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Loughborough Road People Nellie Roberts

Nelly Roberts – orchid artist

Nelly Roberts was a botanical artist specialising in painting watercolours of orchids. She lived all her life at 72 Loughborough Road and was the first and longest serving orchid artist for the Royal Horticultural Society.

RHS Lindley Collection. Cymbidium Lowgrinum. Award of Merit. 24.3.1903. Exhibitor: R I Measures, Cambridge Lodge, Camberwell, London.

Nelly and her family on Loughborough Road

Nelly was born on the 15th October 1872, the daughter of William and Rebecca Roberts who ran a jewellery and watchmakers shop at 72 Loughborough Road. Nelly was the eldest of their four children. Her sister Edith Maud was born in 1875, brother Roger in 1879 and the youngest, Sydney, was born in 1881.

William and Rebecca Roberts, moved to Loughborough Road in 1872, the year Nelly was born. At that time, the Loughborough Road row of shops was just becoming established, serving the expanding surrounding neighbourhood, built largely between the 1860s and 1880s. Among their neighbours in those early years were Richard Elliot a bootmaker, Robert Bailey a baker with his young family and grocer John Nunn who ran the shop on the corner and moved in the same year as the Roberts’.

c. 1905 postcard showing the Loughborough Road shops. The Roberts’ watchmakers and jewellers was on the side the road that can’t been seen half way along the street. Tracey Gregory postcard collection.

Little is known about the personal life of Nelly Roberts and her family. Her father William was originally from Hempnall, Norfolk and her mother Rebecca was born in Cambridge. It is not clear when William and Rebecca arrived in London but they came to the biggest city in the world at the time, that by 1860 had a population of over 3 million. In the 1861 census William was 19, living and working as a jeweller at 115 Great Titchfield Street, with his father Robert and brother Henry, also jewellers from Hempnall.

What is known, is that Nelly was the orchid artist for the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) for 56 years. Yet, even this is not widely known outside the world of orchid growers.

Between 1897 and 1953 Nelly painted every orchid given an award by the RHS Orchid Committee. The incredible RHS collection of over 4,500 of Nelly’s paintings is still used today by the Orchid Committee in their decision making when a submission is compared to previous awards given to the same orchid species or hybrid.

RHS Lindley Collections. Paphiopedilum Chapmanii ‘Magnificum’. RHS Award of Merit. 11.5.1897. Exhibitor R I Measures. 

RHS Orchid Committee and Orchid mania – the start of Nelly’s orchid painting

Orchids and orchid growers have always been an important part of the Royal Horticultural Society. Sir Trevor Lawrence, a driving force behind the establishment of the RHS Orchid Committee in 1889, was President of the RHS itself from 1885-1913. ‘Orchid mania’ was at its height in the second half of the nineteenth century, with wealthy collectors despatching explorers to far flung parts of the world to find and bring back to Britain, previously unknown orchid species. Collectors were also employing skilled gardeners to cultivate new hybrids. Schroders, of banking fame, and the Rothschilds were just two of the avid collectors of the time.

In the first years of the Orchid Committee they had no system for recording the awards and the increasing number of species and hybrids being exhibited. This created some confusion and Committee members found it hard to compare new orchids to ones previously exhibited and given awards. In 1896, seven years after the Orchid Committee was established, they agreed to look for an artist to document and record their awards.

As a young woman, Nelly had developed some skill in botanical painting, particularly orchids. Her father proudly put some of her paintings in his jewellery shop window. The story goes that the son of local orchid collector, Richard Isaac Measures who lived nearby in Flodden Road, spotted Nelly’s paintings in the shop window and she was invited to paint some of the orchids in the Measures collection. This was housed in 18 glasshouses at the rear of the house on Flodden Road. Richard Measures’ gardener Henry Chapman was a member of the Orchid Committee in 1896 and it is thought he may have suggested Nelly as a possible artist to document the Committee awards. (More about the Measures orchid collections in our post here.)

