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  • Great British Gardeners by Vanessa Berridge

    The title page of the original edition of Gerald's Herball, published by Queen Elizabeth I's printer, John Norton, in 1597. (Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    From the Early Plantsmen to the Chelsea Medal Winners

    My late father believed that people liked gardening because it was an aspect of their lives that they could control. I always thought he was wrong, as the vagaries of nature lie well beyond human agency. But the style of gardening in the 1950s and 1960s was to plant bright, long-flowering annuals and serried rows of dahlias. It only recently occurred to me that my father’s gardening wasn’t just influenced by gardening fashion, but that the fashion itself had been created by what he and his contemporaries had endured during the chaos of world war. For them, a garden was somewhere they could take charge. They blasted aphids, slugs and other pests with chemicals (no thoughts then about climate change), and would have hated the loose grasses and textural planting of a later, more informal age.

    This is the underlying theme of Great British Gardeners: From Early Plantsmen to Chelsea Medal Winners. This book follows on from my earlier The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew (also published by Amberley) about the political background to the founding of Kew Gardens in 1759. That book put gardening at the heart of eighteenth-century political life, because gardening, whether we realise it or not, is a political act. Gardening styles down the centuries have been influenced by many different factors, such as fluctuations in trade, war, industrial developments and environmental issues.

    Through the lives of twenty-six gardeners, I have explored four centuries of British history, showing what gardens and those who garden them tell us about political, social and economic concerns in each period.

     

    Illustration from Thomas Fairchild's The City Gardener. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    I have started with John Gerard, who, in 1597, published his Herball, or General Historie of Plants, used as a practical handbook into the nineteenth century. A qualified barber-surgeon, Gerard, had a wide knowledge of plants because he used them in his work. He was gardening and botanising during the Elizabethan age which saw a huge expansion in trade and the beginnings of British colonialism. Gerard travelled across northern Europe with merchant companies acquiring plants, and also invested £25 in the Virginia Company, set up to finance an early colonial settlement in America. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and John Donne, and shared their relish for language. That is why, 400 years later, his Herball remains a wonderful living, breathing book. To understand the Elizabethan age, look no further than John Gerard.

    In the eighteenth century lived a nurseryman called Thomas Fairchild. From a humble, rural background, he had little education, but wrote a charming and evocative book about gardening in London. Published in 1722, The City Gardener was aimed at the merchant class, who, enriched by British trade, now had the leisure to garden. He was also the first known hybridiser, dusting the pollen from a wild carnation on to the stigma of a sweet william. He was nervous about tinkering with nature, for it was still regarded as blasphemous even among the supposedly free-thinking members of the Royal Society. It was a century and a half later before the term ‘hybridisation’ was coined and it became an accepted horticultural practice. Next time you buy a tray of annuals from the garden centre, spare a thought for Mr Fairchild.

     

    Venus's Vale at Rousham. (Author's collection, Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    The eighteenth-century English Landscape Movement was a reaction against the French-inspired formalism of the Stuart period. The Whig aristocrats, architects of the Protestant Hanoverian succession, used their estates to symbolise on the ground the political changes in the country, as Britain became a nation and moved towards a constitutional monarchy. William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown were the two great figures of this movement, smoothing out the landscape for their aristocratic patrons. This new naturalism was intended to evoke the liberties of the British political system as opposed to the rigid autocracy of the French Catholic monarchy.

    Gardening was once a path out of poverty to fame and riches. That was certainly true in the nineteenth century, when Joseph Paxton rose to become one of the country’s leading figures, and the only gardener of my twenty-six to receive a knighthood. He was a landscape designer, an architect, a duke’s confidential friend, a botanical writer, a magazine and newspaper proprietor, an industrialist and railway magnate, a financial speculator, a politician and a visionary. This gardener’s boy was the personification of the Victorian self-made man, and his elaborate, contrived gardens reflected his age’s grand self-confidence.

    Reaction came, as it does: the 1860s saw the birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which stressed the importance of craftwork and socialism, as against factory production and over-weaning capitalism. Again, gardens mirrored what was happening in the country: William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll turned away from the formal parterres packed with industrial quantities of exotic plants needing over-wintering in greenhouses. They chose plants which would flourish naturally in British gardens – alpines for rock gardens and hardy perennials for flowerbeds – anticipating the late twentieth-century gardener Beth Chatto by over a century. Beth Chatto’s principle, ‘the right plant in the right place’, is now an almost universally held gardening motto.

    Gertrude Jekyll at the Deanery, Sonning, home of Edward Hudson, founder of Country Life, c. 1901. (Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    I’ve touched on suburban gardening after the Second World War, with its brief return to Victorian formalism. But horticultural currents continued to flow in the direction established by Robinson and Jekyll, as exemplified by the Chelsea Flower Show. Each year, the show is dominated by gardens designed and planted to raise concerns about climate change, care for the environment, conservation of water, and health. Turn on the News at Six: all these issues will be covered at some point in most bulletins.

    One of the most successful Chelsea designers in recent years, Tom Stuart-Smith, unites in his work many of the themes discussed in the book, as well as hinting at the rich variety in our contemporary culture. His gardens capture the spirit of the past, the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, current environmental thinking, and a sense that a garden is a microcosm of society.

    Vanessa Berridge's new book Great British Gardeners: From the Early Plantsmen to the Chelsea Medal Winners is available for purchase now.

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