The ‘The Concise British Flora in Colour’ was an instant best seller when it hit the shelves in May 1965. Opening the covers reveals illustrations of 1486 species in meticulous detail. They are the result of 60 years of botanical study and painting by its 88 year old author Reverend William Keble Martin (1877-1969). He drew (almost) all the plants from life.

3 books and copies of Keble Martin's watercolours laid out on a patch of clover

Hitting the books

In 1993 the University of Exeter transferred Keble Martin’s herbarium (collection of pressed plants) to RAMM. Then in 2015 the Friends of Exeter Museum and Art Gallery purchased 34 watercolours. Each is a preliminary design for the plates for ‘The Concise British Flora in Colour’.

Lock-down provided the perfect opportunity to research both collections. Armed with a pile of books and printed copies of RAMM’s watercolours I headed into my own garden to read. Sitting among the wild flowers I call a lawn, the books brought Keble Martin’s collection to life.

The Concise British Flora in Colour

Drawing the plates was a labour of love. The ‘London Catalogue of British Plants’ in 100 sections became Keble Martin’s guide. He wrote, ‘It was fairly easy to put an early drawing in some corner, and to fit those of related species beside them. This method led almost unawares to the plotting of the 100 plates’.

RAMM’s watercolours are just a handful of the draft plates Keble Martin made while working on the book. As a result, each one matches a plate in ‘The Flora’. He drafted and redrafted until he was happy with the layout and the quality of the paper. None of the watercolours match the final publication exactly.

Partly complete watercolour painting of plants by William Keble Martin

Over the Hills …

Keble Martin’s autobiography is a testament to his dedication to botany and to the church. He recounts pivotal moments in his life – love, family, study, work, duty, and botany – are woven into a touching narrative. His recollections are so detailed that I began to add context to the drawings in RAMM’s collection. For example, Keble Martin earned a living as a tutor in Ireland while waiting for a place at Cuddesdon Theology College. At Castletownroche in 1899 he made the third drawing for his book – enlargement of a stitchwort flower.

Sketches for the Flora

Keble Martin drew plants from life. His drawings began as sketches. Some in the field, and some on long train journeys home from plant hunting trips around the UK. From his autobiography we know that Keble Martin took great care with particularly rare plants. Sometimes he would climb back up mountains to replant rare species after they were sketched. Others he preserved in his herbarium.

After his death, the publisher of ‘The Flora’ asked his widow for permission to publish some of his sketches. They thought it would make a useful and interesting companion and so ‘Sketches for the Flora’ came into being. While leafing through its pages I noticed that the images revealed far more than just an artist’s working methods. The sketches closely resemble the final drawings and, importantly for RAMM, include information on when and where Keble Martin found the specimen.

Then, with excitement, I returned to my desk, fired up the computer and searched the collections database. My hunch was correct! Some of the dates and locations on the sketches match specimens in RAMM’s collections.

Linking the book, the watercolours and preserved specimens

The draft for plate 68 of ‘The Concise British Flora in Colour’ depicts Salvias. Three of the species shown on Keble Martin’s drawing match sketches included in ‘Sketches for the Flora’. All three sketches include specimen data. Two of these match specimens in Keble Martin’s herbarium collection at RAMM. Keble Martin’s friend and fellow botanist Dr GC Druce sent him both specimens. It is just possible to see some of the wonderful deep purple the flowers had in life. These are just two examples where the specimens Keble Martin drew are preserved in RAMM’s collection.

RAMM would like to know more

Keble Martin made thousands of sketches. ‘Sketches for the Flora’ includes only a few of them. It is likely the originals remain in Keble Martin’s family. If the museum had access to them (or copies) then more of Keble Martin’s pressed plant collection could be matched to the drawings in his best selling book. So far there are over 100 matches to herbaium specimens. Please get in touch if you can help with this quest for knowledge.

[UPDATE! 5 November 2020. I’m pleased to add that the Linnean Society of London contacted me. It holds Keble Martin’s microscope, magnifying glass, painting box with his last few Winsor and Newton tubes of watercolour pigment and the sketches I was searching for.]

Enjoy the Keble Martin collection

Keble Martin’s watercolours are available to view on Collections Explorer. Learn more about his life on RAMM’s new digital exhibition platform, Showcase. Then, take your learning outside and experience the British flora for yourself. Beautiful plants thrive even in the most unexpected places – cracks in the pavement, holes in walls and along roadside verges.