Portrait of Mary Mitchell, by James Peake. Image from Catherine Horwood’s Potted History, p.53

At this time of year my favourite smell is hyacinths. Close packed into every conceivable sort of container they made ideal presents for Christmas,  but they are still be available for sale everywhere to bring a wonderful touch of spring scent and colour whatever the weather. I love to have them all over the house so that when I come home I get an instant uplift as I open the door.

Hyacinthus orientalis L. [as Hyacinthus orientalis caeruleo] Passe, C. van de, Hortus floridus (coloured plates), fasicle 1. vernalis, t. 10, fig. 1 (1614)

Hyacinthus orientalis L. [as Hyacinthus orientalis caeruleo]
from Crispin de Passe, Hortus floridus  (1614)

But do you know where the name comes from? And who first discovered that they could be ‘forced’ to flower early, and how this was best done?  And although we’ve all heard of tulip mania in the 17thc did you know there was an almost equally wild passion for hyacinths in the 18th and 19th centuries? Read on to find out more… Continue reading

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Clarence Elliott: garden writer and alpine specialist

Clarence Elliott from Illustrated London News xxxx

Clarence Elliott                                          from Illustrated London News,                 Jan 11th 1958

This post was inspired by an information board in the Alpine Garden area of Wisley. But unless you’re an alpine plant aficionado  or a fan of gardening columns in long-defunct magazines, you probably haven’t heard of  the person mentioned on it: Clarence Elliott.  He was a founder member of the Alpine Garden Society and began the popularisation of sink and trough gardens. If you hadn’t heard of him you may well have heard of the nursery he founded, and in particular one or two of the plants he introduced to cultivation.

Information board in the Alpine Garden at Wisley, Januray 2016

Information board in the Alpine Garden at Wisley, January 2016

But Clarence Elliott wasn’t just a gardener but a naturalist and plant hunter too. He collected for both Kew and Edinburgh botanic gardens.

And after he ‘retired’ he began contributing a weekly column to Illustrated London News which he continued to write until well into his 80s.

Read on to find out more about this influential and far-sighted horticulturist ….

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A conversation with Arthur Devis

portrait of Sarah Lascelles, Mrs Christopher Lethieullier,(c) National Trust, Uppark; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In the early 18thc a style of portraiture developed, known as the conversation piece, which often depicted the sitter or sitters outside in a garden or parkland setting. 

The greatest exponent of this style was Arthur Devis, who painted the rising gentry and professional classes of Georgian England at ease in and around their own homes and estates. 


Given that we are used to using paintings of gardens and landscapes as good evidence for the appearance of a site when the picture was undertaken,  can these conversation piece portraits be trusted to give us a truthful idea of the 18thc garden?

Read on to find out more about Devis, and the reliability [or maybe not!] of his work as useful evidence…

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Sir Charles Isham: “A Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians”

Although this post is about Sir Charles Isham, it’s also about garden gnomes.  If you didn’t smile at the thought of  a whole blogpost about twee garden ornaments in dubious taste, you probably grimaced or shuddered at the prospect because gnomes do seem to have the ability to cause strong and divisive reactions.     Indidentally why is it gnomes and not elves, sprites, pixies, boggarts, goblins, or leprechauns who live by the side of garden ponds, or lurk in our shrubberies?

There are plenty of  books and websites about gnomes – which of course are now quite  big business – but generally they are not really interested in their history and make little reference back to any documentary or material evidence. That’s a great pity as the real story of their introduction to Britain  is fascinating.  So,  if you haven’t worked out the connection yet between the little men in red hats and Sir Charles read on and  find out more about the origin of the gnome in our gardens…

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Come into the garden Maud…

I was looking for a lighthearted piece to counter some of my more recent serious ones, and shortly afterwards happened to be passing the house where Marie Lloyd, the music hall star, used to live. One of her set pieces was the sentimental song “Come into the garden Maud” and I thought it might be fun to research that a bit more and find out why Maud was being invited, and indeed if she ever did end up at the garden gate?

Come into the garden, Maud,
      For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
      I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
      And the musk of the rose is blown.
The author...not their usual look. Any idea who?

The author…but not their usual look. Any idea who?

Whatever was I thinking? Light-hearted is the last word you would use to describe the background to Maud. It’s not about wannabee  illicit cuddles in the shrubbery as one might imagine from the better known song extracts, but a story based around insanity, sexual frustration, hallucinations, premature death and even murder amongst other joyful themes. Read on if you want to be depressed by the real story behind the song, although there are also some more cheerful comments about the author’s garden.

from an 1877 edition anon

from an 1877 edition of Maud, anon artist

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Marion Cran

I often start these posts with a comments such as ‘here’s someone else you won’t have heard of”,  although there’s often a good reason for the subject’s lack of fame … but today’s subject is someone who really has been unjustly neglected.

Marion Cran was the first woman gardening broadcaster as well as a highly successful and popular garden writer.  You can judge how well she was  renowned at the time by her inclusion, along with the still ‘famous’ Beverley Nicholls,  in a comic rhyme by Reginald Arkell in 1934.

Beverley Nicholls and Marion Cran

Hadn’t been born when the world began

That is the reason I must confess

Why the Garden of Eden was not a success

md12604509946Marion travelled widely writing about gardens abroad as well as Britain in 15 gardening books, and also produced a couple of novels, and assorted other books.

