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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.

  • 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.

    The Princess's Garden 1 Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales by Allan Ramsay (1758). (© Bute Collection@ Mount Stuart, The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    The Princess's Garden 2 View from the Portico of Stowe House to the Park by Jacques Rigaud. (By kind permission of Stowe House Preservation Trust/Stowe School), The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    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.’

    The Princess's Garden 3 The White House, Kew by Johan Jacob Schalch (c.1760). (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015, The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    9781445660295

    Vanessa Berridge's new paperback edition of The Princess's Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew is available for purchase now.

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