East comes West

Panel from the Chinese House at Stowe, photo by Peter Vallance, 2008

Dr Johnson wrote in 1738 : “There are few nations in the world more talked of, or less known than the Chinese.”  He was reflecting on the latest book about China to be published, one which Patrick Conner in Oriental Architecture in the West suggests that inspired the first “Chinese” building in Britain.

This was a massive 4 volume work by the Jesuit priest Father Jean-Baptiste Du Halde who had not visited China himself but collated the unpublished reports  of 17 of his fellow priests. It first appeared in France in 1735, but was translated into English as  The General History of China the following year, and went into its 3rd edition by 1741.


Unlike Nieuhof’s account of the Dutch Embassy which I mentioned  a couple of weeks ago there are  very  few illustrations.  However the artist, Antoin Humblot, crucially shifted the emphasis of his Chinese sources, from reality to something rather more playful and elegant,  and in the process he made China appear almost  to be rococo.  Such books helped feed the growing fascination for all things “Chinese” including gardens and architecture, which Tim Richardson has called  “one of the wonderful eccentricities of the age.”

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St Fiacre

I forgot to celebrate St Fiacre’s day last year. I bet you did too.   But I did better this year and did so in the appropriate surroundings of the Gardens Trust’s annual conference in Birmingham which is taking place this weekend. Unfortunately that means I wont be able to get to the festival of St Fiacre at Meaux, near Paris,  which is better known for its Brie and its mustard than for its saints, although I could still take part in the international pilgrimage  and festival of St Fiacre at Senlis next month. But why am I telling you all this stuff about a strange-sounding saint you’ve probably never heard of in a garden-related blog?

15thc alabaster statuette of St Fiacre, now on display at the Garden Museum, London. V&A

It’s because St Fiacre just happens the patron saint of gardening, and his “official”feast day falls on the 31st August although there are some local variations on that date including today, September 1st.  Since I didn’t really know  why he had that privilege and responsibility I thought I should find out.

Of course the mediaeval world was besotted by saints – I was going to say bedevilled by but that somehow didn’t seem quite right. One or other of them was believed to watch over  after every minute aspect of daily life.  Legends grew up around them and although many are obscure like Fiacre  [perhaps a polite way of saying they are either imaginary or have lives which have been  ’embroidered’] nevertheless they became well-known, if only locally, with shrines, chapels, wells, springs and statues dedicated to them.

So this post is the story of how an obscure monk from Ireland – became the spiritual guardian of gardeners, and for different reasons, believe it or not, also, of taxi-drivers and sufferers from haemorrhoids.

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Adam’s weed

An obscure 17thc botanist cleric is very prominent in many  gardens at the moment because of a plant, that as so often in the weird and wonderful ways of botanical names,  he never saw, didn’t even know existed  and had absolutely no connection with in any shape or form.   Yet his is one of the few botanists names that really are well-known. That’s because because the plant is also renowned as a colonising weed, which grows rapidly in the poorest ground, filling waste ground, lining railway embankments and even cracks in walls, roofs and gutters where its hard to imagine how anything survives let alone thrives. It has no predators to munch its leaves, but unlike the other invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed or Himalayan balsam, that this description applies to, it instead attracts butterflies and insects and fills the air with a wonderful honey-like fragrance.

The Guardian in an editorial called this plant “the ragamuffin of the natural world” saying  “It is common as muck and as easy as dandelions to grow”  ….


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Looking East …

What’s the best known – and certainly most instantly recognizable – garden building in Britain?

I ought to think of something clever to say at this point, or perhaps provide a list to choose from but I suspect that for the general public, and probably garden historians too there really is one possible choice.  The fact that it’s just been reopened to the public for the first time in years following a massive restoration project, and the return of its 80 dragons is a good excuse to sing its praises and ask a few questions.



I can’t think of any other garden building that is so well-known and has such an immediate  wow factor  as the Pagoda at Kew which is now 256 years old.  Which poses the next obvious question: Why is there a Chinese inspired building in what was once a private garden for the royal family? What drove William Chambers, effectively the newly appointed ‘royal architect’, to suggest the construction of this extraordinary building?   The answer is quite a long one, but one which Chambers was eminently suited to provide.

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My garden boasts a Vulgar Border…not full of plants that swear  but of brightly coloured one – clashing pinks, oranges, purples and yellow which almost make your eyes water. And chief amongst them are dahlias. Dozens and dozens of them. So as it’s in full technicolour flood at the moment I thought I’d write about the history of dahlias.  A straightforward task you might think, and so did I when I started. I thought the most difficult thing to do would be to keep personal feelings [prejudices?] about them under control.  But I was wrong.

I thought knew the outlines of the dahlia story but as it turns out there’s quite a lot of myth even in that basic storyline.   

Worse still the garden dahlia has a tortured taxonomy and complex family history. Despite all the best efforts of botanists the real story is still uncertain and even trying to understand the Wikipedia version left me confused.  But don’t worry I’m not going to even try to explain it, although there are some references in case you suffer from insomnia or like labyrinthine puzzles and want to try and figure it out yourself.


By the way if you hate dahlias the post is worth reading anyway for the stories of the people involved, and if you love  dahlias then read on to discover their convoluted history… Continue reading

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