Wendy Walsh: an appreciation

March 22, 2014 § 13 Comments

Wendy Walsh © James Fennell

Wendy Walsh
© James Fennell

On the night of Monday, March 3rd 2014, Ireland’s most respected botanical artist died, a month before her 99th birthday. Wendy Walsh (née Storey) was born in Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria, but she came to live here in 1958 when her husband, Lt. Col. John Walsh, originally from Edgeworthstown in Co Longford, retired from the British army. 

It was not until Wendy Walsh was in her sixties that her work became widely known. In 1978 her paintings of wildflowers were reproduced on four postage stamps, and for the following six years she was commissioned annually to produce stamps on the theme of Irish flora and fauna. In 1983, she collaborated with Dr Charles Nelson and Ruth Isabel Ross on the first volume of An Irish Florilegium: Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland, a sumptuous publication with 48 hand-tipped colour plates. Her name was suddenly everywhere, and the book was found in all the best drawing rooms. Today, the scarce first edition is offered for between €600 and €1250 by rare book dealers. The second volume followed in 1988.

Chaenomeles x superba 'Rowallane' in the Irish Florilegium

Chaenomeles x superba ‘Rowallane’ in An Irish Florilegium

Wendy’s paintings are keenly observed plant studies, with each detail carefully and faithfully rendered. They exactly capture the vulnerable softness of a petal, the beige brittleness of an autumn flower stalk, the joyful freshness of a spring bud, the angular kink in a year-old twig. Her colour matches are flawless and her composition elegant. In her best works, her subjects inhabit the page with the same kind of poise and presence that a great dancer manifests on stage.

The paintings are all the more remarkable because Wendy Walsh was that rare thing, a self-taught artist in a discipline that requires a precise knowledge of a science: in this case, botany. She was brought up, as she told me a few years ago, “in a curious old age” with a “mother who hated school and wouldn’t let any of her girls go to school.” She was taught by an “indifferent governess” until she was 14, and had no further education after that. Yet, she had an analytical and curious mind, consuming books and — as a teenager — keeping an illustrated wildlife diary.

Holly from Trees of Ireland

Holly from Trees of Ireland

Her mother named her Wendy Felicité after a favourite cocker spaniel and a French rose. She was gracious about the quirky origins of her name, and believed that it shaped her career as a painter of animals and plants. In the 1930s, she undertook commissions to paint dogs. She rode horses and hunted, and enjoyed herself immensely. “The 1930s were blissful times, no money, but lots of fun!”

During the Second World War she worked as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), a voluntary field nurse, and met a man whose horsemanship made him stand out from the many other officers. She married John Walsh in 1941, following him from camp to camp — moving 13 times in a year — until he was shipped out with the Eighth Army to north Africa. His army work during and after the war saw him travel extensively, including to the United States, India, Japan and Singapore. Sometimes Wendy and the growing family (three children eventually) were in tow, sometimes not. She told me: “That’s what the army’s like. We were always being separated and starting again.”

Eventually they settled back in Ireland, in Lusk, while John worked as the agent for Trinity College in Dublin, managing the campus. In 1999, after 40 years in north county Dublin, they moved to the stable-yard of Burtown House in Athy, Co Kildare, the home of their daughter, Lesley Fennell, a portrait painter.

Viola 'Irish Molly' and V. 'Molly Sanderson' from An Irish Garden Replanted

Viola ‘Irish Molly’ and V. ‘Molly Sanderson’ from An Irish Garden Replanted

Throughout her life, Wendy drew and painted whenever she had time, and over the years completed hundreds of commissions. She won numerous awards, including gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society and the Alpine Garden Society. In 1996 Trinity College Dublin conferred an honorary DLitt on her, which, she said: “made me laugh, and delighted me so much. It struck me as funny that someone who had never been to school could call themselves doctor.”

Wendy worked on over a dozen books, almost all of which were close collaborations with Charles Nelson, the former taxonomist at the National Botanic Gardens. Their working relationship, he says, was “a very amicable partnership”.

She was a good teacher, too, and continued to take students into her nineties. One former student recalls how she gave careful attention to each class participant. When a piece was so wrong that it was impossible to correct, she would say kindly, but pointedly: “That is rather a mistake.”

Many of those in the newly formed Irish Society of Botanical Artists have been inspired by this talented, generous and modest woman. It is fitting that on the morning of the society’s foundation on March 1st, just two days before her death, she was nominated its first member. 

Wendy Walsh: April 9th 1915 – March 3rd 2014

The Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland

The Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland, paintings by Wendy F. Walsh, with text by E. Charles Nelson, was published by Thames & Hudson in 2009. All the 99 illustrations from the 2-volume Irish Florilegium are gathered into this book: a perfect introduction to the work of Wendy Walsh.  

