and other hybrids. I'm hopeful that eventually some invoices or written information about what she did buy from Lagrange in France, Henry Dreer in the US, and Otto Froebel in Zurich may emerge from her archive material. And also whether she bought directly from Latour-Marliac's French nursery. In the meantime, her photographs and the written descriptions given here will have to suffice.

Gathering Water-Lilies’, photograph by Peter Henry Emerson, 1886. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art


1. Regarding mentions of Willmott's correspondence with various companies and nurseries, I only have access to a list of her correspondents (and the subject matter), not the actual content of the letters.

2. Report from the ‘Warley Place Greenhouse Group’, March 1999

3. Water Lilies and Bory Latour-Marliac, the genius behind Monet’s Water Lilies by Caroline Holmes, 2015

Latour-Marliac Hybrids at Warley Place (from Willmott's 1908 Plant List)

N. Caroliniana nivea: pure white flowers, very large and double, with an exquisite scent.

N. Caroliniana perfecta: salmon-red double flowers with rich yellow stamens.

N. Ellisiana: bright currant-red with fiery orange stamens.

N. Gloriosa: Scented flowers some 7” in diameter, very double, currant-red, washed with rose-white at the tips of the lower petals and with rich red stamens. Latour-Marliac added that this was “one of the triumphs of hybridization”.

N. Laydekeri fulgens: flowers rich amaranth with fire-red stamens.

N. Laydekeri lilacea: medium-sized flowers rising 4-5” out of the water. Lilac tipped with carmine and orange-red stamens.

N. Laydekeri purpurata: carmine-pink flowers, crimson towards the centre, with orange-red stamens.

N. Laydekeri rosea: medium-sized flowers, developing from a tender pink to carmine pink and then to rich carmine. Orange-red stamens. “One of the most interesting varieties”.

N. Marliacea albida: enormous flowers up to 8” in diameter. Milk-white with the outside petals flaked with pink at the base. Sulphur-yellow stamens.

N. Odorata exquisita: medium-sized flowers rising 4-5” out of the water. Deep pink and sweetly scented. Rich yellow stamens. “Flowers of very elegant shape”.

N. Odorata rosacea: flowers of a soft pink with a sweet perfume. Golden yellow stamens.

N. Pygmea helvola: small flowers bright canary-yellow with golden-yellow stamens.

N. Seignoureti: medium flowers rising 5-6” from the water. Pink and carmine on pale yellow.

209 views2 comments


Nov 28, 2023

Fascinating, thanks very much!


Nov 27, 2023

Sumptuous stuff! What gorgeous images - and the detail is dizzying. A fascinating read....

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