Gil­lian Thorn­ton vis­its Lon­don’s Gar­den Mu­seum

Gil­lian Thorn­ton vis­its Lon­don’s Gar­den Mu­seum to find out about the in­trepid ex­plor­ers who brought beau­ti­ful new plants to Bri­tain.

The People's Friend - - Contents -

THE British are known as a na­tion of gar­den lovers, yet Bri­tain has the poor­est na­tive flora of any coun­try in Europe, ex­cept for Ire­land.

The gar­dens and green land­scapes we en­joy to­day are all thanks to the “plant hunters” who be­gan trav­el­ling in the 17th cen­tury to the Ot­toman Em­pire, Cen­tral Amer­ica, South Africa and China in search of new va­ri­eties.

Most fa­mous of all was John Trades­cant. I’m in awe as I stand be­side his in­tri­cately carved tomb in the lush court­yard plot of Lon­don’s Gar­den Mu­seum.

This fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tion is housed in Bri­tain’s only mu­seum ded­i­cated to the art, his­tory and de­sign of gar­den­ing, in the at­mo­spheric sur­round­ings of St Mary-at-lam­beth, a de­con­se­crated church next door to Lam­beth Palace.

A few feet away, an im­pos­ing or­na­men­tal urn stands above the tomb of Cap­tain Bligh.

I only know him for the mutiny of his men on board

HMS Bounty, but Bligh, too, was a plant hunter.

In 1787, he com­manded an ex­pe­di­tion to take bread­fruit trees halfway around the globe from Tahiti to the West Indies, where they could be grown to pro­vide cheap, nu­tri­tious food for slaves.

The Gar­den Mu­seum opened to the pub­lic in 2017 af­ter an 18-month re­de­vel­op­ment project sup­ported by the Na­tional Lot­tery.

The story goes back to 1977, when gar­den­ing en­thu­si­ast Rose­mary Ni­chol­son found the grave of John Trades­cant and his son at the aban­doned church, which was due for de­mo­li­tion.

St Mary-at-lam­beth had been empty for many years, so Rose­mary set about rais­ing funds to res­cue it and cre­ate the world’s first mu­seum on the his­tory of gar­den­ing.

Forty years on, the new-look build­ing can fi­nally dis­play the unique col­lec­tion.

For a build­ing that stands on a busy junc­tion at Lam­beth Bridge, the church­yard gar­den is amaz­ingly tran­quil, de­spite the hum of river­side traf­fic.

First stop on my tour is the tower, the old­est part of the church, which was re­built in the mid-19th cen­tury.

The climb is not for the faint­hearted – 131 tightly coiled steps – but the view across Lon­don is spec­tac­u­lar, from Bat­tersea Power Sta­tion in the west across to the Palace of West­min­ster, then east to­wards the City of Lon­don sky­scrapers and to the Shard.

If you can’t face the climb, you can en­joy the view on a panoramic screen at ground level.

A church was recorded on this site in the Domes­day Book of 1086, but it wasn’t un­til 1620 that John Trades­cant and his son came to live in the parish.

Fast for­ward 170 years and a young J.M.W. Turner made his de­but at the Royal Academy with a wa­ter­colour show­ing Lam­beth Palace and the church tower.

A key el­e­ment of the re­de­vel­op­ment is the Ark Gallery, a recre­ation of Trades­cant’s own “ark”. He be­gan his ca­reer as a gar­dener at Hat­field House to Robert Ce­cil, 1st Earl of Sal­is­bury and Min­is­ter to King James I.

Trades­cant later worked for Charles I and, af­ter mov­ing to Lam­beth in 1620, cre­ated his own gar­den of botan­i­cal spec­i­mens.

He col­lected cu­riosi­ties, both nat­u­ral and man­made, from around the world to put in his ark.

Gifts from sea cap­tains and botanists added to his col­lec­tion, as did his son John, who was gar­dener to Charles II and trav­elled to Amer­ica.

To­day, all the items on dis­play in the Gar­den Mu­seum’s Ark are on loan from the Ashmolean Mu­seum in Ox­ford, founded by Trades­cant’s Lam­beth neigh­bour, lawyer and scholar Elias Ash­mole.

