“Doubtles God could have made a better berry…”

After last week’s post about the early history of strawberries its time to look at how the various wild species were transformed into garden and commercial varieties by an 18thc botanist and a handful of 19thc nurserymen.

William Butler
after Unknown artist
 published 1650, National Portrait Gallery




I hope it  also shows that we all agree with Dr William Butler, the Elizabethan/Jacobean  medic who said…. “Doubtless God could have made a better berry” before adding  “but doubtless God never did.”

This divine omission is rapidly being rectified by 20thc scientists and plant-breeders  and in the process they are creating an unstoppable multi-billion pound global industry.


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Saints, Sinners, Sex and Strawberries…

Strawberries are quintessentially English. Or so you’d think. But actually they’re not. Although there are indigenous European strawberries the ones we eat are hybrids derived from a species from New England and another from Chile  introduced surreptitiously into France in the early 18thc. This species didn’t really reach Britain until the mid-18thc  and really didn’t become common in gardens until the 19th.  

Why? Because at first they didn’t fruit. Why not? Because no-one realised that strawberries had sex – let me rephrase that – that most strawberry plants were either male or female.  But once they did that’s when British gardeners and nurserymen took over and led the world in developing better and better domestic and commercial – hermaphrodite – varieties.

But strawberries have always had more than just food appeal. In the Middle Ages they were one of the more revered symbols of the Virgin Mary but they also had another more erotic and voluptuous side to them as well.

As a result although this post started out as a ‘normal’ piece of horticultural history I got diverted along the way with other strawberry-related stuff so its ended up becoming two posts instead!

So read on to find out more about the early history and imagery of our favourite fruit…

detail from Histoires de Troyes Ms Francais 59, fol. 153,c1470, Biblioteque National de France

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Nun Appleton

Andrew Marvell
after unknown artist
line engraving, published 1681, NPG

Nun Appleton House is a sad place these days in every sense. The Yorkshire estate was once the home of Thomas Fairfax, the great Parliamentary general, and  also for a short while to Andrew Marvell, the poet, who acted as tutor to Fairfax’s daughter Mary.  Marvell wrote extensively about the house, landscape and garden in a series of famous poems, and yet there is now no access of any sort, and  the landscape has been effectively rendered a no-go area to all but the most determined.

I only realised the plight of the house when I was researching a lecture about philosophy and politics in the 17thc garden, [don’t ask but it wasn’t as boring as it sounds!] and wanted to include some illustrations to accompany  some extracts from Marvell’s verse.

The parkland of the estate has been registered Grade II by Historic England but the whole Nun Appleton site has significant importance because of its association with Marvell and given its present inaccessibility and apparent neglect it certainly deserves better treatment.   Continue reading

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The Strange Case of Doctor Ward…

“Wardian Cases”  from Shirley Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments, 1870

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the Wardian case, the method of transporting plants that transformed the world’s gardens and hothouses from the mid-19thc onwards and which were in regular use by Kew for the international transportation of plants right up until the 1960s.

Many will also be familiar with the story of how it came to be invented but what else do we know about the man supposed to have discovered the principles behind it Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward?  Why was he interested, then inspired, by what he found?

Read on to find out if  there more to Dr Ward than finding a fern in a sealed bottle just by chance…

Wardian case of orchids received by Kew from Hong Kong, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

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Adrian Berg

The Four Seasons of Glyndebourne, Christies.com

We’re used to seeing paintings of gardens in an historical context and using them as evidence, but I don’t think we take as much notice of contemporary representations of gardens as perhaps we should. I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a notice for an exhibition at Hall Place, a beautiful Tudor house in Bexley which I’d written about on here.

Stourhead, 2001

It was for a retrospective of the work of Adrian Berg an artist whose work I didn’t know, but I liked the image used on the poster so looked for some more information about him. In the process I  bought myself a book about contemporary artists whose work involves the garden. Flicking through and finding Adrian Berg there I also realised I had written on here about Ivor Abrahams, one of the other 21 painters covered by the book. I also realised that I recognized only a couple of other names and just one or two particular paintings. I’ve certainly missed out…

Gloucester Gate, Regent’s Park, Night, Autumn;                                                                                 Government Art  Collection

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Broughton Castle

Tucked away in beautiful countryside just a couple of miles from Banbury is one of the most perfect houses in the country: Broughton Castle.  The Historic England site description does nothing to convey the surprise the visitor gets when they turn into the park and gradually the house comes into view. It’s not an obvious statement of power,  more a natural assumption of it.  It is “olde England” at its best.