Nelly was taken on in January 1897, initially on a six-month trial, and was paid £37 11s. She was taken on permanently the following year at a salary of £83 8s, about £11,000 today. She was 24.

RHS Lindley Collections. Orchid Committee c. 1917, from left to right, Sir Harry Veitch, James O’Brien, Gurney Wilson, AA McBean (?), Brooman White, C J Lucas, J Bolton, E R Ashton, W J Kaye, W H White, J Shill, A Dye.

Nelly would, almost certainly, have attended RHS Orchid Committee meetings made up of wealthy collectors and gardeners. You can get a sense of the formality of the male dominated meetings from the photograph above from c. 1917 . The man in the centre of the photograph is most probably holding up one of Nelly’s paintings. Nelly would have been the only woman at the meetings apart from between 1931 and 1946. Margot Homes was elected onto the Committee in 1931. She was an ‘enthusiastic amateur’ orchid grower with an American millionaire husband. They lived at The Node Estate in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, where Margot grew her collection of orchids in seven glasshouses. Margot was joined by Eileen Lowe in 1939, who was from an orchid growing family in Sussex. Margot left the Committee in 1941 and when Eileen left in 1946, the Committee returned to being all male until after Nelly had stepped down.

The North of England Orchid Society (NEOS), set up in 1898, took a similar approach to documenting the awards they made. However, instead of directly employing an orchid artist, they relied on the exhibitor to bear the costs of the painting. Nelly was occasionally commissioned to paint award winners for the NEOS and its collectors and growers. An example of one of her paintings for NEOS from 1918 is below.

North of England Orchid Society F.C.C award winner 21.11.1918. Exhibitor McBean.

Nelly also painted thousands of orchids for private collectors, often copies of the award winning blooms she was painting for the RHS and NEOS. She also undertook private commissions, including for American collectors such as the Du Ponts. Americans bought up many of the great British orchid collections after the First World War and then again, as they became even harder to sustain, after the Second World War.

On some of the private commissions Nelly put a small label on the rear of the painting with her name and address. The author bought two of Nelly’s orchid paintings on ebay Odontoglossum Agapetum ‘Aurore’ and Cypripedium Britain’s King, both of which had her label on the back.

Cypripedium Britain’s King now Paphiopedilum Britain’s King. A hybrid that was added onto the Orchid Hybrid Register in 1921 but the parents or originator are unknown.  Not an RHS or North of England Orchid Society (NEOS) award winner. Watercolour owned by Tracey Gregory.

The many thousands of orchid paintings Nelly completed for the RHS, NEOS and private collectors, were all painted at 72 Loughborough Road.

Odontoglossum Agapetum ‘Aurore’, now Oncidium Agapetum ‘Aurore’, made by Charlesworth Nursery who registered the name in 1920.  Not an RHS North of England Orchid Society (NEOS) award winner. reverse of painting showing table N. Roberts, 72 Loughborough Road. Watercolour owned by Tracey Gregory.

Peter Black of Black and Flory orchid nursery, made a trip to the US in 1951 to drum up business for British orchid growers. As he couldn’t take plants themselves, he took a selection of Nelly’s paintings to show the variety of orchids being grown. He returned with a lot of orders, the paintings having been successful in ‘selling’ the different varieties. This trip may, in part, be why a picture of Nelly and a short article about her appeared in a book published in the US in 1952, Out West Growing Cymbidium Orchids: The Story if El Rancho Rinconada.

Nelly at the end of her career

Nelly Roberts photograph from Out West Growing Cymbidium Orchids and other Flowers: the Story of El Rancho Rinconada, Louis M. Boyle 1952, p. 169

When Nelly retired from the RHS in 1953, she was awarded the Silver Veitch Memorial Medal and was given a cheque for 25 guineas (about £550 today). An article about the award in the Daily Mail (17 February 1954) describes, the ‘small, neat but rather cold’ room in which Nelly painted in Loughborough Road. Aged 81 at the time, it describes her hands as being swollen with chilblains and rheumatoid arthritis. A very blurred photo with the article shows her wearing fingerless gloves. The chill in the room may have helped to preserve the orchids as she painted them.

