The Season of Spring

The Seasons by W S Johnson (1846) from the McGill University Library

Stern winter gone the nymphs and swains
To dance assemble on the plains,
With flowery poles and garlands gay

They observe the rites of May.

As we welcome in the month of May, the season of spring is now well established.   As its title suggests, The Seasons, a picture book for children published in 1846, celebrates each of the four divisions of the year beginning in spring with a calendar of agricultural activities, views of home life and popular festivals.  Each colourful tableau is packed with detailed drawings of people, animals, and objects that would appeal to a child and which could be discussed and explained by an adult reading the book with them.

The first illustration shows a joyful May Day celebration typical of mid-19th century rural England.  In the foreground, a young couple dances to music on a village green, while in the background others join hands around a decorated maypole.  The scene is bordered with flowers, fruits and nesting birds, symbols of fertility, while farming implements like the harrow, sickle and hay rake anticipate a bounteous harvest to come, later in the year.

Forms of May Day celebrations pre-date the Christian calendar and in Celtic and Gaelic cultures Beltane marked the beginning of summer, when cattle were driven from low ground to their summer pastures.  Rituals connected with this event included blessing the new season with ceremonial fires which were believed to have magical properties, and the decoration of homes and livestock with flowers.

In the 17th century it was a popular custom for women to wash their faces in May dew which was believed to improve the complexion.  Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 11th May 1669 records, ‘My wife again up by four o’clock to go to gather May-dew’, suggesting the supposed efficacy of the dew continued past May Day itself.

May Day wasn’t an official holiday in the 19th century, but the gathering in The Seasons has the atmosphere of a community enjoying a well-deserved break.  At the base of the garland, closest to the young man drinking ale from a jug, we notice a flaming brazier.  Perhaps its purpose is simply to keep the revellers warm in the chilly evening – but in the context of May Day it also feels like an echo of Beltane fire from previous centuries.

Links to The Seasons and other May Day themed information below:

Further reading:

The Seasons by W S Johnson here

May Day Wikipedia entry here

Beltane Wikipedia entry here

The Diary of Samuel Pepys here

Evelyn Dunbar’s English Gardens

Florence Dunbar Tending the Garden, 1939. All images courtesy Liss Llewellyn Gallery (unless otherwise stated)

Lately, the lengthening April days have been cold and overcast, punctuated with occasional welcome bursts of sunshine.  This moment, before the warmth of spring finally arrives, is captured expertly by Evelyn Dunbar in a series of paintings of gardens, mostly belonging to members of her family in Kent and East Sussex.  With trees bare of leaves and the soil freshly turned ready to receive new crops, the chill in the air is perceptible.

Dunbar chose these semi-rural allotment gardens as her subjects, showing a preference for vernacular gardens rather than those attached to grand houses and designed to impress.  These practical spaces were a familiar sight in the 1930s and beyond, and had a special style of their own, running in parallel to  ever-changing garden fashions.  Dominated by large fruit trees, and under-planted with vegetable crops, these productive gardens were necessary as a response to war time food shortages, but also speak of pre-supermarket days when fresh produce was not so easily available.

In ‘Florence Dunbar Tending the Garden’ (1939) an apple tree bursts into flower, the clotted texture of the paint suggesting the abundance of blossom, (and recalling Samuel Palmer’s ‘In a Shoreham Garden’).  Strawberry Cottage in Hurst Green, East Sussex belonged to Dunbar’s aunt and ‘Vegetable Garden at Strawberry Cottage’ (1938) shows rows of tiny seedlings starting to emerge with a row of beans (or peas) starting to climb their simple wooden supports. A more conventional approach might show these gardens in the height of summer, but Dunbar chooses the very start of the season and we share the anticipation of flowers and fruit to come.

A Sussex Garden, 1939

Basement Garden, 1937

Vegetable Garden at Strawberry Cottage, 1938

Early spring, c. 1936

In recent years there’s been a revival of interest in the painter Evelyn Dunbar (1906 – 1960) after a retrospective show at the Pallant House Gallery in 2015, giving a new generation an opportunity to re-discover an artist who had been largely forgotten after her death in 1960 at the age of 53.  This show came about after a relative of the artist took a painting by Dunbar to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.  After this, a large quantity of Dunbar’s sketches and drawings came to light, some relating to her best known work as a war artist.

Born in Rochester, Kent Dunbar attended Rochester School of Art (1925 – 27) and Chelsea School of Art (1927 – 29), followed by Royal College of Art where she studied until 1933.  There she formed a close relationship with her tutor, Charles (Cyril) Mahoney (1903 – 1968), who used domestic gardens as a source of inspiration in his painting.  She worked with him on various projects during the 1930s including a mural for the assembly hall at Brockley County School for Boys in south east London and Gardeners’ Choice, an illustrated book published by Routledge.  In 1938 Dunbar produced illustrations for A Gardener’s Diary, an appointments book for Country Life.

