Gradually they came to see that the new field was open, and they entered with a rush. In 1830 a number of collections still famous in the legends of the mystery are found complete. At the Orchid Conference, Mr. O’Brien expressed a “fear that we could not now match some of the specimens mentioned at the exhibitions of the Horticultural Society in Chiswick Gardens between 1835 and 1850;” and extracts which he gave from reports confirm this suspicion. The number of species cultivated at that time was comparatively small. People grew magnificent “specimens” in place of many handsome pots. We read of things amazing to the experience of forty years later. Among the contributions of Mrs. Lawrence, mother to our “chief,” Sir Trevor, was an Aerides with thirty to forty flower spikes; a Cattleya with twenty spikes; an Epidendrum bicornutum, difficult to keep alive, much more to bloom, until the last few years, with “many spikes;” an Oncidium, “bearing a head of golden flowers four feet across.” Giants dwelt in our greenhouses then.
So the want of enthusiasts was satisfied. In 1852 Mr. B.S. Williams could venture to publish “Orchids for the Million,” a hand-book of world-wide fame under the title it presently assumed, “The Orchid Grower’s Manual.” An occupation or amusement the interest of which grows year by year had been discovered. All who took trouble to examine found proof visible that these masterworks of Nature could be transplanted and could be made to flourish in our dull climate with a regularity and a certainty unknown to them at home. The difficulties of their culture were found to be a myth—we speak generally, and this point must be mentioned again. The “Million” did not yet heed Mr. Williams’ invitation, but the Ten Thousand did, heartily.
I take it that orchids meet a craving of the cultured soul which began to be felt at the moment when kindly powers provided means to satisfy it. People of taste, unless I err, are tiring of those conventional forms in which beauty has been presented in all past generations. It may be an unhealthy sentiment, it may be absurd, but my experience is that it exists and must be taken into account. A picture, a statue, a piece of china, any work of art, is eternally the same, however charming. The most one can do is to set it in different positions, different lights. Theophile Gautier declared in a moment of frank impatience that if the Transfiguration hung in his study, he would assuredly find blemishes therein after awhile—quite fanciful and baseless, as he knew, but such, nevertheless, as would drive him to distraction presently. I entertain a notion, which may appear very odd to some, that Gautier’s influence on the aesthetic class of men has been more vigorous than that of any other teacher; thousands who never read a line of his writing are unconsciously inspired by him. The feeling that gave birth to his protest nearly two generations since is in the air now. Those who own a collection of art, those who have paid a great sum for pictures, will not allow it, naturally. As a rule, indeed, a man looks at his fine things no more than at his chairs and tables. But he who is best able to appreciate good work, and loves it best when he sees it, is the one who grows restless when it stands constantly before him.