Walter Hood Fitch

28 February 1817 - 14 January 1892)

#Walter Hood Fitch was a Victorian botanical artist. He was involved in fabric printing from the age of 17 and took to botanical art after being discovered by William Jackson Hooker, the editor of Curtis' Botanical Magazine. Booker was a Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow, and a competent botanical artist in his own right.

His first lithograph of Mimulus roseus, appeared in the Botanical Magazine in 1834, and soon became the sole artist for the magazine. In 1841, W.J. Hooker became director of Kew and Fitch moved to London. After 1841 Fitch was the sole artist for all official and unofficial publications issued by Kew.

Fitch's important works are his illustrations for William Jackson Hooker's A Century of Orchidaceous Plants (1851), and for J. Bateman's A Monograph of Odontoglossum (1864-74). He also created around 500 plates for Hooker's Icones Plantarum (1836-76). Some of his most notable work was for George Bentham and W.J. Hooker's Handbook of the British Flora (1865). When Joseph Dalton Hooker returned from his travels in India, Fitch prepared lithographs from Hooker's sketches for his Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya (1849-51) and, from the drawings of Indian artists, for his Illustrations of Himalayan Plants (1855).

A dispute over pay with Joseph Dalton Hooker ended Fitch's service to both the Botanical Magazine and Kew although he was much sought after and remained active as a botanical artist until 1888. Works during this period included H.J. Elwes's Monograph of the Genus Lilium (1877-80).


Many botanical illustrators have worked at Kew, but none so prolific as Walter Fitch. Born in Glasgow and apprenticed to a firm of calico printers, Fitch spent his spare time mounting dried plant specimens for the then Professor of Botany at Glasgow University, William Hooker. Realising his acumen for watercolour and line, Hooker persuaded Fitch to join him at Kew, as in March 1841 Sir William was appointed Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Fitch took residence in Hooker's new home West Park, where Sir William relied heavily upon his assistance and company. As Sir Joseph Banks had employed artist Franz Bauer before him, so too did Sir William pay Fitch's wages directly from his purse, settling for £100 a year, a third of Bauer's annual salary. Sir William soon became almost totally dependent on Fitch for illustrating all things botanical, and thus started a long-lasting and close relationship between director and artist.

Fitch was not only blessed with remarkable skills of draughtsmanship, but could produce illustrations in rapid succession, drawing over 200 botanical plates in 1845 alone. It was not unusual for the artist to be working on four or five different publications simultaneously, often drawing directly onto the lithographic stone to save time, a technique requiring confidence and precision. Fitch's illustrations were instrumental in raising the public profile of newly discovered and imported plant species. His large lithographs of the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica proved popular, as did his collaboration with Sir William's son, Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) on the publication Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya (1849-51). Hooker sent back to Fitch his own field sketches together with specimens to be illustrated and published. Fitch eventually resigned in 1877, but continued to paint botanical studies, landscapes, and also turned his hand to writing and wood engraving. In his lifetime Fitch executed some 10,000 drawings for various publications including nearly 3,000 for the Botanical Magazine.

Fitch is dedicated to creating artwork printed for 17 years and was enthusiastic about botanical art after meeting William Jackson Hooker, Regius Professor of Botany, competent illustrator and editor of Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

In 1841 , W. J. Hooker was appointed director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Fitch moved to London . Thus, from 1841 Fitch became the only artist of all published by Kew, both official and unofficial Hook and personally paid for his work. For he was not uncommon to work in several publications simultaneously, used to draw directly onto the lithographic plate to save time.

His most important works are illustrations for W. J. Hooker. Orchidaceous A Century of Plants (1851) and James Bateman . A Monograph of Odontoglossum 1864-1874. He also created about 500 plates for Hooker Icones Plantarum work (1836-1876) and four for the monograph Victoria Regia. The latter work received vociferous criticism in the Athenaeum, "are accurate and beautiful". Other works were performed to George Bentham and Hooker manual Handbook of the British Flora (1858, many editions). When Joseph Dalton Hooker returned from his expedition to India, Fitch lithographs prepared from sketches Hooker for Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya (1849-1851) and drawings by Indian artists for his Illustrations of Himalayan Plants (1855), as well as the illustrations presented in The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage tasmaniae and Flora (1855-1859). Due to a dispute over payment with Hooker he terminated his services both as Kew Botanical Magazine in 1877, though he remained active viéndosele as botanical artist until 1888. During this period, the Monograph of the Genus Lilium, 1877-1880, to include Henry John Elwes . Its popularity as a botanical illustrator was such that his obituary in Nature stated "... his reputation was so high and so universally known that it is not necessary to say more." He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, 28 February 1817, died at Kew, England, 14 January 1892.

