Inspired by Melanie’s wonderful talk to members about the various Rothschild gardens, Sharon & I accompanied her on a trip to see the restoration project at Gunnersbury Park. We had our volunteer project at Charlton House & Gardens firmly in mind throughout the day, and were pleased to find parallels – albeit on a much grander scale there! Gunnersbury was bought by Ealing & Acton council in 1925 (Charlton was bought by Greenwich Council in the 1920s) and used as a public park in much the same way that Charlton Park has been.
In 2018 the “Large Mansion” was restored using Heritage Lottery and other funding and opened as a Museum housing the borough archive. Major parts of the park were included in the funding, the Orangery, lake and orchards for example. The Friends of Gunnersbury Park were instrumental in the restoration effort, and volunteers clearly play a large part in the day-to-day running.
The talk was given by Melanie Aspey, a CABAHS member who has been the Rothschild archivist for 28 years. Providing photographs and documentation from the Rothschild archives, she said the Rothschilds are best known for banking, their art collections, philanthropy and wine, but many of them have also had a keen interest in horticulture reaching back to Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), the founder of the dynasty, who lived in the Frankfurt Jewish Ghetto.
After the defeat of Napoleon, thanks to their support for the allies, the Rothschild family was able to lobby for the retention of the right for the Jewish Community to buy real estate outside the ghetto. Mayer Amschel’s son, Amschel, considered that building a house would be too ostentatious, but a garden would better serve their needs. Instead he established a garden which he subsequently opened to visitors and for charitable purposes. He spent vast sums on plants, some of which (and Melanie showed one of the plant sale receipts from the archives) he imported from England. Later taken over by the Nazis and bombed by the allies, the garden fell into disrepair but parts have recently been renovated.
On Thursday I joined a tour of Avery Hill Park with the Mottingham Horticultural Society, who had extended an invitation to CABAHS members. It was a beautiful, crisp, sunny afternoon and the park looked gorgeous. Our guide John, from the Friends of Avery Hill Park, told us about the history and prehistory of the park before leading us around the extensive area.
Some members may be familiar with the Winter Garden, a glasshouse currently undergoing renovation work (therefore closed) and about to pass from the hands of the University of Greenwich back to the local council. I look forward to seeing it after renovation is complete!
There are two main areas of the park, historically and now. The more manicured, grassed parkland associated with Avery Hill Mansion (which is currently being converted into a school), and former farmland, with field boundaries and drainage ditches. The Friends are working to make the latter areas more wildlife-friendly by negotiating a meadow-style mowing regime (ie: cutting only twice a year, removing the mowings once seed has dropped, and sowing wildflower seeds) with some mown paths. Even after just a year, it’s possible to see that the range of plant species is extensive. The increase in butterfly numbers and activity in summer 2021 was notable. It is hoped that a general increase in biodiversity will also encourage an increase in bat numbers, which have declined in recent years.
The former field boundaries are still visible, and what would have been hedgerow has grown into rows of trees and scrub, which is excellent for wildlife. A new mixed hedgerow has been planted where one had disappeared, and the drainage ditches have been cleared by volunteers. Another historical feature which lives on through the Friends is the old field names, such as Henley’s Meadow, Little Stony Acre, Grey’s Field and Great Stony Acre. The latter is being planted with native tree species – oak, hornbeam, birch, hawthorn and field maple. Around 1500 trees have been planted over a five year period, and there are plans for a natural drainage pond in the centre as the area is at the bottom of a slope, is mostly heavy clay and becomes very boggy in winter.
It was a very enjoyable afternoon and I appreciated the chance to visit the Park with a knowledgeable guide.
Members who came to this event on 5 June 2021 were treated to an interesting talk from Tim Barnes about the history of the Church, and the plans for the future, including a Commonwealth Garden designed by Chelsea gold medal winner Juliet Sargeant. We also saw the crypt and the beautiful mosaics. The award-winning gates feature three flowers of remembrance, the poppy, the forget-me-not (Germany) and the cornflower (France).
Catherine Horwood’s mention of Cedric Morris in her talk is a reminder of the close relationship between artists and their gardens. In 2016 The Royal Academy held a wonderful exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden, Monet to Matisse’, which devoted one room to Monet’s triptych of waterlilies. Many of us have had the pleasure of visiting his garden at Giverny, which is the subject of some of his most famous works of art.
