William Keble Martin (1877-1969)

William Keble Martin devoted his life to two things – the church and a passion for botany. At the age of 88 he became a best selling author. 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.

William Keble Martin – early years

Keble Martin’s interest in botany came at an early age. His maternal uncle taught him and his three brothers all they needed to know about collecting and rearing butterflies. Learning to identify caterpillar food plants was key to their success. Over a period of 15 years the brothers collected hundreds of butterflies. They made the cabinet themselves.

In 1891 Keble Martin’s father became the Rector of Dartington near Totnes in Devon. He became a keen birder recording their nesting and migratory habits. He returned to the family home frequently as an adult to visit the family, collect plants and observe the birds.

Later, in 1896, Keble Martin attended Christ Church College Oxford to study Greek Philosophy, Church History and Botany. To begin with he drew mosses. Then he turned his attention to flowers because fellow students found them hard to identify. The publications available at the time had long wordy descriptions and no colour pictures.

A career in the Church

While waiting for a place at Cuddesdon Theology College Keble Martin earned a living as a tutor. While in Ireland some stitchwort flowers inspired the third plate for ‘The Concise British Flora’. He was ordained as a deacon on 21 December 1902 . A year later became a priest. His first challenge, at 25 years of age, was a neglected parish at Beeston in Nottinghamshire.

Keble Martin lived a lonely and very frugal existence. Violet Chaworth-Musters accepted his proposal of marriage 28 March 1908 and he was lonely no longer. They married in July 1909. He took took a position at Wath-on-Dearne in Yorkshire. His work kept him overwhelmingly busy and he made few plant collecting trips and drawings.

After 12 years at the parish he and his family moved to Devon. His daughter had been very ill and Keble Martin was determined to move away from the smoky northern air (Wath was a colliery town). The parish of Haccombe and Coffinswell near Torquay beckoned where he was to be Rector and Archpriest. These parishes were much quieter than the northern parishes he was used to. He found time to complete the drawings for the first twelve plates in ‘The Concise British Flora’.  By the winter of 1932-3 just under half the plates were complete (677 of 1480).

Later life

Keble Martin continued to fit illustration around his parish duties. He moved to where he was needed including Great Torrington and Gidleigh on Dartmoor. In 1958 the couple’s poor health necessitated a move to Pound Lane in Woodbury where the church was within easy reach. Not content to rest at home Keble Martin took temporary charge of Clyst St George Church while the vicar was away. Travelling by bus he visited parishioners and voluntary drivers took him the four mile round trip three times each Sunday for Church services.

He collected when he could. Friends also sent him hard to find specimens. Around 360 specimens came from 82 different botanists.

After his wife’s death Keble Martin remarried. It was at this time that he received good news. Not only had the money needed to publish ‘The Concise British Flora’ been raised, Prince Philip agreed to write the foreword.

Best-selling author

Keble Martin’s life changed dramatically. One minute he was living a quiet, frugal life in his retirement. The next he was receiving attention from BBC film crews and attending fancy dinners in his honour. The University of Oxford’s School of Botany heralded him as one of the three best known botanists to pass through their doors. The other two were Sir Joseph Banks the naturalist and explorer and Sir John Lawes the founder of the Rothhampsted Station – the longest-running agricultural research institution in the world.

When the ‘The Concise British Flora’ hit the shelves on 10 May 1965. It was an instant best seller selling over 100,000 copies that year. The Post Office issued a set of stamps using his drawings. In 1966 the University of Exeter awarded William Keble Martin an honorary PhD for his lifetime’s work on British Botany.

colour photograph of a small display of items associated with William Keble Martin. an old metal vasculum (collecting container) sits open revealing moss specimens inside it. Two watercolour drawings of flowers are propped up. In front of them is a pressed plant specimen mounted on a sheet of cream card and copies Keble Martin's two publications.

A herbarium – pressed plants

Keble Martin collected plant specimens and pressed them to form a herbarium. He noted where he collected each specimen and the date. This data is very useful when assessing the change in species distribution over time. The University of Exeter gave this collection to RAMM in 1993. Some might be figured in ‘The Concise British Flora’ (more research is needed). Others are published elsewhere. For example, Keble Martin a summer near Bovey Tracey in Devon. He found a new locality for heath lobelia (Lobelia urens) – a rare plant. He published his discovery in the Journal of Botany, 1901, p428.

William Keble Martin’s paintings

In 2015 the Friends of RAMM purchased 34 watercolours for RAMM’s collection. Each is a preliminary design for the plates for ‘The Concise British Flora’. None exactly match the final publication. They are an indication of his meticulous eye for detail, patience and dedication.

William Keble Martin’s book ‘Sketches for the Flora’ and his autobiography ‘Over the Hills …’ are helping to uncover where the drawings at RAMM fit in to Keble Martin’s story.

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