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The Life of an RHS Orchid Illustrator Deborah Lambkin

Introduction

I have held the position of Orchid Artist to the Royal Horticultural Society Orchid Committee since 2005. I am ninth in a line of artists who have held the position since 1897, with Nellie Roberts, the first and longest serving member.

While I had no particular interest in orchids when I started, I was a botanical artist painting everything and anything at Kew and I was interested in plants and horticultural of all kinds.

Deborah Lambkin RHS Orchid Committee Artist

The position arose at a good time. While I had been working regularly at Kew the long commute and complications of childcare were awkward to manage. The RHS role enabled me to plan each monthly meeting in advance and I could work from home. It still left me some time to do other work and teach too.

My first meeting was Chelsea 2005 and my predecessor Cherry Ann Lavrih was very helpful, giving me a written account of how she tackled various orchids and her responsibilities at the meetings. The Orchid Committee members were also very helpful with suggestions about how best to preserve and portray an orchid.

Committee Meetings

Much of what happens in the Orchid Committee Meetings is the same now as it was in the time of Nellie Roberts (1897 – 1953).

A painting by Nellie Roberts
Paintings by Nellie Roberts

The Orchid Committee meet approximately once a month. The meetings are held at the RHS in Vincent Square London and also at RHS shows and gardens around the country. Committee members are usually from academic institutions, orchid nurseries and orchid societies from all over the country. There are also members from all over the world who correspond or attend and add their expertise on a regular basis.

Painting by Deborah Lambkin

I am regularly in awe at the combined knowledge of the Committee in the Meetings. Initially I was surprised by the seriousness and gravity with which they conducted their business and judged the orchids!

An RHS Orchid Committee meeting

Awards

The committee give a variety of awards to plants which I then paint, Award of Merit, for flower quality for hybrids mostly and Botanical Certificates, for species orchids that are deemed worthy of encouraging into cultivation.

The top award is a First Class Certificate for really outstanding flowers. I have only seen a handful of these in my 15 years as orchid artist.

Phragmipedium kovachii ‘Trinity’ FCC

Painting the orchids

Occasionally there may be a large quantity of orchids awarded at the bigger meetings like the International Orchid Show, or at meetings held at the Eric Young Orchid Foundation. In past times there was a support orchid artist to help out if it was necessary. I have usually found I can manage to paint all the of orchids myself.

Orchids are usually quite forgiving, and some can last for ages in airtight containers in my fridge. The most flowers I have needed to paint from a meeting was fourteen.

I start by doing a pencil line drawing. I use a clutch pencil with an H lead and I use a measuring tool – dividers to measure back and forth, cross checking my measurements carefully to ensure that my painting is the exact size of the actual flower. I also take perspective into consideration to make the orchid look natural.

Anguloa Tessa ‘Foxdale’

I believe it is critical to always have the actual flower to work from. I continually refer to and compare my painting to the flower in magnified detail and aim to have the closest if not the actual colour match and scientific accuracy possible.

Angraecum compactum

I then paint in layers in water colour starting with the paler colours and working in more paint in stronger colours and adding details where I can see it. I always start painting the parts of the flower that are the furthest away from me and working forward towards to front.

Dendrobium Dal’s Natasha ‘Joe’

Getting the intensity of colour on yellow and orange orchids can be difficult without the colouring going too far and becoming mucky. I try hard to keep the colours really bright using mostly stronger oranges and yellows for shadows.

Fredclarkeara After Dark ‘Anja’

I have all my colours out on a large palette so I can clearly see the colour range and I find that I can mix most colours from them. The colours always on my palette are Quinacridone magenta, Perylene Maroon, Permanent rose, Scarlet lake, Light red, Winsor violet, Winsor orange, Winsor yellow deep, Yellow ochre, French ultramarine, Cerulean blue and Sap green. I occasionally use the beautifully named but possibly fugitive Opera Rose too!

Drying orchids to return to the Herbarium at RHS Wisley

Photography

I am often asked why photography has not replaced the need for painting the awarded orchids. The Orchid Committee do take photographs of the orchids for their records. Photos can also be a useful tool to help me if the flower has gone over, however, photography alone does not easily record the exact size and accurate colour of a flower.

The regularity of the paintings’ format and the continuity of the whole collection in the same way enables the committee to compare an orchid presented at a meeting today to an orchid presented in 1897.

When the painting is complete

I always dry the flowers between blotting and boards along with their name, date and award on a sticky label. When they are dry, I fold them into a newspaper envelope and stick their label on and send them back to the Herbarium at Wisley where they are kept.

By the time I have finished with the orchids they are often mouldy and rotten. I pack them up all the same, but I leave it to the Herbarium specialists to decide whether they are OK to keep.

What are my favourite orchids?

I do have orchids that I like a lot and also some I dread to see at meetings and secretly hope will not be awarded!

Bulbophyllum attracting a fly

For instance, Bulbophyllums are pollinated by flies, smell of rotting meat and not something I want to store in my fridge while I am working on them. They even look quite sinister.

Stanhopea Emily Bush ‘Gorey’

Stanhopeas I have a love hate relationship with, while I think they are really beautiful structurally and their colours can be really intense, they are really hard to capture at their best. They tend to flower for just a day or two and they flower here when the weather is at its warmest which often means they are past their best by the time I get them home.

Dendrobium hekouense

I have also enjoyed painting the more delicate species orchids too. I especially like when I can have the whole plant. With Botanical Certificate orchids, where time allows, I always try to give a bit more scientific detail than I would usually with Award of Merit orchid where the size, shape and consistency of an orchid is important.

Orchid Paintings on exhibition in the RHS Lindley Library in March 2020

I get a real kick out of seeing the orchid appear on the page and making it as accurate as possible.

Conclusion

I hope also to bring the fascinating subject of orchids to a wider audience and, in my own way, ultimately contribute to their conservation.

Being the orchid artist has presented me with several opportunities outside the orchid committee. I regularly paint orchids for Kew Gardens and also for the Eric Young Orchid Foundation in Jersey. I have been lucky to participate and exhibit in many interesting orchid related events like the European Orchid Congress and the World Orchid Conference.

I have been very fortunate to meet lots of interesting orchid professionals and enthusiasts.

To date I have painted almost 500 orchids for the RHS Orchid Committee. They are the most recent additions to the Orchid Committee paintings at the RHS Lindley Library where they are stored along with the 7,000 others in the collection which dates back to 1897. The paintings can be seen by appointment during opening hours. My work is exhibited annually by the Lindley Library at the London Orchid Show, and regularly at other shows wherever possible.

I do not imagine I will be able to reach Nellie Robert’s enormous and almost unbeatable achievement of 56 years. I hope I will be able to continue in the near future and that when I am finished there will be a new artist to continue in the role and enjoy it as much as I have.

Details of Orchid Paintings on exhibition in the RHS Lindley Library in March 2020

All images and text © Deborah Lambkin

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