top of page
  • gardenhistorygirl

Photography as applied to flowers: Mr Stevens’ ‘prize picture’

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

'Gloire de Dijon Roses from a prize photograph by Mr Henry Stevens', from 'The Gardeners' Chronicle', February 10, 1883

After a day’s gardening, I like nothing more than to sit down with a cup of coffee and flick through the latest issue of The English Garden or Gardens Illustrated – their fabulous photographs showing me what my own efforts have, sadly, not usually quite achieved! And, like other keen gardeners, I use my smart phone to record my garden’s progress throughout the year, as well as photographing the many gardens I visit.

And yet, over the millennia of human artistic endeavour, the story of photography is still a relatively young one. As detailed in my blog The Early Amateur Photographers - and the beginnings of 'garden photography', it was during the 1830s that (pre-digital) photography first arose. By 1850, it was still seen as "a curiosity and a marvel" while, only some 10 years later, it had become widely accepted as a means of recording information and making pictures. While all this was happening, the horticultural press and the publishing world in general were mostly using images from woodcuts to illustrate their pages but, as photography advanced, ‘engravings from photographs’ began to be used. Looking more like line drawings, these were of variable quality and it was not until the early 1880s that quality photographic images appeared.

This now brings me to the photograph above of a floral arrangement entitled, Gloire de Dijon Roses, by Mr Henry Stevens (1843-1925) of King Street, Covent Garden in London. Published in The Gardeners’ Chronicle of 10th February, 1883, it's a particularly significant one in the improvement of images in the 19th century horticultural press - and had already been awarded a medal by the Photographic Society of Great Britain.

Mr Henry Stevens' "prize-winning" photograph

I first came across this photograph while researching garden photography for my MA Garden History dissertation a few years ago at the RHS Lindley Library in London, looking for published photographs by Ellen Willmott [subject of a future post]. During my time at the Lindley, poring over volumes of various Victorian horticultural publications, I found that this particular issue of The Gardeners’ Chronicle contained one of the original copies of Stevens' photograph (full page size) given away by the magazine to its readers - and I've wanted to research this in more detail ever since.

Stevens' photograph was not printed on the page, but was rather an actual photographic print loosely inserted amongst its pages next to an accompanying editorial entitled 'Floral Photography'. This issue, priced at the normal rate of 5 pence, but 7 pence for those subscribers who wanted to receive the photograph in a ‘postal tube’, was truly a first for the horticultural press – this notice appearing on its front page:

A few months earlier, The Gardeners’ Chronicle had reported on the lack of success in photographing flowers without the necessary half-tints and gradations of shadow and colour [albeit still in shades of black and white]. However, as they advised their readers, Stevens had "overcome most of those difficulties, and produced photographs which, as faithful representations of flowers, exceed anything of the kind we have seen", and they could soon judge for themselves when they published "a special reproduction… of one of Mr Steven’s prize pictures" in a few weeks' time. The Gardeners’ Chronicle was also confident their readers would agree "as to the marvellous fidelity of the photograph" – and, as this issue was something of a publishing coup, they planned a higher print run than usual.

'The Gardeners' Chronicle', January 13, 1883, advertising their publication of Stevens' photograph in a few weeks time

In a follow-up article, a week after publication of Stevens' photograph, The Gardeners’ Chronicle reported that their publication of the Woodburytype reproduction had "excited attention, not only from the excellence of the reproduction, but from the fact that this is the first occasion upon which anything of the kind has been attempted on the same scale as to numbers”. And, just a few months later (in May 1883), they reported that Stevens, whose photograph had been “universally acknowledged to be the finest of their kind yet produced”, had now prepared several sets of photographs for sale. The first set would consist of 6 selected prints, of large size and “mounted in the best style” at a cost of 5 guineas, or 3 guineas unmounted.

Woodbury Type Process

The Gardeners’ Chronicle editorial, explained to its readers the importance of Stevens’ photograph as a “specimen of photography applied to mechanical printing”. Before this, photographs used as illustrations in books and magazines were generally engravings from photographs - meaning that the quality of the reproduction was usually down to the skill of an individual engraver. But the advent of mechanical printing changed all that. As the editorial pointed out, in the early days of photography “it was the dream of far-seeing minds to utilise in the printing press the marvellous reproduction of Nature, which Daguerre in France, and Fox-Talbot in this country discovered in their researches…”.

