A botanical illustration by Keble Martin looked at through a magnifier

A life’s work: William Keble Martin (1877-1969)

Scroll down
A curator uses a magnifier to examine the ‘The Concise British Flora in Colour’ by Keble Martin

The ‘The Concise British Flora in Colour’ was an instant best seller when it hit the shelves in May 1965. Opening the covers reveals illustrations of 1486 species in meticulous detail. They are the result of 60 years of botanical study and painting by its 88 year old author William Keble Martin. He drew all the plants from life.

In 2015 the Friends of Exeter Museum and Art Gallery purchased 34 watercolours for RAMM’s collection. Each is a preliminary design for the plates for ‘The Concise British Flora’. None exactly match the final publication. They are an indication of Keble Martin’s meticulous eye for detail, patience and dedication.

A botanical illustration by Keble Martin

Keble Martin’s interest in botany came at an early age. His maternal uncle taught him and his three brothers all they needed to know about collecting and rearing butterflies. Learning to identify caterpillar food plants was key to their success.

Over a period of 15 years the brothers collected hundreds of butterflies. They made the cabinet themselves.

White clover (Trifolium repens) collected at Dartington Parsonage 4 July 1903 collected by Keble Martin

In 1891 Keble Martin’s father became the Rector of Dartington near Totnes in Devon. Keble Martin became a keen birder recording their nesting and migratory habits. He returned to the family home frequently as an adult to visit the family, collect plants and observe the birds.

In 1896 Keble Martin attended Christ Church College Oxford to study Greek Philosophy, Church History and Botany. He studied under Professor Vines and began to draw mosses.

Then he turned his attention to flowers because fellow students found them hard to identify. The publications available at the time had long wordy descriptions and no colour pictures.

Illustration of Labiatae: mints and dead-nettles. Corresponds to Plate 69. by Keble Martin

Keble Martin recalls illustrating mosses by ‘mere shadows from a candle 15 feet away on a half size photographic plate … The shadows were so perfect even the cells could sometimes be seen with the magnifying glass.’

Illustration of Sanicle (Sanicula europaea) and enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) by Keble Martin
Plant illustrations by Keble Martin

In 1899 Keble Martin had a difficult choice to make. British forces were not doing well in the Second Boer War. Many of his university friends from the Oxfordshire Volunteer Battalion were sent to South Africa to help.

However, his father made him choose between going with them and his desire to be ordained as ‘the two aims were quite inconsistent’. Keble Martin chose to follow the church.

Keble Martin made the first drawing for ‘The Concise British Flora’ at the end of 1899 while at Dartington – snowdrops against ivy leaves. It is the only drawing where the flower is placed against leaves of an unrelated species.

Illustration of Caryophyllaceae: stitchworts and sandworts by Keble Martin

Keble Martin earned a living as a tutor while waiting for a place at Cuddesdon Theology College. The herb Robert growing around the house in Ireland became the second illustration for the book. An enlargement of a stitchwort flower was the third.

Devon specimens of heath lobelia (Lobelia urens) including Yarner Wood near Bovey Tracey collected by Keble Martin

He spent a summer term near Bovey Tracey in Devon. The Dartmoor woodlands were ideal for pursuing his ornithological interests – woodpeckers, warblers, chats and nightjar were plentiful.

Keble Martin found a new locality for heath lobelia – a rare plant. He sent specimens to Kew and the Natural History Museum. There are also specimens in his herbarium at RAMM. He published his discovery in the Journal of Botany, 1901, p428.

Illustration of Orchidaceae: orchids by Keble Martin

Keble Martin found a comfortable balance between his scientific and religious beliefs. His time at theological college (1901-2) ‘dissolved any doubts that had arisen through natural science studies and Darwin’s ideas of evolution’.

‘Nature to me was beautiful. And beauty of anything seems to come only from personality […] the method by which God continuously wills the universe should be sustained and developed.’

On 21 December 1902 Keble Martin was ordained as a deacon and a year later became a priest. His first challenge, at 25 years of age, was a parish at Beeston in Nottinghamshire. It had been ‘neglected’ and whole families required preparation for baptism. He stayed for four years.

