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The Making of the English Gardener

By Rosie Atkins | Posted 19th September 2011, 15:09
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The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and
Inspiration 1560–1660

Margaret Willes
Yale University Press  336pp   £25
ISBN 978 0 300 16382 7

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Creating a garden could enhance your political future no matter the cost. Lord Dudley (Earl of Leicester) spent the modern equivalent of £1 million on his new garden at Kenilworth Castle in an attempt to gain favour with Elizabeth l, while Lord Cecil was spending an equivalent £250,000 a year on improving Theobalds in Hertfordshire. In her new book Margaret Willes provides a welcome insight into an often-neglected period of garden history by investigating what was being read between 1560 and 1660 when gardens such as Dudley’s and Cecil’s were receiving lavish attention.

The relative calm of Elizabeth’s reign allowed Britain to catch up with Europe in the contest to explore the globe and bring back plants. British trade had expanded beyond western Europe to the Levant and the Americas. The red-flowered perennial, Lychnis chalcedonica, sometimes called Maltese Cross, introduced from Russia in 1560, would have been just one of the rarities on Lord Dudley’s wish list. Banqueting houses, where members of a household would decamp simply to dine, were a popular feature of Elizabethan and Jacobean gardens and sweet potatoes, introduced in 1564, and tomatoes, in 1596, as well as asparagus grown on the marshes of Battersea, made welcome additions to the menu.

For centuries gardeners and apothecaries had relied on classical works written in Latin for information. With new plants came the need for correct identification, particularly for medicinal and edible plants. In 1544 the gardener and scholar, William Turner, reached out to a new audience when he published his New Herbal in English. Willes tells of a literate servant called John Mitchell, who died in 1572, leaving an estate valued at £12, which included a well-thumbed copy of Turner’s Herbal, valued at tuppence. Turner led the way for John Gerard’s Herbal, published in 1597 followed by Culpepper’s Complete Herbal in 1652.

In British Botanical and Horticultural Literature before 1800 Blanche Henrey claimed that five times as many books on botany and horticulture were published in England in the 17th century compared with the 16th. This is perhaps not surprising when as few as a third of the 200,000 inhabitants of London in 1600 would have been literate. However the book trade took off during Tudor and Stuart rule, even though illustrated books remained exorbitantly expensive. The small number of private libraries that existed would have contained less than 200 books. Thomas Tresham being the exception, owning 3,000.

In the period leading to the setting up of the British East India Company in 1600 increased trade attracted merchants and scholars to the city, keen to exchange knowledge. Carolus Clusius, a French-born botanist, gardener, scholar, thinker and indefatigable traveller, had visited England several times before taking up the role of director of the new botanic garden in Leiden in 1593. It wasn’t until 1642 that a curator was appointed at Britain’s first botanic garden at Oxford University, nearly 100 years behind those created at the universities of Pisa and Padua. These living museums are still places where plants are studied and identified.

Willes introduces the reader to many influential characters who made their horticultural mark, including practical gardeners like the Tradescants, who helped create the gardens at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, and Inigo Jones, who incorporated at Arundel House in London ideas gleaned on visits to Italy in the early 1600s. You will also find the Huguenot, Solomon de Caus, who designed gardens for the Stuarts and the architect Christopher Wren.

Unfortunately the only testament to the glittering pavilions, grottos, sculptures and elaborate water features of gardens created in this hundred-year horticultural revolution is in the work of artists and writers. Gardens like Theobalds and Nonesuch in Surrey no longer exist but the National Trust takes care of several survivors and English Heritage has recently undertaken major restoration work at Kenilworth in Warwickshire.

Willes, who was publisher for the National Trust, is a true bibliophile who has undertaken an ambitious piece of research that will be invaluable to students of gardens and their history.

Rosie Atkins was Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden and is a freelance writer.


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