The Garden Museum

If you find yourself in London and you simply can’t face the noise and swirl of shoppers and traffic then I can recommend a quiet visit to the delightful Garden Museum located south of the river in a church right next door to Lambeth Palace.

The Church of St. Mary-at-Lambeth was made redundant in the early 1970s. Boarded up and ready for demolition it was fortunate that Rosemary and John Nicholson visited the churchyard in search of the tombs of the gardeners and plant collectors father and son John Tradescant . Subsequently the Nicholsons formed the Tradescant Trust which basically saved the church and converted it into the worlds first museum dedicated to Garden History. Glass doors quietly slide open doing away with that hideous clerical creaky door syndrome….

….inside it is spacious and well lit; a fantastic use of a parochial building, modern but without destroying that old ecclesiastical feel.

Delighted that my Art Fund pass ( https://www.artfund.org/national-art-pass) allowed me half price entrance I headed for the small room to the side which holds the present exhibition on the life and career of Humphry Repton (1752 – 1818).

Last year was the bicentenary of Repton’s death and there has been much research undertaken. This exhibition brings together objects, watercolours and some 24 of his Red Books. These leather bound books were his designs, works of art and a clever marketing tool for his commissions from clients up and down the country. One book stands out that is the grand design for Brighton Pavilion, yet it proved to be a commission Repton failed to win possibly due to the fact that he failed to respond quickly enough; you just cannot keep Royalty waiting.

Included in the exhibition is a short film, a clever digital animation bringing the art of Repton alive; the smoke seems to drift away in the far distance and with the soothing narration from Jeremy Irons you feel you are part of that landscape.

What I really enjoyed about this exhibition is how Repton’s legacy lives on. Although after his death he seems to have been rather forgotten in this country, he became a role model for American landscape architects who wanted to combine the design of buildings and landscape with horticulture and the science of transportation. Repton had advised his clients of the importance of ‘The approach’ incorporating it as a feature in the landscape. He was very interested in travel, enjoying roads as ‘a constant moving scene’ and felt they should not be hidden. His ideas influenced the design of the carriage rides in Central Park, New York.

‘Others prefer still-life, I delight in movement’ and Repton realised that we observe landscape at a fast pace (even from a carriage) very often from the curving sightline of a road and this theory of optics was applied to the new roads being developed for Americans to enjoy their scenery such as the Parkway and the Sky Drive.

With his ideas of integrating architecture and landscape, Repton became a major influence on Denis Lasdun, he of University of East Anglia fame.

A small photo shows Lasdun visiting Repton’s grave (which Repton designed himself) made into a Christmas card that I realise was sent from a family I had known in my childhood and suddenly I too felt I had made a tiny connection with the great landscape designer himself.

With much still to see of the museum I hurried on past a group being shown the Walcot room, a small library tucked behind the rood screen,


just glancing up at the little stained glass window above.

I moved on into a small room that houses a collection of ‘curiosities’. These items were collected by John Tradescant, gardener to Robert Cecil and later to King Charles 1. Tradescant created Britain’s first Museum not far away in Lambeth which became known as The Ark. Lawyer, friend and neighbour Elias Ashmole published a catalogue and when Tradescant junior died the collection was bequeathed to Ashmole and became the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum.

 Such items range from the cast of a Dodo head,

the rather quirky Barometz or ‘Vegetable Lamb’ believed to be half-lamb and half-plant from the 18th century,

 a glittering collection of shells,

to a Herball by John Gerard dated 1597 in which over 1,000 plants are described.

It is a very active museum and I suddenly realise that Elias Ashmole is speaking to me.

Upstairs is a glorious collection celebrating British gardening through the years. Suitable for all ages it is a delightful mix from paintings…

 a portrait of a relaxed Prince Charles greets us at the top of the stairs.

Many famous people connected to gardening have contributed archives and objects and it is a wonderful eclectic mix. Amongst the many items in the collection is a gardening hat belonging to garden designer Nancy Lancaster (1897 – 1994),

a Certificate of Good Service in the Women’s Land Army, yes that is all they got after ten years hard work.

And wouldn’t you have longed to give your wife this glorious lawn mower.

Amongst the displays are interesting information boards on a variety of plants – not too many just enough to realise the serious side of gardening.

and of course there just had to be a jolly old gnome.

From a small window in the Finnis Scott Gallery where you can become totally absorbed on the works of the Artist gardeners, you can look down and once again remember that you are in a fine building .

There is a good display of plans executed by various Garden Designers over the years, this masterpiece is by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900 -1996).

Video clips introduce us to influential landscape architects like Charles Jencks.

 At the other end of the raised gallery there is a fine collection of tools;

a 17th century glazed earthenware watering pot,

and even a standard potting shed with audible displays of the stories of six people and the different ways they have utilised their sheds.

The shed comes complete with a fine weather vane.

Within the walls of the museum is a small charming courtyard garden designed by Dan Pearson; all the plants growing are helpfully listed in a book,

and it is here that the fine tomb of John Tradescant can be found,

surrounded by a variety of all-year-round plants including the bright berries of Nandina domestica which reminds me that I still have not purchased this beautiful shrub yet.

Sadly on this occasion I do not have time to visit the award-winning restaurant; it is buzzing and smells divine and I can really recommend it from a previous visit.

The Garden Museum is a charity and the National Garden Scheme annually funds a trainee gardener here. Before today I had never really thought about the definition of a gardener, but the museum informs me that the first recording was ‘Edmund the Gardener’ who worked at Windsor Castle during the reign of King Edward l. In 1605 the profession was recognised by James l “for the trade, craft or misterie of gardening” and an apprenticeship took 7 years. By 1914 there were over 4,000 Head Gardeners in this country. And now?

