Posts Tagged History

‘The Admirable Malby’ by Dr. John F. Page.

5 June 2011

The Admirable Malby

By Dr. John F. Page.
From the Quarterly Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society (A.G.S.), Vol.54, No.1, March 1986, No.223

When Dr. Page first submitted this fascinating article about one of the greatest plant photographers of the century, he was able to find only one photo of Malby himself…in standard plant-collecting kit of knickerbockers, rucksack and what looks like a topee. Dr. Page later went to great trouble in contacting the Malby family, and was able to borrow from the son the family album of alpine plants from which we have selected the best for the supplement of photos which follows. We are most indebted to the Malby family for their kind permission to do so. We are also indebted to our blockmakers for the trouble they took copying from an old 1910 photo album…a process for which their modern machinery is hardly designed!

In the long shadow cast by the towering Farrer over the world of rock gardening in the early years of this century, there was another Reginald who wrote the story of his alpine garden and went among the hills to study the plants. His name was Reginald Alfred Malby (1882-1924) and he was a photographer by profession. His father, H.T. Malby, whose pictures for Dr. Barnado’s amongst others may be found in the British Museum, had founded the family firm towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Picture right: R.A. Malby, F.R.P.S., c.1910

The enterprise eventually became Malby & Son, as they rapidly established themselves as the country’s leading specialists in plant photography, catering for the needs of a wide variety of associations, including the Orchid, Daffodil, Chrysanthemum, National Rose and Dahlia Societies, as well as being appointed official photographers at the R.H.S. and Chelsea Flower Shows.

August in the Rock Garden


Trillium Sessile


What is especially gratifying from our point of view is that Reginald Malby should have developed a passionate interest in alpines, managing to combine the perfectionism of a dedicated professional with the private pursuit of constructing a rock garden and recording his experiences with the many plants he grew there. The outcome was that Malby’s pictures are to be found illustrating books and articles on alpines until well after the Second World War.

These include: Rock Gardens; how to plan and plant them, by A. Edwards (1912), Farrer’s The English Rock Garden (1918), A.J. Macself’s Alpine Plants (1923), Clarence Elliot’s classic Rock Garden Plants (1935), K.C. Corsar’s Primulas (1948) and even Lawrence D. Hill’s The Propagation of Alpines (1950), despite the fact that Malby died in 1924.

The second issue of volume 1 of the Bulletin contained a handsome illustration* of Ramonda pyrenaica by R.A. Malby to accompany an article by G.P. Baker. Thus began a tradition of Malby photographs which continued for two decades and ended**, I believe with an equally fine picture of Saxifraga florulenta in Bulletin Vol.15, p.100 (1947). The durability of Malby’s art was further shown on page 99 of that issue, where the photograph of Saxifraga longifolia which appeared there was the very same illustration which Walter Irving, the first editor of the Bulletin, had used for his book Saxifrages or Rockfoils over thirty years earlier.

Picture right: Colchicum speciosum

Malby’s two major works The Story of My Rock Garden (1912) and With Camera and Rucksack in the Oberland and Valais (1913) turn up from time to time on the shelves of second-hand bookshops. Both splendidly in period, they will no doubt gradually become scarce. The former bears witness the the ever-widening circle of converts to alpine gardening at this time. The majority would probably have described themselves as belonging to the leisured classes, but things were changing. A few years earlier, Farrer’s “nimble toilers”, clinging to their rope ladders, were planting their master’s seedlings on the limestone cliffs on the family estate in Yorkshire. In 1909, on hardly less a grand scale, C.H. Hough (later to become an A.G.S. Founder Member) and his daughter began work on their rock-garden below Loughrigg Fell at White Craggs in Westmorland. Soon, however, Farrer could write of the cultivation of alpines:

“It has become, and is hourly still more universally becoming, the pet passion of the man who has small means, and only a small plot of ground to play with”
(The Rock Garden).

Malby’s starting point was a patch of heavy, sticky loam overlying clay at the rear of a modest villa in a suburb of Woodford, Essex, “in close proximity to the great vapour-zone of London, which over a large part of the year is sending it’s leaden coloured pall of smoke gently drifting over from the city, thereby not only cutting out a large amount of vigour from the light rays, but is ever depositing it’s injurious particles of by-products upon the foliage”. In the absence of suitable stone, the photographer resorted to rough blocks of concrete retrieved from the foundations of the capital’s roads, whose texture he optimistically described as “suggestive of conglomerate”. There was no shortage of sound advice, for his profession brought him into regular contact with Kew and Wisley. At nearby Waltham Cross, E.A. Bowles was ever helpful and Walter Ingwersen’s first alpine nursery was flourishing across the Thames at Croydon.

