When Surface View visited the Lindley Library to explore the RHS archive we were most struck by these vivid pink, yellow and orange orchids. Almost fluorescent, yet delicate as chiffon, these beautiful paintings are surprisingly powerful. It was then that we learnt about the singular life of the artist Nellie Roberts.
Nelly Roberts was the first of four children of William and Rebecca Roberts who ran a clock, watch and repair shop at 72 Loughborough Road in Brixton, London. In common with many young Victorian women, she found very few respectable lines of work open to her. She studied painting, although there is no record of her formal training, and then, at the age of 17, the course of her life was set when she caught sight of a vase of orchids in a shop. Her fascination with orchids led Nelly to study the works of J L Macfarlane (1838-c1913) who was painting orchids in a new and direct way, producing a life size, full-frontal view of the flower. This bold approach would become Nelly’s signature style for the rest of her life.
Most impressed by Nelly’s studies, her father persuaded her to place some of her orchid paintings in his shop window. One day, Richard Isaac Measures’ son passed the shop, saw the paintings and brought them to the attention of his father, who was a pre-eminent orchid grower and a member of the Royal Horticultural Society Orchid Committee. By chance, the committee was looking for an artist to paint the portraits of award-winning orchids so that they could develop a permanent record for the future. So at the age of 24, Nelly earned her first commissions, and began a relationship with the RHS which was to last for more than half a century.
Nelly would take the orchids back to her home on Loughborough Road, where she would faithfully paint them in a small unheated room. For 56 years Nelly painted orchids for the RHS, and there are now some 4,500 to 5,000 of her stunning portraits in the collection. The RHS awarded her a Gold Medal for her paintings and the prestigious Veitch Silver Medal for her services to horticulture.
Name Nelly Roberts
Collection Royal Horticultural Society
Category Galleries & Museums