Camellia japonica ‘Middlemist Red’

Big, Bold, Beautiful

13th March 2015

Britain’s oldest collection of glass-housed camellias is on view in all its glory at the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust’s annual show. Jack Watkins went to admire…

In the 1840s, one of London’s most eligible bachelors, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, delighted in putting on lavish soirees in his gardens at Chiswick. As guests sauntered across the lawns, they would have become aware of the presence of four giraffes, and would also been able to enjoy the company of monkeys, llamas, kangaroos, even an elephant. Such creatures are no longer to be encountered within the bounds of London W4 unfortunately, but another group of the Bachelor Duke’s exotics ­– his prized collection of imported, early spring flowering camellias – can still be seen here, as big, bold and beautiful as ever.

For the last five years, these magnificent specimens have been celebrated in Chiswick House and Gardens Trust’s annual Camellia Show, but in 2015, for the first time, the public are being admitted for free. “Previously, there had always been a charge because we have to raise money for the overall project to restore and maintain the house and gardens,” explains Lucinda MacPherson, the Trust’s publicist. “We employ a head gardener and two other gardeners, and nothing is here by chance. But this year we have decided to let everyone in free, and hope that they might recognise the heritage value of this Grade I listed park, which is open all year for free, by making a donation.”

The camellias – the oldest large glass-housed collection in Britain and probably anywhere else in the world too, outside of China and Japan – might almost be seen as a symbol of the rise, fall and rise again of this fascinating spot, a few minutes from the Thames. Chiswick House was built by Richard Boyle, the 3rd Earl of Burlington, in the 1720s, in the style of a country villa on the Italian Veneto. One of the pioneers of classical architecture in Britain, Burlington employed William Kent not only on the interior design of some of the rooms in the villa, but also to lay out the gardens in a style which effectively set the blueprint for classically-inspired landscape design in England for decades to come.

By the 1770s, the property had passed into the hands of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and it was his son, the 6th Duke (a horticultural enthusiast who later spotted the talent of the young Joseph Paxton and employed him as his head gardener at Chatsworth House) who had the gardens here extended. At Chiswick in 1813, sited in front of his Italian Garden, the duke built the elegant conservatory which houses the camellias today. At 300ft long, it was one of the earliest glass houses to be built, pre-dating Decimus Burton’s glass house at Kew and Paxton’s Crystal Palace. “A lot of people think Paxton designed it,” says Geraldine King, the present head gardener at Chiswick. “But he would only have been a teenager at the time it went up.” In fact it was the work of Samuel Ware, also notable as the designer of the Burlington Arcade and of the grand central staircase in the entrance hall of the Royal Academy of Arts, in Mayfair.

To begin with, the conservatory was used to grow grapes, peaches, figs and pineapples. To be able to grow such foreign fruits was a symbol of one’s elevated social status at the time, but tropical plants were something else again. When sea captains started bringing back these strange plants from their travels abroad, they became the next “must have.” The Duke swiftly moved the fruits out of the conservatory to make room for the camellias. At the time, no-one knew how they would fare outside in the cool English climate, so growing them indoors was considered the safest option. “They were incredibly expensive,” says Geraldine, “costing around £5, which would be about £3,000 in today’s terms.”

Camellia japonica ‘Rubra Plena’

Today’s collection is thought to contain sixteen varieties, all from the species Camellia japonica, dating back to the original 1828 plantings. Records show that they were ordered by the then head gardener, William Lindsay, from Alfred Chandler’s nursery in Vauxhall. Others will have been propagated from cuttings from the originals. It’s believed, for instance, that the variety Chandleri, a lovely sober scarlet hue, was planted in 1825. The girth of its trunk is the largest in the collection, at 50 inches. Elegans – which, with big, pink flowers, looks just that – came as a seedling from the Vauxhall nursery in 1823. Rubra Plena came in 1794, on one of the ships of the East India company, making it one of the oldest varieties to reach the West from China. The most valuable plant in the collection is possibly Middlemist’s Red, brought back from China in 1804 by John Middlemist, a Shepherd’s Bush nurseryman. It is one of only two in the world known to exist.

As the sun pours through the panes of the glasshouse on a sunny afternoon, all these plants are flourishing. That wasn’t the case twenty-odd years ago when the camellias were disfigured by masses of dead leaves and succumbing to disease, just as the neglected gardens were becoming a regular target of vandals. In the nick of time, while the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, in partnership with English Heritage, embarked on a long-term plan to restore the property, three members of the International Camellia Society recognised what would be lost if these species became extinct. The plants were sprayed, pruned, watered and ventilated, and gradually began to produce what Geraldine calls these “huge, in-your-face blooms” once more.

How much longer could they live? “They could go on forever, who knows?” she says. “The trouble when you grow things under glass is that the temperature is 5/6 degrees higher than outdoors, which means pests can breed more quickly and disease spread.” Still, they are no longer short of care. The plants are inspected on a weekly or daily basis, and in the days leading up to the show, the leaves are individually polished by the Trust’s volunteers. Not only do they gleam as a result, but the work also has the effect of wiping off any mildew or aphids which promotes their health. “Once they have finished flowering we tip prune to encourage new growth, and we take cuttings in July. Remember these are spring flowering varieties, though. For people who own winter-flowering camellias, they would need to be pruning now, after the flowering has finished.”

This year, for the first time, visitors to the show have the chance to buy heritage camellias, propagated from the old plants. They have been flying out of the shop, says Lucinda. The process of propagation is not as easy as you think. As she explains, the reason these varieties are so rare is probably because they weren’t easy to regenerate via cuttings. It can take four years to get those which do prove successful to grow to a suitable size for sale.

Meanwhile, Sir Peter Blake, the artist who, among other things, designed sleeves for seminal Beatles’ albums – who, incidentally, shot their first promo videos in Chiswick Gardens in 1966, giving the spot claims to being the birthplace of the music video – has created a design for a limited edition print of the camellia Incarnata. And the opera singer Ailyn Perez, acclaimed for her portrayal of the Lady of the Camellias in Verdi’s La Traviata, has been along to pose in her gown beneath one of the plants. How the Bachelor Duke would have loved to have been present for that.

The Camellia Festival continues to 29 March. Admission is free. See www.chgt.org.uk for more information.

Find Your Local