Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892)


Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892)
Monograph of the Odontoglossum
Watercolors and Hand-Colored Lithographs
London, circa 1874

Walter Hood Fitch was the most noted botanical artist of the 19th century to focus on orchids, and the foremost catalyst of what can aptly be termed British “orchidomania.” Incredibly attuned to the smallest details of the most exquisite flowers, Fitch was uniquely able to capture the beauty and complexity of the orchidaceae. The reasons for his acclaim were best described by Sir Joseph Hooker, who noted that Fitch was an “incomparable botanical artist,” with “unrivaled skill in seizing the natural character of a plant.” The artist reached the height of his fame in his splendid collaboration with James Bateman, producing the fabulous and important Monograph of the Odontoglossum (London, 1874), which described the range of this beautiful genus of American Orchids. Found at high altitudes, from “the confines of Florida to the frontiers of Chile” (preface), these orchids were among the most striking and exotic ever offered to avid European viewers.

Yet the hand-colored lithographs that were published, while stunning, did not approach the depth of color and nuance to be found in Fitch's original watercolors, mainly preserved today in the Royal Collection at Kew Gardens. The watercolors being offered here were discovered recently, and clearly intended as the unique prototypes for a second volume on the Odontoglossum. Despite the fact that Fitch created these flawless watercolors that more than rivaled the images of the first edition, the sequel was never brought to completion, and remains unrecorded even in its planning stages. That being said, it is difficult to approximate in words the vivid beauty of Fitch's original compositions. The artist captured with outstanding naturalism and vibracy the alternate subtlety and flamboyance of the American orchids, the textures of their soft, often translucent petals and opaque leaves and stems. Each defining characteristic is illuminated in profound detail, creating a suite of the most breathtakingly beautiful, large-scale images of orchids to come on the market.

As noted, with the aid of such striking imagery, Fitch was largely responsible for creating an orchid mania in Victorian Britain. Huge greenhouses were built, and adding to such enthusiasm was the fact that Britain enjoyed a brisk trade in botanical specimens, and there was soon a proliferation of illustrated periodicals for horticulturists at every level of experience. Though many followed in Fitch's footsteps, his contribution to English botanical art is unique. Many of the orchids immortalized in his watercolors have since been lost to cultivation, while some are exceedingly rare, and still others extinct. This represents an unparalleled opportunity to acquire original watercolors of outstanding accomplishment, by a foremost botanical artist.