Wisley in colour - the van Sommer autochromes

These glass plate colour photos are thought to be the earliest surviving colour photographs of RHS Garden Wisley

William van Sommer collection of autochromes came into the RHS Libraries collections as a donation in 2007. The glass plate colour photographs taken around 1913 include country views, still lifes, garden scenes and what are thought to be the earliest surviving colour photographs of RHS Garden Wisley. That gardens, flowers and the local landscape play a central theme in the photographs is no coincidence due to both the requirements of photographic exposure times and William van Sommer’s interests in travel and horticulture.

Autochrome is an early colour photographic process that used a mosaic of dyed potato starch to create a colour filter onto the photographic plate; it was first patented in 1903 by the Lumière brothers in France. Taking successful photographs with this process required some expertise to produce good results but it was also a popular process and amateur photography enthusiasts already had to be far more technically aware than was required with the later 35mm film cameras.

William van Sommer

William van Sommer was born in Reigate, Surrey in 1859, the sixth child of parents James and Mary. He did well at college in Eastbourne and in 1877 he began working at his father’s law office at New Inn, Strand, London. In 1878 he passed the entrance exam for London University with honours but the same year was taken ill and was sent overseas to try to recover. Accompanied by his elder brother James, William undertook a 105-day voyage aboard The Shannon to Melbourne, Australia. William began to recover and also visited Tasmania before returning to London in 1879. During his time on board he kept a diary and also documented the trip with sketches.

Following a spell living in Wimbledon, William bought a house in Weybridge, Surrey and named it ‘Cuffnells’ after a ship owned by his mother’s family. Cuffnells house and garden appear in several of the autochromes, and it is probable that the floral arrangements that van Sommer carefully photographed were also taken in the house.

Experimental garden

The garden of horticulturalist G F Wilson (1822-1902), the Oakwood estate was bought in 1903 by Sir Thomas Hanbury (1832-1907) and presented to the RHS for use as an experimental garden. In van Sommer’s photographs we see the now-named ‘Wisley’ Garden starting to develop and in this image we see one of the garden staff at work in the Rock Garden, which was only constructed in 1911.

Summer poppies

Another of the van Sommer images of the countryside in Surrey around Wisley shows a summer field filled with poppies, a scene taken just before the outbreak of WWI – when the plants took on a new significance which they still retain today. This is also a vanished view of the British countryside, one with less intensive agriculture processes where wildflowers thrive alongside crops and in the distance elm trees still stand tall.

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.