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.

So while the gardener and the cook in me found many points of interest, the historian found herself bristling with questions, almost all of which remained unanswered. How did the head gardener actually turn a ‘common field’ into a paradise? What tools and landscaping machinery were or became available; were all the parterres and beds created by physical labour, or was steam used to assist? Were Victorian lawns still scythed by hand, or were lawnmowers employed? What relationship had these huge and carefully organised gardens to the battles over enclosure of common lands, and to the poaching wars so well described by Edward Thompson and Harry Hopkins? What is the history of the plant auction? Was there a Victorian market in topsoil, peat, turf? When was the sprinkler introduced? What happened to experiments using human guano as a fertiliser? Weren’t a lot of the innovations which are here termed Victorian actually Georgian or even older? How influential were these gardens on those of the middle and working classes? Is there evidence of a reverse process, as I suspect is the case? What sort of sales had the burgeoning gardening press? And, mindful of the 18th-century appreciation of the Sublime, one might wonder what varieties of ‘pleasure’ were, in fact, experienced by the Victorian owners of these gardens, and their guests?

A Paradise out of a Common Field promises more than it delivers. Consider the concluding paragraph of its second chapter:

By the mid-1880s ... the ornamental flower garden could be formal, informal, or a mixture of both. Old-fashioned plants co-existed with new exotics. Designs could be representational or abstract, their colouring bold or harmonious, and surfaces uniform as a carpet, or ... uneven. The vocabulary of the flower garden was essentially complete and remains the Victorian head gardener’s great and enduring contribution to modern gardening.

To anyone wanting to discover precisely what features of the gardening vocabulary were inherited from the 18th century and exactly what contribution the head gardeners of these select country houses made to garden history, such a passage is virtually meaningless. Moreover, serious slippages occur in the course of their discussion which reveal the authors’ confusion in attributing this entire garden ‘vocabulary’ to the head gardeners of the few estates described in the book’s appendix. For example, the fact that all the head gardeners in question were men is repeated on many occasions: but the work accomplished by Gertrude Jekyll in her mother’s now famous garden at Munstead Wood is assimilated into the above paragraph listing their achievements, and this and other houses whose gardens she worked on go unlisted in the appendix. Again, the élite head gardeners were themselves influenced by the unsung innovatory gardeners of great public gardens such as the Crystal Palace. The latter’s patrons were public rather than private, and their demands upon the gardener were significantly different from those of the ‘mansion in bloom’. Public garden and gardener are alike missing from the appendix. The crucial importance of the commercial nursery, of the botanist, of the market gardener and the cottage gardener, in the development and conservation of plant species and planting styles is altogether overlooked. It would seem that nostalgia for the life-style above stairs in the élite country house has caused the authors to conflate the achievements of its undoubtedly productive and interesting personnel with those of others excluded from attention.

The book’s major strength, which ought to have been capitalised upon to a greater extent, is its use of the personal testimony of élite gardeners culled mainly from the various gardening magazines. This is turned to good use in many places, particularly in the discussion of the fruit and flower shows which reached their apogee in the Late Victorian era and which, according to Brent Elliott, suffered a marked decline with the arrival of the cinema. The book is evidently the result of a great deal of thought and labour, and has a genuinely laudable aim. Garden historians will surely enjoy many points of detail, and while social historians may lament the book’s lack of context and rather vague chronology, they will perhaps value its insights on the stresses and strains caused to country-house staff by the annual cycle of the London Season. Those who enjoy indulgence in gardening and cooking nostalgia will appreciate the book’s enthusiastic style and its copious coverage of plant varieties and sumptuous dishes.

The private gardens of a modern and in some cases less wealthy minority are the subject of Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s Private Gardens of London. Written by a landscape gardener, and beautifully photographed by John Miller, the book’s focus is a series of nearly forty gardens from different parts of the metropolis. The Museum of London’s scheme to collect pictures and photographs of London gardens will surely result in a more representative sample, but this is a fine collection: many budding gardeners will find it a satisfying bedside read, full of other people’s ideas about what to do with awkward plots, dark basements, and corners of grey old gardens.