Illustration of Umbelliferae: umbels by Keble Martin
Illustration of Orchidaceae: orchids by Keble Martin

During his first summer holiday from Beeston, Keeble Martin joined his father at Shawford Down near Winchester. The chalky soil of the downs provided many specimens to draw including the frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride).

Keble Martin lived a lonely and very frugal existence. Violet Chaworth-Musters accepted his proposal of marriage 28 March 1908 and he was lonely no longer. He took a senior curacy at Lancaster Parish Church. His work kept him overwhelmingly busy and he made few collecting trips and drawings.

The ‘London Catalogue of British Plants’ in 100 sections became Keble Martin’s guide to his layout of ‘The Concise British Flora’.

‘It was fairly easy to put an early drawing in some corner, and to fit those of related species beside them. This method led almost unawares to the plotting of the 100 plates’. Some gaps waited more than 20 years to be filled.

Illustration of Sundew, mare’s tail and water purslane by Keble Martin
Illustration of Saxifragaceae: saxifrage by Keble Martin

Keble Martin married at Ashbourne on 8 July 1909 and took a position at Wath-on-Dearne in Yorkshire. It was challenging from the outset – the vicarage was condemned and there was no building belonging to the church to hold meetings.

Financial constraints in early married life meant Keble Martin had to give up his membership of the British Ornithologists Union. What little spare time he and Violet found they spent in the garden.

In 1917 a disobedient school boy set fire to Wath parish church causing considerable damage.

The First World War brought further challenges and Keble Martin took a Chaplaincy in the forces in France. In his autobiography, ‘Over the Hills …’ he recalls the flowers in the dykes near the Belgian border. He returned brifely to Wath when meningitis took the life of his youngest son.

illustration of Orchidaceae: orchids by Keble Martin
illustration of a horsetail plant by Keble Martin

Keble Martin came home from the war in 1919 and Wath church was rebuilt.

After 12 years at the parish he and his family moved to Devon. His daughter had been very ill and Keble Martin was determined to move away from the smoky northern air (Wath was a colliery town). The parish of Haccombe and Coffinswell near Torquay beckoned where he was to be Rector and Archpriest respectively. His brother had the post before him. 

Haccombe and Coffinswell were much quieter than the northern parishes he was used to. He found time to complete the drawings for the first twelve plates in ‘The Concise British Flora’.  By the winter of 1932-3 just under half the plates were complete (677 of 1480).

Illustration of Compositae: ragwort, fleawort and grounsel by Keble Martin
Illustration of Spindle, wood sorrel and white flax by Keble Martin

Progress was slow partly due to the need to repaint earlier plates. All drawings before 1924 were on poor quality paper that was starting to yellow with age. Each drawing was laboriously traced onto thin paper.

How to paint the flowers was learned by experience rather than taught. In 1930 two happy accidents improved Keble Martin’s painting greatly. He spilt some cobalt blue paint on white paper. Later, when this was completely dry, some aureolin yellow spilt over the blue. This produced the perfect bright leafy green.

The Clova Mountains in Scotland were one of Keble Martin’s favourite plant hunting grounds. After a busy Sunday he would catch the 1.15am sleeper train from Newton Abbot to Edinburgh and from there take a train to Kirrimuir.

Illustration of Potamogetonaceae: pondweed. by Keble Martin
Illustration of Compositae by Keble Martin

He returned the following Thursday. The night-time train offered an uninterrupted opportunity to draw the plants collected on the trip and saved further hotel expense. During this journey in 1930 he made 24 new drawings including the rare alpine lettuce (Cicerbita alpina).

In spring 1934 his vocation took him to the Vicarage of Great Torrington. Visiting parishioners, preparing sermons and Bible classes in this new parish left little time for drawing. Spare time was spent in the garden (they enjoyed it and could not afford a gardener).

