It was when walking into their farmhouse by the back door in the mid-1960s that Marjorie Blamey caught sight of a clematis and thought: “I’d like to paint that.” On a whim, she got out her daughter’s paintbox and had a go. Unsatisfied with the initial results, she bought some watercolours and sable brushes and tried again. And again.
At the age of 48, Blamey’s chance encounter with a member of the buttercup family changed her life. Not long afterwards the dairy farmer’s wife and mother of four entered her watercolours in the Cornwall Spring Flower Show at Truro.
The paintings were simply taped without frames to a wall, but her talent was spotted by the local horticulturist Neil G Treseder, who asked her to collaborate on his forthcoming book on magnolias.
That acted as a catalyst for Britain’s most prolific wildflower painter, who helped to bring thousands of new species into homes around the world. Blamey’s career as an illustrator of field guides only took off in earnest, however, when Collins commissioned her a few years later to illustrate Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland as part of its popular Pocket Guide series.
Destined for the Stage
Written by Richard Fitter and his son, Alastair, the book took two years to complete and is regarded as one of the most extensive natural history guides to Britain and Ireland. Published in 1974, it contained more than 5,000 paintings and 1,600 maps and became a bestseller. It was translated into 14 languages, sold more than a million copies and is still in print. Remarkably, Blamey was neither formally trained in art nor horticulture. Instead, she was destined for the stage.
Marjorie Netta Blamey was born in Talawakelle, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1918, to Arthur Day, a doctor on the tea plantations, and Janette Newton-Baker, a nurse. Blamey returned to England in 1921 and spent her early years with her parents and brother, Dick, on the Isle of Wight.
Her lovingly kept scrapbooks reveal that she was a keen contestant in art competitions from the age of 10 to 13, and that her first love was photography.
Young Marjorie took acting classes before winning a scholarship to Rada at 16. During the early 1930s she performed at the Holborn Theatre, appeared in films and, in 1936, was cast alongside Fay Compton in Call It a Day, a play by Dodie Smith, at the Globe Theatre in London. Blamey acted by night and pursued her love of photography during the day, winning several competitions. Her photographic work was shown in the London Salon of Photography.
When war broke out, Blamey turned her back on the theatre and joined the Ambulance Brigade, training as a nurse. She met her husband, Philip, tobogganing at midnight on the Epsom Downs. He was a junior officer with the Staffordshire Regiment and they married in August 1941.
She met her husband, Philip, tobogganing at midnight on the Epsom Downs.
The couple settled in Cornwall and eventually bought a dairy farm in Liskeard with 20 cows and 27 acres. There they bottled milk and brought up their four children, Anne, Rob, Tim and Mandy, who all live locally and lead private lives. Philip predeceased her in 2014.
In her spare time, Blamey painted a fish mural on the bathroom wall and miniature portraits of her children and friends’ children on ivory. However, it was not until her mid-fifties with the publication of Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland that she turned full-time to painting and travelling.
Having never been abroad before then, Blamey and Philip sold their farm and bought a motor caravan, which doubled as a studio, to travel throughout Europe and the Mediterranean in her quest to register new species in her painted library of exotic and native British flora.
Expeditions to Nepal, Bhutan, and Western China
Dr Chris Grey-Wilson, a botanist at Kew who had helped them to find specimens, later joined them on several expeditions to Nepal, Bhutan and western China. Some 30 years younger than the pair, he said it is impossible not to remember them as a team. “They were like the best uncle and aunt … the main thing was their very close working relationship because Philip did all the management and cataloguing so that Marjorie could get on with the painting.”
Marjorie reproduced the flowers on paper with a lively enthusiasm — often getting up at dawn to record her specimens minutely and swiftly before they wilted in the heat. Specimens that could not be drawn or painted in situ might be collected and stored in aluminium boxes lined with damp paper to keep them fresh. “However many specimens my friends and I collected each day, she painted them. Then they were pressed, each had a card and she drew sketches on each card,” recalled Grey-Wilson, who collaborated on at least four books with her, including Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe. “She could paint 500 to 600 in a year; it was remarkable.”
Botanists from all over Europe sent her thousands of specimens to record in her intimate style. With sometimes hundreds waiting to be logged, she and Philip were frequently forced to keep them in almost any receptacle available — often the bath or the fridge.
About 10,000 Paintings and Drawings of Flowers
Over the years Blamey amassed about 10,000 botanical paintings and drawings of flowers from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Later on she and her husband enjoyed birdwatching in Norfolk, cooking and taking trips in their boat on the Tamar Estuary as well as holding exhibitions for charity. She also co-founded Plantlife International, a charity that seeks to ensure the conservation of plants around the world.
Over the years she won gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society and the Alpine Garden Society. In 2007 she was appointed MBE for “services to art”. It was appropriate that she received the honour in Cornwall. After her travels she said that she was never tempted to leave the county because no sight ever eclipsed her Cornish garden nor any flower the Cornish primrose.
Marjorie Blamey, M.B.E., botanical illustrator, was born on March 13, 1918. She died on September 8, 2019, aged 101