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Women and their Gardens
A History from the Elizabethan Era to Today
By Catherine Horwood
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2010 Catherine Horwood
All rights reserved.
A PASSION FOR PLANTS
One can never know too much about a plant; one never can know all there is to be learnt.
Frances Jane Hope, Wardie Lodge, near Edinburgh (1875)
'WHAT PROGRESS SHE MADE ...'
In Lancashire some time in the late 1620s, Mistress Thomasin Tunstall, who lived not far from the village which bore her family name near Hornby Castle, carefully wrapped up some roots of one of her favourite hellebores. She had dug them up from a clump growing on the land surrounding her home, Bull-banke, close to the wooded edge of the river Greta which wound its way between the wild fells of Lancashire and North Yorkshire. Painstakingly, she prepared to send them to London to her friend, the famed apothecary and herbalist John Parkinson. Sending plants such a distance was a fraught business and she would have wanted the dormant roots to have a good chance of survival. She may have used damp rags so that they did not dry out on the long journey. Mistress Tunstall knew that Parkinson was developing his garden in Long Acre in Covent Garden and was always pleased to accept new discoveries. Into the package, she tucked a note describing their blooms as small and white 'with blush flowers'.
Parkinson, for his part, was no doubt excited to receive this new variety from his enthusiastic friend and gardening correspondent. Although he was one of London's leading apothecaries, his great passion lay in his garden and the study of plants. He was also gathering information for his first and most successful book on horticulture, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, which he published in 1629. In it, he listed the many varieties of plants that he grew in his beloved garden in Long Acre, many of which had been supplied to him by horticultural contacts across the country. He mentions Mistress Tunstall in particular, describing her in his book as 'a courteous Gentlewoman'. Within a year or so, he was delighted to report that her hellebores had 'born faire flowers', and to conclude that she was indeed a 'great lover' of rare plants. But Thomasin Tunstall was more than that; she was a fanatical plant collector.
Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Reginald Farrer, an eminent plant collector, blamed Thomasin for the disappearance of the Lady's Slipper Orchid from Britain. 'If only you had loved these delights a little less ruinously for future generations!' he wrote. 'Do you sleep quiet, you worthy Gentlewoman, in Tunstall Church or does your uneasy sprite still haunt the Helks Wood in vain longing to undo the wrong you did?' It feels unjust for Farrer, who knew a thing or two about the passions of plant collectors himself, to accuse Thomasin so harshly, for he would not have known her circumstances. In the very year John Parkinson's book came out, Tunstall and Alice Clopton (who was most probably her sister) defaulted on some loans and incurred even more debt when they had to move out of their home because of their father and brother's mismanagement, so it was understandable that Tunstall turned to her passion for plants to earn some money.
At much the same time, in the south of England, a child was growing up without any such financial worries. She was to spend over twenty-five years filling her homes with more than two thousand exotic plants and her garden beds with countless more. Who cannot warm to a woman who wrote of her obsession for her collection, confessing, 'When I get into storys of plants I know not how to get out.'
Mary, Duchess of Beaufort, was the daughter of Arthur Capel, Baron Hadham, and her childhood during the 1630s was spent at Little Hadham in Hertfordshire. The Capel family have been immortalised in a famous painting by Cornelius Johnson, which, in the style of portraits at the time, features a tantalising glimpse of their Italianate garden in the background. Mary grew up surrounded by garden lovers; her eldest brother, Arthur, later Earl of Essex, had a passion for trees and, in consultation with John Evelyn, created what was probably the first 'wooded' garden in the country at Cassiobury in Hertfordshire. Although this no longer exists it remains the largest open space in Watford. Another brother, Sir Henry Capel, built what may have been the first conservatory in Britain in the late 1670s at his gardens in Kew, on the site that was to become the Royal Botanic Gardens, and he was certainly a source of seeds for his sister.
At eighteen Mary married Henry Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, which was to prove a happy union though a short one, as she was left widowed six years later when her husband died in the Civil War, leaving her with two children. Three years later, however, Mary married again, and again for love. Her second husband was Henry Somerset, later created Duke of Beaufort and inheriting the estate at Badminton in 1683. It was Mary who took on the, for her, pleasurable task of developing the gardens there, despite being kept occupied with the births of more children. It proved to be a major turning point in her life, as for several years before this it is possible that Mary had been suffering from what we would now recognise as depression. As one of her friends wrote, '[Mary] is gone almost into a mopishness with melancholy.' Whether it was her search for a cure through growing herbs in her garden or some other less horticultural road to Damascus that revived her will never be known, but there is no doubt that Mary developed the zeal of a convert and devoted the rest of her life to the cultivation of plants.