Daily Herald, 17 February 1954. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). 

The 1951, 59th Orchid Review was dedicated to the contribution Nelly had made to the RHS, painting over 4,500 award winning orchids for them. Two orchids were named after her – the CattIeya Nellie Roberts and Odontoglossum Opheron ‘Nelly Roberts’. The latter was given the award of merit in 1952 and was one of the last orchids Nelly painted for the RHS. 

RHS Lindley Collections. Odontoglossum Opheron ‘Nelly Roberts’. RHS Award of Merit. 18.11.1952.

Nelly’s paintings besides orchids

Nelly completed an estimated 10,000 orchid paintings during her life, for the RHS, NEOS and private collectors. She occasionally painted other flowers too. The Orchid Committee’s programme in 1922 refers to two non-orchids awards by the RHS Floral Committee that year that Nelly painted: Primula malacoides ‘Princess Mary’ and Gladiolus ‘Perfect Peace’. Both paintings are held in the Wisley Herbarium collection.

This painting of a cat (year unknown) was recently shared with the author by Nelly’s great nephew. The title ‘Lazybones’ is very much in the style Nelly used for her privately commissioned paintings of orchids and those for the NEOS, the title or name with a lines above and below. In the signature she uses her full surname rather than just her N.R. initials, as she does in her orchid paintings, but it is clearly a Nelly Roberts work.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Roberts.
Nelly Roberts cat painting courtesy of Christopher Roberts.

A little further insight into the private life of Nelly Roberts

Nelly lived nearly all her life with her younger sister Edith Maud. Neither of them married. It seems Nelly was probably looking after her sister in later life, as Edith is recorded as an ‘incapacitated’ in the 1939 census register, yet there are no further details about her disability. So Nelly’s income from her orchid painting would have supported both her and her sister.

There are indications that Nelly was quite committed to sharing the teachings of the bible. Whether this was a life long commitment or somethings that developed later in life is unclear. In the 1911 census, one of the visitors staying with the family was a Colporteur (bookseller) for the Bible Society. In her will Nelly left £50 to the British Branch of the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society, the organisation used by Jehovah’s Witnesses to support their work. Nelly’s sister-in-law, her brother Sydney’s wife Emily, was also a Jehovah’s Witness.

Nelly died on 29th March 1959, at Giles Hospital in Camberwell, aged 87. In her will she also left £20 each to Eleanor Maud Williams and Winifred Margaret Anger. The remaining part of her estate, monies and ‘all household goods and chattels, and all personal property’ were left to her sister Edith.

Nelly was buried in an unmarked public grave in Lambeth Cemetery grave no. 262 d3 general.

Commemorating Nelly Roberts

On 29 March 2019, the 60th anniversary of Nelly’s death, the Loughborough Road history project, placed a poster with a short history of her life, on the shop window of the building she had lived and painted in all her life. We also made a blue plaque for her. The poster and plaque are still up a year later. We have now submitted an application to English Heritage for an authentic blue plaque for what is now 92 Loughborough Road. The shops were renumbered in 1961. Bon Bon news moved into the shop in 1980, where Nelly and family once lived.

In September 2019 the first solo show of Nelly Roberts’ paintings was held at the San Mei Gallery, 39a Loughborough Road, almost opposite where Nelly lived and painted. (The spelling of her name with an ‘ie’ was used in the exhibition as this was thought to be the correct spelling at the time. See update below). The exhibition was opened by RHS orchid committee member, David Ridegway, who gave five of his Nelly Roberts paintings for display and sale. Digital copies of fourteen of R I Measures’ orchids, painted by Nelly Roberts were also exhibited, alongside prints of five of Nelly’s paintings for North of England Orchid Society. Two of Deborah Lambkin’s orchid paintings were also exhibited. Deborah is the ninth and current RHS orchid artist. An illustrated talk by Deborah as part of the exhibition was the basis of an article published by Vauxhall History – see here.

