The Museum of Garden History sits within the shadows of Lambeth Palace, just across the road from the Thames’s Albert Embankment. Its new exhibition celebrates the life and work of Christopher Lloyd, one of Britain’s favourite gardeners…
Jack Watkins sets the scene.
There’s an incongruity about the existence of a gardening museum in an unlovely urban setting. But seeing a picture on the wall inside, an 18th century copy of a Wenceslaus Hollar drawing of 1647, it begins to make more sense. The museum is housed in the deconsecrated church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, cheek by jowl with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Palace. But centuries ago, while to the east lay Lambeth Marshes and, from the church tower, you could look across the Thames to the distant spires of Wren’s new City churches, Lambeth itself was an undeveloped area of fields and market gardens.
The Museum of Garden History was founded here in 1977 on the discovery of the tomb of the Tradescants, the great 17th century plant hunting family. The elder John Tradescant was the gardener to Charles I, and it was on a site close to St Mary-at-Lambeth that, in 1625, he opened one of the first publically accessible botanical gardens and museums of natural history in Britain. It was at Lambeth, too, that Eleanor Coade set up a factory from which were rolled out thousands of the coade stone ornaments and sculptures that were popular for decades in English gardens. Suddenly, the bleakness of a 21st century Lambeth Walk is brightened by historical connections.
Over the last three decades a unique collection of over 9,000 objects, each in some way representing British gardens and gardening, has been assembled by the Museum, although, because space is at a premium, only a small proportion is on show at any one time, and the displays – which include tools, images, artefacts and garden literature – are rotated.
The oldest items currently to be seen here are gardening tools, some as old as the 16th century. There are hand shears – with blades made of iron, they must have been unbelievably cumbersome to use – plus a delightfully ornate earthenware watering pot, and a more practical antique pair of foldable pruning knives.
As a hobby, gardening might seem the most timeless of pursuits, but it has been as subject to the whims of fashion as anything else. In the 19th century, it seems that the gentry latched onto the notion of pottering about and indulging in a bit of light weeding while strolling their estates. Of course, there was no chance they’d involve themselves with the heavier, dirtier work done by paid staff, so shrewd manufacturers started making tools that were lighter and more stylish than those used by the average gardener. Dandelion weeders thus doubled as walking sticks, and a pruning saw was disguised to look like a walking stick-cum-sword. Nattiest of all the examples on show is a pair of calf-length gardening boots, circa 1920, with a brogue pattern, just to make certain no-one ever mistook the wearer for one of his servants.
Fashions may change, but weeds are always with us. It is clear that in bygone decades you were expected to wage war on them with a surprising range of lethal weapons – including arsenic, ammonia and sulphuric acid – that must have resulted in some very nasty accidents. A large pesticide sprayer, which probably saw deployment on an orchard, looks like a mini missile launcher.
One man who was never afraid of getting his fingers dirty – Christopher Lloyd – is the subject of a new exhibition at the museum. Lloyd, who died four years ago aged 84, was Britain’s most famous garden writer and plantsman but, more than that, he was a big character and the exhibits give a flavour of his appetite for life and his reputation as a host, as well as his thinking on plants and gardens.
Christopher Lloyd as a boy © the Great Dixter Charitable Trust
Lloyd was born at Great Dixter in 1921, the family home in East Sussex to where his parents had moved from London a decade earlier, working with the great architect Edwin Luytens to extend the house and gardens. Lloyd would live and work here for most of his life. When he died, he bequeathed his part of the estate to a newly created Great Dixter Charitable Trust, with the intent of ensuring that the beautiful gardens would continue to provide inspiration and training to a new generation of gardeners. The exhibition actually coincides with the centenary of the founding of the gardens by Lloyd’s father, Nathaniel, and an appeal by the trust to raise the £1.1 million still required to complete Lloyd’s vision for the estate.
Great Dixter’s gardens may look as old as Eden, but the famous yew hedges were only planted by Nathaniel – a great admirer and writer on topiary – from 1912 onwards. His son would be everlastingly grateful for the structure they gave, though it seems that it was his mother, Daisy, who was his greatest influence. She was “a plantswoman who loved plants for their own sake,” he once said, something he showed that he had inherited in one of his last books, Meadows, published in 2004.
Lloyd was blessed with a prodigious memory for the Latin names of plants and the times of year in which they flowered. He honed his botanical skills on walking expeditions in the Alps and spent time in East Africa and the Kashmir. He kept a plant notebook to record his observations and the names of unfamiliar plants. He carried it everywhere and, typically forthright, expected everyone else to do the same.
In 1963 he began a weekly column in Country Life that ran for 40 years until his death, never missing an issue. Lloyd was obsessed with the articles, telling fellow garden writer Anna Pavord that doing a column improved one’s own gardening because it forced you to look at everything with greater concentration. He kept a card index – on show, along with much of his correspondence – organised by plant name to ensure he never repeated himself, and to enable him to observe how his opinions changed.
His first book, The Mixed Border in Modern Gardening, was published in 1957, and in the ensuing years he developed an unconventional gardening style where all kinds of plants were packed together in unexpected combinations. He delighted in contradicting accepted thinking, arguing for instance that daring colour contrasts were fine since nature itself had no reservations about which colour was next to which. When he uprooted the old rose garden laid down by his father at Great Dixter in 1911, and instead planted dahlias, The Independent remarked: “You could hear the more finely tuned of his readers sucking their teeth in horror”.
His planting schemes could never be to the taste of everyone, but he certainly seems to have made gardening fun, and one of his enjoinders about the need to be adventurous may give hope to any novice nervously embarking on their first summer’s gardening this year: “If people are afraid to make mistakes they will always have a very dull garden.” For the more experienced horticulturalist, anyone whose enthusiasm for the subject is lagging may find their interest revived by attending this exhibition.
Exhibition runs to 12 September
For more details, see www.gardenmuseum.org.uk
or call 020 7401 8865