Galley proof of preliminary prospectus for A Gardener’s Diary 1938

Preparatory drawing for A Gardener’s Diary, 1938

Study for April, A Gardener’s Diary 1938

April, 1937

In 1940 Evelyn Dunbar was appointed to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee – the only woman to be given a full time salaried role as a war artist.  Her work during this period shows the contribution of the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Voluntary Service to the war effort.  From gathering in harvests of peas, potatoes and corn, to sewing military camouflage, Dunbar recorded the detail of these vital activities.  She met Roger Folley, an agricultural economist, in 1940 and they were married in 1942. Folley’s work took him all over the country in the war years, and this enabled Dunbar to feature a wide range of locations in her paintings, as she followed him to each posting.  They eventually returned to Kent, living near Wye, in 1950.

Dunbar’s paintings from this period are accomplished, and show great affinity with the English people and countryside.  But perhaps their necessary, but narrow, focus on England in war-time made it inevitable that they would be overtaken by new styles, as the public, seeking a brighter future in the 1950s, left the hardships of the 1940s behind them.

Study for vegetable cultivation at Sparsholt Farm Institute, 1940

Baling Hay 1940 Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff

Threshing, Kent 1942/42 Government Art Collection

Dunbar’s illustration style is very different from that of her paintings, and here the gardens she depicts while still vernacular, are more formal.  Two front gardens show neatly edged flower beds, picket fences and topiary – all classic features of the cottage garden.  The slightly child-like charm of this work is produced by Dunbar’s use of a very even weight of line – as well as the architectural details of the houses and the plants in their gardens.  Lots traditional country dwellings in the 19th century had a conifer tree planted close to the house and Dunbar shows these, along with tulips in the borders.

Dunbar also decorated her personal letters with garden motifs and designs.  In a thank you letter to Edward and Charlotte Bawden she includes a garden plan and planting suggestions for them – rather mischievously including  a dandelion and some snails in one corner.  A letter to Charles Mahoney shows a wonderful topiary peacock, a shape typical of gardens in Kent and Sussex which are still cultivated today.

Pussy Cat

Vignette of stylised house and garden for Gardeners’ Choice, 1937

Our first house, 1945

Letter to Edward and Charlotte Bawden, 1936

Letter to Charles Mahoney 1936

From The Book of Topiary (1904) Charles Henry Curtis and William Gibson (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Stylised yew peacock at Great Dixter

Contained in a series of vignettes drawn on a sheet of squared paper is a design with a jug of flowers against a background of an open book, and in the winter of 1945 – 46 Dunbar developed this idea into the painting, ‘Pansies and Violas’.  Her choice of these modest items for this painting encapsulates her talent for recording the domestic world in a way that celebrates its beauty; allowing people, their gardens and everyday activities and objects to transcend their ordinariness.

A set of 20 vignettes

Pansies and Violas, winter 1945-46

With special thanks to the Liss Llewellyn Gallery and Evelyn Dunbar’s biographer Christopher Campbell-Howes.

Further reading:

Evelyn Dunbar’s work at the Liss Llewellyn Gallery here

Evelyn Dunbar: A Life in Painting – a biography by her nephew Christopher Campbell-Howes here

Paintings in UK museum collections via Art UK here

Evelyn Dunbar Wikipedia entry here

Pallant House Gallery: Andrew Lambirth’s essay about Dunbar here

Martin Gerlach’s Festoons

Festoon made from vegetables and beets, from Festons und Decorative Gruppen aus Pflanzen und Theiren, or, Festoons and decorative groups of Plants and Animals, published in Vienna in 1893 by Martin Gerlach. Images courtesy of the Museum für Kunst und Gerwerbe, Hamburg

These festoons with their sumptuous cascades of ripe fruits and fragrant roses suspended from a striped silk ribbon resemble at first glance sections of stone ornament, or plaster moulding.  But closer inspection reveals the roses to be cabbages, the delicious looking fruits are in fact beetroots and onions, the elaborate silk bow is a curtain cord, and a wooden finial has been pressed into service as a classical-looking prop, hiding the ends of plant stems at the top of the arrangement.