There are plans to place a small memorial plaque on Nelly’s unmarked grave in Lambeth Cemetery, Blackshaw Road, Tooting. The commemoration and plaque unveiling is being organised in association with Summerstown182 who have been looking at the orchid growing history of Tooting. The commemoration and Tooting orchid walk had been planned for 29 March 2020, to coincide with the anniversary of Nelly’s death, but had to be postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

UPDATE

The commemoration for Nelly Roberts, placing a plaque on grave at Lambeth Cemetery and walk through where Tooting’s Exotic Nurseries once stood was held on 2 April 2022. Starting at 2pm at Tooting Broadway Station, a walk was led by Geoff Simmons of Summerstown182. The walk ended in Lambeth Cemetery with a commemoration of the life and work of Nelly. The plaque was unveiled by her great nephew Chris Roberts and current RHS orchid artist, Deborah Lambkin, laid a posy containing the latest Award of Merit orchid,Cymbidium Baie La Ville ‘La Fosse Astelle’, awarded 26 March 2022.

8 October 2020. This article has been updated to use the correct spelling of Nelly. Through our project and the connections made, it was brought to our attention by Gillian Messiah, granddaughter of Henry J Chapman that a letter existed in Nelly’s own hand at the RHS Lindley Library. This letter from 1949 shows Nelly signing the letter with the spelling of her name with a ‘y’ not ‘ie’. It is not know how or when The RHS started using the spelling Nellie. Clare Hermans’ article in The Orchid Review September 2020, sets the record straight and confirms the correct spelling is Nelly.

The article has been further updated in April 2022 with photos of the grave plaque unveiled at Lambeth Cemetery on 2 April 2022.

Thanks go to Clare Hermans, Christopher Roberts, Christine Beddoe and Crestina Forcina of the RHS Lindley Library, for information and images for this article. Other sources include:

  • Out West Growing Cymbidium Orchids and other Flowers: the Story of El Rancho Rinconada, Louis M. Boyle 1952. Miss Nelly Roberts p.169-170.
  • It’s Always Orchids for Nellie, Pat Tyler, The Daily Mail, 17 February 1954.
  • Obituary of Nellie Roberts. From ‘Orchid Review’, 1959, Vol 67, p.150.
  • Nelly Roberts, Thomas Alan Oder, The Orchid Review, March 2009, p.32-38
  • 125 Years of the Orchid Committee, Clare & John Hermans, Part 1, The Orchid Review, September 2014, p.146-159.
  • 126 Years of the Orchid Committee, Clare & John Hermans,, Part 3, June 2015, p.82-91.
  • The Royal Horticultural Society and its orchids: a social history, Brent Elliot, An Occasional Paper from the RHS Lindley Library 2010, Vol.2 p. 3-53.
  • Should Be Better Remembered, Bill Linskey, October 2017
  • Why No Flowers For Nellie, Orchid-painter Extraordinaire, Ross Davies and Clare Hermans, November 2018
  • Orchid Artists and the RHS, Part 1, Clare & John Hermans, The Orchid Review, December 2018, p.216-225.
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6 replies on “Nelly Roberts – orchid artist”

Most interested to read this Nellie Roberts was frequently mentioned by my father and his brothers who were the sons of Henry James Chapman who himself went on to be awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal for his services to Orchid cultivation. HJC edited and much expanded Orchids Their Culture and Management (Third Edition W Watson and H J Chapman 1903 Upcott Gill )so that it became one of if not the leading work on the subject. Nellie Roberts provided some of the illustrations for this work

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So glad you found the article interesting and to hear Nellie Roberts was mentioned by your father and uncles. Henry J Chapman certainly does seem to have been at the forefront of orchid cultivation.

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