Last month it was my great honour to deliver a short presentation about the horticulturalist and photographer Valerie Finnis, for Colour Fever, an online celebration of colour photography organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Under a broad heading of Colour, Amateurs and the Role of Societies, I discussed Valerie’s involvement with the Alpine Garden Society and the Royal Horticultural Society, her documentation of alpine plants, and her portraits of alpine garden enthusiasts. This connection with alpine gardening is, of course, just one thread of Valerie’s interesting life and photographic output, but with so many possible angles, I was grateful for a precise framework to focus my research.
My thanks to the RHS Lindley Library for their permission to publish these photographs from the presentation, enabling me to share some of Valerie’s original and uplifting work.
This photograph, taken in the 1950s, shows two students at the Waterperry Horticultural School for Women – one is arranging pots containing alpine plants, while another waters them. It was taken by Valerie Finnis who trained as a professional gardener at Waterperry, near Oxford, in the 1940s. It was here that she developed her fascination with alpine plants, becoming an expert in this field of horticulture.As their name suggests, alpine plants are found in mountainous regions of the world and have evolved to grow in a habitat that experiences exposed conditions, extremes of climate and thin, rocky soils. Many have very brightly coloured flowers which has made them popular with collectors. This photograph, taken by Valerie in the European Alps, gives a flavour of the alpine environment.
Valerie learned about the process of photography in the mid 1950s from Wilhelm Schacht, the Curator of the Munich Botanical Garden. He gave her a Rolleiflex camera which she continued to use for decades. Schacht was also an alpine plant enthusiast and is pictured here in the Italian Dolomites, where he and Valerie first met each other.
Valerie’s photographic work falls into two distinct themes – her portraits of plants and portraits of people, from her wide circle of friends associated with gardening.
The Collins Guide to Alpines and Rock Garden Plants was first published in 1964 and is a good example of the kind of specialist publication where Valerie’s photographs of plants appeared. It was written by Anna Griffith, one of a circle of alpine plant enthusiasts who were friends and associates of Valerie. Two hundred of Valerie’s photographs were used in this book, which Griffiths notes came from Valerie’s ‘extensive collection’.
Anna Griffith was an original member of the Alpine Garden Society (established in 1929) and, according to the cover of the Collins Guide, had grown ‘practically every plant described in the book’.
These pages show how Valerie’s colour photographs make identification of these low growing alpine plants much easier for the reader than looking at black and white images. The colour photography also played a role in popularising alpine gardening – transforming the plants into desirable items for people to buy, and start to build their own collections.
The diagrams on the left correspond to the pots filled with saxifrage plants shown in the photographs, and a key lists the name of each variety. Again, we can see how similar these tiny plants are, and how much the colour photographs help the reader to tell them apart.
This Collins guide was re-printed several times and it remains a tribute to the knowledge and expertise of both these women.
While Valerie certainly started as an amateur photographer, she was confident enough in her work to promote it, and by the 1960s and 70s Valerie enjoyed some success as a plant photographer. She was represented by the Harry Smith Collection, who specialised in garden related content.
As well as books and magazines, her work was also used in advertising print campaigns and for items like greetings cards and calendars. Here we see an original transparency showing a still life of roses, which would have been cropped and colour corrected for commercial use.
Since the 1920s the Alpine Garden Society has organised regular competitive plant shows which take place all over the UK. These shows are judged by the Joint Rock Committee – a group of people made up of members of the Royal Horticultural Society, Alpine Garden Society and the Scottish Rock Garden Club. Valerie was a member of the Joint Rock committee for twenty years, from 1962 – 1982.
This photograph taken at the Royal Horticultural Society in London shows the atmosphere at these events. There’s a strong sense of a community, with members exchanging views and ideas.
This photograph shows a selection of alpine plants from Valerie’s own collection, in the process of being unloaded from her Morris Minor car for a show at Vincent Square. The bursts of colour provided by the flowers make a striking contrast with the greyness of post-war London, and the red lining of the interior of her car door also adds to the success of the photograph.
This photograph seems like a good introduction to the other strand of Valerie’s work – her portraits of people. While Valerie’s photographs of plants are quite conventional, her approach to photographing people is more unusual. As a photographer Valerie shows a tendency to depict gardening experts and enthusiasts in ways that might appear strange, ironic, or even ridiculous, to outsiders.
