Journal Number 89
December 2003


Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892)

Walter Hood Fitch must be regarded as the most prolific of all botanical artists: he published at least 9600 drawings, the majority in colour.

He was discovered by William J. Hooker, then Professor of Botany in Glasgow, and when the latter took over as Director of Kew Gardens, Fitch became sole illustrator of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, and remained so for forty-three years. He was a lithographer as well as an artist, and would often draw directly onto the stone.

J.D. Hooker wrote of the "unrivalled skill in seizing the natural characters of plants" of this "incomparable botanical artist". He must have been fast: he would draw standing, a stone block in one hand and a pencil in the other, the bold freehand lines laid on with an unnerring sweep of the pencil. In the Hookers' Icones plantarum is an illustration of Corybas cheesemanii drawn by W.H. Fitch, and another of Earina mucronata.

His great acheivement was what he could do from dried herbarium specimens. Somehow he was able to recreate the plant in its original freshness.

He left Kew after an argument about money, and shortly afterward his health began to fail. He died of a stroke in 1892, and the Gardeners' chronicle said in its obituary:

"As a botanical artist Fitch had no rival for grace and fidelity to Nature.
His vast experience gave him a power of perception and insight such as few,
if any, artists have possessed in greater, if equal degree."

Fitch was artist for New Zealand's first illustrated Flora, the third volume of J.D. Hooker's The Botany of Ross's Antarctic Voyage (1844-60). He was later to do the engravings (after Archer's drawings) for the Flora Tasmaniae. Among the drawings in the Flora Novae Zelandiae are those of Nematoceras macrantha, Singularybas oblongus, Adenochilus gracilis, and Petalochilus minor. Coloured and uncoloured versions of the whole work were printed.

Fitch wrote a series of articles about botanical drawing for the Gardeners' Chronicle, published in 1869. He protested he was no writer - "I am more accustomed to the pencil than the pen" - but his prose is elegant and even plain for the day, and his sarcastic wit sharp and accurate.

He wrote about the differences between scientific botanical drawing, and flower painting, and gave clear advice on technique: treat the leaves as if they were skeletonised; place the flower correctly on its stalk; sketch the lower leaves first if they are erect and elongated, the upper if the leaves hang down; the stem is never straight so a ruler should never be used; if hairs are represented at all they should be done correctly.

These articles will be reproduced over the next four issues of our Journal.

Botanical Drawing: 1
By Walter Hood Fitch

It has been suggested to me by some who, I trust, are better able to appreciate my qualifications than my native modesty will allow me to do, that a few hints on botanical drawing, from my pen, might be useful to some of the readers of the Gardeners' Chronicle. Yielding to their superior judgment - though I am more accustomed to the pencil than the pen - I shall venture to make a few remarks, which, however simple and trying they may appear to me, and perhaps to others, may be of some service to those who are ambitious of doing correctly what any one is supposed to be capable of doing, viz., sketching a flower, or a plant.

I have frequently heard the remark, that Mr. So-and-so is a good colourist but a bad draughtsman - a very left-handed compliment, equivalent to that of being pronounced able to write but not to spell, to paint a portrait but not to represent the individual. It is as well that correct drawing and colouring should be found in the same work, for the absence of the former cannot be compensated by any excellence in the latter. Most beginners in flower drawing are desirous of rushing into colour before they can sketch - unaware that the most gorgeous daub, however laboured, if incorrectly drawn is only a crude effort at "paper staining," as it is technically termed. The eye of the qualified critic is not to be foiled by colour. Facility in colouring is easily acquired, but a correct eye for drawing is only to be rendered by constant observation.

I may have occasion hereafter to say something about colouring - botanical and fanciful, for there is a difference between the two - similar to that between a portrait, and a mere picture. A strictly botanical drawing generally represents but one or two individual plants, and they must be equally correctly drawn and coloured. A fancy drawing or group in proportion to the number of plants introduced may have the details judiciously slurred over, for the eye of the observer cannot comprehend the minute points of all at a glance, so there is no labour lost. I may state that this dependence upon the carelessness of the observer is very frequently carried too far - and if at all times far from flattering, is often offensive; and that the works of many professors of flower drawing are not calculated to improve the public taste for the domain of Flora.

To argue the propriety or correctness of anything may seem like discussing a truism, but correctness is very often a question of degree, or a matter of taste. We judge according to the light that is in us.

I have particularly in view the education of young gardeners; for in the numerous works intended for their instruction, I am not aware that there are any hints in relation to botanical or flower drawing. Judging from the omission, one might almost suppose it was thought that if the pupils but mastered half the matter that was written for their improvement, they might well dispense with so trying an accomplishment. I need not dilate on the usefulness to gardeners of a knowledge of sketching, not flowers only, but anything in the way of their profession, for many have expressed to me their regret at their inability, being deterred from testing it by imaginary difficulties. I may state that a slight sketch is often more explanatory than any description; and to collectors and cultivators, figures of the plants they collect or deal in are particularly desirable. I purpose making a few remarks, which I hope will be of assistance to beginners in overcoming the difficulties they may encounter in their first attempts. The simple means I have employed in the course of some years' experience will be found applicable equally to drawing dried as well as living plants.

I may premise that a knowledge of botany, however slight, is of great use in enabling the artist to avoid the errors which are occasionally perpetrated in respectable drawings and publication, such as introducing an abnormal number of stamens in a flower; giving it an inferior ovary when it should have a superior one, and vice versa. I have frequently seen such negatively instructive illustrations of ignorance - quite inexcusable, for a little knowledge would enable them to be avoided. It is more creditable that one's works should furnish an example than a warning.

. - For flower drawing smooth paper is best suited, as it allows of finer touches and lines, and smoother washes of colour.

The best pencil to use is an H. for delicate subjects, such as white flowers, and an F. for leaves, and any part which is to receive dark colours, so that the lines may not be entirely obliterated.

In botanical subjects it is sometimes desirable to represent the roots, bulbs, etc., but they are so easily drawn that I think no special directions are necessary.

- to be continued...




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