Amorous polygamy at Abbotsbury

No – it’s not south-east Asia but south-west Dorset!   Abbotsbury, a garden founded by the Strangways family in the late 18thc,  was my first point of call recently on an out of season tour of some gardens in the south-west.

In 1863 Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography, must have been rather surprised by the contents of a letter he had just received from his uncle, William Fox Strangways, the 4th earl of Ilchester. The two corresponded regularly and often about gardens  but this time Uncle William was complaining about his elderly gardener not just chopping bulbs in two & trying to stick them together again but asking what he should do about “amorous polygamy”.  This was surely scarcely a subject fit for the pen of a Victorian gentleman so no wonder William said it had “left indelible impression in my memory.”

Amyris polygama
From: Dictionnaire des sciences naturelles. by Jussieu  &  Turpin.
 1816-1829, volume 5, plate 266

Actually its nothing as potentially scandalous as one might think. Uncle William’s  gardener was rather confused and asking what he should do with Amyris polygama,  more commonly known as the Chilean pepper tree, one of the rarer plants  in the garden. So sorry if you’d read this far expecting a bit of salacious gossip but read on to find out more about this amazing sub-tropical garden and its origins.

[All photos are my own from Feb 2018 unless otherwise stated] Continue reading

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Repton in a flap! Red Books and theatricality…

What’s the one thing that everyone knows about Humphry Repton apart from the fact that he spelt Humphry without an E? I’d guess it’s the fact that he produced Red Books, so called because of their red morocco leather bindings. [That’s despite the fact that half of them aren’t red but brown, and there were apparently even one or two with green card covers.]

These Red Books contained a lengthy handwritten analysis and description of the site, together with his proposed  improvements, beautifully  illustrated with his own watercolour sketches  and were, apart from a  few given as gifts in the early days, sold to his potential clients.

Of course the key element of the Red Book’s design was the flap, or, as Repton called it, the slide.  It was an uncomplicated visual trick employed to show “before” and “after” in a quick and non-technical way, but despite its simplicity it has more than a degree of showmanship.  I’d originally hoped to get this post finished before the end of the pantomime season because this week’s post is going to consider Repton, his Red Book technique and  his theatricality.   I suspect that might cause a few raised eyebrows.  After all what’s Repton got to do with the stage or showbiz? I think the answer is quite a lot, although perhaps it’s not always obvious.

Self-portrait of Humphry Repton surveying the estate of Welbeck Abbey, from Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening 1795

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William Caparne : painter and plantsman

Mrs Pinchney’s garden                          Guernsey

The love of plants runs in the blood, or so it might appear from the life of William Caparne  teacher, painter, plantsman and iris fanatic.  

A very private man, but who travelled widely in Europe and met and was befriended by Monet,  he eventually gave up teaching and moved to Guernsey to paint landscapes, gardens and the flowers which he grew and bred in his nursery there: above all botanical paintings of his beloved iris. Despite his horticultural achievements he and his work were soon forgotten, and have really only been bought back to their deserved place in the pantheon in the last 20 or so years.

A House of Nerines, Guernsey

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The Darlys: Chinoiserie and big hair

Mary and Matthias Darly were designers, engravers and printsellers in late 18thc London, who were particularly well-known for their caricatures and satires on contemporary politics and fashion.

Matthias Darley, c.1775
British Museum

Matthias [sometimes refererred to as Matthew] illustrated books of designs for ‘ornament’,  furniture and architecture, particularly garden buildings, with a particular focus on the fashionable taste for Chinoiserie. He  was good at spotting trends and keeping up with fashion and  according to his biographer, Timothy Clayton,  became “a central figure at a time when English craftsmen were struggling for a distinct identity and for preference over foreign rivals”. Mary, on the other hand had no pretensions of grandeur, called herself “The Mistress of Fun” and specialised in sharply observed caricatures.

Darly’s Trade Card, British Museum

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Bolsover: a Mannerist Masterpiece

detail of the Venus Fountain, photo by Edward Moss

If you’ve ever driven on the M1 between Nottingham  and Sheffield you can’t have missed the  large castle perched high on a steep promontory overlooking and commanding the wide valley below. This is  Bolsover Castle, visible for miles around, and enjoying one of  most magnificent settings of any historic building in Britain. Having said that it’s also quite likely you’ll have carried on driving and not turned off to investigate further. If that’s the case you’ve missed a treat, and doubly so since English Heritage completed their restoration and improvement works.

But Bolsover isn’t just any old  castle, indeed its only a castle in form and outward appearance. It’s actually an early 17thc mannerist  pleasure palace and a masterpiece of design. You can tell from that description that I quite liked it! [My photos, Nov 2017] unless otherwise stated] Read on to find out exactly why…

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More than just a knotty problem…

There are plenty of choices for plants that are a nuisance and  almost as many for those that are a damned nuisance or worse. Depending on your location and circumstances it could Brambles, Nettles, Docks, Ground Elder, Marestail, Hogweed …the list is almost endless. But to name a plant  that can stop you getting your house insured or that is powerful enough to break through tarmac or concrete doesn’t leave you much choice. It has to be Japanese Knotweed.

no it’s not asparagus!