Picture right: Saxifraga longifolia

His standard growing medium was a blend of soil and more than 50% “broken brick pressed through a half-inch sieve, plus leafmould, mortar, loam and sand in roughly equal proportions”. A much grittier mixture was prepared for the choice saxifrages the nurserymen were providing in an ever-increasing variety. SS. burseriana, marginata, rocheliana, ferdinandi-coburgii, apiculata and lingulata (=callosa) var. lantoscana were amongst the first to be accommodated, with SS. longifolia and cochlearis on the small bluffs and shoulders he had fashioned with his roadstone. To prolong the flowering-period he recommended the planting of some of the sun-lovers in the shade. Equally shrewd was his advice to avoid the siting of precious plants near paths; not all of his visitors were light of tread, it seems, and some perhaps light of finger. Nor were ladies encouraged, their dresses “having a way of brushing against smaller plants”.

Primula farinosa


Primula frondosa


Inevitably, Malby caught what E.A. Bowles at the time called the “moraine measles”. Malby’s model constituted of two tanks of concrete and brick, the upper linked to the lower with the aid of a valve which had formerly been part of a champagne bottle, curiously downgraded to a hock-bottle in Bowle’s description of the experiment in My Garden in Spring. Devotees of moraines, if there are any still living, should consult Rock Gardens by A. Edwards mentioned above which contains photographs of the Woodford example. Here he grew Ranunculus glacialis in a mixture of one part leaf mould to fifteen parts of stone chips over a six inch bed of hard core, Petrocallis pyrenaica romped away, Campanula zoysii prospered, Campanula allionii threatened to take over and even Eritrichium nanum weighed in with twelve blooms. The dusting of “decayed leaf soil” administered once or twice a year ensured that the moraine preserved “more of interest and beauty” than anywhere else in the garden.

Alpine House, the south face. Note “tufa cliff” within. (H.T. Malby can bee seen on the left)


Primula capitata


A pool was dug, with Saxifraga peltata (=Peltiphyllum peltatum) the Umbrella Plant from California, and the fern Osmunda regalis, and for contrast there was a hot, dry knoll where the photographer’s liking for Sempervivum arachnoideum var. laggeri could be indulged.

He was also attracted to silver foliage plants such as Potentilla nitida and Artemisia vallesiaca which paid their rent right through to autumn. Bulbs were placed amongst aubrieta, dwarf sedums and mossy saxifrages, where they throve; in the bare patches out of reach of the carpeting plants, he sowed annuals such as Ionopsidium acaule from Portugal and Linaria alpina to soak up any lingering Spring dampness. His photographic training had heightened his awareness of colour associations. To enhance the silver of Saxifraga longifolia rosettes, he chose as neighbours the blood-red leaves of Sempervivum triste (tectorum). To tone down the harshness of his background stone, he applied a mixture of “Ferri-perchloride” and water which added a rich, yellow-brown hue. Finally there were the colours and contours which the “dwarf trees” could bring to the garden, principally conifers, the placing of which, Malby impressed upon his readers, required considerable thought. Aftercare was equally essential, including trimming and in some instances training with copper wire and frames.

Bulbocodium vernum


Muscari botryoides album


Tastes and techniques have of course changed since Malby’s day, but not the need to maintain continuity in the supply of plants to a garden. He was a tireless propagator, producing new plants for old by means of cuttings which syringed daily with a fine spray, by layering and division and by seed in a specially made frame, the pots plunged in peat and kept moist by perforated tubes.

The story ends in classic manner with a tour through the garden year. Again and again, the reader is reminded of the transports of delight and joy which Malby’s generation experienced in the company of plants as they emerged month after month. Farrer’s bones, it will be recalled, were forever melting with ecstasy before one flower or another. E.B. Anderson, who lived for so long that one easily forgets he was a contemporary, tells in Seven Gardens the tale of an Abutilon from Chile which “caused Collingwood Ingram to leap off the path in his excitement”. So too with Malby, whose garden brought a “continuous stream of loveliness and joy”, culminating in June, when, before the profusion of colour, “one’s whole nature expands with happiness”. This final part of his book recounting experiences with many of the rock garden treasures nurserymen, plant hunters and visitors to the Alps were providing at an ever-increasing rate, is a highly enjoyable read and I will not spoil the pleasure of those who would enquire further by giving away too much here.

