GREAT BRI­TISH GAR­DEN­ERS

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Be in­spired by gar­den greats, and iconic gar­dens to visit.

The Bri­tish have al­ways been a na­tion of gar­den­ers. Gar­den­ing tells us about our so­cial and po­lit­i­cal his­tory, as it has been in­flu­enced down the cen­turies by fac­tors such as fluc­tu­a­tions in trade, war, in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ments, and chang­ing views on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. Vanessa Ber­ridge tells us more.

IN THE LATE SIXTEENTH cen­tury, a highly dec­o­ra­tive style flour­ished, and non-na­tive plants flooded in as over­seas trade de­vel­oped. The late sev­en­teenth and early eigh­teenth cen­tury saw gar­dens in­flu­enced by French for­mal­ism, af­ter Charles II spent his years in ex­ile at the court of Louis XIV. In the eigh­teenth cen­tury, the English land­scape move­ment was born, with gar­dens de­signed more nat­u­ral­is­ti­cally, as this coun­try moved to­wards a con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy un­der the Hanove­ri­ans. The Vic­to­rian pe­riod was the great age of car­pet bed­ding, with new po­lit­i­cal and so­cial lead­ers, their for­tunes de­rived from the mills, fac­to­ries and trade of the in­dus­trial age, dis­play­ing their wealth in their gar­dens. In the late nine­teenth cen­tury, Wil­liam Mor­ris’s Arts and Crafts move­ment re­acted against in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, de­fend­ing crafts­man­ship against mass pro­duc­tion. Gar­dens fol­lowed suit: freer in style, they were planted with hardy peren­ni­als suited to the soil. The 1950s and 1960s saw a brief re­turn to a taste for highly coloured, ser­ried rows of dahlias, but there has been a con­tin­ued drift to­wards nat­u­ral­is­tic plant­ing into the 21st cen­tury. Con­cerns with cli­mate change and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues make us very aware of the eco­log­i­cal cost of us­ing plants un­suited to their set­ting. Twenty-six gar­den­ers help me tell the story of Bri­tish gar­den­ing, start­ing with John Ger­ard (1545-1612). In 1597, this botanist, gar­dener and bar­ber-sur­geon pub­lished The Her­ball, or Gen­eral His­to­rie of Plantes. It be­came a clas­sic of English botany, and re­mains a won­der­ful liv­ing, breath­ing book: Ger­ard shared the zest for lan­guage of his con­tem­po­raries, Wil­liam Shake­speare and John Donne. He was friendly with Eu­ro­pean botanists, med­i­cal men and Protes­tant ex­iles from the Wars of Re­li­gion. Pol­i­tics was never very far away, even from men treat­ing pa­tients or wield­ing spades. Liv­ing in a time of ex­plo­ration and nascent colo­nial­ism, Ger­ard in­vested £25 in the Vir­ginia Com­pany,

and trav­elled across north­ern Eu­rope to find plants. If you want to un­der­stand the El­iz­a­bethan age, look no fur­ther than John Ger­ard. Thomas Fairchild (1667-1729) was one of Lon­don’s most ac­com­plished nurs­ery­men in the early eigh­teenth cen­tury. In 1716, he crossed a wild car­na­tion with a sweet wil­liam, pro­duc­ing the first man-made hy­brid. His find­ings were pre­sented at the Royal So­ci­ety, his au­di­ence sci­en­tists and free-thinkers. But they were still card-car­ry­ing Chris­tians who con­sid­ered blas­phe­mous Fairchild’s ac­tive tin­ker­ing with plants’ sex­ual re­pro­duc­tion. It was over a cen­tury be­fore hy­bridi­s­a­tion be­came gen­er­ally ac­cepted. The chief de­signer of the English Land­scape move­ment was a Bridling­ton joiner’s son, Wil­liam Kent (1685-1748). Kent trained as a painter in Rome, be­fore es­tab­lish­ing him­self as an in­te­rior de­signer, and an out­stand­ingly bril­liant gar­den de­signer. Kent created the gar­den at Chiswick House for Lord Burling­ton, plac­ing themes and mo­tifs from Re­nais­sance gar­dens within a ru­ral set­ting. He worked at Stowe, in Buck­ing­hamshire, for Lord Cob­ham, an ar­chi­tect of the Hanove­rian suc­ces­sion. This was the lead­ing po­lit­i­cal gar­den of the age, ap­par­ently nat­u­ral­is­tic, but with sym­bol­ism em­bed­ded in both its de­sign and its build­ings. More mag­nif­i­cent than the King’s gar­den, it was in­tended to show that the King was a con­sti­tu­tional monarch, cho­sen by the aris­toc­racy, rather than be­ing di­vinely ap­pointed.

