Theresa Villiers was born in one of the grand Nash terraces overlooking Regents Park in 1836. The eldest of three sisters, she was the niece of the Earl of Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary in several Liberal administrations, and her family was liberal and cultured. As result she met many of famous names in literary and artistic London.
Her father died young and her mother was given the use of the dower house of The Grove, the earl’s estate at Watford and she was bought up there as well as London. She became known as Radical Theresa because although, like other aristocratic young women, she was presented at court she declined the opportunity to become a maid of honour to Queen Victoria. Instead, encouraged by Ruskin, she attended classes at the South Kensington School of Art where she won the gold medal for “an amateur” and her work was commended by Edward Burne-Jones who became a life-long friend. Apparently she continued painting in watercolours all her life, although I have been unable to track a single one down so far so if you know of the whereabouts of any of her pictures please let me know.
Her artistic career was, however, short-lived. Her family often wintered on the Mediterranean or in Italy and it was there, in 1857, that she met Charles William Earle, who was then a captain in the Indian army. She was 27 when she married him in 1864, after his term of duty had finished, bearing him three sons and becoming what she described a good ‘poor man’s’ wife. Of course, this was ‘poor’ only compared with the rest of her family. One of her sisters married the future Earl of Lytton, who was to become Viceroy of India and the other married Henry Brougham Loch, [later Lord Loch] a future Governor of the Cape. Earle had to work for his money and went into the telegraph business.
His earned income was supplemented in 1879 when he inherited enough money for them to have a London home in fashionable Bryanston Square and this enabled Theresa to hold “salons… almost of the French style” where politicians, artists and writers were regular guests. They knew the Rossettis, George Frederick Watts, Alfred Austin and Ethel Smythe and, more shockingly, George Eliot and her partner George Lewes as well as Oscar Wilde. As an obituarist said “she never surrounded herself with orthodoxy.”
There was also enough money to buy a small country house with a couple of acres at Cobham in Surrey. This was “Woodlands” which she described as “a small piece of flat ground surrounding an ordinary suburban house.” That soon changed as she designed and created a garden which was “a more congenial setting for her personality.” It was made more difficult because she could only afford to employ a single gardener and a boy to run it, but the new garden soon began to attract attention from her friends and acquaintances and led to her being asked for horticultural advice.
One in particular – “my foreign friend… came to stay with us ..and as she was furnishing a country house near Frankfort, I began telling her all I knew as regards furnishing and gardening…. Oh I shall never remember all you tell me, if you would write it down, I should be grateful to you.” So encouraged by her niece Constance Lytton”I began to write.” In fact Theresa dictated her thoughts to Constance and but for her “it would probably have been consigned to the flames, as I feared my husband did not like my publishing it.” But publish she eventually did in 1897, at the age of 61, although tragically Charles’s opinion about the book and its success is not known as he was killed in a bicycle accident the very day of publication.
The book that Lady Constance Lytton encouraged her Aunt T to write, followed in the wake of a wave of gardening books written by authors who used their own gardens as an exemplar for imparting their advice and thoughts.
Alfred Smee’s My Garden first published in 1872 seems to have started the trend. He included chapters on “My Garden Tools” and “My Frames and Glasshouses” as well as more conventional gardening advice. Others included Eleanor Vere Boyle Day and Hours in a Garden first published in 1887, Francis Cowley Burnand’s Round my Garden 1890 and Henry Arthur Bright’s A Year in a Lancashire Garden, which made a book out of his “collection of notes” that appeared monthly in Gardeners Chronicle. It was Bright who seems to have inspired Mrs Earle. She wrote that his book “charmed me, and I thought it simple, unaffected, and original.”
None claimed to be definitive or even great sources of information but merely pleasant reading about gardens. They were often arranged in chapters based on what was happening month by month. Bright even said they “pretend to little technical knowledge and…are of little horticultural value.” Instead they “contain only some slight record of a year’s work in a garden, and of those associations a garden is so certain to call up.”
Mrs Earle made no claims to being an authority either, and she added her thoughts on furnishing, cooking and child-rearing and anything else that she thought would be of use to her ‘foreign friend’ and other potential readers. She based what she wrote on her “sort of gardening journal” which had kept for many years and in which she made notes three or four times a month, including the specialist horticultural works she read by authors like the Loudons, William Curtis, Joseph Paxton, and her favourite, William Robinson.
She also wanted the book to be “at a very low price” but she notes in her Memoirs that “I was overruled.” Nevertheless, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden sold well, despite having no illustrations at all, and ran through ten editions by the end of the century. The full text can found found at:
It was generally well reviewed, most famously by Dean Reynolds Hole [see above]. But looking at it now most readers will, I suspect, be more likely to agree with the Times comment that it “opens no avenues of deep criticism” despite being “full of a sympathetic knowledge of life.” Pot-pourri was later translated into several other languages, and according to her obituary in The Times inspired other writers, notably Elizabeth von Arnim and her Elizabeth and her German Garden published in 1898.
Mrs Earle then used the same formula to write two sequels More Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden (1899) and A Third Pot-Pourri (1903). The full texts can be found at:
But Aunt T must not be dismissed as merely a Daily Mail pleasing lightweight.
