Owen Thomas: 1: Anglesey and beyond…

Owen Thomas, from The Garden, 6th Oct 1900

Last year I wrote a post about Harry Higgott Thomas the garden writer and journalist who was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour. Whilst doing the research I discovered that his father, Owen Thomas, also gained one of the first VMHs towards the end of a pretty meteoric career in which he rose from being  a garden boy on Anglesey to being  Head Gardener at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria, taking in spells as head gardener at 3 other grand estates, including Chatsworth, on the way.   So I thought Owen deserved a post too.

But having started researching and writing, as usual I got sidetracked. However, as the sidetracking gave useful insights into some of the gardens where Owen Thomas worked  I’m making two posts rather than just a single one, so to begin with  read on  to find out about the great Anglesey estate of Bodorgan and its glass walls, as well as some idea of the early career path of an outstanding Victorian horticulturist…

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Who gives a Fig…especially in Sussex?

We had a bit of a fight on our hands yesterday. Sophia, Dorothy, Blanche and Rose were arguing  in our courtyard.  Then they started to argue with us too.  It was a row about figs. We have a beautiful small fig tree against a south facing wall and this year for the first time it is covered with pale green ‘White Marseilles’ figs.

The girls have developed a taste for them and have been eating those which have fallen or which they can reach but I was determined they weren’t going to have any more and I’m bigger than them I won in the end. I should explain that I’m not a sexist bully and that they are chickens who are already extremely well fed.  The fig tree is in their run and they’ve made a den underneath it and were clearly enjoying the windfalls before I turned up to harvest the rest… there was a lot of squawking when they realised I was taking them away rather than picking the fruit for them!

So what is it about figs that makes them so desirable – even to chickens? And what’s their history in our gardens? And what’s it all got to do with Sussex? Continue reading

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Batty goes Gothick…

A Gothick Pavilion from Gothic Architecture

Batty  Langley was an engaging self publicist with an eye to an opening in the market coupled with a  need to make a living. Last week’s post looked at  New Principles of Gardening published in 1728, his first important book. This week I want to look at the rest of his work.

He carried on with his gardening and garden writing but gradually switched emphasis more and more to architecture. Apart from his own not very successful attempts at being an architect, he wrote design books, a string of manuals and pattern books for builders  and books on freemasonry, as well making artificial stone for garden ornaments and buildings. Its difficult to know how influential he was  although the term “Batty Langley Gothic” is still  regularly used to day and ensures that his name lives on.

Garden House at Goldney, Bristol based on a Langley design. Photo from Global Gardeners notebook

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Batty’s arti-natural Principles

mezzotint portrait by J Carwitham published in 1741, Twickenham Museum

The wonderfully named Batty Langley was a gardener’s son who followed in his fathers footsteps and then turned surveyor, landscape gardener, artificial stone maker, would-be architect and garden designer, as well as prolific author.  Well  he had to do something to earn money to feed his wife and 14 children!  Batty was a man of many talents and trades but probably master of none.

Although often ridiculed, even during his lifetime, Langley is a significant figure because he was  one of the earliest writers to promote and popularise both  the Gothic style of architecture and   the “irregular”  garden, that halfway stage between the formal geometric gardens of the baroque and the later more naturalistic landscape movement. He first summed up his ideas in his New Principles of Gardening in 1728.

Two Garden Designs from New Principles of Gardening, 1728

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Recording Britain

The Duck House in the Park of Buckland House near Faringdon, John Piper

War inspires artists,or rather requires artists, to produce propaganda, and many governments have used war artists to record a different take on what is going on to newscasts and documentary films.  Usually this is strident, but on other occasions much more gentle, but even so you wouldn’t think that war would inspire landscape or architectural painting.

Kenneth Clark, by Howard Coster, 1937, NPG

In fact there is a very significant body of work  made by artists on the home front between 1940 and 1943 organized by the Committee for the Employment of Artists in Wartime, part of the Ministry of Labour and National Service. It was the brainchild of Kenneth Clark [later Lord Clark of Civilisation fame], who was then the Director of the National Gallery, and ran alongside the official War Artists’ Scheme, which he also devised, to create an artistic record of the British landscape.

