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Woolward Paintings Located, Donated to Kew

The following is a vivid account of how serendipity helped Steve Manning, a member of the Pleurothallid Alliance, in locating the original paintings for The Genus Masdevallia by Florence H. Woolward:

For quite a number of years I had been wanting to purchase a copy of The Genus Masdevallia by Florence Woolward. This was more than a hope, but I had advertised in local newspapers, tried antiquarian bookshops, and even contacted a book-locating agency. The most I had achieved was unbound photocopied sheets of most of the pages and a set of 35mm transparencies of the illustrations.

I had seen an original copy of the book in the Orchid Herbarium at Kew, and during one of my visits there, I was staying with one of my wife's aunts near Chesham. Over dinner the conversation turned to orchids, and I mentioned my search. "Aunty Bun" told me that during World War II she had served in the FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) with two sisters whose surname was Woolward. Aunty Bun seemed to recollect that they had some distant relative who had been talented at painting "flowers and things." Fifteen minutes and one telephone conversation later confirmed that they were indeed the great nieces of Florence herself. Moreover, I learned that one of the sisters owned the family copy of the book and a folio of paintings.

The following week my wife and I went to the Welsh Borders and met one of the sisters, who showed us so many wonderful items including framed photographs, hand-painted china, and memorabilia that I really didn't know what to look at next. I learned from her that the paintings had been in the possession of the Woolward family for many years but had been ignored, kept in a wooden trunk under a bed in a spare bedroom since Florence's death in 1936. A few of the paintings, which are mainly in gouache, were showing slight signs of damage. We advised interleaving the paintings with acid-free paper to prevent further transfer of paint to the facing page.

The ladies were now convinced of the true worth of their great aunt's talents and her folio of paintings. They were insistent that the folio should not be broken up and decided on my recommendation to donate it to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to join Florence's original vignettes of the Masdevallia plants that appear at the top of most of the individual descriptions in her book. These had been donated to Kew by Rev. Spenser A. Woolward in 1937.

The 17 bound volumes of Woolward's paintings of orchids and two of fungi for the Marquis of Lothian, still in the possession of his heirs, are the supreme example of her art. The collection of her later studies in the Natural History Museum emphasises her draughtsmanship and botanical expertise, but this collection now at Kew seems to show a youthful vibrancy and enthusiasm not matched elsewhere.

Postscript: Woolward's work with orchids appears to have concluded in 1904 when she described Masdevallia tonduzii. Her work on elms and poplars was finished about 1908, and her last landscapes are dated a few years earlier. From then until her death nearly 30 years later no further work is known. She had been so prolific for so long that I find it hard to believe that she stopped so suddenly or so completely. I would be most grateful for any further information on this talented artist and botanist.

Steve Manning, Estover, 25A Forest Road, Tarporley, Cheshire CW6 0HX, UK.

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Last Updated September 3, 1998.
Copyright The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.