Hugo Rittson Thomas
Nature, interiors and portrait photographer
Hugo Rittson-Thomas is a leading portrait photographer and well known for his images of the Royal Family, as well as for his many books on both gardens and architecture.
Your three favourite flowers?
Each flower has its own unique personality and charm so choosing only three is difficult, however from my time shooting I have shared special moments with the below three.
1. Anthropomorphic Orchids
I find the anthropomorphic orchids very charming - the closer you get the more personality you discover.
I photographed the rare Monkey Orchid (scientific name: Orchis simia) which had been believed to be extinct until 1952. Seeing that was one of many floral highlights. The toughest flowers to find are also the most rewarding as most were believed extinct. This is one of the many reasons why I undertook and work on projects like Wildflowers for The Queen to try and help save, protect and celebrate our priceless natural heritage. The Monkey Orchid grows in the most unlikely of places, they love poor soil and dark places! I was lucky to see these works of art in the flesh during shooting for Wildflowers for The Queen and playing with the scale in some of the images – for example the petal is the size of my nail, fascinating to see the detail of nature like that.
The Bee Orchid (scientific name: Ophrys apifera) gets its name from its main pollinator - a species of bee - which is thought to have driven the evolution of the flowers. To attract the bees that will pollinate the plant, it has flowers that mimic their appearance. Wildflowers for The Queen introduced me to these beautiful creatures and allowed me to showcase how fragile and rare they are, focusing intimately on their exhilarating patterns, colours, textures and shapes.
2. Great Burnet
Another flower I was introduced to during my time shooting Wildflowers for The Queen is the Great Burnet (scientific name: Sanguisorba officinalis). Great burnet was especially abundant at Loughborough Big Meadow in Loughborough, Leicestershire. The flower is recognisable by their oval, crimson flower heads that appear on long, green stalks.
3. Snake's head fritillary - Scientific name: Fritillaria meleagris
Snake’s head fritillary is one of the many wonderful flowers I got up close and personal with when shooting Wildflowers for The Queen. Their pink-and-purple-chequered petal pattern almost wallpaper like has featured in the book and illustrates how nature is truly the first and most natural art form. The flower almost looks as if it’s nodding, which makes the flower almost characteristic to a person.
One of the many reasons I am enchanted by Snake’s head fritillary is because of its exotic and charming scientific name –Fritillaria meleagris. Snake’s head fritillary is not only a favourite flower of mine, Julian Fellowes who contributed to Wildflowers of The Queen shared his love of the flower in his exert detailed below.
The college water meadows of my old Alma Mater, Cambridge, are an inspiration too. Untouched by herbicide and managed for a traditional hay crop and grazing, they are fields of snake’s head fritillary and spotted orchid in early summer. Didn't Repton say: All nature is a garden? If he did, then I agree with him – Julian Fellowes
Tell us about your childhood garden?
As a child I nearly always spent outdoors running around with nature. Growing up in the Cotswolds in a remote place where you could see no other sign of humanity- no other buildings, no telegraph poles, no roads or cars so I developed a strong affinity and sense of place in nature and less so the built environment. Our porch was a very lively place, always scattered with boots, coats and plenty of mud!
Where did the idea for ‘Wildflowers for the Queen’ come from?
I was first inspired at an event for conservation charity PlantLife at The Chelsea Physic Gardens and by the heartfelt message delivered by HRH Prince of Wales about PlantLife and its aims. In his forward at the event, HRH Prince Charles called for the creation of new wildflower meadows in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Coronation. The initiative was successful in creating 90 new wildflower meadows across the UK, but also highlighted the devastating loss of these landscapes. A seed was sown in my imagination, which then blossomed into a plan of action to help support the ongoing work of the Coronation Meadows... If an image is worth a thousand words, then as a photographer that was my call to arms. I could literally make the invisible visible.
What is a typical day in the life of Hugo?
I have always been very content amongst the elements and spending my working days outside.
Transitioning from gardens to meadows was at once terrifying and glorious. My first shoot day at Park Gate Down in Kent was spent looking for a rare monkey orchid. I had the coordinates from a local wildflower spotter but couldn’t locate it, the sun was setting and it was getting increasingly cold. I thought to myself ‘What have I gotten myself in for?!!’ (I’m happy to say I did finally locate it, and that was certainly the toughest flower to find.
Something we’d find:
On your bedside table: Books!
In your flower arrangement: Dahlias
In your garden shed: Tools
Who is a naturalist you admire?
Working on many garden and nature projects I am introduced to not only new species of flowers and plants but also new people. I admire the work that they do in the protection, education and championing of nature and our planet. To name a few I have been fortunate enough to work alongside Ghillean Prance, the botanist and former Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. Rachel de Thame, Keith Weed president of Royal Horticultural Society plus Wildflowers for The Queen alone features contributions from a range of industry professional contributors, including the broadcaster and gardener, Alan Titchmarsh; PlantLife President, Philip Mould; garden designer and journalist, Dan Pearson; landscape designer, Miranda Brookes; with commentary throughout by botanist TV presenter and conservationist, Dr Trevor Dines.
Who/what was your inspiration for the book Wildflowers for The Queen?
I treated the botanical species with the same regard as the high-profile photographic subjects that I am best known for, from The Queen to the Dalai Lama. In the book, I draw inspiration from the work of Horst P. Horst, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Nick Knight, while my contemporary “still life” flower arrangements pay homage to the Dutch Old Masters. My mirror technique, at the heart of his 2015 exhibition The Queen’s People, is used here to showcase the delicacy of flowers from multiple angles (Great Burnet) and, using a lightbox, I pay homage to Victorian botanical plates, injecting luminosity and vibrancy.
For posterity, what would you like your work to be known for?
The premise and aim of not only Wildflowers for The Queen but my work is to ‘make the invisible visible’, to celebrate the rich botanical heritage of the wildflowers, meadows, plants and nature and to elevate them not only as the stars of the show, but also as valuable and irreplaceable forms of life on our green planet.
Wildflowers for The Queen for example explores urgent questions about conservation and biodiversity in Britain. Meadows are one of the UK’s most species-rich habitats, supporting nearly 800 types of flowers and plants, along with 400 species of pollinators and other insects. Today, surviving fragments of flower-rich meadows and pastures only account for 1% of UK land as we have lost an alarming 7.5 million acres since the 1930s. Most are now too small to qualify for legal protection, meaning that ancient meadows that have existed for a century can disappear in a morning under the plough.
My work celebrates the precious part of Britain’s natural heritage and seeks to raise awareness about its value in the 21st century.
Quick fire: some favourite things
Book (fiction): The Castle, Novel by Franz Kafka
Film: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Painting: Isa Genzken – Social façade series
Smell: Moro Dabron - Vita
Meal: A dessert called Queen of puddings
Travel Destination: Anywhere with a good surfing wave
A cause near and dear to me: To save our priceless natural heritage
Place to go for inspiration: Nature or an internal meditative state
A great walk near where you live: The Rollright Stones, including the Kings Men Stone Circle
Thing to collect obsessively: Friends & marmalade
Museum: The Garden Museum, The Soane Museum
Favourite person to follow on Instagram: Silka Rittson-Thomas @thetuktukflowerstudio
Garden in the UK: Rousham, Oxfordshire
Garden anywhere else: Saihoji Temple is one of the World Heritage sites in Japan, famous for its moss garden with 120 species of moss.