La Femme Fatale by Anthony French

I’m looking into the history of the illustrations of the Lady’s Slipper under the heading La Femme Fatale. I’ve started with Gerard’s Herbal (his own 1597 ed, but follow up with Johnson’s revision) and ended with Hilda Godferey’s pic of 1933: and everything in between. I’m looking for evidence that any of the illustrators ever drew a plant in situ; ie that the artist ever saw a wild, rather than a cut specimen sent to them/garden transplant. That is, how many artists could be said to have engaged with, and understood, the plant in its natural environment rather than merely as a botanical specimen.

In fact, historically – except for Yorkshire botanists who reported on Cypripedium in The Naturalist (in the 19th century)- it seems that very few writers, let alone artists ever saw the plant in the wild. (John Ray did see it.)

I have an extensive list of illustrators, and examples of their representations of “Our Lady’s Shoo.” Some are crude woodcuts, others watercolours of the greatest distinction. But I am struggling rather to find any representations in illuminated manuscripts: that is, I can’t find any earlier than Gerrard’s woodcut. If any one might have knowledge of a medieval representation (British or European) of the Slipper I’d really appreciate their letting me know!

Here are some examples.

  1. From Sowerby’s English Botany (1796)
  2. Gerard (1597)
  3. From Miller (1750)
  4. Hilda Godferey, with her own Lad’s shoos
  5. For interest – a roadside slipper in S.France
  6. Harriet Isabel Adams, 1907
  7. John Curtis 1832
  8. Hilda Godferey 1932
From Plant to Painting to Page: John Curtis’ Lady’s Slipper.

John Curtis chose to illustrate the Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium calceolus, on plate 416 of Volume 9 of British Entomology. (1832). It accompanied, for no reason, his delicate figure of the Blomer’s Rivulet, Melanippe bloomeri. The Cypripedium he used as his model was an authentic British specimen, though no longer “wild”. On the verso of his original drawing (below) in the archives of the Natural History Museum Curtis wrote “This was drawn from a Plant found wild at Castle Eden Dene Durham & transplanted into a Garden.” He gave more details in British Entomology: “This beautiful specimen was communicated by Mrs. Murchison, who informed me that the plant was found wild at Castle Eden Dene, and transplanted into a garden at Petersfield, Hants.”

Curtis was acquainted with the geologist Roderick Impey Murchison, (1792-1871). Murchison and his wife, Charlotte,
(1786-1869) settled in Barnard Castle, County Durham, early in their married life before moving to London in 1824. Their geological rambles would undoubtedly have taken them to the limestone fissures of Castle Eden Dene. The Cypripedium sent to Curtis by “Mrs Murchison” may have been collected by Charlotte during the time they lived at Barnard Castle. How did it find its way to Hampshire? The garden into which it was transplanted was that of her parents. Charlotte was born in Petersfield. Her mother, Charlotte Hugonin, was a keen gardener, described by her daughter as a talented florist and botanist. It’s quite possible that Mrs Hugonin visited her daughter in the North and collected her own Cypripedium specimen on a family excursion and took her prize home with her. That “This beautiful
specimen was communicated by Mrs Murchison” would suggest that Charlotte picked it from her parents’ garden when she visited them at the time it was flowering, in late May 1832. Curtis received it, drew it, had it engraved and coloured and published it on August 1st, 1832.

It’s unusual to find such precise provenance of a specimen. Though it is at one remove, Curtis’  illustration is taken  from a genuine Castle Eden Dene Cypripedium, a locality where it has been long extinct. Of further interest is its journey from his original drawing to the print on the page. Its beauty owes much to Curtis’ colourer – who never, of course, saw the specimen.

The illustration (above left) is the “pattern plate”, an engraving coloured for Curtis’ inspection on which he has added comments. The plate as it appeared in the August, 1832 number is featured on the right. Curtis was very clear about how he wanted the colours. “These purple petals were not half rich enough….this yellow slipper must have some shadow all round to give it solidity.” The resulting hand-painted engraving was the result. It stands of one of the finest illustrations of the British Cypripedium – and we know exactly where it came from.

A.French May 1st 2020

The original drawing and pattern plate are reproduced by courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London, photographed by the author. Plate 416 is from James Charles Dale’s personal copy of Vol. 9 of British Entomology. (author’s collection).
Many thanks must go to Grace Touzel, metadata librarian at the Natural History Museum, London – not for the last time in this series of articles!

A Tale of Three Ladies: Hilda, Madge and Calceolus.