The intense gaze of this group makes them look slightly terrifying, as they stand guard over the Alpine Garden Society’s stall at a show. So, while there’s a clear documentary thread to Valerie’s work, the objectivity we might expect from a documentary photographer is sometimes absent, or compromised in some way.
This crowd of sensibly dressed people at an Alpine Garden Society plant sale in Kent, each with a collection of plant pots at their feet, is apparently listening politely to a speech – on the right hand edge of the image we can just see a man addressing the gathering. The unusual composition of this photograph, with the enthusiasts’ backs to the camera, establishes the photographer as an observer and helps to create the slightly absurd feeling of the occasion.
Clarence Elliott founded the Six Hills Nursery in Stevenage in 1907, and was responsible for popularising the use of stone troughs for miniature alpine gardens. Miniature alpine gardens were very popular in the 1960s and 70s, and for those who couldn’t afford a stone trough, old ceramic butler sinks were sometimes used as a cheaper alternative.
Valerie uses the location of the glasshouse in lots of her individual portraits of alpine enthusiasts. I like the way Valerie uses the shape of the glasshouse window to frame her picture.
Valerie captures perfectly the gentle pride and admiration these alpine enthusiasts have for their plants. I like the contrast between the vertical lines of the glasshouse windows and the soft, rounded shapes of the flowering plants.
Brent Elliot, former Head Librarian at the RHS Lindley Library, who knew Valerie, told me that as well as taking photographs of alpine specialists, she also recorded interviews with them – the idea was eventually to produce a book about them – but this project was never realised.
Another theme Valerie uses in her portraits is posture – she often shows people in the act of gardening, bending, kneeling down or adopting other postures appropriate to the activity. This couple are Mr and Mrs Gerard Parker, described as stalwarts of the Alpine Garden Society. Here, they’re bending down to examine snowdrops in flower. I like the detail of the man’s leather briefcase and the woman’s plastic mac.
This photograph shows Valerie and her husband Sir David Scott, weeding their rock garden, apparently on the occasion of their wedding day in 1970. According to Ursula Buchan, Valerie’s biographer, ‘An hour after they were married at Weekley church in Northamptonshire, they were out in the garden weeding.’
By photographing herself and David in this unusual pose, perhaps it somehow ‘permits’ Valerie to use the same candid approach when photographing other people?
Sir David Scott was a retired diplomat and is pictured here in the garden of the Dower House at Boughton House, in Northamptonshire, where they lived. Valerie’s marriage opened the door to a completely new social circle for her – which Valerie seems to have relished. Many of Sir David’s society friends had large gardens and took an active interest in their upkeep. Soon Valerie was photographing these new friends – who she recorded in the same style as her alpine circle.Valerie was very observant of the clothes people wore to garden in, and the attire worn by gardeners is a recurrent theme in her work. This photograph shows Cecily Mure, watering her alpine trough in the front garden of Buckingham Palace Mews, dressed as if she is about to go out to a party. Valerie seems to have relished recording anyone who was dressed inappropriately for the garden task they were performing.
Continuing the theme of gardening clothes, this striking portrait shows Lady Rhoda Birley, apparently working in a long border in her garden at Charleston Manor, in Sussex. The clashing colours of her gardening costume, the border flowers and the red handles of her loppers creates a dilemma for the viewer. Are we looking at the epitome of good taste, or something else?
‘For years plants used to be more important than people to me. But really it’s only people that matter.’
After Valerie’s death in 2006, her friends felt it was important to make a record of her life and her photographic legacy. The main text is written by Ursula Buchan, and the photographer Howard Sooley was involved in the selection of Valerie’s photographs – around 200 are used in the book. Brent Elliott contributed profiles of some of the horticulturalists known by Valerie, which reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of gardening in the 1970s and 80s.
It’s well worth tracking down a copy of Garden People, to see further examples of Valerie’s photographic work and discover more about her life and career. Although it’s out of print, it’s still quite easy to find second hand copies. Valerie’s original way of recording alpine gardening as a cultural activity, her confident use of colour, and her success as a plant photographer, give her work a highly distinctive voice – beyond the world of gardening.
Special thanks to Catlin Langford (Curatorial Fellow) and Ella Ravilious (Curator) at the V&A for the opportunity to participate in Colour Fever, to Sarah McDonald at the RHS Lindley Library and to Valerie’s friends Brent Elliott and photographer Sue Snell for taking the time to speak to me about her work.
Valerie Finnis (1924 – 2006) Wikipedia here
RHS Lindley Library here
The Alpine Garden Society here