Hidden in the descriptions of her garden with its terrace lined with large pots, and the vegetables and herbs she grew in her kitchen garden are, for example, interesting comments on her herbaceous and mixed borders, which suggest that she was ahead of the game.
In his reappraisal of her work in Garden History in 1980, Timothy Clark suggests that Mrs Earle had probably developed in her garden “the forerunner of those famed borders whose existence was so well documented by Miss Jekyll ten years later.” Amongst other examples Earle argued for the preservation of old roses several years before Jekyll’s own plea in Roses for English Gardens. Indeed Jekyll’s first book Wood and Garden picks up on the debt she owed, referring to “the many valuable suggestions in Mrs Earle’s delightful book Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden.”
Earle and Jekyll became good friends, when Aunt T’s niece Emily Lytton, the sister of Constance met and then married Jekyll’s protagee and business partner, Edwin Lutyens. Clark argues that the friendship allowed Jekyll to translate many of Mrs Earle’s ideas into reality without any sense of rivalry, and that she actually owed much more to her than is generally understood. The consequence of this, however, is that Aunt T is very definitely overshadowed by Aunt Bumps. [Aunt Bumps was Lutyens nickname for Miss Jekyll]
That this was the case can also be seen in the case of the famous Lutyens and Jekyll partnership at Boismoutier in Normandy. Mrs Earle wrote a chapter in The Century Book of Gardening (1900) about the planting advice she gave to “a young architect friend” who was “building an English house for real French people in Normandy” dismissing the original suggestions of climbers and a purely herbaceous border and proposing a mixed shrub border instead with detailed and very knowledgeable comments on plants and planting combinations. The first section of this can be seen below…
Her lengthy and very detailed suggestions and comments can be found in full at:
In 1905 she contributed to Garden Colour edited by Margaret Waterfield, with a section about Spring which is full of detailed comments based on her practical knowledge of the plants she grew at Woodlands.
There were then two more Pot-pourri style books co-written with Ethel Case, again with a chapter for each month. Gardening for the Ignorant was dismissed by Gardeners Chronicle [June 29th 1912] as “an unpretentious book, produced to meet the disabilities of those who, with earthy tastes, are yet so ignorant that NO book with which the authors have made acquaintance is of use…anything of value in the book has often been published before, and what is novel … would have been better omitted.” Pot-Pourri Mixed by Two of 1914 additionally had a section of seasonal vegetarian recipes at the end of each chapter.
In 1913, at the age of 77, Aunt T began writing a monthly gardening page for Illustrated London News‘s Women’s Supplement, but this was discontinued with the outbreak of war the following year. She also wrote memoirs, family history and letters to her grandchildren. Her youngest son Lionel later became permanent secretary to the Ministry of Works, and shared his mother’s interest in gardens becoming one of the leading figures behind the establishment of the Royal Parks in their current form. [He deserves a post of his own one day soon!]
Mrs Earle was “widely known for espousing many causes, however unpopular…despite this everyone respected her for her outspoken utterances and her real charm and human sympathy.” [Times, 28th February 1925] She was a supporter of the National Food Reform Association formed in 1908, and worked with the NSPCC as a board member for their orphanage settlement project in Letchworth. She appears to have been convinced about women’s suffrage by Constance Lytton who bcame a prominent suffragette and also perhaps by Gertrude Jekyll who famously designed and sewed a banner for the cause.
Aunt T continued to live at Woodlands developing the garden, and where, despite being seen as as “mid-Victorian”, “until the infirmities of old age overcame her she loved to collect at Woodlands, from Saturday to Monday, parties which were wholly delightful” [Times 28th February 1925] She died there in 1925.
All her books were, according to her obituarist in the Times, “eminently characteristically of herself. They are the jottings, not always consecutive, a keen observer, and a generous and warm-hearted partaker of life’s feasts. They will some day be of historic interest, for they vividly portray a type which will not be found in the New Age. Aunt T had nothing of the professional woman about her…she had leisure to cultivate her tastes, love her friends, and eternally amuse, exasperate and charm them. She was not always discrete, but nevertheless hearts were bared to her. She was not always accurate, but she was always genuine and free from pose…” [Times 3rd March 1925]
As is so often the way of things, she was soon forgotten. There was the reappraisal of her work in Garden History in 1980, and a radio programme about her in 1982, but her books went out of print for a few years. More recently she made appearances in several books on women gardeners, notably Catherine Horwood’s eminently readable Women and Their Gardens  and perhaps as a result several more of her books have been, or are being, republished. This would doubtless please her family and friends and one can imagine them saying cheerfully “What fun to tell Aunt T!”
For more information about Mrs Earle see
Mrs Earle’s pot-pourri, ed. A. Jones (1982); D. MacLeod, Down-to-earth Women (1982) ; T. Clark, ‘Mrs C. W. Earle (1836–1925), a reappraisal of her work’, Garden History, 8/2 (1980), 75–83; S. Festing, ‘A patient gleaner’, The Garden, 103 (1978), 412–14 · B. Massingham, A Century of Gardeners (1982); C.Horwood, Women and Their Gardens .