Whilst working at Sissinghurst last week, I had the fortune to be able to watch a presentation from a relative of William Ricketson Dykes. Dykes was an interesting chap, producing one of the most authoritative RHS books about Irises. He did this to begin with whilst working as a classics master at Charterhouse school. William was married to a lady called Elsie. Elsie produced botanic art for the RHS, specifically drawings of tulips and irises.
The story pivots on William meeting Sir Michael Foster. Foster was professor practical physiology at the University College London, before becoming chair of physiology at Trinity College Cambridge. He was also president of the British Association, and the classifier of many iris species. He also introduced many irises into cultivation
Foster gave Dykes his research on his death. Dykes continued this research during his life, whilst he lived at Bobbingcourt Ryle Hill, Woking. Here he bred and cultivated many irises. Dykes died tragically in a motor car accident in 1926. The Dykes medal was created as an award for the best hybridised iris in that year. We passed round old photographs and medals. The Dykes medal was introduced a year following Dykes’ death. Elsie continued to cultivate irises, and continued the work that her and William had begun. Unfortunately, Elsie died in an accident when she was in her mid 40s.
The presentation was very interesting and it was very kind of the garden team to let me join them. I found looking back at some of the old photographs beguiling, especially from a social history point of view. Seeing the different styles, particularly fashions, within a garden setting that looked very familiar was intriguing. How these change relative to each other was engaging. One photograph showed the clean and crisply dressed George VI, walking purposefully round a collection of Dykes’ Irises.
The opportunity to see original botanic art was fascinating. The detail of the drawings was impressive. The book was a beautiful object in itself. Large yet delicate, and characterfully aged. Now images are created instantaneously and digitally, allowing plant classification to be more complete and precise. There is romance in these botanical drawings of species tulips, reflecting their grace, and conveying the excitement of discovering and introducing these plants into cultivation. Constant throughout is the love plant hunting, intertwined with seeing beauty from an aesthetic and a scientific view.