Picture right: Ramonda pyrenaica (now R. myconi)

With Camera and Rücksack in the Oberland and Valais, Malby’s second book, was a further reflection of changing social habits; a guided tour of the Bernese Oberland, led by the Rev. Canon Horsley, provided the base for his first forays into real plant photography. Within hours of his arrival he was making those discoveries which the newcomer to the Alps, used to tending solitary plants in the often alien English climate, experiences the moment he sets foot on a mountain path. The sheer vigour and bewildering abundance of the flora overwhelmed him. Globularia nana, interesting at home but seldom spectacular, was in dazzling form. The snow cover, he concluded, allowed the plants to conserve their energy for a June display which was irresistible instead of it “being frittered away in sundry false starts”, as happens during mild spells in an English winter. En route for the Rosenlaui glacier he marvelled at the strong shades of violet in the show of Erinus alpinus, and took up the challenge which Caltha palustris presented to his professional skills. It was “like a mirror of burnished gold” and needed his twelve time light filter “to secure the brilliancy of the colouring in something like it’s usual luminosity”. Partly by carriage, a trip was made to the Grimsel Pass to locate Saxifraga pyramidalis (Saxifraga cotyledon ‘Pyramidalis?) The reward was the sight of half a mile of limestone cliffs “sheeted with the huge waving plumes of this glorious flower” which cried out to be photographed. Malby selected his 12-inch long-focus lens and with some difficulty manoeuvred his heavy teak Houghton Tropical Sanderson camera on to the side of the cliff and inserted a Cadet Royal Standard Ortho Plate. The extension of the bellows was so great that it was hardly possible to reach the metal ring which controlled the camera’s stopping-down operation, and the lens-cap which Malby had to remove to make the exposure was beyond his finger-tips. The solution was for the photographer to cling to the end of his companion’s alpenstock and hang outwards from the ledge. Sadly, the plate later proved to be blank, for in his precarious position Malby had omitted to draw the shutter of the dark-slide, and he wrote: “Other photographers will I am sure appreciate the meekness of spirit which comes over one at such a time”.

He had more success with Anemone (Pulsatilla) vernalis, sought and photographed on the Gummenalp because it was proving so hard to please in his Woodford garden. Just as he was beginning to suspect an error on the part of his guide, he came across thousands of the plants in the high turf and was duly overwhelmed by the white flowers “flushed with pink and shaded with delicate amethyst iridescence”. The older flowers, he noted, had re-closed their petals which accentuated the “rich bronzy golden fur” surfacing their calyces; all this after pollination apparently, and in the accompanying photograph they seem appropriately subdued.

Walter Irving accompanied Malby on his trip to the Valais two years later, probably in 1912. A visit en route to the University of Lausanne’s Alpine Garden prompted Malby to comment upon the strict “observance of the lie of the strata” in modern rock-garden building. In his view, they were going too far, since what mattered most was the space between the rocks, for that was where the vast majority of plants grew. He must have known of Farrer’s proclamations regarding the need for careful design (“Nature is never haphazard: inspirations from nature must never be haphazard either”.) and was prepared to present an alternative opinion. Malby was quick to exclude from his strictures, however, Sir Frank Crisp’s “beautiful Alpinum at Friar Park, Henley”, where rock had been used on a colossal scale. Farrer, it will be remembered, had scathingly dismissed this “model Matterhorn”. The photographer clearly knew which side his bread was buttered.

Path laying…the stones were chipped to fit.


At this end of the twentieth century, the thirst for novelty is well catered for by specialist nurserymen, scientific expeditions, plant hybridisers, contributors to seed lists and so on. Plant hunters and commercial growers were of course already very active in Malby’s day, but increasingly amateurs were being drawn to the mountains of Europe in search of variants. White forms of species, the rarer the better, seem to have held an irresistible fascination. During his first visit to the Alps, Malby has quartered the Magisalp in search of Primula viscosa alba, and had been rewarded. His quarry on this occasion was a pure white version of Gentiana bavarica, the prospect of which had been held out to him by the landlord of the Hotel Schwarzhof at Meiden Gruben. The hotelier could well have been right. Albinos of this gentian are mentioned in the Mont Blanc range in Farrer’s The English Rock Garden, and members of an A.G.S. Tour found a specimen in 1949 below the Theodul Glacier (Vol. 17, p. 316), not far distant. Accompanied by mine host, Malby set off for the eastern side of the Augstbord Pass at four a.m. They failed to find the white gentian, the site still deeply covered in snow even on July 5th. Partial consolation came from the discovery of a Ranunculus glacialis with lovely cream-coloured flowers and leaves heavily covered in fur as can arise in the most elevated habitats.

