Xmera / Garden History / Gardeners: Sir George Lindsay Holford, Herbert George Alexander and the Orchids of Westonbirt

Sir George Lindsay Holford, Herbert George Alexander and the Orchids of Westonbirt

Sir George Lindsay Holford
as depicted by Vanity Fair

George Lindsay Holford (1860-1926), only son of Robert Staynor Holford, inherited Westonbirt, a house in Park Lane, a fabulous art collection and 16,000 acres in 1892. He served as a royal equerry and was knighted in 1910. He did not marry until 1912 and died childless in 1926.

Although Robert Stayner Holford is predominantly associated with the development of the arboretum at Westonbirt, his collection of garden and hothouse plants were also extensive. His son inherited a significant collection of orchids, which had been under the care of James O'Brien, who had been a founding member and secretary of the RHS Orchid committee, formed in 1889. In January 1902 the Gardeners' Chronicle wrote that under Holford's gardener A. Chapman 'maintains the reputation of Westonbirt as the leading Orchid establishment in the West of England, which it has sustained for over half a century'.

Herbert George Alexander in 1908

Herbert George Alexander (c1875-1972) joined the garden staff at Westonbirt in 1899, where Holford was in the process of having the range of glasshouses reconstructed and developing his orchid collection. Alexander had been born in Bath and trained initially with at a commercial nursery before working for a number of orchid collectors. Immediately before arriving at Westonbirt, he had been employed at Blenheim Palace. By April 1902 he had been given sole care of the orchid collection. As the Gardeners' Chronicle article makes clear, the nature of the collection was changing from being predominantly of botanical interest to a far showier collection of species and hybrids. Under Alexander the Westonbirt orchids were to become a prominent feature of the leading Edwardian flower shows.

Holford had joined the RHS council in 1901 and by 1906 both he and Alexander were members of the orchid committee. By 1908 there were 21 glasshouses devoted to orchids at Westonbirt. The Westonbirt orchids had by then won 10 RHS gold medals as well as minor awards and the exhibit at the Temple show in 1907 won the Veitchian cup. Alexander had received 5 Lindley medals for special culture and 23 cultural commendations. In 1908 Alexander arranged a 300ft display of orchids at an international show held in Ghent. Transporting hundreds of orchids in flower from Westonbirt by carriage, train and ship and having them arrive in a fit state for exhibition was an enormous and costly undertaking. Only the wealthiest of growers could consider exhibiting on this scale.

In 1910 James O'Brien published Orchids with 8 coloured plates featuring orchids from the Westonbirt collection, which give a small glimpse of its range and quality. Alexander had also begun to produce his own hybrids, with Cymbidium Pluto (mastersii x tracyanum) being registered by Holford that year. In 1911 Cymbidium Alexanderi (Cym. eburneo-lowianum 'concolor' x insigne 'Sanderi') was registered. In 1922 Alexander produced the exceptionally fine variety Cymbidium Alexanderi gx ‘Westonbirt’, the most famous of Cymbidium hybrids because of its widespread use by plant breeders.

Brasso-Cattleya digbyano-mossiae 'Westonbirt variety'
Plate from James O'Brien, Orchids (1910)

Cymbidium Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'

In 1912 the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition was held at Chelsea. Holford won the King's Cup for the most meritorious exhibit in the show in the amateur class for the best and most varied group of orchids in a space not exceeding 500 square feet. (Holford himself sponsored a cup for the best display of orchids by a commercial nursery.) Many years later Alexander recalled the long preparation that had gone into the display: "We were nearly three years preparing some of the plants for the show. Plants had screens placed so that they only received 'front light'. The majority were disbudded and not allowed to flower to conserve the plant's energy and to stimulate new growths. Cattleya rhizomes were partly severed as soon as new growths were showing so that they could be more easily trained to face the front, growing on their own roots." When the time came for the plants to be sent to London: "Every plant was washed and cleaned, then carefully staked with all flowers supported in paper slings, they were packed in large cases ready for the journey to London. Sir George had a special train to take them. The preparation, packing and staging took two weeks". The following year the whole performance was repeated, as the Westonbirt orchids were displayed at the first Chelsea Flower Show and won a gold medal.

On his death Holford left his orchid collection to Alexander, who had been looking after them for so many years, and he established a commercial nursery. He remained a member of the RHS orchid committee unitl his death nearly five decades later.