And, although the horticultural press was a little late to the party, superior images of lush gardens and plant portraits began to greatly add to both the communication of information, and the appeal of the written descriptions they accompanied. Stevens’ photograph, Gloire de Dijon Roses, was just the beginning for the horticultural press.

While explaining in length the science behind the process, the editorial also discussed the “taste of Mr Henry Stevens, in the selection of flower subjects upon which to exercise a latent artistic perception of composition and chiaro-scuro, has been rewarded by a medal of the Photographic Society of Great Britain, at whose exhibition last year this picture, together with many other floral subjects, formed one of the chief points of attraction”. Chiaro-scuro referring to the use of ‘strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition’ – or, as The Gardeners Chronicle remarked about this particular photograph, “the artistic play of light and shade, which always leads the eye back to the principal object – the Roses themselves; the idea of colour so strongly suggested when contrasted with the white of the marble pedestal, and in a background well chosen, the partial relief of which acts as a foil to the... Roses”.

However, despite the photographer’s efforts to heighten the contrasts in a black and white photograph, for a modern audience nothing can replace the dazzling colour of the natural world. The photograph below showing Gloire de Dijon in all its gorgeous glory and, to my eyes, looking like crumpled silk.

'Gloire de Dijon'. Photograph courtesy 'Association Roses Anciennes en France'

But before I go on to discuss the Woodburytype process, here's another garden history connection that I so love which illustrates what an 'engraving from a photograph' looked like - before they were superseded by superior photomechanical images.

In February 1883 (coincidentally the same month as Stevens' photograph appeared), The Gardeners’ Chronicle published an article written by George Wilson describing how Henry Stevens and a friend, only referred to as Mr Rouch, made a chance visit to Wilson’s garden, Oakwood, in Wisley, Surrey. Mr Rouch, also a photographer, duly snapped Stevens in Oakwood’s ‘wild garden’ along with Wilson and his son. George Wilson (1822-1902) was an English industrial chemist and keen gardener who, later in life, moved to Wisley where he devoted himself to creating the garden that would later become the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society.

‘Mr Henry Stevens, Mr G F Wilson and Mr Wilson, Jun., in the Wild Garden at Oakwood, Wisley’. ‘The Gardeners’ Chronicle’, February 10th 1883. An engraving from a photograph

So, here’s the technical bit: the mechanical printing process that produced Steven's photograph, Woodburytype, was named after Mr. W.B. Woodbury, an English photographer, who patented his invention in 1864. This process was seen as a breakthrough for "the mechanical printing of pictures produced from a photograph, containing all gradations of light and shade…".

It was the first successful photomechanical process that fully enabled the reproduction of the delicate ‘halftones’ in photographs. Therefore, a Woodburytype image is not actually a photograph, rather it’s an image (taken from a photograph) formed by a thin layer of coloured gelatin pressed upon a sheet of paper in a mould. If you’re interested in this fascinating process, please do have a look at the brief YouTube film from the George Eastman Museum which explains it far better than I can (see Further Reading/Viewing at the end of this post for details).

Henry J. Stevens (1843-1925)

So, who was Henry J. Stevens?

'Henry Stevens. From a photograph taken by himself in 1903'. Photograph licensed from

The dapper looking Stevens was already an award-winning photographer when his photograph of roses appeared in The Gardeners' Chronicle, having received the highest award for such photographs at an exhibition of the Photographic Society. And he could perhaps be considered an early ‘garden photographer’: the British Journal of Photography of October 13th, 1883 reporting that: "…it is difficult in the present stage of photography to hit upon a speciality. The feat has, however, been performed by Mr Henry Stevens, who has made the photographing of flowers his special study and ‘hobby’…".

However, photography was only a hobby. His day job was running the family firm - Stevens Auction House based in Covent Garden, London.

Advertisement for Stevens Auction House in ‘The Gardeners’ Chronicle’, January 6th, 1883

Founded in 1760, the auction house came to the Stevens family in the 1830s through Henry’s father, John Crace Stevens. Following his death in 1859, John's brother Samuel ran the business until Henry and his brother came of age - although they kept the name J C Stevens.