All the festoons, swags, garlands and other embellishments in Festons und Decorative Gruppen aus Pflanzen und Theiren, or, Festoons and decorative groups of Plants and Animals, are constructed using similarly inventive combinations of flowers, vegetables, taxidermy and domestic objects.  Published in Vienna in 1893 by Martin Gerlach, this book of elaborate photographic collages was intended both as reference and inspiration for artists working across a range of crafts using pattern, from wood carving, plaster work, textiles, illustration and wallpaper design.

Judging by the seasonality of the plant materials Gerlach used, the photographs were taken over the course of many months.  Early spring blossoms of apple and cherry with nesting birds give way to the lilac, roses and hollyhocks of summer, while autumn provides a profusion of gourds, sweetcorn, grapes, apples and pumpkins.  Winter is represented by arrangements of pine cones and stuffed squirrels placed amongst evergreen conifer branches.

Some of the most effective designs use only leaves – the winding stems of creeping cinquefoil form a delicate narrow border, while larger sprigs of oak leaves and acorns could be imagined as infill sections for fabric or wallpaper.  Peony flowers and leaves carefully spaced over a diamond grid background would have been helpful for an artist designing a repeat pattern.

Garlands of citrus fruits are shown in half-sections, the smaller fruits at the edges, gradually increasing in size towards the middle.  Some of the most elaborate festoons include tools and musical instruments – in one example a gardener’s spade intersects with a watering can, while a straw basket (or maybe an upturned straw hat?) overflows with produce, celebrating the bounty of harvest.

From the middle of the 19th century photographers such as Adolphe Braun (1812 – 1877) and Charles Aubry (1811 – 1877) saw a commercial opportunity to produce still life studies of flowers as reference material for artists.  Although photographs could not entirely replace living specimens, it must have been an immense advantage to be able to see forms of flowers, their leaves and the growing patterns of stems and branches throughout the year, especially in winter, when it was not possible to observe these from life.  Gerlach produced a number of reference books in this genre, including plant forms, trees, examples of wrought iron and other architectural details.

Martin Gerlach (1846 – 1918) was born in Hanau, Germany and trained as an engraver.  He established a jewellery business in the 1860s but this enterprise was unsuccessful.  Having become interested in photography, Gerlach started a publishing house in the 1870s in Berlin which produced his reference books and a crafts magazine, Die Perle.  He re-located his company to Vienna in 1872 and continued his work there, eventually publishing more than forty books about design and a series of books for children including songs, poems and fairytales.

By the end of the 19th century decorative motifs like those celebrated in Festons und Decorative Gruppen, and popular in Europe since Roman times, were soon to be swept away by new ideas and fashions associated with Modernism.  Today Gerlach’s plant and vegetable festoons and garlands have almost a contemporary feel to them – it’s not hard to imagine a photographer inspired, perhaps, by carvings or plaster work in a historic house, deciding to re-create them with real materials as a post-modern photographic project.  More than one hundred years after publication, this collection of images continues both to inspire and document the complex role of photography in design.

Links to source materials below:

Festoons and decorative groups of plants and animals by Martin Gerlach, Vienna. Gerlach & Schenk

Festoons and still lifes made from sunflowers, mallow, lilies, vegetables, paradise apples, melons, radishes, peppers, crabs, goblets, grapes, bottles, hay, etc

Festoon made of chestnuts, fruits, medallion and bird

Frieze and festoons made from pumpkins, medlar leaves, corn, etc

Frieze, festoons and vignette made of hazelnut, oak, grapes, pumpkins, paradise apple, Kukuk, etc

Group of apple blossoms with birds

Group of cherry plum and almond blossoms with a bird

Group of apple blossoms with medallion

Group of apple blossoms with butterflies

Infill and festoon of apple blossoms with fruits, orange branch with fruits and kingfisher

Festoons made from thorn blossom, lilac, garlic and pomegranate

Infill and festoon made from laurel, lemon and orange with butterflies

Groups of plums and Reine-Claude branches

Festoon groups made of quince, sweet chestnut, tulip tree fruit, lemons, pumpkin, pomegranate

Festoons made from vegetables, beets, cereals and garden tools

Threads made of grapes, apple of paradise and hops

Festoons made of musical instruments, palms, pomegranates, lemons, grapes, pumpkins, bay leaves, quinces, corn, coconuts, etc

Decorative stripes and threads made of roses with mask, shell and medallion

Hanging groups of pumpkins and cucumbers

Vignettes made of roses, sign, bottle, palette, palm and mallow

Borders and still lifes made of house leek, carrion flowers, orchids, water lilies, grapes, crabs, lobsters, fish, mussels, reeds, vessels, musical instruments, books, sheet music, laurel etc

Hanging groups and moldings made of thorn, peonies (seed pods), blackberries, marshmallow, mountain ash and apples

