Chapter two
Harry Bolus (1834–1911)—his life and botanical works.



The Cape Orchids celebrates the remarkable life and botanical works of Dr Harry Bolus, businessman and distinguished amateur botanist, who figures prominently in the field of South African botany.

Harry Bolus, born in Nottingham, England, described more Cape orchid species than anyone except the renowned orchidologist John Lindley (1799-1865) of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Bolus was the leading figure in the study of Cape orchids from 1882 until his death in 1911. His Orchids of the Cape Peninsula (1888—1st ed., 1918—2nd ed.) and Orchids of South AfricaIcones Orchidearum Austro-Africanarum Extra-tropicarum (1893-1896, 1911, 1913) were the first works that were fully illustrated and accessible to the general public, albeit a financially privileged minority. Bolus’s contribution was also significant in that it was the first time that herbarium studies of orchids actually took place in South Africa. During his long period of residence in Cape Town, Bolus described many new plant species and built up the Bolus Herbarium and its extensive associated library, now housed in the Botany Department at the University of Cape Town. Prior to this, specimens were shipped to Europe to be studied there.

Although the unassuming and humble Bolus was an amateur botanist, he became the foremost authority on South African orchids and ericas, thanks in part to his keen observational abilities and direct field experience of the Cape orchids; and his work has remained superior in all respects.

The fact that the young Louis Leipoldt’s medical studies in London were financed by Harry Bolus, ‘by way of a loan’, should also not go unrecorded. Indeed, Harry Bolus was not only gifted in his own right, but was also generous in his care for others, and a friend and/or mentor to several other young or contemporary botanists.

Accompanied by his niece, Louisa Kensit [later Louisa Bolus], Bolus was residing with his friend Mr Shipton, a London banker, during a visit to England in May 1911 to supervise the printing of Icones Orchidearum Austro-Africanum vol. II, when, at the age of 77, he suffered a sudden fatal heart attack. He had just completed checking the proofs of his book when he died (see ‘Mr Shipton’s Study’ below).
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Dr Harry Bolus, London, circa 1909
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Mr Shipton’s Study, Oxted, Surrey. This pastel drawing by Arthur Hughes1 was completed on about 27 May 1911 and depicts the study as Harry Bolus had left it before he died on the 25th. Accompanied by his niece, Louisa Kensit (later Louisa Bolus), Bolus was residing with his friend Mr Shipton, a London banker, in May 1911. He was visiting England from Cape Town to supervise the printing of the second volume of Icones orchidearum austro-africanarum extra-tropicarum, when, at the age of 77, he suffered a heart attack and died in bed in the early morning of 25 May 1911 after correcting his final proofs. About two days later, at the request of Louisa Kensit, Hughes travelled down from Richmond to Oxted and spent a full day sketching the study exactly as her beloved uncle had left it (courtesy of J.P. Rourke)
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Harry Bolus’s orchid volumes: Orchids of the Cape Peninsula (1888—first edition, Bolus’s personal working copy; 1918—second edition), Orchids of South Africa—Icones orchidearum austro-africanarum extra-tropicarum, vol. 1, pt 1 (1893); 1, pt 2 (1896); vol. 2 (1911), and vol. 3 (1913). Bolus’s working copy of Orchids of the Cape Peninsula is shown alongside his folding metre-rule, designed specially for field use and custom-crafted from ivory in Paris
Click to enlarge A fresh inflorescence of Disperis paludosa superimposed on Bolus’s illustration of the species from Orchids of the Cape Peninsula (1918: t. 115)
Lithograph of Disa elegans and monkey beetle (Petrichia sp.); H. Bolus, Orchids of South Africa vol. I (1893): Tab. 35
From the Bolus chapter