J C Stevens Auction House at Kings Street, Covent Gardens, London in 1835. From the cover of a sales catalogue

At the auction rooms at No. 38 King’s Street in Covent Garden a variety of goods and objects passed through their doors, but Stevens Auction House was chiefly known for the sale of objects of zoological or scientific interest – often selling many famous entomological collections, many of which contained much sought after rarities. Other items included ethnographic material and, as can be seen in their advertisement above, plants - often orchids, which attracted high prices.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Henry Stevens took out his first auctioneer’s licence in 1863 and, under his ownership, the auction house remained the major British clearing house for natural history collections for some years. A veritable “who’s who of scientists, collectors and curators who frequented the [Stevens] saleroom floor… made many an auction as much a social and scientific gathering as a commercial event”. The auction rooms continued after Henry's death until the 1940s.

J C Stevens Auction Room depicted in the painting, ‘After an Entomological Sale: Beati Possidentes’ by Edward Armitage RA, 1878. In this painting, Armitage shows himself at the Stevens Auction Rooms rejoicing over an acquisition for his collection of insects in the company of friends

Rosa ‘Gloire de Dijon’

Named by some “the glorious rose” of the 19th century, Gloire de Dijon was the first rose bred by French nurseryman, Henry Jacotot (1799-1883), from the rose growing area of Dijon in Burgundy, who named it in honour of the town. It's said to be a cross between a Tea Rose, the name of which is not known, and the old Bourbon ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’. After developing this rose for several years, it was exhibited at a horticultural show in Dijon in 1852 and was awarded the Societe d’Horticulture de la Cote d’Or’s top prize.

'Gloire de Dijon' from 'The Amateur Gardener’s Rose Book' by Julius Hoffmann, 1905

According to the Association Roses Anciennes en France's website, Gloire de Dijon, once found in many a cottage garden, was famous “for the beauty of its flowers, their fragrance and its floridity”. It flowers recurrently, can reach a height of 12 ft, and has thick and heavy foliage, more like that of a Hybrid Tea. A charming old Rose but one that today is, they state, outclassed by more recent introductions.

‘Rose Gloire de Dijon on wall trellis’. Photograph from ‘The Rose Book’ by H.H. Thomas, 1913

‘Gloire de Dijon - Waltz’ by Enos Andrew. Sheet music illustrated cover, c.1880

However, throughout the literature of the second half of the 19th century, there seems to be no other rose to rival Gloire de Dijon. It was sold to British nurseries, and appeared in the newly designed catalogues dedicated solely to roses of many of the best-known British nurseries of the time. The rose’s virtues of a climbing habit, vigorous nature, and beautiful blooms (which had a strong and enticing fragrance), particularly appealed to the innovative and growing number of gardeners in Victorian Britain.

Due to its popularity, images of Gloire de Dijon pop up frequently elsewhere, as can be seen in these examples.

Rosa ‘Gloire de Dijon’, Wills Cigarette card No. 32, 1912

'Rose (Gloire de Dijon)' birthday card, 1918 [If you're wondering about the word 'meed', I had to look it up! Its an archaic word meaning 'a reward or recompense']

This rose was also championed by nurserymen and writers: garden author, Henry Arthur Bright, wrote “no rose, taking all the good qualities of a rose together, its hardiness, free blooming, beauty, and scent, will surpass the Gloire de Dijon…”. While Dean Reynolds Hole, probably the most influential rosarian at the time, thought it the best climbing rose he knew writing in A Book About Roses. How to Grow and Show Them of 1869, that if he could only possess “but a single Rose-tree, I should desire to be supplied… with a strong plant of Gloire de Dijon”.

Recommended for garden walls, growing in pots, for forcing, and for exhibition, it repeatedly appears in the lists of the finest roses, including Gertrude Jekyll's list published in her famous book Roses for English Gardens of 1902, who called Gloire de Dijonthe most free-flowering of all climbing Roses, and for general usefulness has no equal”.

‘Gloire de Dijon, Penshurst'. From ‘Some English Gardens, After Drawings by George S. Elgood, R.I. with Notes by Gertrude Jekyll’, 1904

In the painting, above, of the terrace steps at Penshurst Place in Kent, Jekyll notes the use of a good climbing rose, like Gloire de Dijon, which “rises from below the parapet of one of the flights of steps and comes forward in happiest fellowship with a leaden vase of fine design; the dark background of the Irish Yew making the best possible ground for both Rose and urn”.

Gloire de Dijon, now considered a heritage rose, is still available to buy. For example, I've seen it recently for sale on David Austin's website.