From my last visit to the botanical gardens at Kew a sad memory persists of the huge iron ribs of the Palm House glassless and empty, like the skeleton of a great beached whale. Piles of shiny new ribs awaiting transplantation lay alongside. Now the building is looking magnificent, and full of new, though often younger, plants. Sue Minter’s book on the Palm House seeks to offer a compact history of the building, from its design and manufacture to its recent structural overhaul. She is the building’s Supervisor, and was a member of the design team during restoration. Her book is an amalgam of the biological, the historical and the architectural, a celebration of the great iron building and its plant collections. Sue Minter rightly follows the historian Edward Diestelkamp in giving equal credit for the building’s structure to the ironfounder Richard Turner as to its architect, Decimus Burton.

The lives of the building’s inhabitants – plant and human – are glimpsed in short but informative chapters which describe the inception of the idea for such a building, its design, manufacture and erection, its historical significance, its popularity and beauty as well as its design faults, and its development in the hundred and fifty years since its erection in 1844-8. The varieties of plants now housed in the great Palm House are discussed both in the context of their natural habitats in the rainforest and in the glasshouse itself. The chapter on their removal and replacement during rebuilding features a poignant photograph of the decapitation of an enormous Phoenix Sylvestris palm. The book is beautifully produced, and gives a pervasive sense of the history of human endeavour in protecting these noble plants. It also provides a telling indication of Britain’s industrial decline within the last decade: in the early Eighties five iron foundries were found to make new castings for the buildings, but by the time the tender documents were released three of them had ceased trading. The original building was mainly wrought-iron, held under tension. The necessary replacements for the wrought-iron members could no longer be manufactured here, and stainless steel was chosen instead.

My only reservations about the book concern its cost, which is high, its jacket design, which is awful, and the architectural/structural chapters written by other contributors, which pass over some important matters in a very cursory way. What happened to old parts of the building now replaced? Conservation rightly applies to noble buildings as to rainforests, and the book would perhaps have benefited if a member of English Heritage’s team had come forward to discuss the reasoning behind compromises apparently made in the new building, and the fate of its original components. Palms can be replaced by propagation, but curvilinear wrought-iron and glass buildings which pre-date the Crystal Palace, of which this was a unique survival, sadly can’t.

Quite another sort of approach is to be found in Albion Urdank’s book. An American scholar of enormous curiosity and industry has taken a vacuum-cleaner to the available records and resources for a distinct community during the period 1780-1865. Taking the results home, he has combed them through and examined them in a critical and scholarly fashion, holding them up to the light of previous historical and social theories, and ordering them according to ideas and findings of his own. His book progresses from a long-term discussion of the geology, history and social organisation of the community of the Nailsworth valley in Gloucestershire to its development into an early industrial district, through local wool farming and waterpowered mills, the arrival of factories, and their eventual failure or relocation. Nailsworth’s geography along a branched valley favoured the growth of small hamlets, and the clearance of wooded areas provided grazing for sheep. Probably because of the traditional use of rivers and streams as parish boundaries, it occupied an anomalous position on the borders of three parishes. More over, as a result of the 16th-centuty division of its ancient manor, its feudal hierarchies were also divided. The existence of springs and fast-moving streams made it an ideal location for early industrial settlements. The division of its secular and religious administration, its border status and its scattered settlement helped to foster religious nonconformity, and Urdank discusses the implications of this.

The book’s epigraph is taken from a poem by Charles Olson, and urges: ‘whatever you have to say, leave the roots on... just to make clear where they came from.’ Urdank has tried to do precisely that. The book is local history of a particular kind: it is a book which addresses matters of national importance, which seeks a broad historical understanding of large issues like religious belief and industrialisation, but which has its strength in the study of a relatively small place. There may be debate, even contention, about some of Urdank’s findings, such as his view of the limitations of boundary settlement typology, his demographic findings concerning Nonconformity, and his contention that ‘working people were more receptive to capitalist values’ than E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class has suggested. There are problems of definition here: ‘working people’ is different from working class, and one wonders if Urdank’s master weavers can be considered ‘working-class’ when he himself lists them as ‘lower middle-class’ in an appendix. I would have liked to see a better examination of the local implications of the 1832 Reform Act and of the New Poor Law, which prompted so many inhabitants to leave the valley, many for Australia. By 1839 things were so bad that fifty members of a local Baptist Church decided to go en masse to New South Wales, prompting the establishment of a commemorative ‘holy day’ by the bereft congregation. Urdank seems to have overlooked the significance in this context of the political colour of local Whig gentry such as Ricardo and Scrope, whose admiration for chadwick is revealing. Did the significant outmigration of economically active people affect the long-term prosperity of the entire neighbourhood? Without the New Poor Law, might the district have industrialised?