Kent was suc­ceeded at Stowe by Lancelot ‘Ca­pa­bil­ity’ Brown (1716-1783). This former kitchen gar­dener did more than any­one be­fore, or since, to change the face of the Bri­tish land­scape. His clients in­cluded the King, six prime min­is­ters and much of the aris­toc­racy. He has been as­so­ci­ated with over 250 sites, created more than 150 or­na­men­tal lakes and planted over a mil­lion trees. His suc­cess was built on busi­ness acu­men, an un­der­stand­ing of land man­age­ment, and in­te­grat­ing agri­cul­ture and sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties within pleas­ing land­scapes. Some­one is al­leged to have said to a puz­zled Brown: ‘I wish I may die be­fore you. I should like to see Heaven be­fore you have im­proved it.’ Brown’s would-be suc­ces­sor was Humphry Rep­ton (17521818); the bi­cen­te­nary of whose death is marked this year. His hall­mark was his beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated Red Books, fea­tur­ing wa­ter­colour sketches with over­lays, show­ing be­fores and af­ters. He worked for coun­try squires, mer­chants and pro­fes­sion­als, as well as the aris­toc­racy, as money fil­tered down the so­cial scale, and he re­sponded to the taste for more dec­o­ra­tive gar­den­ing. Two ex­tra­or­di­nary men dom­i­nated Vic­to­rian gar­den­ing. La­nark­shire-born John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) pro­duced a pow­er­ful pe­ri­od­i­cal, The Gar­dener’s Mag­a­zine, which cov­ered de­sign and plants­man­ship, and the de­sign and heat­ing of green­houses. De­spite be­ing vir­tu­ally crip­pled, he poured out book af­ter book, all taken down by his wife and de­voted amanu­en­sis, Jane. His En­cy­clopae­dia of Gar­den­ing ran to over 1,200 pages and helped in­tro­duce gar­den­ing to a much wider au­di­ence. For Sir Joseph Pax­ton (1803-1865), be­com­ing head gar­dener at Chatsworth launched a ca­reer which cul­mi­nated in a knight­hood for his Crys­tal Palace de­sign for the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion of 1851. A ti­tan of in­dus­try, he saw the Crys­tal Palace as a tem­ple of leisure for work­ing peo­ple, and was de­ter­mined to outdo Ver­sailles, with elab­o­rate wa­ter­works and Ital­ianate ter­races of plant­ing when the build­ing was trans­ferred to Sy­den­ham. He also de­signed a ridge tent for navvies dur­ing the Crimean war. Amal­ga­mat­ing this de­sign with his ex­pe­ri­ence of build­ing green­houses, Pax­ton set up a busi­ness sell­ing flat-pack hot­houses. He put a green­house into ev­ery sub­ur­ban gar­den. Wil­liam Robin­son (1838-1935) and Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) both wrote books at­tack­ing Vic­to­rian high-main­te­nance car­petbed­ding. In­stead, they be­lieved in plant­ing peren­ni­als, suited to the con­di­tions in which they were grown, rather than short­lived hot­house plants. A craftswoman, Jekyll was steeped in the Arts and Crafts spirit. Her home in Sur­rey, Mun­stead Wood, was built in the ver­nac­u­lar style, and she made the art of plant­ing an herba­ceous bor­der her own.

‘Some­one is al­leged to have said to a puz­zled Brown: “I wish I may die be­fore you. I should like to see Heaven be­fore you have im­proved it.'”

A dif­fer­ent voice spoke for the gar­den­ing world of the 1960s. John Brookes (1933-2018) was the man who made the mod­ern gar­den. He saw gar­dens as places to be used by peo­ple, not as static pic­tures created by plants. His sem­i­nal book, Room Out­side (1969), in­tro­duced ama­teur gar­den­ers to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the small­est space. His was the style of the Habi­tat gen­er­a­tion. At his gar­den de­sign school, he trained sev­eral fu­ture Chelsea medal win­ners, and, over a life­time, de­signed over 1,000 gar­dens, across the world. Beth Chatto (1923-2018), who died in May this year, was ar­guably the most in­flu­en­tial gar­dener of the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury, her mantra ‘the right plant for the right place’. For over fifty years, she gar­dened an in­hos­pitable hol­low of gravel, clay, silt and sand in Es­sex, which gave her mas­tery over a vast range of plant­ing. She took over­looked plants such as helle­bores, Lon­don Pride and hardy gera­ni­ums to the Chelsea Flower Show in the 1970s, win­ning con­sec­u­tive gold medals. Her style of gar­den­ing chimes per­fectly with cur­rent con­cerns over cli­mate change and its ef­fects on our en­vi­ron­ment. Be­hind ev­ery gar­den and gar­dener is a so­cial and po­lit­i­cal les­son to be learned.

Pic­tured on this page clock­wise from top-left: 'Ca­pa­bil­ity' Lancelot Brown by John Keyse Sher­win af­ter Nathaniel Dance; Humphry Rep­ton with his theodo­lite on his busi­ness card; The ti­tle page of the orig­i­nal edi­tion of Ger­ard's Her­ball, pub­lished by Queen El­iz­a­beth I's printer, John Nor­ton, in 1597; Il­lus­tra­tion from Thomas Fairchild's The City Gar­dener. (Cour­tesy of the Li­brary of Congress); John Claudius Loudon.

Pic­tured right: The gar­den and Clock House at Den­mans, Sus­sex, land­scaped by John Brookes; Far right and below: The gar­dens at Hester­combe, Som­er­set, de­signed and planted by the part­ner­ship of Ed­win Lu­tyens and Gertrude Jekyll. (Cour­tesy of Hester­combe Gar­dens Trust); Bot­tom of page: The South Front parterre at Holkham Hall de­signed by Wil­liam An­drews Nes­field, an army en­gi­neer, wa­ter­colourist and high Vic­to­rian gar­den de­signer.

Great Bri­tish Gar­den­ers: From Early Plants­men to Chelsea Medal Win­ners, by Vanessa Ber­ridge (priced £25) is avail­able from am­ber­ley-books.com.

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