In 1896, Walpole’s work came to the attention of Frederick V. Coville, a Department of Agriculture botanist and Curator of the National Herbarium, who was in Oregon researching plants used by the Klamath Indians. Coville persuaded Walpole to apply for the position of Artist for the Division of Botany of the Agriculture Department, and he was appointed on September 19th. The bare facts are tantalizingly incomplete. We do not know that Walpole had prior botanical training, or even that he had drawn plant subjects. In any case, his later journals show him on field drawing trips botanizing, collecting specimens, and confidently identifying plants by their scientific Latin names. An obituary notice mentions that John Ruskin was a favorite author of Walpole’s. The reverence for nature which Ruskin had inspired in American artists of the 1850s and 1860s could well have predisposed Walpole to the study of plant life.
Walpole’s career as a plant illustrator was divided between work in Washington at the Agriculture Department (and after November of 1902 at the National Museum) and on field trips to the Northwest. The journals for the period 1900–1903 cover his activities in Washington and his journeys across the continent, as well as his two trips to Alaska (1900 and 1901). Besides copious data on railroad timetables and shipping schedules, they give descriptions of terrain, regular weather reports, accounts of his movements and work, and scrupulous notations of income and expenditures, recording purchases of newspapers and magazines, of toothpicks (10 cents), and a tip to a child of 1 cent. Also recorded is a surprisingly lively social life: numerous visits to family and friends, celebrations of birthdays and holidays, and attendance at events both cultural and otherwise: science lectures (especially geographical), music recitals, exhibitions at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery (frequent), the Congress and the Library of Congress, church (Unitarian, if available, but Greek Orthodox in Alaska). A span of the journals from November 1902 to January 1903 lists the following activities: two visits to Zoological Park; showing his own pictures (along with L. A. Juertes, the famous bird artist, and C. R. Knight, the animal artist) at an American Ornithological Union meeting; lecture by Lieutenant Peary on his arctic work; Jane Addams’ lecture at Congregational Church; recital by Mme. Schumann-Heinck; Corcoran Gallery exhibition; visit to Library of Congress; lecture on wingless birds; another on protective coloring; another on Martinique; reading Owen Wister’s The Virginian; meeting of the Folk Lore society; reception of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; music recital at Unitarian Church; Hagenbeck’s Trained Animal Show; ping pong party across the street. Considering that he was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Geographic Society, and the Biological Society of Washington, we might say that Frederick Walpole was a man firmly devoted to the American virtue of participation and self-improvement.