Stevens' other photography

As reported in The Gardeners' Chronicle in May 1883, the set of 6 photographs issued by Stevens for sale were all of orchids, including a life-size image of Odontoglossum crispum guttatum - the plant coming from the collection of the famed orchid collector and exhibitor, Sir Trevor Lawrence, Bart., M.P. (1831-1913).

‘Orchids’ by Henry Stevens, c.1880s

Unfortunately, the variety of orchid pictured in Stevens' photograph is not mentioned; however, on looking at a modern-day photograph of a 'species' Odontoglossum crispum orchid, below, it may possibly be Lawrence's orchid in the photograph.

‘Odontoglossum crispum’.

Photograph by 'Eric in SF'

As an aside, this 'curled' odontoglossum is an epiphytic orchid from Colombia, considered by many to be the most beautiful orchid of all [really?!], but also as one of the most difficult to grow. During Victorian times, the species and its cultivars were highly sought after by orchid hunters and collectors (by 1889, varieties of this orchid were being sold for more than 150 guineas at auction - so there's also the possibility that Lawrence purchased his orchids from Stevens' Auction House). It's also no surprise that Lawrence, one of the world's leading orchid collectors of his day, had one in his vast orchid collection, and it's also known that he commissioned several botanical artists to record his collection.

Another of Stevens' orchid photographs, entitled ‘Orchids in Three Vases’, c.1880s

Stevens certainly appears to have been well regarded as an amateur photographer, and his name crops up regularly in photographic journals during the 1880s and 1890s (when he seems to have been most photographically active), such as The British Journal of Photography and The Photographic News. While the journal of the Photographic Society of Great Britain details his photographs shown at their various Exhibitions: for example, describing those shown at their annual exhibition of 1884 as "matchless studies of flowers and foliage”. Stevens also exhibited lantern slides at meetings of the Camera Club (see Notes) - those shown in February 1888 being “studies of choice flowers and plants”, with the prints being “very fine in colour and quality”. He exhibited abroad on at least one occasion: in the winter of that same year, Stevens joined a small "English" contingent who travelled to Vienna to exhibit at the International Photographic Exhibition. Stevens is recorded as being awarded a “Small Silver Gilt Medal”, although the photographs exhibited are not detailed.

By the 1890s, Stevens appears to have branched out from his usual floral photographs, at least in exhibition, as noted by The British Journal of Photography in February 1896. They reported on a recent Camera Club meeting, where Stevens’ photographs also included studies of his pets (typical 'Victoriana', so probably somewhat twee to our eyes), snow scenes, and portraiture – the Journal noting that he had previously been inclined “to devote himself exclusively [to floral photography] in which he was signally successful”.

‘A Group Study of Domestic Pets’ by Henry Stevens, c.1880s/90s. As well as his floral photography, Stevens took photographs of animals, including group studies of dogs, cats and even rabbits

However, one of the most interesting entries in a photographic journal appears in The Photographic Journal of April 1923, which contains a report on a ‘lantern lecture’ given by Stevens at a meeting of the Royal Photographic Society entitled ‘A Photographic Pot-Pourri’. By this time, Stevens, as he admits in the lecture, "had not taken a photograph for ten years"; however, his reputation was still such that The President of the Society, when introducing him, described Stevens as a “master” of photographic techniques whose results “had been never excelled and probably never equalled”.

In the lecture, Stevens explained how he came to photography in the first place, describing how he became a “mad photographer” – having, many years ago, been left a widower with 6 young children and wanting to take up some “home amusement”. After 2 years of photographing, the Editor of the British Journal of Photography happened to visit him (although he doesn't explain why). The Editor, a Mr Bolton, must have thought highly of the photographs Stevens showed him, as he encouraged Stevens to join a photographic society (offering to propose him for membership) and exhibit his work, as he was sure Stevens would do well. Stevens duly exhibited 21 photographs at a Royal Photographic Exhibition and was, indeed, awarded a medal.

‘Flower Study’ by Henry Stevens, c.1880s/90s. From the article ‘A Photographic Pot-Pourri’, The Photographic Journal, April 1923

In the lecture, Stevens also explained to his audience how he came to take a particular photograph for which he later received the first prize of 20 guineas from the Graphic magazine, having been chosen from some 3,000 submitted for competition. The Queen and several members of the Royal Family were later pleased "to accept copies". (The photograph is of an old lady driving a donkey cart and is SO twee I'm not including it!)