She created two interesting gardens, one of which is still basically intact and being restored  in keeping with her ‘spirit’. Yet her success there wasn’t matched by a similar success elsewhere. She often had financial problems and her private life was something of a mess with 3 husbands and a child out of wedlock – hardly a proper state of affairs for a respectable vicar’s daughter in the early 20thc.

Coggers at Benenden, phoo by Louise and Colin, 2014,https://www.flickr.com/photos/c-l-english/17164777389

Coggers at Benenden, photo by Louise and Colin, 2014,                             https://www.flickr.com/photos/c-l-english/17164777389

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The Hanging Gardens of Stoke Edith

screenshotThe British galleries in the Victoria & Albert Museum hold many treasures but probably none more interesting to lovers and historians of gardens than two large early 18thc wall hangings from Stoke Edith in Herefordshire.  They show elaborate formal garden scenes in the Anglo-Dutch style of late 17th century.

George London, the great landscape designer and royal gardener, is known to advised at Stoke Edith in 1692 so it  is likely that pleasure grounds there were  laid out around  then, in a similar formal style  to that depicted these amazing embroideries.

screenshotIt is tempting to think that the hangings depict the actual gardens that London designed for Paul Foley, who was Speaker of the House of Commons, and if one believes family tradition that they were made by the women of Foley’s  family that would be more than a possibility.   Unfortunately this view, which used to be shared by Historic England, has been disputed more recently by experts at the V&A who believe that the sheer scale of the hangings, and the consistently high quality of the workmanship suggest that this was unlikely to have been an amateur affair. They argue instead that the hangings were bought from a professional workshop and probably represent a pastiche of contemporary fashionable garden features rather than  Stoke Edith itself. There is certainly evidence of the purchase of other hangings for the house [Country Life, 9 Aug 1956].

Whatever the truth read on to discover more about Stoke Edith and what the hangings tell us about garden design of the period… Continue reading

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Thomas Bewick’s Gardens and Gardeners

Augustus and Anthony: Or a Rational Education Preferable to Riches,

Augustus and Anthony: Or a Rational Education Preferable to Riches,1796

Thomas Bewick, who was born in rural Northumberland in 1753, was an author, illustrator and publisher and became  ‘the father of modern wood engraving’.   His work is almost always instantly recognisable and his History of British Birds is really the first field guide for naturalists.  His natural history books are his best known and greatest legacy but what is probably less appreciated is that he also wrote and  illustrated very cheap books of fables and other moral tales for children.

A natural history of reptiles, serpents, and insects, 1820 ed

A natural history of reptiles, serpents, and insects, 1820 ed

All of his books contain vignettes or tailpieces [space fillers at the end of the text] in which Bewick often made subtle social comments or jokes.  They often feature landscapes and sometimes gardens,  either as locations or to provide exemplars and Bewick’s beautiful engravings often reveal all sorts of little details about contemporary rural life, which don’t often appear in more standard, and largely unillustrated, texts,

Hanging the washing, from The History of British Birds, 1797

Hanging the Washing, from The History of British Birds, 1797

so read on to find out more about these miniature masterpieces and what they can tell us about gardens and gardeners… Continue reading

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Avoiding sex with Mrs Moriarty

Gorteria rigens from Fifty Plates of Greenhouse Plants, 1807

Gorteria rigens from Fifty Plates of Greenhouse Plants, 1807

In November 2015 I wrote a post about Augusta Withers, complaining that,  as is the case with many female botanical artists, little was known about her. However by comparison with today’s subject, we had a veritable plethora of biographical information!  Mrs H. M. Moriarty is almost a complete mystery. She published two novels and two editions of a book of paintings of greenhouse plants but other than that I can find very little trace of her.

Protea lepidicarpos

Protea lepidicarpos

Commentators on botanical artists repeat the same few sentences taken from her own  brief introduction to her book of plants but nobody seems to know more. Yet she was presumably reasonably well known in her day, seems to have been well-connected and and her books are mentioned by George Johnson in his 1829 History of English Gardening even though unfortunately he too gives no other information.

So enjoy the little we can say about her, and the pictures – all of which come from her second book, Fifty Plates of Greenhouse Plants [1807]  unless otherwise stated – and  if you think you know anything more get in touch! Continue reading

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Crompton and Fawkes


The Wentworth Castle Conservatory before restoration. http://www.wentworthcastle.org/exciting-news/

Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire boasts a magnificent Victorian conservatory behind the main 18thc building.   It was built in 1885-6 by Crompton & Fawkes, an Essex-based company who were one of the leading manufacturers of horticultural buildings in Britain at the time.  As you can see from the photo it was until recently in an extremely dilapidated state.  However thanks to the efforts of the  Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Park Heritage Trust, it has now been beautifully restored.

Unfortunately, as far is known, Wentworth’s  is the only surviving example of Crompton and Fawkes’s  work, which given the number they must have built, and the obvious quality of their work, is a sad reflection on the preservation of our gardening heritage.

Lean to Conservatory, No.370 from their 1899 catalogue

Lean to Conservatory, No.370                             from Crompton & Fawkes 1899 catalogue

However the company did leave behind several catalogues of their work. These include not only the usual line illustrations of their various ranges, with dimensions and prices [would that you could still buy such an elaborate  32ft  x 14ft conservatory  as the one on the left for only £93 today!] but photographs of some of their grander commissions headed by Wentworth Castle.

Read on to find out more about origins of the company and its extraordinarily gifted founders….

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