Keble Martin visited his sisters in Exeter staying with them at St Cross in Streatham Drive. These holidays from Torrington offered the opportunity to visit RAMM to study the museum’s collections of flowers while working on ‘The Flora of Devon.’ Published in 1939, it was a serious botanical work edited by Keble Martin. The print run was restricted to just 500 copies due to the scarcity of paper.

Illustration of Liliaceae: lilies by Keble Martin
Illustration of Orchidaceae: orchids by Keble Martin

After the 1939 church fete the family stayed at Warren Farm on Exmoor where they enjoyed sunny walks with birds and red deer. They found several lesser twayblade orchids (Listeria cordata) – a species not thought to grow in Devon.

During the years of war church business left no time for illustration. The house was full of military officers and children from London. The local population was much increased.

As soon as war was over collecting trips in the local area began in earnest. Yet financial constraints meant the activity couldn’t last. Illustration ground to a halt once more.

Travel by foot or bicycle around the parish was taking its toll. With no prospect of a parish with easier travel, poor health and poor winter weather led Keble Martin to resign aged 72.

Illustration of Cornish moneywort (Sibthorpia europaea) by Keble Martin
Illustration of Rubiaceae: bedstraws and nettles by Keble Martin

The couple moved to Gidleigh on the edge of Dartmoor in 1949. Sedges from their field were added to the plates. Keble Martin registered on a list for ‘Special Service Clergy’ meaning he could be posted to any parish in need of help and ultimately became a Public Preacher.

They spent time visiting friends and relatives around the country. Species, unobtainable as fresh specimens, were studied in the collections at the Natural History Museum and Kew and the book plates progressed rapidly.

Illustration of Liliaceae & Juncaceae: lilies and rushes by Keble Martin
Illustration of Scrophulariaceae: figworts by Kebble Martin

In 1958 the couple’s poor health necessitated a move from Gidleigh to Pound Lane in Woodbury where the church was within easy reach. Not content to rest at home Keble Martin took temporary charge of Clyst St George Church while the vicar was away. Travelling by bus he visited parishioners and voluntary drivers took him the four mile round trip three times each Sunday for Church services.

In January 1959 the Royal Horticultural Society exhibited Keble Martin’s drawings. The appeal for funds to publish ‘The Concise British Flora’ had begun. This would not be an easy task. Printing in colour was expensive and Keble Martin had no money of his own to pay for it.

Illustration of Labiatae: mints and dead-nettles by Keble Martin

Sadness shadowed the next few years – Violet, his daughter Barbara, and two of his brothers died.

Yet botanists still sent specimens to ensure the completion of the book – in the 50 years since the book’s beginning 82 botanists had sent 360 specimens. George Claridge Druce sent many specimens. Druce was a notable botanist and the Mayor of Oxford. He is known for publishing the floras of Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and West Ross and founding the Ashmolean Natural History Society.

On 27 January 1965 Keble Martin married Florence Lewis. Their relationship began in 1964 as a frail gentleman requiring help at home. But it was not long before Keble Martin said, ‘She just suits me’. She initially refused his proposal.

In August 1963 Prince Philip received 33 completed plates, at his request, for consideration. Considerable time passed before he responded to say he would gladly write the foreword to ‘The Concise British Flora’. With the receipt of this news Florence forgot her reservations in her excitement and they became engaged at the moment on 5 December 1964.

Keble Martin’s life changed dramatically. One minute he was living a quiet, frugal life in his retirement. The next he was receiving attention from BBC film crews and attending fancy dinners in his honour.

Rose bay (Epilobium angustifolium)
Illustration including ox-eye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) by Keble Martin

The University of Oxford’s School of Botany heralded him as one of the three best known botanists to pass through their doors. The other two were Sir Joseph Banks the naturalist and explorer and Sir John Lawes the founder of the Rothhampsted Station – the longest-running agricultural research institution in the world.

When the ‘The Concise British Flora’ hit the shelves on 10 May 1965. It was an instant best seller selling over 100,000 copies that year. The Post Office issued a set of stamps using his drawings. In 1966 the University of Exeter awarded Keble Martin an honorary PhD for his lifetime’s work on British Botany.

Share this showcase