Alfred Parsons (1847 – 1920) was an English artist who not only created his own garden, but designed for others. He provided the illustrations for many famous garden writers including Ellen Willmott (The Genus Rosa) and William Robinson (The Wild Garden). His friendship with Robinson led to him lending advice on the planting at Gravetye Manor.
Parsons had a wide mix of friends in both America and England, including John Singer Sargent and the novelist Henry James. Parsons’ paintings apparently mirrored the aspirations of Americans for an English garden and in 1899, when Henry James bought Lamb House in Rye, he invited Parsons to design the garden for him. It was here that he wrote some of his most acclaimed novels. Lamb House was much later bought by E.F. Benson and the view of the garden from the windows provided the inspiration for the Mapp and Lucia novels. In 2014, the BBC adapted these for a television series and used the garden at Lamb House for filming.
And so, to Cedric Morris. As well as painting portraits, still lifes and landscapes, Morris painted flowers extensively. In Higham Suffolk, he and his partner founded the East Anglia School of Art, but here Morris also indulged his passion for plants and, in particular, irises. He produced at least 90 named varieties and also exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show. His gravestone reads ‘Cedric Morris Artist and Plantsman’.
I am often struck by how much a beautifully designed herbaceous border, the Long Border at Great Dixter for example, resembles a work of art.
I recently attended a lecture (on Zoom of course!) about Thomas Gainsborough and his connection to the English landscape. Many people will be familiar with his portraits, but the landscapes in the background are not always commented on so widely, unless it is the painting of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, which seems to be the subject of a huge range of interpretations (not all repeatable in a horticultural blog perhaps).
The 18th century was a period of great upheaval – the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720 triggering a financial panic; in 1721 the country had its first prime minister in Sir Robert Walpole; in 1739 Britain declared war on Spain; in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland to claim the British throne; in 1756 the Seven Years war between Britain and France began; there was unrest both in America and at home and throughout this period, there was a Hanoverian king. It is all too easy to forget that two of the great names associated with landscape architecture, William Kent and Lancelot Brown, were working against this background, with Brown finding little favour with the ordinary person by uprooting and moving whole villages when they stood in the way of his designs.
It is also no coincidence that Brown, Kent and their peers were creating landscapes which came to be seen as quintessentially English. Reacting against the formality of the classic gardens which were inspired by those on the continent and France in particular, they designed gardens that were intended to reflect the ‘sinuous curves’ of the English countryside. Ironically, Brown, who never travelled outside the shores of his home island, was inspired by the paintings of French artists such as Poussin.
In the background of Gainsborough’s paintings, this same concern with the natural is evident. Even in his most famous portraits, for example the one of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the actress Perdita. Both show an English landscape populated by English trees, most commonly the oak.
Apparently, as Gainsborough was not a ‘plein air’ artist, in order to remind himself of the shape of the oak he would arrange stems of sprouting broccoli in front of his easel!
This tension between what is an English garden and what is from mainland Europe has influenced garden design throughout history.
With the RHS encouraging people to plant a tree in their Roots for Remembrance, a nationwide memorial initiative, it seems an appropriate time to think about the role of the oak in English landscape culture.
The Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust has just launched an online exhibition from the borough museum archive, including a place where residents can record their personal experience of living through the pandemic. Most of the featured ‘tales’ are from Charlton, but the idea is to collect stories from all over the Borough.
As she sought to improve her horticultural knowledge, Jane Loudon had found the gardening manuals of the day were targeted at those who already had a solid level of horticultural understanding – there were no entry-level manuals, for which she saw a need and potential interest and so began to write them herself. She set to writing them as she herself learned: Instructions in Gardening for Ladies; The Ladies’ Flower Garden; The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden; Botany for Ladies; The Lady’s Magazine of Gardening. These became standard books of reference, and attained a large circulation, making gardening an accessible pastime for women, who were often excluded from planting practices.
Like Mary Wollstonecraft, another keen reformer, Jane Loudon was acutely aware of her position. Mary Poovey’s book, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984) and Alexis Easeley’s First Person Anonymous (2004) explore the challenges female authors faced in a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century society which emphasised the proprieties of the Proper Lady and the accommodations which women writers made. They also point out why many prominent female writers chose to publish anonymously, as it provided effective cover for exploring a variety of conventionally ‘masculine’ issues’.