Amongst the eclec­tic mix of or­na­ments and shells, an­i­mal horns and jew­ellery I find the fa­mous Veg­etable Lamb.

Sci­en­tists be­lieved an an­i­mal lived in Rus­sia that was half-lamb, half-plant,

grow­ing on the stalk of the plant and eat­ing the leaves.

But the 18th-cen­tury ver­sion in front of me is fash­ioned from the roots of a fern, ar­ranged to look like an an­i­mal!

Across the nave is a space ded­i­cated to tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions. Pop­u­lar with vis­i­tors over the sum­mer was art­work from Cicely Mary Barker’s “Flower Fairies” books which launched in 1923, and the mu­seum was de­lighted to wel­come some of the orig­i­nal child mod­els.

Head­ing to the court­yard gar­den, de­signed by Chelsea Award-win­ner Dan Pear­son, I pass the Gar­den Wall which over­looks Dan’s col­lec­tion of rare plants.

More than 200 peo­ple sub­mit­ted a pic­ture of their favourite gar­den, which was then fired on to a tile to re­flect the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of Bri­tain’s gar­dens and gar­den­ers.

John Trades­cant Snr died in 1638 and lies with his son in a tomb erected in 1662 by daugh­ter-in-law Hester. Cov­ered with an eclec­tic mix of carv­ings, it mir­rors their pas­sion for travel and col­lect­ing.

Close by, the tomb of Cap­tain Bligh is topped by an eter­nal flame in stone.

I head up to the gallery where the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion is ar­ranged in themed ar­eas. I find a gem that mir­rors the tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion be­low.

Rep­ton Re­vealed (Oc­to­ber 24, 2018 to Fe­bru­ary 3, 2019) marks the bi­cen­te­nary of the death of gar­den de­signer Humphrey Rep­ton, renowned for the Red Books he pre­pared for each client.

Pages of water­colours por­trayed the ex­ist­ing land­scape, but clients would lift flaps to see Rep­ton’s de­sign be­neath.

Rep­ton Re­vealed gath­ers the largest num­ber of the rare Red Books ever dis­played to­gether.

I pore over hand-drawn plans and pho­tos of gar­den de­signs that range from Derek Jar­man’s Dun­geness gar­den to the Eden Project in Corn­wall.

I dis­cover the work of gar­den­ing pi­o­neers like Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Ge­of­frey Jellicoe, then set­tle down on a bench to watch films of con­tem­po­rary gar­den­ers such as Dan Pear­son and Beth Chatto talk­ing about their early in­spi­ra­tion.

There are tools to mar­vel at, gar­den­ers’ note­books to study and fa­mil­iar ob­jects like cro­quet and gar­den gnomes.

I spot some fa­mil­iar faces, from Percy Thrower to Alan Titch­marsh, and a model gar­den by Bri­tain’s, which brings back mem­o­ries of buy­ing plas­tic flower-beds, trees and per­go­las, and painstak­ingly “plant­ing” tiny blooms.

My last stop takes me back to those in­trepid plant hunters and ex­pe­di­tions which were funded not just by wealthy col­lec­tors, but also by the gov­ern­ment for its botan­i­cal gar­dens at Kew, or for eco­nomic use.

It was im­por­tant work, but could be dan­ger­ous. One plant hunter was chased by hos­tile tribes and gored to death by a bull.

An­other died of fever on a moun­tain top.

Thanks to those in­trepid trav­ellers and botanists, we are now able to en­joy snow­drops and tulips, rhodo­den­drons and wis­te­ria in our gar­dens.

To­day the Gar­den Mu­seum is cel­e­brat­ing their legacy, and our British love of gar­dens, at a tran­quil spot in the heart of the cap­i­tal. ■

The Gar­den Wall with tiles show­ing more than 200 pri­vate gar­dens.

The tombs of Cap­tain Bligh and John Trades­cant.

Model gar­den by Bri­tain’s.

The stun­ning in­te­rior of the mu­seum.

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