The late blooming of a ‘saintly clergyman'
Country Life UK|January 12, 2022
After a lifetime of quietly sketching wildflowers, parish priest William Keble Martin finally published the book every schoolboy wanted, says Matthew Dennison
Matthew Dennison
I TRUST not only that my ministry has been helpful, but also that many young people, and those not so young, will be inspired by The Concise British Flora to recognise and love the wildflowers, to roam over the moors and mountains and seasides, discovering for themselves the wealth of flowers in our beautiful country,’ wrote retired parish priest William Keble Martin in the autobiography he published in 1969, at the age of 91. In the last decade of his long life, Keble Martin found himself famous, admired and fêted. The Illustrated London News called him ‘this saintly clergyman’.

The reason for his late-in-life celebrity was an illustrated book, the genesis of which spanned more than half a century. Keble Martin had made his first preparatory sketches —including a watercolour study of a snowdrop, images of herb robert and of the woodland star of Bethlehem—as early as 1899 and, after publication in May 1965, The Concise British Flora in Colour became Britain’s top-selling book that year. It earned its author-illustrator an honorary doctorate from Exeter University and, in April 1967, the accolade of a series of commemorative stamps issued by Royal Mail.

Public acclaim had not been the focus of Keble Martin’s life. He was born in 1877, one of nine children of the warden, or headmaster, of Oxfordshire boys’ school Radley College. His was a clergy family: after Radley, his father took up livings in Norfolk, Wiltshire and Devon. One grandfather was a bishop of Salisbury; Keble Martin was also related to distinguished Oxford Movement priest John Keble. In 1902, Keble Martin would himself take orders.

Yet a love of the natural world played every bit as large a part in the upbringing of the Revd Martin’s five sons as their father’s calling. A maternal uncle taught the boys about butterfly collecting. They learned to identify the plants that constituted caterpillars’ preferred diet and built a cabinet to house a collection of butterfly specimens that eventually grew to several hundred. The boys also became keen birdwatchers. His knowledge stood young William in good stead as a schoolboy at Marlborough: among his teachers was the naturalist and entomologist Edward Meyrick, who, a generation earlier, when himself a pupil at the school, had got up at 4am to look for butterfly and moth specimens in nearby Rabley Copse.

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