Church of England Diocese of Exeter Haccombe

God's Botanist - Reverend William Keble Martin

Reverend William Keble Martin was 88 when his Concise British Flora in Colour was published in May 1965. The result of sixty years’ meticulous fieldwork and exquisite painting skills, the book became an immediate best-seller and remained so for many years. 

At the age of 91, he wrote his autobiography, which was illustrated with many of his own original drawings, selected from a lifetime of working from living flowers, trees and ferns in the field.

Born in 1877, William Keble Martin was the grandson of Dr. George Moberly, headmaster of Winchester and later Bishop of Salisbury. He was also descended from the Champernownes of Dartington Hall and connected to John Keble of the Oxford Movement. William was 14 years old when his father was appointed as the Rector of Dartington, near Totnes. He came from a large family with eight brothers and sisters, and his interest in the natural world grew in the fields and woods of his father’s Devon parish. Educated at Marlborough School he went on to read botany at Oxford.

After being ordained and working in various parishes in the north of England, he served as an army chaplain in France, during the First World War. His return to Devon marked a new chapter in his life.

 In 1921, Miss Carew of Haccombe offered him the benefice of Haccombe and Coffinswell. In the hot dry summer of that year, as the new Archpriest of Haccombe, he moved into the rectory at Coffinswell with his wife and four small children. More used to large busy parishes in the north of England he suddenly found himself with more time on his hands. After visiting each parishioner twice in one week, it was suggested to him that his devotion to duty was rather excessive, far more than his parishioners needed! So it was among the wild flowers in the countryside around Haccombe that he first settled down to the monumental task of illustrating The Concise British Flora in Colour. He would complete over 1,400 paintings in colour and many black and white drawings before his book was finally published.

During his time at Haccombe and Coffinswell, the Rev. W Keble Martin even found time to design and oversee the building of a new place of worship at Aller. Most of his life in the church was connected with the West Country, and as a result much of his botanical work centred on Devon. He was interested in all branches of natural history, yet it was as an artist that he was principally renowned.

The plates of wild flowers in the Flora are outstanding, not only because of their intricacy of detail and extraordinary accuracy (which alone would have established the book as a classic work), but also for the marvellous sense of design and their arrangement in form and colour. He became a rather reluctant celebrity, interviewed on television and radio, featured in magazines and national newspapers. He even illustrated a set of Royal Mail stamps and received an honorary doctorate from Exeter University, and yet he remained totally untouched by all the adulation he received. His steadfastness of spirit and standards of gentleness and humility were a rare attribute even then. After the death of his first wife he happily remarried in 1965.

The Rev. William Keble Martin died in November 1969, time enough to see his life’s work as an artist and botanist reach an audience that was probably far beyond his wildest dreams.