Mary was blessed with a generous income from her second marriage and this enabled her to cultivate the gardens at Badminton, just fifteen miles north of Bath, and at Beaufort House in London, adjacent to the Chelsea Physic Garden, which had opened in 1673. By 1701, William Sherard, the botanist and compulsive cataloguer of gardens, suggested that hers were close to the best in Europe, 'being furnish'd with all conveniences imaginable, and a good stock of plants'.
Her good stock of plants was a collection which ran into thousands, and she kept detailed records of them all. Her great passion was for nonnative species and her meticulous care for seeds encouraged some of the greatest botanists in Europe to entrust her with their new finds. She grew many in the conservatory she had had built in the 1690s at Badminton, which she called her 'infirmary'. Stephen Switzer, the landscape designer and author of The Nobleman, Gentleman, and Gardener's Recreation, wrote in 1715, 'what progress she made ... the Thousands of those foreign Plants (by her as it were made familiar to this Clime) there regimented together, and kept in a wonderful deal of Health, Order and Decency'.
While she was privileged because of her wealth, there is no doubt that Mary's contribution to late-seventeenth-century British horticulture was inestimable. Her determination to identify and catalogue every plant that came into her possession lasted for a quarter of a century, an enterprise which the garden historian Douglas Chambers believes 'puts her on an equal footing with some of the greatest botanists and horticulturists of her age, many of whom were her friends and correspondents'.
The ambitious development at Badminton included areas of fashionable wilderness 'cobwebbed with stars and radial avenues', but it was the facilities for raising the new 'exotick' plants that were arriving as seeds from the new world which caused the greatest excitement among Mary's horticultural friends. William Sherard, when he became tutor to Mary's grandson at Badminton, thought that 'no place raises or preserves plants better'.
The duchess kept meticulous notes about the new arrivals in a record book, including a 'Catalogue of seeds from the East Indies sent by my brother Harry April 1 1693', and would label them with numbered white sticks. She corresponded regularly with the distinguished physician and collector Sir Hans Sloane, and was later to bequeath to him the twelve albums of her herbarium – dried and preserved specimens. These volumes are now an important part of the British Museum's natural history collection.
It was not just rarities that gave the duchess pleasure. At Beaufort House she created a sumptuous formal garden packed with scented and evergreen plants, and an engraving by Kip made in 1708 shows the formality that one would expect of a late-seventeenth-century garden: the rectangular 'courts', grass walks, fountains and gravel pathways. Being the horticultural perfectionist that she was, Mary also had lists of plantings sent to her at Badminton. Several of these from the 1690s have survived and give a rare taste of what one would have found when wandering those pathways through the evergreen arches and past the pillars of yew. This was a garden of scents and sensibility, as this short extract shows:
In the great Garden on the East Aspect Border under the Wall is planted with Polianthus. On the Boarder on the other Syde the Walk is an Edging of double Pinks on the other side an edging with Lavender Cotton and Abrotanum. The inside the Border is Virga aura, Double ffetherfew with Double Pinks, painted Sage, Scarlett Lichnell, Collumbine, Italian Starwort with Standards of flowering Shrubs, as Mizerian, Honeysuckles, Althea, Scorpion Senna, yellow Jasmine, Hypericon frutex.
Plant historian Ruth Duthie gives the following modernised spellings:
Polyanthus, Primula x variabilis; Pink, Dian thus plumanus; Lavender Cotton, Santolina chamaecyparissus; Abrotanum (southernwood), Artemisia abrotanum; Virga aura, Solidago virgaurea; Fetherfew, Tanacetum parthenium(aureum); Painted Sage, Salvia officinalis 'Tricolor'; 'Lichnell', Lychnis chalcedonica; Columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris; Italian Starwort, Aster amellus;Mezeron, Daphne mezereum; Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum; Althaea, Hibiscus syriacus; Scorpion Senna, Coronilla emerus; Yellow Jasmine, Jasminum fruticans; Hypericon frutex, Spiraea hypericifolia.
Stephen Switzer, an enthusiastic fan of the duchess, shared with his readers the fact that 'her Servants assured us, that excepting the times of her Devotions ... Gard'ning took up two Thirds of her time', and this to some degree explains why her children thought she spent too much time and money on her horticultural interests. They filed a lawsuit against her claiming she had not distributed the late duke's estate. She won on appeal but it must have left a bitter taste. The duchess's horticultural legacy is now restricted to archives and libraries; her gardens and greenhouses at Badminton and Beaufort House are gone, the former swept away by Capability Brown and the latter by London development. The herbaria at the Natural History Museum and the illustrations she commissioned for her 'albums' have survived, and she is still commemorated by Beaufortia decussata, a suitably exotic variety of Australian myrtle with flame-coloured 'bottlebrush' flowers and spiky stems, named for her in 1812 by Robert Brown, plant explorer and botanist-librarian to Sir Joseph Banks. Curtis's Botanical Magazine of 1815 described her as 'an early encourager of the science of Botany' with a 'flourishing botanic garden ... rich ... in rare exotics', adding 'the herbarium of that celebrated naturalist ... bears frequent testimony'.
