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The Victorian age was astonishing, vast and multifarious. The cult of the garden was only the tiniest part of it and yet, perhaps more than at any time before or since, gardening became inextricably linked to the turmoils and aspirations of the times.
Gardening suddenly became a substantial market: for plants, for seeds, for gardeners, for magazines and newspapers, for gadgets of innumerable sorts and variable utilities. Gardening reached whole new classes of consumers for the first time. Middle class housewives in freshly built terrace houses discovered garden flowers, garden crafts, flower arranging. The new rich could now display their new wealth with as much spectacle as they could possibly wish, for they were now and forever freed from the Georgian canons of ‘chaste’ good taste. The fast expanding industrial classes could, if they were lucky, garden their new allotments or tiny back yards, or wander through the innumerable, though still bald and newly planted, public parks. All classes could buy some of the new gardening books, whether as penny pamphlets, as mid-price part-works filled with hand-coloured prints, or expensive productions devoted to new orchids, camellias, lilies or roses. Everyone could buy gardening newspapers, or some of the myriad magazines.
This new excitement was reflected in new directions in garden design. The visual revolution in garden taste of the previous century needed land, and therefore wealth, for its expression. By the mid nineteenth century, on the other hand, gardening was available and relevant to almost everyone.
This wasn’t, naturally, only to do with mere changes in fashion, but was intimately associated with the whole economic and political fabric of the time (gardening always is). Although the social shifts that made all the astonishing changes in gardens possible are beyond the scope of this book, they may be glimpsed behind every advance, whether apparently trivial (like the supplanting by mass-produced rubber hoses of the old handmade leather ones, or the introduction of cast iron plant vases), or more plainly important (like the flood of South American plants as that subcontinent was opened up, or the growth of garden societies to improve the gardens of the rural destitute).
The whole Victorian age, here, is only just visible beyond the greenery, and is seen entirely through its gardens and gardeners. However, more gardeners, of more sorts, were more vocal than ever before, and the pages of the new publications designed for them burst with their voices. Through their own words, through the commercial world that battened upon them (quack medicines, Doulton aspidistra holders, false teeth, interior decorators, emigration societies, subscription pleas to save widow and children from the workhouse, dinner table designers, chrysanthemum shades, two horse lawnmowers), we can build up a picture of how many of them lived.
For the first time in the history of gardening, it is possible to know almost as much about the elderly weeding women who cleared caterpillars from the cabbages or the young under-gardeners confined to the bothy, or the obscure Scottish plant collectors stationed in Nepal or the jungles of Brazil, as of the new ‘media stars’, whether surgeons’ wives, gardeners from the humblest backgrounds who won for themselves rank and fortune, to great magnates pacing their Italian terraces and French parterres.
Of course, not all Victorian gardens were beautiful, though many, both in Europe and America, were. Some were quite preposterous. In previous epochs, when the changes of taste and style were usually worked out for aristocratic and often visually-educated patrons, sometimes by designers or gardeners of great sophistication, there were still, no doubt, terrible visual disasters.
Unfortunately for Victorian gardens, not only were ridiculous things admired and documented in the most minute detail, but many, from 1870 onwards, were also photographed. The follies of the age could no longer hide.
Modern books about seventeenth century or eighteenth century gardens usually appeal for the conservation or restoration of what remains from those periods. For the Victorian one, with so many partial remains left to us of both nasty and marvellous, the problem of conservation is more complex. It’s difficult to know whether it would be worth recreating, for instance, the tightly packed Lawrentian Villa gardens (see pg XX), or the vast sequence of circular flower beds at Wimbledon House, let alone the immense bedding schemes at Sydenham, the rock gardens that modelled the Matterhorn (the most important of these still exists beneath a grove of sycamores), or Scottish glens decked out to look like Japan.
However, there were thousand upon thousands of beautiful gardens too. In the hands of intelligent and talented gardeners, any garden style can be made to yield to capacity. The Victorian period produced innumerable highly talented gardeners, and many of their gardens still exist, even though some lie, half vanished, in their own jungles of American rhododendron and laurel.
At a less grand level, thousands upon thousands of small Victorian houses could look delightful if framed once again by Victorian gardens, and the rooms decorated with Victorian flower arrangements. Here, problems are less pressing, and this book can be used to find good plants and planting schemes.
Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that this book is largely based on British and, to a lesser extent, American sources. There is enough of those to swamp a dozen writers and produce a score of books. However, it is not only in those countries that the enthusiams for gardens took hold. It was international. All over Europe and Russia, gardeners were looking for new plants and new ways of putting them together, and their successes were transmitted by the presses and copied elsewhere. Japanese nurserymen exported plants to California, where they were bought by gardeners experimenting with Spanish garden styles, but who ignored the annual plants of their own deserts. These, like Eschscholtzia and Clarkia, were grown in every back yard in Peckham or Solihull.
Chinese gardeners, with their own wonderful garden flora still being exported to Europe, fell crazily in love with the new roses being shown in London or Paris, and paid huge prices for a single twig.
It was all quite extraordinary. Yet it was perhaps in Britain that everything was brought together at last. It was here too, perhaps for cultural or climatic reasons, that the first blows against the triumphant high-Victorian style of gardening were struck, and here that the compromises which created the next style of gardening were worked out, compromises with which we are still, mostly, perfectly happy.
Of course, the victory wasn’t absolute. Wherever you see blue and white alyssums or lobelias alternated around the outside of a flower bed, or red salvias surrounding a thin clump of canna lilies, the high-Victorian garden,though muted, is still alive. Wherever you see a vast monkey puzzle tree dwarfing a red brick terrace house or a country rectory or manse, some vanished winter bedding scheme is still remembered.
However, at Hidcote, at Sissinghurst, in every sophisticated ‘cottage’ garden filled with herbs and old roses, in every border where the colour schemes are carefully worked through, and even in those nasty island beds filled with ericas and dwarf conifers, the late Victorian compromises are alive and well.
We are all still late Victorians, even now.
The Gardens of Croesus