That feeling persists in every aspect of the house and grounds, and rightly so.  The last time it was sold was 1377 when it was bought by William of Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester.  It eventually passed by inheritance to the Fiennes family who have lived there since 1447.   But don’t just take my word for the fact that Broughton is rather special. Commentators as diverse as Henry James, Alan Bennett, Simon Jenkins  and Patrick Taylor all think it one of the “best” houses in the country… and the gardens aren’t bad either. Read on to find out why…

The Gatehouse and part of the border       David Marsh, August 2016

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Lilac Time…

Glyn Philpott, Lilacs, Gallery Oldham  http://www.artuk.org/artworks/lilacs-90798

The spring has caught up with my garden and the lilacs are beginning to bloom. The first I knew was as I opened the doors into the garden the other morning and caught the scent well before I could see the biggest bush which stands just out of sight on the corner of the house.

For some reason I always think of Lilac as an old-fashioned plant – with overtones of the perfume loved by little old ladies like my grandma – which flourish in overgrown vicarage gardens, rather romantic but also rather chocolate-boxy. I wonder if that’s anything to do with memories of paintings like this Tissot or poems and songs like Lilac Time?

The Bunch of Lilacs, c.1875 by James Tissot,  Photo © Christie’s

Come down to Kew in lilac time, in lilac time, in lilac time,

Come down to Kew in lilac-time (It isn’t far from London!)

And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland,

Come down to Kew in Lilac time (It isn’t far from London!)

from The Barrel Organ, by Alfred Noyes (1906) and turned into a song…[click on the link above to listen to it sung by Carmen Hill in 1923]

So…. the other day I did just that and went to Kew thinking  this would be a good opportunity to investigate the history of lilac, in our gardens and even as a cut flower, and  maybe even change my preconceptions…

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Kip and Knyff : Part 2 Kip

from The history of nature, in two parts : emblematically express’d in near a hundred folio copper-plates , 1720  https://archive.org/details/historyofnaturei00kipj

For someone whose work is so well known it’s surprising how little biographical information is recorded  about Johannes Kip,  the topographical engraver. He is  best known for Britannia Illustrata, his work with Leonard Knyff, which has illustrations of the estates of late 17thc and early 18thc England,  but he was also a prolific book illustrator with a sideline in selling prints  from a shop in his house at Westminster.

detail from View and Perspective of London, Westminster and St James’s Park c.1727

Today’s post is a quick look at the range of his work, and then a closer look at his enormous engraving of St James Park in London first published in 1720.  Continue reading

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KIP & KNYFF: Part 1: Knyff

To most people “Kip & Knyff”  sounds like a bit like a Victorian music hall act, but say “Kip and Knyff” to a garden or architectural historian and they will instantly  picture a bird’s eye view of a great English house and estate from the late 17th or early 18thc.

“Kip and Knyff” always seem to “go together like a horse and carriage” as the song would have it, but although they had much in common and are often spoken of in the same breath they were not in fact a regular business partnership or even usual working companions and seem to have had little to do with each other apart from their most famous collaboration, Britannia Illustrata Or Views of Several of the Queens Palaces, as Also of the Principal seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain, Curiously Engraven on 80 Copper Plates  the first volume of which was published 1707.

The only obvious ‘joint’ biographical facts are their Dutch origins and the fact that they were also of a similar age and longevity, Knyff being born in 1650 and Kip 3 years later, and both were to die in London in 1721.

Knyff’s signature on a still life painting in a private collection from https://rkd.nl/en/explore/images/record?filters%5Bkunstenaar%5D=Knijff%2C+Leonard&query=&start=1

So, as a result I’m writing two separate posts about them – one each! And this week its the turn of Leonard Knyff…

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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? And at the end of the post there’s a link to info about Britains only commercial hyacinth grower.  Read on to find out more… Continue reading

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