Making Mountains and Music in Elysium…

frontispiece to the English translation of Abbe de Vallemont, Curiosities of nature and art in husbandry and gardening, London: 1707.

As I hope I showed in a recent post John Evelyn the 17thc diarist and garden writer spent much of his life designing the perfect garden: Elysium Britannicum.  It was to be an Eden encompassing a complete miniaturized version of the world including almost every kind of landscape feature that he could imagine.

But what was a garden owner to do if they didn’t have  natural waterfalls or cascades, mountains or “Groves and Wildernesses” in their back yard?


Quite simple said Evelyn:  “if in the originall disposure of the plott, we find them not already planted by Nature” they must, quite simply, “be contrived”. This insistence creates an artificiality that is the very opposite of the great 18thc cry of “the genius of the place”.  So how does Evelyn propose the gardener should go about it?

Continue reading

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The indefatigable John Fraser and his American Nursery

Companion to the Botanical Magazine, vol. 2, 1836

John Fraser was another one of those botanists and plant hunters who once set the horticultural word on fire with their discoveries but are now scarcely remembered.  Like so many of them he was Scottish,  born in Inverness-shire in 1750, and like so many others of his countrymen, especially gardeners, he took the high road to England.  He married and in the 177os opened a hosiery shop in Chelsea dangerously close to the Society of Apothecaries Physic Garden.   He began visiting and soon became friends with William Forsyth,the then curator, and it wasn’t long before he became besotted by botany that he gave up selling socks  and  became a plant hunter instead.

There are brief biographical articles by John Claudius Loudon [ in Arboretum et Fruiitcum, 1844] and Robert Hogg [The Cottage Gardener, July 22nd 1852] which suggests that from then on his life seems to have been one long adventure…

Phlox setacea one of more than 200 plants introduced by Fraser,                                                                from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1797

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Ada and her garden village

Ada Salter

It’s not often I’d guess that a local election manifesto gets taken that seriously, is implemented and referred to and read decades after it was written,  and even  talks about gardens. But an exception might be  the 1922 election address by Bermondsey Labour Party.  Leading lights in the local party then were Ada and Alfred Salter.

Salisbury Street clearance, 1926 © Southwark Local History Library and Archive

Almost a year ago I wrote about Ada and her campaign in the 1920s and 1930s to beautify Bermondsey, an inner London borough and one of the most deprived and overcrowded parts of Britain. But she did more than just plant trees and open parks.  Important though those ideas were they were just a part of a massive campaign to improve the living conditions and lives of people  just a stone’s throw from central London.  Ada, together with her husband Alfred, the doctor turned MP, led campaigns to improve public health – remember this is pre-NHS –  and clear the borough’s slums.And the slums were to be replaced not with high-rise  blocks but with garden villages.

I am indebted to the research behind John Boughton’s blog Municipal Dreams, which I used for the starting point for this post. Continue reading

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Once the Queen of the Parlour…

Samuel John Peploe (1871–1935)
Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

Everyone’s maiden aunt and granny had one, and Gracie Fields sang of having the biggest one in the world. A dreary, dark green, flowerless clump in a pot in a corner of the parlour. Often forgotten about for weeks on end they tolerated heat, drought, coal and gas fire fumes and could hover apparently on the verge of expiry for years on end, before responding gratefully to a  splash of water or a quick dusting. It’s not surprising they were known as the cast-iron plant.

Famous as a joke plant aspidistras were, according to the OED “often regarded as a symbol of dull middle-class respectability” – thanks largely one suspects to George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. BUT how and why did they become so popular and where on earth have they all gone?

After all you’d think a cast-iron plant would be just the sort of thing that would appeal to time-poor and knowledge-lacking modern generation. Yet it’s cacti and succulents that are all the rage not the Aspidistra?   What has the poor plant done wrong to be so ignored? Continue reading

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John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum

Wax impression of John Evelyn’s seal,    National Portrait Gallery

John Evelyn is, like his friend Samuel Pepys, best known for his diary,  detailing life in the second half of the 17thc. He was a landed gentleman, government official and a high Anglican of uncompromising piety but also a man beset by curiosity.

As a result he investigated and wrote about a huge range of subjects, but particularly gardening. He not only translated and commented on several  major French texts  on gardening but also wrote several key ones of his own.  

Method for propagating plants by layering into a pot full of earth

Evelyn saw horticulture as the form of knowledge and expression that by its very nature could include all other arts and sciences, and developed  a pious understanding of the workings of Nature, so revealing God’s infinite wisdom. Indeed so convinced of this was he that he spent much of his life from the 1650s onwards working on a book intended to cover every aspect of the subject that he could. He’d already written about 1000 pages when he died in 1706.

Instructions for grafting rare fruit trees

Now in the British Library and catalogued as Add MS  78432 it’s better known as Elysium Britannicum or The Royal Gardens.  It remained virtually unknown until 2001 when it was finally transcribed and published.  Continue reading

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