I was in London for a very brief visit at the beginning of the week, planning to meet up with my Instagram friend, the artist Louise Cattrell. We have a shared love and interest in gardens, so when I read that there was a exhibition at the Garden Museum called Tradescant’s Orchard: A Celebration of Botanical Art, it sounded just perfect for us.
We’d both visited the Museum before in the days when it was the Museum of Garden History. I can’t quite remember when I visited – perhaps in the 1980s? – but I have very strong memories of a small dark and damp church completely dominated by the noise of the traffic swirling round the neighbouring Lambeth Bridge junction.
The Garden Museum is right next door to Lambeth Palace, on the southern embankment of the river Thames.In a former life this was the Church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. There were all sorts of ups and downs from the foundation of a church here in the days before the Norman Conquest, but by the 1970s the building was damp and damaged, no longer with a viable congregation thanks to London population shifts, and on the table for redundancy, and possible demolition.
However, this little church had a particular distinction which drew visitors, and among them its saviour, Rosemary Nicholson: it housed some very distinguished graves. There was the fine tomb of Admiral William Bligh, now a feature of the Sackler Garden.And more pertinent to our story, there was the even finer Tradescant family tomb, also in the central Sackler Garden.The Tradescants were a remarkable family of gardeners, travellers and plant-hunters. John Tradescant the elder (c.1570 – 1683) came from humble Suffolk beginnings to be head gardener to Charles I – and on the way did some remarkable plant-hunting which took him to the Netherlands, Russia and Algeria.His son, also John Tradescant (1608-1662), travelled to North America for his plant-hunting.They grew the plants they brought back with them in the gardens of their Lambeth house (here shown it as it was in 1798, much later than when they were living there).This wonderful tomb (Grade II listed!) was commissioned by the wife of the younger John Tradescant after his death to show the wonders of their travels. Now where, I wonder, did he see a multi-headed Hydra!! Methinks, the younger Mr Tradescant may have come home and over-exaggerated his travels a wee bit! Nevermind, it is truly a wonderful tomb (though not the original – it’s a nineteenth century copy, presumably because the original was so worn and damaged).Rosemary Nicholson visited in the 1970s to see the Tradescant tomb and was shocked at the state of the church. This prompted her to set up the Tradescant Trust, dedicated to care for this little church. As indeed it has very well – culminating with a major lottery-funded restoration which was only completed earlier this summer. Now the church that I remember as dark and dank is light and airy and inviting.That which is left of the old church (like the small piece of tracery, below right) sits so well in the new space.Stairs lead to an upper story where most of the museum collection is displayed.All sorts of treasures here – lawn mowers, garden tools, curiosities like this Ancient Order of Free Gardeners regalia …But my eye was caught particularly by the cat-scarer, lurking behind the glass plant-protectors. Why it’s not unlike our very effective little Eggy!Pictures too. This painting, In the greenhouse, c 1930, by David Thomas Rose, took me straight back to my grandparents’ greenhouse with the vine and the geraniums and dappled light. In my mind’s eye, there were tomatoes too, and I was so strongly reminded of the smell and the watery warmth (those huge pipes!). And the pottering …I particularly liked the Finnis Scott Gallery which is located in a separate room at the far end of the gallery. This couple – Sir David Scott and his second wife, Valerie Finnis, (shown in the painting below by Derek Hill) were expert horticulturalists – and also picture collectors. And it is their pictures that feature in this gallery. (My sincere apologies to the artists because I have had to use a degree of digital manipulation to make the pictures taken only on an iPhone 5S look decent for the blog).Such a variety of pictures, capturing so effectively the rich interests that are to be found in gardens and gardening. Look at the lush greens in Patrick George’s 1993 painting, The Vegetable Garden.And this gem of a photograph, taken by Peter Fryer in the early 1990s, of a man with his geese in his Newcastle allotment. Such joyous love.Downstairs then for the exhibition we’d actually come to see: Tradescant’s Orchard: A Celebration of Botanical Art.Where the scope of the pictures upstairs in the Finnis Scott gallery was almost unlimited, this gallery hosted illustrations of a very particular artistic discipline. The exhibition was inspired by this leather volume, The Tradescants’ Orchard, dating from the early seventeenth century, and on loan from the Bodleian Library.So there were remarkable pieces like this Pomegranate (Punica granatum) by Heidi Venamore. She grew this actual fruit in her Jordanian garden. How rich is the inside of the fruit!And the medlar (Mespilus germanica) by Dick Smit – in all stages of its life.The detail of the damaged leaf and the damaging insects reminded me so much of the Maria Sibylla Merian exhibition I saw in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Gallery a couple of months ago. This is her 1702 watercolour of a Cotton-Leaf Physicnut with Giant Sphinx Moth – similarly greedy creatures eating the plant. And similar exquisite detailing.Of course at the Garden Museum there would have to be gardens! Let me show you the new plantings in the Sackler Garden designed by Dan Pearson. I don’t think my photos really do justice to them, but Louise and I thought them wonderful – interesting and varied in colour and height – and marrying well with the coppery buildings about.Lastly, the Sackler Garden has a moving modern memorial to its benefactor, Rosemary Nicholson, and her husband John.So – that was London.