This blog post is an a version of my column, which appeared in the Sunday Times on March 16th 2014

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Primrose-tinted Spectacle

March 12, 2011 § 7 Comments

Over in my weekly column in the Irish Times today, I wrote about the primroses that Joe Kennedy has been breeding in his back garden in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, and which have been introduced to the market this spring. He’s had an avid interest in plant breeding for decades: “rhododendrons, auriculas and all sorts: I can’t pass a stigma!”

He settled on primroses in the late 1970s, and using a gene pool of about twenty old, old Irish cultivars, he gradually produced his own distinct lines of Kennedy primulas. He didn’t sell them, and didn’t look for publicity for them. He mounted spectacular displays at flower shows, where they were seen (and much admired) by other gardeners. But, because of the specialist nature of such events, only a few hundred people would see his plants per year.

His cultivars got more and more refined as the years passed — and they continue to do so, as he is still working on them. Of the thousands that he raises annually, he keeps a hundred or so possibles, casting the others onto the compost heap.

Backyard breeding operation

Then, about five years ago, Pat FitzGerald of FitzGerald Nurseries contacted Joe, and offered to bring his primroses to the public. After a rigorous selection process, two were chosen to be launched this year: ‘Drumcliff’ and ‘Innisfree’. More will be released in 2013: the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s visit to Ireland. It’s not that Joe Kennedy is related to JFK (that I know of), but Pat FitzGerald has a grand nose for a marketing opportunity. And this one is too good to be missed — especially since the primroses bring the Kennedy and FitzGerald names together in a useful coincidence. And, God bless Pat FitzGerald, sure didn’t he manage to bring Yeats into the mix as well, with the names of this year’s introductions. ‘Innisfree’, as you know, is the lake isle where the poet would “arise and go now”, while ‘Drumcliff’ honours the Sligo village where his mortal remains are laid to rest.

Unnamed primrose bred by Joe Kennedy

But, believe me, these little touches will make the primroses more marketable in the United States, which is where Pat FitzGerald is right now — with the aforementioned beauteous Kennedy cultivars. After being launched at the Philadelphia Flower Show, they will be available as plants from Burpee, I believe. When I get more details on that, I’ll post them here.

In the meantime, if you’re Irish, you can buy them from the following garden centres. If you are travelling far, do phone first, just to make sure they’re still in stock.

Arboretum Garden Centre, Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow (059 9721558)

Ardcarne Garden Centre, Lanesboro Road, Roscommon, Co Roscommon (090 6627700)

Bandon Garden Centre,  Glaslyn Road, Bandon, Co Cork  (023 8842260)

Beech Hill Garden Centre, Montenotte Cork, Co Cork (021 4643254)

Blackwater Plantsplus Garden Centre,  Kinsalebeg, West Waterford (024 92725)

Canning’s Home & Garden, Sligo., Co Sligo (071 9160060)

Carmel’s Garden Centre, Kilworth, Co Cork (025 27276)

Clonmel Garden Centre, Glenconnor, Clonmel, Co Tipperary (052 6123294)

Coolaught Gardens, Clonroche, Co Wexford (053 9244137)

Dunsland Garden Centre, Glanmire, Co Cork (021 4354949)

Fernhill Garden Centre,  Cornamagh, Athlone, Co Westmeath (0906 475574)

Greenbarn Garden Centre, Inchiquin, Killeagh, Co Cork (024  90166)

Haggardstown Garden Centre, Co Louth (042 9337627)

Horkan’s Garden Centre, Bundoran Road, Sligo (071 9138870)

Horkan’s Garden Centre, Turlough, Castlebar, Co Mayo (094 9031435)

Johnstown Garden Centre, Naas, Co Kildare (045 879138)

Jones’ Garden Centre, Swords Road, Donabate, Co Dublin (01 8401781)

McGuire’s Garden Centre, Rossduff, Woodstown, Co Waterford (051 382136)

Nangle’s Garden Centre, Model Farm Rd Carrigrohane Co. Cork (021 4871297)

O’Driscoll’s Garden Centre, Mill Rd, Thurles, Co Tipperary (0504 21636)

O’ Meara’s Garden Centre, Mullingar, Co Westmeath (044 9342088)

The Secret Garden, Aghaneenagh, Newmarket, Co Cork (029 60084)

Northern Ireland

Craigville Garden Centre, Sligo Road, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh BT74 5QR (028 6632 6004)

Glenavy Garden Centre, 26, Main St, Glenavy, Crumlin, Co Antrim BT29 4LW (028 9442 2826)

Joe Kennedy's primroses at the Alpine Garden Society show in Dublin

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