The Bernese Oberland had introduced Malby to the delights of massed Anemone vernalis. Reacquaintance in the snowfields above the second Meidenalp prompted the following happy description:

“Few flowers possess the purity and charm which, to my mind, characterizes A. Vernalis. Among the few deeply divided and somewhat hairy leaves which lie pressed to the ground, a large, carefully protected bud matures during the winter months, and as soon as the first touch of summer reaches it through the thinning snow, this bud begins to rise. When the enfolding bracts expand, there emerges a beautiful soft, brown, shaggy calyx, which, when some two inches high, opens, disclosing a somewhat crocus-like flower, white in colour, shaded or flushed with delicate amethyst on the inside, and backed by the silky brown sepals which are such a distinguishing feature of the plant. When the flower is over, the organs are again enveloped by this hairy covering, and the stalk, instead of remaining erect, elongates and droops in a most graceful manner. When one comes suddenly upon a colony of these nodding, embryo fruits, with the sun slanting upon them, and lighting up the individual hairs, the effect is one never to be forgotten”.

If you savour the idea of an Edwardian Englishman taking a Belgian turbine steamer to Ostend and from thence a special train to Bale, where breakfast awaits “spread on snowy-covered tables arranged on the wide platform”, as a prelude to hunting for alpines in the often wild terrain of the Oberland and Valais, then Malby’s second book cannot be too highly recommended.

His final publication was mainly the work of Walter Irving. Malby contributed to the photographs and a chapter on cultivation to Saxifrages or Rockfoils, which appeared in 1914. Intended for popular consumption, the monograph listed some 400 species, forms and hybrids, the majority of which were in cultivation. Inevitaby, many have disappeared or have been renamed (whatever happened to SS. Clibranii, Bathoniensis and Fergusonii?), but it is interesting to be reminded how long in the tooth are many of the forms and cultivars we admire today, such as S. oppositifolia ‘W.A. Clark’ and S. ‘Faldonside’.

Picture right:…the finished path.

References to Malby occur in the Bulletin from time to time. In Vol.47, p.186 we learn of the eventual destination of the photographic collection and the links with J.E. Downward and Ernest Crowson***. In the following issue (p.305), we find Walter Ingwersen helping him to sell the surplus plants he had propagated. Perhaps these included Sempervivums ‘Malby’s Hybrid No.1′ and ‘No.2′, distinctive contributions to our rock gardens this very day.

There is no doubt that had he lived, Malby would have joined those who founded the Society in 1929. His wife’s name, Mrs. E. Malby, appears in the list of members for 1931 and she wrote an article for the Bulletin in 1936 (Vol.4, p.28) describing the Woodford garden twelve years after his death. Her achievements are no less admirable. Never having taken a photograph in her life before, she had overcome the crisis by taking over the reins herself. In 1931, the A.G.S. appointed” Mrs. Malby, a professional horticultural photographer” as the official in charge of illustrations for the Bulletin, a post she held for many years. F.H. Fisher in The Alpine Garden Society. Pages from the Society’s History (p.18) notes:

“Her charge was seven shillings and sixpence, which included the copyright, for each photograph published”.

In 1941, the R.H.S. awarded her the Silver Veitch Memorial Medal and £25 “for her photographic work on garden subjects”.


*It is this particular photograph which we re-publish on p.27.

**Just for the records, we used one in September 1977!

***Unfortunately the account in Vol.47 is incorrect, and the bulk of Malby’s photos have vanished. We are the more fortunate that Dr. Page has been able to locate the photos published here. Ed.

‘The Admirable Malby’ article © The Alpine Garden Society. All other content © Copyright www.


The Link Between Tutankhamun & Malby!

5 June 2011

We were recently surprised to learn about the hand-colouring work that Reginald A. Malby & Co. did for the photograph’s of Howard Carter’s famous excavation in 1922. Not even Malby’s only surviving child, Heather (now in her 90s) knew that her father had been involved with this project shortly before his death (!?!).

The photographs were not by Carter himself, but by Harry Burton, the expedition photographer.

You read more about it and see some of the images on the website of the University of Oxford’s ‘Griffith Institute’, here where Malby’s colour work is described as “somewhat imaginative and not very faithful”!