The Garden museum is open most days but you can check for opening times on the website: https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/ do make a visit and take the children they would love it.

——-2019——-

Houghton Hall Walled Garden; all wrapped up and waiting. (3/18)

 

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Last month Norfolk NGS was privileged to be invited by the Marquess of Cholmondeley to launch the 2018 booklet in the Stable Cafe at Houghton Hall. Nationally the NGS is the single biggest donor to Marie Curie and over delicious plates of sausage rolls and cake we listened to eloquent speakers from the charity who endorsed the very great need for us all to continue to open our gardens for the scheme.

There had been a light dusting of snow that morning and the stable block appeared to have been built from gingerbread rather than the local carstone. Set in an arcadian parkland the naturally white deer roam freely.

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Houghton has been supporting the NGS since 2004, closed during the winter it was a great opportunity to gain an ‘out of season glimpse’ at what goes on in the old kitchen garden behind the closed garden gate.

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It is seemingly the dormant period and head gardener Ollie was away on holiday but there was much industry behind the high walls.

At the entrance the wall flowers are biding their time, embedding the wheels of the cart into the gravel; it is a gentle reminder to us all that access for wheelchair users is not as easy as it might be. However here at Houghton they provide electric buggies.

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I usually begin my visit at Houghton by turning left but today I headed right drawn by the clumps of large snowdrops,  their flowers dropping like pearl earrings, elegantly white against the rich dark soil in the border.

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Within these walls Lord Cholmondeley, helped in the early years by his then head gardener Paul Underwood and later by the designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman, has created a living memorial to his grandmother, Lady Sybil Cholmondeley.

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Sybil Sassoon, Countess of Rocksavage by John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1913

The five acre garden is situated just south west of the stables; the bold and beautiful architecture has a solid presence throughout the garden.

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Divided into different gardens, hedges of beautifully kept beech and yew act as the inner walls. Peering through into the formal rose parterre the central statue is shrouded as protection from the Norfolk winter. Imagine the work in pruning those one hundred and fifty glorious roses.

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The olive trees collectively stand by, waiting to be positioned for the summer visitors, their clean terracotta pots soak up the weak winter sun and some warmth from the greenhouse.

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Inside there is much being propagated. Overlooked by the outrageous Strelitzia reginia, is it a wonder that this is called a Bird of Paradise, you might be forgiven for thinking it really is an exotic bird.

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The double sided herbaceous border looks spectacular in the summer;  this morning the clean lines, smooth chunky buttresses, razor neat edges,  and the well-mucked brown earth are testament to the bold design and high standard of horticulture. The lawn is rolled out like a spotless carpet before me, little wonder  I have been requested to keep off.

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Ragged yew balls atop the clipped pillars,

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the box is unclipped too, the idea to help prevent the dreaded blight.

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Less susceptible to pathogens and pests is the Holm oak Quercus ilex, clipped into shapes reflecting the fine finials on the stable roof.

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The long oak pergola covered with wisteria is being pruned today ready for that dramatic display in April and May. To the side are peony borders mixed with regale lilies, an idea the Bannermans reproduced from a visit to the grand chateau Vaux le Vicomte.

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Pruning is cold work but it is coffee time and I am honoured to be invited to join the team in the sheds, secretly hidden behind the greenhouse. No boys shovelling coal here now,  just a myriad of lagged pipes.

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Even the area behind the sheds is a delight and although the Cholmondeley family have a private garden north of the house, it is through this gate that his Lordship enters the garden.

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Another hidden area beyond the walls; is this what makes the garden a horticultural triumph? The tops of the fruit cage are showing above.

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Rustic and strong, the netted structures house a selection of fruit bushes,

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and a clematis softly clambers over the aged wood the wispy seed heads look lovely against the blue sky.

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Green corridors separate the garden spaces. The long vista provides another view of the shrouded statue in the rose garden, and to the left

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is the croquet lawn where the Houghton Cross  has come to rest; made of slate it is a creation by Richard Long.

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Stepping back into another space I find each compartment has different styles of planting, contrasting textures and a change of atmosphere.

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I am surprised to find rabbit guards in here but gates can be left open, and we know it does not take long for our furry friends to find their way in. This is the productive area; on the ground are step-over apples,

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trained against frames are apple tunnels,

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and in the orchard are the old apple trees.

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The thin layer of ice formed on the water surrounding the meteorite fountain shows it is a cold but clear morning,

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and in the corners of this area, swirls of box encircle the outstretched arms of the lime.

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This is the most southern path along which is placed the rustic summerhouse,

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which has fine views back down the herbaceous border towards the greenhouse. How can that grass look so good in February?

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Just when you think you have seen it all, through the horizontal branches the vertical trunks signify there is yet a further space;

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with pleached limes and obelisk, I can feel that formal french influence again.

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A muddle of ghost-white stems of rubus cockburnianus is the only disorder in such a perfectly ordered garden. In spite of it being winter there has been much to enjoy; the pleaching, the pruning, the twining and twisting, the structures and textures. The peace.

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Returning to the entrance the inanimate ancient stone lying heavily on the ground appears today to have almost human features.

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This of course is only one part of this beautiful estate. I leave slowly via the back drive and admire the natural drift of snowdrops, early signs of Spring and only a matter of time before the gate is open in time for Easter and we can explore the rest of the gardens and the park. Houghton Hall.