GREAT BRITISH GARDENERS
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.