The Genus Rosa by Ellen Willmott (published between 1910 and 1914)

One thousand copies of this now very rare text were published between 1910 and 1914. The cost of printing and publication were totally funded by Ellen Willmott (1858 – 1934) herself. The book at the time was sold in parts at £1 each and subsequently bound into 2 volumes. Today they are difficult to purchase as they rarely come up for sale. When they do they command a good price; in 2012 the complete book was sold at Christies for £1,125.

The Genus Rosa book by Ellen Willmott
Part one of The Genus Rosa, sold for £1 when published in 1910.

Unbelievably when published many copies were left unsold. The path to the final publication of the work was beset with difficulties and the marketing was chaotic and came to an abrupt halt with the outset of World War 1. Both writer and publisher made little money. A sad testament to the years of hard work put in by writer and artist and then publisher.

Ellen Willmott - a plant collector and rosarian.(Taken from A Garden of Roses (1987) published in association with the RHS).
Ellen Willmott – a plant collector and rosarian.(Taken from A Garden of Roses (1987) published in association with the RHS).

The Genus Rosa is a largely scientific book discussing the ancestry and classification of the roses collected by the writer and grown in her three gardens. It is beautifully illustrated with 132 watercolours by Alfred Parsons, a well-known painter at the time, whom she commissioned because although she was a competent painter she felt her own paintings were not of a sufficient standard. Ellen Willmott also secured the services of John Gilbert Baker, the Kew botanist, to write the Latin and English descriptions of the species concerned.

One of the 132 paintings by Alfred Parsons to illustrate The Genus Rosa.
One of the 132 paintings by Alfred Parsons to illustrate The Genus Rosa. (Taken from A Garden of Roses published in association with the Royal Horticultural Society.

It seems that Ellen Willmott wished to follow in the footsteps of Empress Josephine of France who had commissioned Pierre-Joseph Redoute to paint all of her collection of roses for the book Les Roses, the text of which was written by the eminent botanist Claude Antoine Thory. It is known that she owned a copy of this work and being a great lover of roses herself and also being a wealthy woman it is understandable that she should wish this.

A second watercolour from The Genus Rosa.
A second watercolour from The Genus Rosa.

Ellen Willmott, the eldest of three daughters, inherited her family home when her father died in 1892. She continued to develop the gardens cultivating many thousands of different plants and employing up to one hundred gardeners at any one time. She had previously been left a substantial inheritance by her godmother which had enabled her to buy her first home, in France, in 1890. She liked to spend and bought a third estate in Italy, where she was able to grow more exotic species

She joined The Royal Horticultural Society in 1894 and became a prominent member. She won many awards for her work with roses and other plants including the Dean Hole Medal from the National Rose Society in 1914.

Warley Place, the Willmott family home. A painting by Alfred Parsons taken from A Garden of Roses.
Warley Place, the Willmott family home. A painting by Alfred Parsons taken from A Garden of Roses.

Sadly, during her lifetime there was some controversy about the text in her book and the book and the paintings did not achieve the acclaim they deserved. Although Ellen Willmott was a highly intelligent and knowledgeable woman she was not a scientist and being a woman of her time was not educated at Oxford or Cambridge. (Although the female colleges were just emerging her parents were not of the belief she should attend). Today, however, The Genus Rosa is regarded as one of the notable texts about roses from that period and even though there has been much work conducted into the genetics of roses controversy still remains with regard to the ancestry and classification of roses!

After the death of Ellen Willmott the original paintings for The Genus Rosa passed by bequest to the safe keeping of the Lindley Library at the RHS in London, where they remain. A selection of 70 of them, chosen by Graham Stuart – Thomas can be seen in the book A Garden of Roses (1987) published in Association with the RHS.

(Miss Willmott of Warley Place: Her Life and Her Gardens (1980) written by Audrey le Lievre documents the life story of this interesting woman. It is likely that a future article in my blog will discuss the life of Alfred Parsons – a notable painter of roses.)

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