Despite its associations with virtuous endeavour and the home, the garden also provided opportunities for women to negotiate between domestic space and the larger world. Jane Loudon was not alone in publishing for women, although most focused on botany – a far less ‘practical’ activity than gardening. And it is clear on reading Jane Loudon’s work, that she is actually encouraging women to get outside in the garden and to engage in some gardening activity – the reader is advised on how best to dig, the most suitable types of implement, as well as on soil quality, compost and plants themselves. Her work is encyclopaedic. Not quite advocating the throwing away of dresses, she treads a careful line between decorum, education and reform. For many years she has languished in the shadow of her husband, but her work deserves to be read on its own merits and for the contribution it makes to the study of the history of women in the garden.
For anyone interested in reading a little more about Jane Loudon, Bea Howe’s book, ‘Lady With Green Fingers’ is a very readable account of her life. Bea Howe herself ( a ‘fringe ‘member of the Bloomsbury Group) was born in Chislehurst.
I have recently finished reading Sarah Bilston’s book ‘The Promise of the Suburbs’. This is a very readable study of the history and development of the suburbs and their representation in literature. Rather than being the incredibly boring places often demonised in popular culture and variously vilified as boring, conventional and unimaginative (Bilston’s introductory chapter is titled ‘The “Horror” of Suburbia’) Bilston shows how they provided opportunities for female professionalism and new ideas about modernity.
The massive expansion of the suburbs during the Victorian period enabled an increasing role for the middle class people who were to occupy them. Central to this were ideas of taste. Visions of landscape gardens and spacious country home interiors were not appropriate to these smaller scale domestic environments and a new market developed for advice texts. With the removal of the paper tax, the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century saw a burgeoning of journals of all kinds and many of these were written and contributed to by women. This was the period of Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot and Jane Austen when middle class women were finding a voice and journals provided an opportunity to share ideas, in many cases anonymously if these were particularly controversial.  Bilston includes a chapter on Jane Loudon (b. 1807, d.1858), a name which, until fairly recently, I was unfamiliar with. More popular than Mrs. Beeton in her day and writing at the same time, selling huge numbers of books in print, as a female gardener writing for people in the suburbs, she didn’t stand a chance and, for the most part, has disappeared from view, receiving scant attention in the scholarly discussions of horticulture.
Jane Wells Webb Loudon was born on 19 August 1807 and died on 13 July 1858. After the death of her mother in 1819, she travelled in Europe for a year with her father, clearly a far-sighted man with regard to a suitable education for girls, but who lost his business to excessive speculation. He died penniless in 1824, when Jane Webb was only 17, forcing her into a position where she had to financially support herself. Already quite a prolific writer, she wrote ‘The Mummy; Or a Tale of the Twenty-second Century’ which was published anonymously in 1827 and has been seen as an early forerunner of science fiction. (Mary Shelley had written Frankenstein in 1818, but The Mummy is a very different narrative).
Through this she came to the attention of John Claudius Loudon, who, on meeting, was surprised to find that she was a woman.
Although much older than she (he was 47) and well established with a reputation in horticulture, the two were married seven months later. Jane Loudon makes it clear in her diaries that, knowing nothing whatsoever about plants, she was determined to make up her knowledge deficit. She studied botany (at the time this was considered a suitable subject for girls and women ) under John Lindley and worked closely alongside her husband. By the 1840s she was publishing horticultural journals and books in her own right, supporting her husband’s work and his family (his sisters lived next door) and continued to do so for the rest of her life – John Claudius died in 1843, leaving her to bring up and to financially support their 10 year old daughter single-handedly. She died age 50 in the family home in Bayswater.
 See work such as ‘The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer’ by Mary Poovey and Alexis Easely’s ‘First Person Anonymous’.
Before I turn to the second week in October, I should explain that the first week in October saw me, by and large, cowering indoors, hoping to avoid the rain. I felt shamed into turning my attention to several ‘projects’ that I had earmarked for myself when lockdown began, err, just over six months ago.
One of these projects was to put some order into several piles of books that I have been accumulating and I saved that one till last, as a sort of reward to myself. It’s possible to do a fair amount of sitting down and indulge in a little light reading to help the project along. When I was almost done I unearthed (no pun intended) a great little collection of old and new books about gardening that a friend had presented to me when I took on my allotment.
One was a charming reprint of a book containing sensible advice for the novice WWII allotment-holder, including how to dig efficiently without straining your back – why didn’t I pay more attention?! – and a list of necessary tools to see you through:
Adam the Gardener, a Sunday Express publication from around 1954, presents the gardener’s year, what to do and when, with illustrations of Adam in action. He never looks very happy and I fear he hadn’t got the advice about digging techniques. I thought I would see what Adam had to say about jobs to be done in the garden in the second week in October. Here’s what I found!