Mansions in Bloom

Ruth Richardson

  • A Paradise out of a Common Field: The Pleasures and Plenty of the Victorian Garden by Joan Morgan and Alison Richards
    Century, 256 pp, £16.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 7126 2209 8
  • Private Gardens of London by Arabella Lennox-Boyd
    Weidenfeld, 224 pp, £25.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 297 83025 2
  • The Greatest Glasshouse: The Rainforest Recreated edited by Sue Minter
    HMSO, 216 pp, £25.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 11 250035 8
  • Religion and Society in a Cotswold Vale: Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, 1780-1865 by Albion Urdank
    California, 448 pp, $47.50, May 1990, ISBN 0 520 06670 7

The garden whose pleasures and plenty are described in A Paradise out of a Common Field is neither typical nor representative. Its owner is extremely rich, and its location a Victorian form of Arcadia: a place where money is no object, where all the world is the topmost Society, and where the servant class knows its place. Perhaps because this flawless corner of Victoria’s England is so very unlike what we know of it from Dickens and Mayhew, George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell, it seems rather an unreal landscape.

Quite fortuitously, while reading the book, I found in a Victorian journal telling criticism of one of the landed proprietors whose garden is described here in glowing terms, and whose head gardener’s house is illustrated. The landowner was being roundly criticised by a leading architectural journalist for the grossly insanitary housing provided for employees on the estate’s margins. Hundreds of them had died in a recent outbreak of cholera. ‘The whole affair is one of pocket,’ one of the head gardeners is reported to have observed apropos of the growth of that upper-class dietary staple, the pineapple, for which this particular estate was renowned. Indeed.

The authors’ intention has been to provide a re-examination of the accomplishments of forgotten men –Victorian head gardeners – and their role in supporting the social function of the country house. These men are said to have had responsibility for ‘everything from designing elaborate formal parterres to planting collections of orchids and conifers’, as well as the provision of vegetables and fruit for the kitchen, house flowers, posies and buttonholes. Yet the professionalisation of gardening receives scant attention. Rather, the book chronicles passing fashions in Victorian country-house floriculture. The ‘plenty’ obtained from the selected gardens is amply, even fulsomely described. The authors list the production of grapes, of pineapples, of camellias, of unseasonable fruits and flowers of all kinds, of vegetables, of exotic palms, perfumed plants, foliage and multiple plants for flowerbeds.

The volume begins and ends with the Victorian country house. It is beautifully produced, but falls short of the scholarship of works in this area by F.M.L. Thompson, Mark Girouard and Brent Elliott, to which it owes a great deal. The text represents an extensive trawl of material, which is presented in the form of a verbal scrapbook covering a range of topics, under headings such as ‘roses, roses, everywhere’, ‘pineapples in profusion’ or ‘a riot of rhododendrons’. But while an intuition is gained of the apparently superhuman amount of work accomplished by the Victorian gardening élite, it is hard to glean how such work was organised and executed, what sort of daily and seasonal timetables were established, or to learn about the lives of those whose labours are said to be the focus of the book. An appendix provides a series of potted biographies of country estates such as Longleat, Beauvoir Castle and Sandringham: but none of their head gardeners receives like attention. If little is known, then this should be made clear. It would seem that country-house archives and other sources may yet yield good material for a more scholarly examination of such matters.

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