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Walter Hood Fitch (1817 - 1892)

Walter Hood Fitch (1817 - 1892)
Walter Hood Fitch

Walter Hood Fitch was one of the most productive botanical artists of the Victorian era, and one of the most talented.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, February 28th 1817, Fitch was educated locally and apprenticed to a firm of calico designers at the age of 17. The complex process of fabric printing required that the young man become familiar with engraving as well. Large heavy rollers were created for each colour to be applied to the cloth, and the patterns had to match exactly so that the final product would have a single multi-coloured pattern. The skills Fitch learned at the plant would prove invaluable later, as he would engrave and lithograph thousands of his own botanical prints.

William Jackson Hooker, the editor of 'Curtis' Botanical Magazine', Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow, and a competent botanical artist in his own right, was looking for a young artist with these special skills who could produce the lithographs for his magazine. Fitch stood out from the other apprentices in that he paid particular attention to creating his patterns from life, and was less prone to the fanciful patterns so common to the trade. Soon he was spending his evenings away from the factory working late into the night producing botanical prints for Professor Hooker.

W.H. Fitch's first published plate, Mimulus roseus, which appeared in  Curtis's Botanical Magazine in 1834

His first published plate, of Mimulus roseus, appeared in the Botanical Magazine in 1834, and very soon after he became the sole artist to produce works for the magazine. In 1841 when W.J. Hooker finally gained the directorship of Kew he had sought for so long, he knew that he would need to convince Fitch to move to London with him if he intended to continue the production of the magazine uninterrupted. It must have been an easy decision to make for Kew offered a seemingly limitless supply of new subjects. After 1841 Fitch was the sole artist for all official and unofficial publications issued by Kew.

His skill and confidence grew and he was known to have sketched many of his designs directly onto the limestone blocks used in lithography. Lithography, which means literally 'stone images', was invented by Alois Senefelder in Germany in 1798, and within twenty years was popular throughout the western world. The process involves drawing an image with a waxy crayon on a block of limestone, which is then soaked with water, which seeps into the porous rock. Oil based ink is then applied to the surface and is attracted to the crayon and repelled by the water in the stone. Mistakes made in crayon on porous rock are difficult and time consuming to correct, so it speaks well of Fitch's talent that he was able to produce the work on stone with no preliminary sketch to refer to.

Among Fitch's more important works are his illustrations for William Jackson Hooker's A Century of Orchidaceous Plants (1851), and for J. Bateman's A Monograph of Odontoglossum (1864-74), he also created around 500 plates for Hooker's Icones Plantarum (1836-76). Some of his most notable work was for George Bentham and W.J. Hooker's Handbook of the British Flora (1865). When Joseph Dalton Hooker returned from his travels in India, Fitch prepared lithographs from Hooker's sketches for his Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya (1849-51) and likewise, from the drawings of Indian artists, for his Illustrations of Himalayan Plants (1855).

After a long and distinguished career as the preeminent botanical artist of his day, a dispute over pay with Joseph Dalton Hooker ended Fitch's service to both the Botanical Magazine and Kew. There were plenty of botanists eager to have Fitch create the images for their publications, and so he remained active as a botanical artist until 1888. One of his first major works after his departure from Kew was the series of excellent lithographs he produced for H.J. Elwes's Monograph of the Genus Lilium (1877-80). Both men later expressed regret over the incident, but Fitch was never to return to work for J.D. Hooker. He died in 1892.

Some of Walter Hood Fitch's lithographs for the Botanical Magazine can be found throughout this site in The Explorers pages.


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