Walter Hood Fitch drew over 2700 plates for Curtis's Botanical Magazine from 1834-77, and nearly 500 plates for Hooker's Icones Plantarum 1836-76. Altogether he produced over 10,000 published drawings. Among the works he illustrated were H.J.Elwes's Monograph of Genus Lilium 1877-80, J.D.Hooker's Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya 1849-51, and J.D.Hooker's The Botany of the Antartic Voyage, including Flora Tasmaniae 1855-9.

Fitch was working as a pattern drawer in a textile mill in Glasgow when his talents were spotted by the editor of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, William Jackson Hooker, later the first Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This began a lifelong association with Kew and a career of over forty years illustrating Curtis's Botanical Magazine. His skills as a lithographer and his flair for composition ensured that the paintings were no mere mechanical record; thier exuberance and vitality are as fresh today as they were a century ago.

Reference: Lewis, Jan (1992) 'Walter Hood Fitch - A Celebration' Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, HMSO, London.

This talented botanical artist, whose name appears in almost every illustrated work of importance on botany or horticulture that was published in this country during the half-century from 1835 to 1885, expired at his residence at Kew on the 14th inst., after several years' indisposition, in which mental and physical decay were combined. The deceased was 75 years of age, and his whole life from early youth had been devoted to botanical drawing and painting; and his reputation was so high and so world-wide that it is unnecessary to say much on this point.

Nevertheless, some particulars of the work of a man who accomplished so much and so well may be interesting to many persons who only know his work. Of Scotch birth, he was apprenticed, while still very young, to the designing department in a manufactory of fancy cotton goods at Paisley. Here his natural aptitude for drawing developed so rapidly and to such a degree as to indicate that he possessed talents of no ordinary kind, and his name soon became known outside of the factory. By some means he came under the notice of a friend of the late Sir William Hooker, and he, knowing that the latter was in need of a draughtsman, strongly recommended him to try the youth's capabilities. Sir William Hooker, at that time Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow, acted on this suggestion, and the result was so satisfactory that he negotiated the cancel of Fitch's indentures, took him into his sole employ, and trained him for the kind of work he wished him to execute. We have not ascertained the exact date of this event, but it must have been as early as the year 1832, for already in 1834 he was a contributor to the Botanical Magazine, and he continued his connection with this long-lived periodical down to 1878, having during this period drawn and lithographed some 3000 of the plates.

At first his initials did not appear regularly on the plates, but, on reference to the volume for 1837, it may be seen that it was practically all his, and that he had already become an efficient botanical draughtsman. The same year (1837) the first volume of Hooker's "Icones Plantarum" was published, and although Fitch's name does not appear, we have other evidence that he was the artist. In short, he not only illustrated all the numerous works of his first patron, but also those of his son, now Sir Joseph Hooker, as well as those of numerous other public and private persons. The fertility of his pencil was equalled by its facility, grace, vigour, and boldness; and his colouring was usually rich, and full, and truthful. It is true that most of his work does not exhibit the finish and minute detail characteristic of the masterpieces of the productions of the few other botanical artists with which comparisons could be made. In 1841, Sir William Hooker was appointed Director of the Royal Gardens, Kew, Fitch accompanying him, and residing there until his death. At Kew he found full scope for his powers, and notable amongst the numerous productions of his best days are the magnificent elephant folio plates representing various stages of the development of the Victoria regia as cultivated at Kew and Syon House; the plates of Sir William Hooker's numerous works on ferns; of Sir Joseph Hooker's "Botany of Sir James Ross's Antarctic Voyage"; and his "Illustrations of Himalayan Plants and Himalayan Rhododendrons"; of Howard's "Quinologia": of Bateman's "Odontoglossum"; of Welwitch's "West African Plants"; of Speke and Grant's "Plants of the Upper Nile"; and of Seemann's "Botany of the Voyage of the Herald."

Examples of his later work are to be found in Elwes's "Lilies," and the botany of Salvin and Godman's "Biologia Centrali-Americana," the latter the last important work he accomplished. As might be imagined from the amount of work he did, Fitch wielded the pencil with remarkable rapidity and freedom; and one could not but admire the way in which he stood up and, free handed, guided his pencil over the stone without any preliminary drawing. Botanical drawing, however, is not a very lucrative profession, and therefore not likely to attract persons of great attainments; but when Fitch became incapacitated through failing health, his merits were so far recognized as to gain him a Civil List pension, on the recommendation of the Earl of Beaconsfield, of £100 a year.

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