But, a couple of days later, back in Northumberland, I looked again at our garden. With the stories of the Tradescants travelling the globe to bring plants back to please their English patrons ringing in my ears, I looked again at the plants I grow. And I was amazed.
Our garden sits on the Northumbrian coast, with the view stretching over golden grainfields to the North Sea and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. It is windy, mostly sunny and very salty – but has the View.We inherited a field of a garden with no plants, no beds, and our planting decisions were entirely guided by the place. Large plants in these little beds would restrict the view and struggle in severe windy conditions, so they are a no-no. Our little plant guide was to grow plants that merge into the lane and the wild field edges and the view beyond.
So I just love it when plants escape out of the garden, and seed and root themselves beyond.And I thought – in my naïveté – that we were growing plants that belonged in this landscape. But how wrong I was! That valerian in the picture was recorded in use by ancient Roman doctors, so it is believed to have been brought here by the Romans.
All along the little fence are crocosmia plants (what I used to call montbretia). I’ve always loved this plant, particularly when found on old railway lines and other country tracks. I know it’s considered invasive, but I love those elegant fiery fronds so much that I’d forgive it anything.We grow both the common variety and scarlet Lucifer plants – roughly interspersed. To my mind it is just the perfect plant for this garden when the winter wheat is golden and heavy in the fields around. It sits so well just above our little garden fence, and even when the flowers have gone over, as it is dried and shrivelling up, it looks very fine.
Well, crocosmia hails from the grasslands of Southern and Eastern Africa.Mixed in with the crocosmia are poppies – mostly scarlet, but there are black, white, pink as well. Now poppies are indeed native plants, hailing from the little field poppy so familiar from the pictures of the 1st World War. The poppies that we grow are extremely sophisticated carefully bred plants, but they remember their proper heritage and flourish in these country field borders.Just over the fence, there are a group of yellow hawkweed plants flowering on the field edge (far left of picture) – they are native plants. But, alas, no native poppies accompanying them. I must remedy that next year.At the end of the small flower beds and standing tall against the fence are several golden-headed fennel plants. They’ve been natives of our shores for a very long time.Against our little Northumbrian cottage wall, swaying in the breeze, there are hollyhocks, sunflowers (not yet in flower) and verbena bonariensis. The hollyhocks are natives of Asia and Europe, sunflowers are North American and the verbena bonariensis hails from Buenos Aires. Thank you Louise for the information about the verbena bonariensis – and, of course, the clue is in the name! Further along the wall, there are all colours of dahlias. They are – most appropriately given their brilliant range of colours – originally from Mexico but were imported to Spain in 1789, only finally making a successful move to the UK in 1802.They must be comfortable with the cosmos plants we’re growing beside them because that also originated in Mexico. Aren’t these startling – though wonderful – colours against the very Northumbrian sandstone wall?And in pots at the foot of the taller dahlia plants, there are calendula plants. They were introduced from the Mediterranean countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.In the conservatory there are scarlet geraniums (actually pelargoniums), originally from South Africa.What an incongruous mix, you might say, with the fields of wheat running beyond the garden down to the sea! But the growing of wheat as an arable crop is believed to have originated in the Middle East.And, of course, there’s another plant I should definitely list when speaking of the Tradescants. Why – the tradescantia! John Tradescant the younger brought the type species back to England in 1629. Here, in a gloriously overgrown muddle, are our variegated and purple tradescantia! What a joyously rich mix of plants from so many parts of the world!
(Incidentally, the cafe at the Garden Museum was lovely. But disappointingly, the Wolfson Ark Gallery containing 30 objects that once belonged to John Tradescant wasn’t open to the public the day we visited. We will have to return, Louise!)