The Princess's Garden by Vanessa Berridge
I have just started on my second book for Amberley Publishing on the lives of Great British Gardeners. I will begin in the late sixteenth century with the herbalist John Gerard and come up to the present day, probably finishing with handsome Chelsea superstar Tom Stuart-Smith.
The British have always been a nation of gardeners and exploring the lives of some twenty-five or more Britain’s greatest exponents is a good way of understanding this island’s history. For gardeners and gardening have always responded to and symbolised political and social upheavals in Britain down the centuries. Take, for instance, early gardeners John Gerard and the John Tradescants, father and son. They were men of their time, investing in colonial adventures, and indeed all travelled far afield as few members of their class would have done before the late sixteenth century. Interestingly, gardeners from the Tradescants’ time onwards have been accorded enhanced social status, with an eighteenth century gardener such as ‘Capability’ Brown dining regularly with dukes and sending his sons to Eton.
This is partly because of the unique symbolic role that gardening has played in British history. This symbolism, perhaps, reached its zenith in the eighteenth century, and is the subject of The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew, my first book for Amberley, recently reissued in paperback. Kew was founded in 1759 by Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales; the princess of the title. When the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1987, few people realised that it had been named not for Diana but for her rather less high profile predecessor. I wanted to find out why Augusta, her husband Frederick, Prince of Wales, and her botanical advisor John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, had been all but air-brushed out of history. As I researched the book I uncovered a colourful story of dissension in the royal family, and of kidnapping, dramatic childbirth, sibling rivalry, and adultery.
So my book recounts the turbulent political and personal background to the founding of Kew Gardens in 1759, revealing the discord at the heart of the royal family. It also shows how gardening in the eighteenth century was highly political. What, you may ask, has gardening to do with politics? At that time – to adapt the feminist catch phrase of the 1960s and 1970s – the horticultural was the political. The gardens of the aristocracy – Stourhead, Blenheim, Houghton and Stowe – were all used to display political affiliation. The royal gardens at Richmond and later at Kew were also manipulated to put forward the regal and princely points of view.
Augusta of Saxe-Gotha arrived in England, aged just seventeen, to marry Frederick, Prince of Wales, the elder son of George II and his intellectual wife, Caroline of Ansbach. Detested by his parents, and indeed eventually exiled from court, this slightly wayward young man had to make his own way in life. He was befriended by Lord Cobham, the leader of the Whig opposition to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. There was no love lost between Frederick and Walpole, ally of Queen Caroline, so with the rogue Whigs looking for a figurehead and Frederick seeking a role, it was a political marriage made in heaven.
Cobham was the creator of the pre-eminent political garden at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, where he set out his agenda as a Whig leader. Britain had only been a nation since 1707, with the Act of Union in the year of Frederick’s birth. The early eighteenth-century landscape movement was a means of articulating on the land the political voice of the ascendant Whig aristocracy, engineers of the Hanoverian succession. At Stowe, a series of talented garden designers laid out the ground and constructed temples of follies which embodied Cobham’s political creed. The grounds were meant to be seen by the public; indeed, in 1717, Cobham opened the first ever visitor centre at the New Inn by the gate to Stowe.
Influenced by this powerful aristocrat, Frederick began working on his gardens, first at Carlton House and subsequently, as he prepared for kingship, on his garden at Kew, expecting his noble advisers to lend a hand. He led fashion, as a letter from 1734 reveals: ‘There is a new taste in gardening just arisen, which has been practised with so great success at the Prince’s garden in Town that a general alteration of some of the most considerable gardens in the kingdom is begun.’
But his lasting memorial is not Carlton House, which was razed to the ground by his grandson, George IV, but the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Frederick died in 1751, before he could inherit the throne, and before he completed his plans. But Augusta took up his spade, declaring herself determined to make a garden which would ‘contain all the plants known on Earth’. Implicit in this aim was an awareness of the economic potential of plants as Britain developed into a world trading power, forged through commercial muscle. Augusta’s vision for her garden was innovative, combining for the first time the landscape and the botanic in one garden – and eventually eclipsing Stowe which was much more revered in the eighteenth century. Kew is a research institution of international importance, and since 2003, a World Heritage Site, whereas Stowe is a museum to the values of the eighteenth century, which needs interpretation boards at every point.
It’s an intriguing chapter in British history, which shows how gardens helped Britain, by then a constitutional monarchy, to create a distinctive new culture for itself. At every stage of our history, our gardens have represented major social and political trends – look at the Eden Project, or indeed the new Hive at Kew, which is invested with important ecological messages in the early twenty-first century.
It is stories like these that I hope to tease out as I research the lives of some of our Great British Gardeners.
Augusta, Princess of Wales, will be one of the stars of an important exhibition this summer and autumn at Kensington Palace in London. Enlightenment Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Making of the Modern World highlights three overlooked Hanoverian consorts and charts their major contribution to British cultural life in the eighteenth-century. The exhibition runs from 22 June to 12 November.
Vanessa Berridge's new paperback edition of The Princess's Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew is available for purchase now.