The frontispiece to Colonel M.J.Godfery’s sumptuous Monograph and Iconography of Native British Orchidaceae of 1933 is a reproduction of his wife’s beautiful painting of a Lady’s Slipper. Hilda Godfery was a botanical artist of great talent. Her speciality was orchids. In his preface Colonel Godferey tells us that “The coloured plates are life-size, from water colour drawings by my late wife. Of her 245 drawings of European orchids, 184 exhibited in London in 1925 were awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s gold medal. and 229 were shown at the Fifth International Botanical Congress at Cambridge in 1930″

Hilda died in 1930, aged fifty-nine, three years before British Orchidaceae was published. Her hus-band – full name Masters John Godfrey – lost his soulmate. He dedicated the book to Hilda – “my wife, companion and enthusiastic fellow student of Orchids, by whom this book is illustrated, and without whom it would never have been written.” A fine photograph takes centre stage on the dedicaion leaf. Richard Mabey noted that it was the only book he had seen “where the dedication page is dominated by a photograph of the dedicatee, Godfery’s beloved late wife Hilda, posed amongst the foliage in her garden.” Hilda was, in fact, his second wife. She was nineteen when he married her in 1891. (He was 36). They spent much of their time abroad as well as in Britain, orchid-hunting, Hilda drawing specimens as they went along.

Her painting of the Lady’s Slipper is of a Swiss specimen. They found it in Bex, Switzerland, on May 15th 1913. It’s not at all likely that either of them ever saw an English one. Colonel Godfery saw the plant very much as a palearctic species and was quite happy to have seen it abroad. “Formerly in Durham, Yorks and Westmoreland. Now extinct or nearly so, though a few plants may linger on in places inaccessible to the public.”

A few plants had, indeed, lingered on, a closely guarded secret among a very few tight-lipped York-shire botanists. Articles and comment in The Naturalist from the 1880s onwards show the increasing alarm and despondency at the dwindling number of sites for the Lady’s Slipper, and the closing of ranks of those in the know. But then came an extraordinary article in The Strand Magazine in 1906. Hunting The Slipper – The Rarest British Wild Flower was written by the angling editor of the York-shire Post, William Carter Platts. He was a specialist first-class fly-fisherman from Huddersfield who wrote for several magazines and published books on the subject. He also produced “humorous” pieces which appeared in book form, one of which was The Whims of Erasmus. (1902). It contains a Sherlock Holmes pastiche involving his hero, Erasmus Tuttlebury. Perhaps this was how he came to be associated with The Strand. Although he clearly knew plenty about Holmes, who was the magazine’s bread and butter, there is no evidence that he knew anything of botany.

But he did know how to come up with a good story. He had been following up various leads for some years, and was able to give his readers a fascinating piece about the Lady’s Slipper. The hook for the article was the first ever photograph of a specimen in the wild, taken by Platts himself. The Naturalist of November, 1906 reproduced it.

The editor commented sniffily that “it professes to be the first photograph ever taken of the Ladies (sic) Slipper in its native haunts” and noted that “we have also received a photograph of a further specimen from Mr. J.F.Pickard.” But no mention whatsoever is made of another photograph in the article. Platts used it to accompany his story of how he was able to find his specimen.

In 1901 he was shown a secluded spot where the Lady’s Slipper had been discovered by the lady who found it, but “the slipper won easily” and she couldn’t find it again. Despite fishing being his passion – his favourite fish was the grayling – he made up his mind to hunt the slipper until he found it. He could learn nothing more until June, 1906,

when a little Wharfedale maiden, searching the woods for lilies, came upon a fine cluster, consisting of no less than eight stems. Fortunately, she was able to trace her steps to the spot. This stroke of luck gave me the opportunity to take the series of photographs illustrating this article, and including the first which have ever been secured of the plant blooming in its wild state. The exact spot is known to only three or four people, vowed to secrecy, and needless to say, the prize is being kept under observation, in the hope that its freakish nature may permit it to grace the same place another year.

Platts took a photograph of his “little Wharfedale maiden”. Her name was Madge Carradice, and she is the joint subject of a quite extraordinary photograph – possibly one of the most interesting examples of a botanical photograph ever taken. She is dressed in her Sunday best, wearing gloves and a beautiful hat, and proudly holds the rarest of British wild flowers. What must the botanists have thought when they saw the photo! Little Madge holding a plant that they had never seen, nor were ever likely to! Platts rubbed salt in the wound when he wrote

Here, through these hanging belts of mountain woodland, botanists hunt the elusive slipper year after year with undiminished zest, though their only reward be such pleasures of eternal hope as spurred on the ancient flower of chivalry in the quest of the Holy Grail…

He must have had contacts over a wide area, laid out money for information. Presumably Madge’s parents received something. Whoever took Platts to the spot – surely not Madge on her own – would have been rewarded. However it was, Madge Carradice did something that Hilda Godfery and generations of eminent botanists never managed to do – find their very own wild, British Lady’s Slipper. Here she is:

Selected References:

Godfery, Colonel M.J. Monograph and Iconography of Native British Orchidae. Cambridge, 1933
Mabey, R. Turning The Boat For Home: A Life Writing About Nature. Penguin, 2019
Platts, W. Carter. Hunting The Slipper. Strand Magazine. Volume 32. London, 1906
Various: The Naturalist, 1884-1922.

Photos by the author from his personal collection.

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