Richmond Golf Club, Sudbrooke Park, Ham, Surrey, John Sanderson-Wells

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Peter Smithers: Plantsman, Politician & Floral Pornographer

Sir Peter Smithers, in 2003. Credit Karl Mathis/Keystone, via Associated Press

Sir Peter Smithers [1913-2006] was an intelligence officer, a Tory politician, diplomat and above all a great gardener.

“I regard gardening and planting as the other half of life, a counterpoint to the rough and tumble of politics,” he wrote.

During his lifetime he laid out several gardens, notably Colebrook House in Winchester in the 1950s and 60s, and  then from 1970 onwards Vico Morcote in Switzerland. He was also responsible for much of the tree planting in the cathedral close at Winchester.   Photography was another lifelong passion and after his retirement he became an extremely successful as, in his own words,  “a floral pornographer”.

All the quotes come from his memoirs unless otherwise credited. So read on more to find out more about this unsung, generous and outstanding horticulturist.

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Hulne Priory

Sometimes you visit a historic house or garden and think to yourself…. I could live here. Sometimes you have second thoughts and add …if only it wasn’t so remote or inhospitable a setting.  That was certainly my reactions on visiting Hulne Priory in Northumberland.  It was a bright summer’s day and the site was glorious but it was pretty obvious that would be bleak and windswept in the midst of a Northumbrian winter.  That would have suited its founders down to the ground becasue they were Carmelite Friars who deliberately sought out isolated locations for their communities. Now, along with the rest of Hulne Park,  it is part of the Duke of Northumberland’s Alnwick estate and still used by the Duke  as a base for shooting, and inevitably as a wedding venue! 

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Sussex by La Manche?

Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens are one of the great combos of design history.  Their names automically trip off the tongue in the same breath,  and they created a whole series of magificant houses and gardens all across the Britain. Yet they  made just one joint foray working together on a house and garden abroad.  

Standing on top of the Normandy cliffs just outisde Dieppe is what  gardening and wine writer Hugh Johnson once described  as a “Sussex garden on vacation on the French coast”. 





It might not be on our database, but it’s still, for the most part,an English garden…so read on to find out more about Bois des Moutiers…

[all photos are by David Marsh, May 2017, unless otherwise credited] Continue reading

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The Sky Garden

The creation of a new public garden should be a cause for celebration, perhaps in these days of austerity,  even amazement. When it’s in the very heart of the City of London then the amazement should be unconfined.  So what to make of the Sky Garden  at 20 Fenchurch Street?

According to its website  it is “a unique public space that spans three storeys and offers 360 degree uninterrupted views across the City of London. Visitors can wander around the exquisitely landscaped gardens, observation decks and an open air terrace of what is London’s highest public garden.”

The entrance, Gillespies

It opened in January 2015 and I took friends to see it a few days ago. [All the photos were taken then by me unless otherwise credited.] There’s no doubt the  concept is exciting, and some of the claims are true but other bits of the hype are almost enough to cause hyperventilation as you will discover as you read on… Continue reading

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The Vegetable Sermon

St Giles Cripplegate
David Marsh, June 2017

Thomas Fairchild, the 18thc London gardener and subject of a recent post, was more than just a great London nurseryman and striver for professional unity and strength, he was also highly  inquisitive – or what his contemporaries would have called “curious”. He combined his intellectual curiosity with a strong religious faith and in his will he bequeathed £25 to the churchwardens of St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch for an annual lecture to be given on the Tuesday after Pentecost.  He specified two possible subjects:  “The wonderful works of God in Creation” or “On the certainty of the resurrection of the dead, proved by certain changes of the animal and vegetable parts of Creation,” and this has resulted in the event being sometimes nicknamed the “Vegetable Sermon.”

The Arms of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners from the 1616 Charter

After a somewhat chequered history it is now organized by the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, and this year was held at St Giles Cripplegate.

I was honoured to be asked to give this years lecture, which nowadays isn’t quite a Georgian length sermon, but a short address, and I opted to talk about Fairchild’s intellectual curiosity and how it related and perhaps clashed with his religious beliefs.

This post is based on the text of the sermon.

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