All his photographs were straight from the camera "without any touching up of any sort". If a negative was not perfect, he told his audience, it was discarded. Stevens also exhibited photographs of "a number of curiosities" from his auction rooms, such as an auk's egg which sold for 330 guineas. [Probably an egg of the Great Auk, an artic/sub-artic bird extinct since 1844.] He also exhibited some photographs of ethnographic items [see Notes].

Unfortunately, there are few photographs by Stevens on the web, but the one I came across repeatedly while researching this post was the delightful photograph below featuring his daughters and pet Jack Russell, published in The Photographic Society’s Exhibition Catalogue of 1891. Well-known photographer H.P. ("Peach") Robinson commenting that: “This delightful sleighing picture is good enough to make the success of the Christmas number of any illustrated paper, and we are pleased to give a reproduction of it. There is life and motion; the sleigh flies over the snow; the young lady behind, on skates, moves; and the dog in front thinks it is all done for his enjoyment”.

This particular photograph is even mentioned in the report of Stevens' ‘A Photographic Pot-Pourri’ lecture: apparently the movement of the skater was "cunningly obtained by fixing one of the skates in a little block of snow" [bearing in mind the girls would have had to keep still for a time while he took the photograph - I'm not sure how they managed the dog...].

Detail from ‘Old-fashioned Winter’ (sometimes referred to as 'A Lucky Dog') by Henry Stevens, 1892

In The Photographic Journal of December 1901, I also found mention of an exhibition of Stevens’ “Flower, Animal and Figure subjects” being held at 66 Russell Square – the home of the Royal Photographic Society from 1899 until 1909. Described as a “one-man” show, it opened in December 1901 and run until February 1902. Unfortunately, I haven't found anything further on this.

After Stevens' death in 1925, an obituary notice published in The Photographic Journal, detailed his activities as both an auctioneer and photographer: “To many photographers, dealers, professionals and amateurs alike – the auction rooms of Mr Henry Stevens in King Street, Covent Garden, were familiar, for the Friday sales always included photographic lots. Familiar too, was the stately and courteous gentlemen who sat for so many hours on end in the rostrum, for over half a century”. It was only a few months after his 82nd birthday that he died and, although he had not been active in photography for some years, the notice recorded that “the older generation of photographers admired Mr Stevens’ photographic work, which was marvellous in its perfect technique...” and that they had lost “one of its most distinguished exponents, and the world at large a very gallant gentleman”.

Development of photography in the horticultural press

The publication of Stevens' photograph, Gloire de Dijon was just the beginning - and as photographic technologies improved, the horticultural press began to include better quality photographic images on its pages. These improvements eventually led to the appearance of Country Life magazine in 1897 – its impact being more visual than literary. Full of images of country houses, more importantly, for garden historians, Country Life contained more photographs of gardens than any other publication often taken by the growing ranks of specialised garden photographers. I will be posting about Country Life and its impact in due course.

Photographs in the horticultural press at this time were, of course, still black and white. Colour images did not appear for some years, but that’s another story… and another post.

In the meantime, back to looking longingly at the images in today’s gardening magazines, and wishing I could achieve something similar in my own garden.


Climbing and Rambler Roses by David Austin, 2016

Further reading/viewing:

YouTube video. Inventions of Photography: The Woodburytype – Photographic Processes Series. George Eastman Museum. The Woodburytype - Photographic Processes Series - Chapter 9 of 12 - YouTube

For information on photography generally, I recommend The Oxford Companion to the Photograph, edited by Robin Lenman, my copy dated 2005


The Camera Club, still going strong today, was founded in London in 1885 by the editor of the Amateur Photographer magazine. Made up of some of the most prominent photographers of the time, the group aimed at being “A social, scientific and artistic centre for amateur photographers and others interested in art and science.”

Photographs of 'ethnographic' items mentioned included a photograph of preserved tattooed Maori heads which can be found on the web. I have not included it in this post for obvious reasons. Shocking to us now, this kind of thing was acceptable at the time. European settlers in New Zealand were fascinated by Maori facial tattoos which led to the morbid trade. The heads became valued collectors' items and curios for the wealthy - and were even displayed in museums. I feel I should mention it, as Stevens took the photograph and his auction rooms did sell collections of these heads for a time.


bottom of page