A generation after Mary another titled woman, Margaret, Duchess of Portland, was gripped by a similar passion for plant collecting, a passion that she was able to indulge for most of her life. The duchess was wealthy in her own right, having inherited a fortune from her mother, Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles, only daughter of the Duke of Newcastle, and on the death of her husband in 1762, when she was forty-seven, she assumed control of the Cavendish estates. However, it was from her father, Edward Harley, 2nd Duke of Oxford and the man who established the Harleian Library, that Margaret acquired a passion for collecting, though in Margaret it was to become almost an obsession. She filled special 'museum' rooms in her homes in London and at Bulstrode Park, near Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire, with minerals, fossils and stuffed animals in addition to works of art and objets de vertu. This was far more than a rich woman's indulgence; her collections eventually became the largest in Britain, greater than Sir Hans Sloane's, which formed the basis of the British Museum, but Margaret's were not destined to survive. After her death, a series of family disputes forced their sale and, after auctions lasting thirty-eight days, the collections were dispersed.
Her passion for native and exotic plants matched her obsession for collecting. She knew most of the leading lights in the predominantly male world of botany and plant exploration, being a friend of Philip Miller, chief gardener of the Chelsea Physic Garden from 1722 and author of The Gardeners Dictionary; the great Joseph Banks, later head of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; and Daniel Solander, the Swedish botanist and student of Linnaeus. Solander and Banks visited her after their famed first voyage with James Cook in the Endeavour in 1768. She gave many commissions to the highly talented German-born botanical artist Georg Ehret, who had settled in England in the mid-1700s and produced some of his best botanical illustrations for her. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was her companion on a plant-collecting expedition to the Peak District, calling himself in later letters 'L'Herboriste de Madame la Duchess de Portland'. In something of an understatement, the duchess's acquaintance Mrs Lybbe Powys wrote in 1769, 'Her Grace is exceedingly fond of gardening,' adding that she was 'a very learned botanist, and has every English plant in a separate garden by themselves'.
Among the duchess's retinue of staff was the knowledgeable John Lightfoot. In addition to being her chaplain, Lightfoot was a noted botanist and a founder member of the Linnean Society, and he worked with the duchess to catalogue her vast collection of natural history specimens. His letters to her record the delight the two obviously shared in the minutiae of botanical discoveries and their recording.
Mr Lightfoot presents his most dutiful Respect to the D[uche]ss Dow[age]r of Portland, & has the Pleasure to inform her that he has just receiv'd a Letter out of Yorkshire from his Correspondent Mr Teesdale, acquainting him on the 18th of the Ins[tan]t he sent by the Stage Coach from York, directed for the Dss. Dowr. of Portland Whitehall London, to be forwarded to Bullstrode with Speed, a little Box containing three flowering Plants of the Satyrium albidum, & one of the Cornus heracea. Mr Lightfoot would beg Leave to recommend in the Drawing of the Satyrium that one of the Flowers be figur'd separate from the Plant, of its natural Size, & another a little magnified, otherwise they are so small & crowded, that it will be impossible to give a proper or distinct Representation of the Plant. After the Drawing is complete, Mr L: would beg Leave (if it be not too much Trouble) that her Grace would send a Specimen of it in Flower to Uxbridge, as Mr Lightfoot has never seen it in that State. The Roots of all may be kept in Pots to flower another Year.
While the tone of his letters brings to mind Jane Austen's Mr Collins and his obsequious devotion to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, they do serve as a reminder of the problems of transporting live plants across the British Isles, never mind from abroad. In another letter sent after 'two months in gathering and preserving', Lightfoot is convinced that they 'will all certainly be dead & rotten, before they reach Bullstrode ...' Trying to reassure both himself and the duchess, he wrote, 'I place all my Confidences in the seed I have collected; these are very good & I hope will in some Measure supply the Loss of their Roots.'
Lightfoot had an even more illustrious 'pupil' in Queen Charlotte. 'Pupil' is not too strong a word, since Lightfoot's role on his visits to Frogmore took the form of regular 'conversations' on botany and zoology with the Queen and two of her daughters, the Princesses Augusta and Elizabeth. The Queen took these conversations so seriously that she made notes, which she later revised to make sure she had not missed anything. When Lightfoot died, King George III bought his herbarium for Queen Charlotte for the grand sum of one hundred guineas, confirmation of the couple's commitment to the new 'sciences' of botany and horticulture.
Excerpted from Women and their Gardens by Catherine Horwood. Copyright © 2010 Catherine Horwood. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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