Duke of Sutherland, Cottage Maid, Montressor, Talisman, Gleam – these evocative names all belong to tulips displayed at the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society show in the 1920s. Recorded in this collection of lantern slides, now preserved by the Wakefield Museum and Castles archive, the photographs capture the special atmosphere of the tulip show, held annually in May. Light streams in through the windows of the show hall illuminating the rows of tulip blooms, carefully arranged in conical vases or beer bottles, as they await the scrutiny of the judges.
Topped with a flat disc to support the tulip flowers, a close up photograph shows two purpose-made ceramic vases used to display the tulips. Some examples of these vessels are held in the Wakefield Museums and Castles collection. A poster advertises the 93rd show to be held over four days at the Brunswick Hotel and a certificate announces the secretary of the society, Mr Irving Hewitt as the winner of the 1923 competition with a feathered tulip variety, Talisman.
As well as the day of the show, the photographs record members tending their impressive tulip beds. Mr Needham, president of the Society, appears justly proud of the array of blooms in his seedling bed where the soil has been raised up a few inches, presumably to give his plants good drainage. As well as growing named varieties of tulip, members would also grow new plants from seed, partly to save money as bulbs were expensive, but also in the hope of raising a new and spectacular flower.
Founded in 1836 the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society is the only tulip society still in existence in the UK, cultivating English Florists’ Tulips for competition. Today a florist is generally understood to be a seller of cut flowers, but in earlier centuries the term was applied to collectors of certain flowering plants, such as the auricula, polyanthus, carnation, pink, ranunculus, hyacinth, and tulip who grew them for exhibition.
According to the WNETS website, the English Florists’ Tulip ‘must conform to strict standards, particularly in having a shape like half a hollow ball, and having a base colour cleanly white or yellow, on top of which the darker colour is overlaid’. Some of these tulips can be traced back to the early 19th century (or even earlier in the case of Habit de Noce from the 1790s) and include ‘feathered’ and ‘flamed’ varieties where the base colour of the flower is ‘broken’ by a pattern of stripes. This ‘broken’ effect is usually caused by a virus, transmitted by greenfly, which weakens and eventually kills the plant.
While prized as a florists’ flower in the 17th century, Anna Pavord, author of The Tulip (1999), a history of the plant, explains how in 18th century England the tulip declined in popularity as gardening tastes changed and because of political tensions with France.
‘The tulip in England was generally considered a French rather than a Dutch flower. As a result, it suffered in the rejection of all things French that followed the outbreak of the Seven Years War in the middle of the eighteenth century.’
Pavord records that interest in tulips was revived by a new kind of florist in the early 19th century, drawn from both the emerging middle class, and working men. Across the north of England, she notes florists based in Castleton, Leeds and Manchester who started to develop new tulip varieties grown from seed, and a railwayman Tom Storer who ‘lacking any garden, grew his tulips along Derbyshire’s railway embankments.’ Pavord says that amongst the trades practised by the Wakefield Tulip Society members, shoemakers were prevalent.
The new breed of florist and the florists’ societies described by Pavord enjoyed widespread popularity in the early 19th century, encouraged by various books and periodical magazines published around this time. Containing cultivation tips, and illustrated with coloured engravings, they also carried details of plant and bulb suppliers. The Florist’s Directory by James Maddock published in 1792 includes ‘a fine variegated tulip’ showing the newly fashionable cup-shaped tulip flower.
A similar shaped bloom appears in the chapter describing the tulip in A Concise and Practical Treatise on the Growth and Culture of the Carnation, Pink, Auricula, Polyanthus, Ranunculus, Tulip, Hyacinth, Rose and other Flowers (1822), alongside examples of single tulip petals, showing feather and flame patterns. At the end of his Treatise the author Thomas Hogg, who was based in Paddington, London includes a model set of regulations for florists’ societies recommending that newly formed groups should adopt them. Rules that legislate against cheating and disputing judges’ decisions give us an indication of the intensely competitive atmosphere at these flower shows.
Florists’ societies have a special place in the cultural history of horticulture in England and today WNETS continues to keep these traditions alive, as well as preserving unusual and unique tulip varieties in cultivation for future generations to enjoy.
This year, despite all the difficulties and restrictions resulting from Covid-19, the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society’s 186th Annual Show will take place on Sunday 23rd May at Wrenthorpe Village Hall. Although not open to the public, the results of the show will be published after the judging has taken place on the society’s Facebook page. Their website is full of information about the history of the society – and photographs of their English Florists’ Tulips showing their spectacular colours.
Links to WNETS and various other sources / inspiration below. Thanks to Wakefield Museum and Castles for their generosity in providing the images from the 1920s.
WNETS website here
Images of the colourful English Florists’ Tulips grown by WNETS here
Wakefield Museums and Castles photographic archive here
The Tulip by Anna Pavord (1999) Bloomsbury
A Concise and Practical Treatise on the Growth and Culture of the Carnation, Pink, Auricula, Polyanthus, Ranunculus, Tulip, Hyacinth, Rose and other Flowers (1822) by Thomas Hogg here