But you can see why Knotweed – botanically Fallopia japonica – was a smash hit with gardeners when it was first introduced in the 19thc. It is an imposing plant, with sprays of beautiful white flowers, strong architectural form and lush foliage.  Of course what they didn’t know initially, although it didn’t take that long to find out the hard way,  is that is rampantly invasive and virtually impossible to eradicate. It’s no wonder its been declared a public nuisance and was proscribed from being planted in 1981.  Yet I’ve seen the same plant growing under controlled circumstances in historic gardens so just maybe, potentially, perhaps, it is remotely possible to have the best of both worlds.

Fallopia japonica .  Alex Hyde photography

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Repton and his business

HAPPY NEW YEAR!  If you hadn’t already realised 2018 is Repton Year, when we’re commemorating the life and work of the last great landscape designer of the eighteenth century.  Unlike the Festival for his ‘predecessor’ Capability Brown there is no great central nationally funded organization. Instead Celebrating Humphry Repton  will be a collaborative effort, which, even though although it can’t match the funding of CB300,  looks certain to match the enthusiasm and spread of interest nationally.  County Gardens Trusts and other groups will be arranging events around the country throughout the year to celebrate Repton’s work. You can find a list – continually being updated – at this dedicated webpage on  The Gardens Trust website.  If you would like to get involved or receive updates email The more people who join in, the better the celebration!

And of course the blog is going to play its small part.  Repton has already been the subject of two posts  way back in April 2104  [ A general one about his life and another on his work at Ashridge] but during the course of this year I’m going to look at aspects of Repton’s approach to garden and landscape design, in what I hope is a less conventional way so that I [and you the reader] don’t get Humphed-out by the end of the year and wish that he’d never been born!


But where to start?

The more I read the more complicated Repton becomes, until  I asked myself what’s the one thing that everyone knows about Repton? He made Red Books.  But the how and why he did isn’t quite so obvious.  It isn’t even clear why he became a landscape gardener in the first place.  So lets start there…. Continue reading

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2017 on the blog

My garden yesterday – a subtle difference to last year.

It’s now 4 years to the day that I started this blog and this is my 203rd post!  Readership  has continued to rise: about 46,000 hits this year compared with 37,000 last year, 25,000 in 2015 and about 7000 in 2014.  That means readership is now averaging over 120 a day, about 1000 a week and  around 4,000 a month.   There have been over 27,000 visitors, compared with 21500 last year,  10,200 in 2015 and under 3,000 in 2014.  Since the blog started there have been a grand total of 116,000 views from 62,000 visitors.

We’re in danger of being washed away rather than frozen out

In terms of popularity, once again somewhat to my surprise  Stumperies   [May 2015]  has topped the list which has attracted 1530 viewings.   Next comes Humphry Repton [April 2014] with 1076, presumably because everyone is waking up the forthcoming bicentenary.  After  him come several other old favourites with Harry Wheatcroft, The colour of Carrots,   A Pineapple & Mr Rose,  Paulownia,  Night Soil,  Beatrice Parsons, and Carters Seeds all receiving more than 800 hits.  You can see a fuller list below.

It looks quite serene now it’s not pouring with rain…

However, as I’ve said in previous years  some posts  have hardly been read at all. Why did the idea of spending Christmas with Shirley Hibberd attract only 38, Peas Perfect Peas only 37 and the series I wrote on Romance and Reason only 28 [the link takes you to the first of 3 and you can then click through to the others]?

So thank you to everyone who has been reading the posts, telling their friends and passing the blog on.  Please keep up the enthusiasm and the comments.

And now  to fill the seemingly endless days between Christmas and the New Year is just what you’ve all been waiting for – another end of year quiz to test your powers of recall from posts over the course of the year.  Answers at the end.

….and the wind isn’t blowing at 70kph

Good Luck and Happy New Year!

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Christmas in the Park…

Chiswick, December 2017

I had planned to do another of my slightly off-beat approaches to a Christmas post –  and was looking at  Shirley Hibberd’s monograph on Ivy for inspiration – when into my inbox came a post from a fascinating botanical blog run by Manchester Museum’s Herbarium.

Since 2014 its been hosting an Advent Botany series looking at the obvious and not-so-obvious  stories of plants and their relationship to Christmas, [my favourite so far has been about elfs] and of course there was one about Ivy based around Hibberd’s book.

What was I to do?  The answer came a few days later when I took a class who’ve been looking at early 18th gardens this term  to Chiswick House.

The Orangery at Chiswick, December 2017

It wasn’t the answer I had expected, and certainly not one I’d hoped for but it was one that I think would have had Lord and Lady Burlington turning in their graves. So read on to find out more about the perils of having Christmas in the park in the age of austerity…

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Park Hill from Tate to Today

Last week’s post told the first part of the story of Park Hill, a Victorian estate in Streatham in what is now south London.  In 1873 the house was put up for sale after the death of its builder William Leaf, although there was little interest, and it was not until in 1880 it was finally sold.

Sir Henry Tate
by Thomas Brock, Tate Gallery

The new owner was Henry Tate, sugar magnate and the man behind the foundation of the Tate Gallery.

Tate was a self-made man from Lancashire and still largely based there when he bought Park Hill, but it was to become home to him, his family and his growing art collection until his death in 1899.

the terrace and summer house

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