Festoon, vignette and group of coconuts, quinces, corn, animal skulls and conifers with birds

Frieze, group and decorative strip of laurel, animal skulls and butterflies

Group of hazelnut branches with squirrels

Festoons and conifer infill with fox heads and squirrels

Trims and infill made of strawberry, cypress and oak (note: I think the plant at the top of the photograph is actually cinquefoil which has strawberry-like fruits)

Groups of peonies

Friezes made from firethorn fruit, silver spruce, aralia, silver bush and trout

Group of acanthus

Further reading:

Festons und Decorative Gruppen aus Pflanzen und Theiren – pages from the book digitized by the MK&G here

Martin Gerlach on Wikipedia here

Gerlach’s photographs are collotypes – Wikipedia definition here

The Photographer in the Garden (EastmanMuseum/Aperture) here

Summer in a French Garden

Plant de géranium rouge                     Photographs by Eugène Blondelet courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Perhaps it’s in February, at the very end of the winter, that we look forward to the summer months with the most intensity?  These autochrome photographs, taken by Eugène Blondelet sometime between 1907 and 1920, provide a welcome reminder of warmer days ahead and capture perfectly the pleasures of long, sunny days outside in a French family garden.

The autochrome colour photography process was created by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in the early 1900s and they launched Autochrome Lumière in 1907, aimed at the amateur photographer.  Their process involved the use of prepared glass plates with tiny grains of dyed potato starch pressed onto one side and photosensitive silver halide emulsion on the other.  Autochrome was too expensive to make colour photography accessible to everyone, but proved popular with photographers who could afford it (like Blondelet), who frequently used the new technology to record their families and domestic surroundings, including gardens.

Autochrome Lumière required long exposures, so a tripod was needed to keep the heavy camera stable and people had to remain still while a photograph was being taken to avoid motion blur.  Clearly, the young boys in fancy dress (Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin)  photographed by Blondelet were unable to keep their poses quite long enough for the exposure time required – perhaps the double excitement of dressing up and having their photograph taken made this impossible – but the blurring caused by their movement somehow underlines their youthful energy and adds to the charm of the image.

Autochrome was best suited to objects with a fixed position and plants were ideal subjects for the photographer, being both static and colourful.  Images of bright floral arrangements were used by the Lumière Brothers as a means of marketing their process, as they were so effective in demonstrating its ability to replicate colour accurately.  Blondelet’s still life photographs of garden flowers reveal an abundance of roses, phlox, dahlias, geums, asters, coreopsis, gladiolus, and crocosmia – some of the popular flowers of the period.

The series of photographs entitled Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin give us a glimpse into how this example of a domestic garden was planted.  The borders behind the children are edged quite formally with three rows of low clipped box with a mass planting of orange French marigolds behind these, providing a continuous block of colour.  This effect would be further amplified later in the season by a row of nasturtiums which we can see beginning to climb up the balustrade.

Another (highly staged) image Garçonnets posant dans un jardin shows two boys in the role of gardeners, one with a small rake and the other pulling a wooden cart containing flowers supposedly gathered from the abundant and colourful border behind them.  Close up shots reveal a hydrangea, slightly wilted in the heat of the sun, some dahlias and a brilliant red pelargonium.

Blondelet’s interest in gardens seems to have extended beyond his own.  Massif de bégonias rouges et plant de bananier shows detail of a summer bedding display which looks typical of those planted in a public park.  Jardin d’une propriété en bordure d’un cours d’eau shows the traditional wooden gates, picket fencing and neat planting of a well cared for cottage garden, with steps down to a slow moving expanse of water.

What is the appeal of autochrome photographs today?  While their colour has intensity there’s also a slightly diffuse quality to the images, which must owe something to the materials used in the process, especially the granular nature of the potato starch.  While unmistakably grounded in the real world, at the same time these images seem to possess a sense of detachment from reality; a dream-like quality. Some of the imperfections and inevitable deterioration of the fragile plates over time contribute to this effect – the colour distortion in Blondelet’s Bouquet des roses from green at the top of the frame to red at the bottom is one such example.  But if the world depicted by black and white images can sometimes seem remote, these autochrome photographs connect us with the past with a striking immediacy.

Thanks to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for making these beautiful images available online.

Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin

Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin

Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin

Garçonnets posant dans un jardin

Fleurs de diverses couleurs dans une cruche

Bouquet de roses

Bouquet de fleurs variées blanches

Bouquet composé de fleurs et de brins d’herbe

Fleurs fanées dans un vase

Massif de dahlias roses

Massif ensoleille d’hortensia bleu

Massif de bégonias rouges et plant de bananier

Jardin d’une propriété en bordure d’un cours d’eau

Plant de géranium rouge

Feuillage en contrejour

Autoportrait – Eugène Blondelet

Further reading:

Comprehensive explanation of Autochrome Lumière here

The Photographer in the Garden (2018) Jamie M Allen / Sarah Anne McNear
published by the George Eastman Museum / Aperture  – link here

Bibliothèque Nationale de France – online collections here

The story of Auguste and Louis Lumière here

Pruning Pears with William Forsyth

William Forsyth (1737 – 1804) stipple engraving by Samuel Freeman (Wellcome Institute Collection)

When William Forsyth published his Treatise on the culture and management of fruit trees in 1802 he had been gardener to King George III for eighteen years, during which time he was credited with the transformation of the royal orchards at Kensington Palace.  His experimental pruning techniques rejuvenated the Palace’s old fruit trees making them productive once more.  Forsyth was also celebrated for his invention of a dressing for damaged trees, which was believed to assist in restoring them to good health.

Before his royal appointment, William Forsyth already had a prestigious career in horticulture.  Born in Aberdeenshire, Forsyth re-located to London to train at the Chelsea Physic Garden under another Scottish gardener, Philip Miller (1691 – 1777), eventually becoming head gardener there in 1771.  He took up the position of superintendent of the royal gardens at Kensington Palace and St James’s Palace in 1784.  The now familiar garden shrub forsythia was named for him and he is an ancestor of the late entertainer, Bruce Forsyth.

William Forsyth’s employment brought him to the attention of the English establishment, who saw his work in the royal gardens.  They were impressed by his success with the King’s fruit trees, and persuaded by the efficacy of his ‘composition’ or remedy for damaged trees.  Against the background of the Napoleonic Wars when access to good timber was essential, the composition was discussed in both houses of Parliament and the recipe published in the national interest.  It was printed in local newspapers across the country to encourage landowners across England to adopt it for the health of their forest trees.

This dressing, or ‘composition’ as Forsyth called it, was made out of cow dung, lime plaster (‘that from the ceilings of rooms is preferable’), wood ashes and sand.  It was applied to tree wounds after careful preparation of the surface, first removing any dead or diseased wood.  Gradually, the damaged area was restored and covered over by new bark.

In his book, Forsyth explains how his work with trees started.  As the new gardener to the royal family in 1784, Forsyth was expected to produce abundant and tasty fruits for the royal tables, but when he arrived at Kensington Palace he was faced with a dilemma.

The gardens contained dozens of fruit trees, some large orchard trees, dwarf standard trees, and others wall trained, but the trees were old and had stopped bearing well.  He observes the pear trees are ‘in a very cankery and unfruitful state’, but after changing the soil around the trees and pruning them, 18 months later he notices no improvement.  Forsyth says,

‘I began to consider what was best to be done with so many old pear-trees that were worn out.  The fruit that they produced I could not send to his Majesty’s table with any credit to myself, it being small, hard and kernelly.’

But rather than grub up the old trees and wait for new stock to start bearing – Forsyth estimates this would have taken ‘between twelve and fourteen years’ – he decides to ‘try an experiment, with a view of recovering the old ones.’

In 1786 Forsyth began a process of ‘heading down’ seven old trees, probably best explained by the illustrations below.  Some large branches were removed as close to a bud as possible, allowing the tree to produce new, vigorous shoots.  In the case of wall trained pear trees, the new growth was carefully tied in.

St Germain Pear Tree
This plate represents an old decayed Pear-tree, with four stems, which was headed down, all but the branch C, and the young wood trained in the common way, or fan-fashioned.

Branches marked A show young wood, producing the fine large fruit B.

C. An old branch pruned in the common way, having large spurs standing out a foot or eighteen inches, and producing the diminutive, kernelly and ill-favoured fruit D, not fit to be eaten.

White Beurre Pear Tree
Fig. 1. An old decayed Beurre pear-tree, headed down at f, and restored from one inch and a half of live bark.

Fig. 2. An old branch of the same tree before it was headed down, trained and pruned in the old way, with spurs standing out a foot, or a foot and a half from the wall; and the rough bark, infested with a destructive insect

The diagram of an old White Beurre pear tree shows detail of an old branch which has been removed – the bark was infested with insects, so the pruning has the effect of eliminating persistent pests as well as promoting new growth.

As well as the headed down trees, Forsyth kept seven trees as a control group and pruned these in the regular way.  Forsyth observes that in the third year after ‘heading down’, the trees were producing more fruit that they did previously, and that it is larger and of better quality.  After four years the trees are producing ‘upwards of five times the quantity of fruit that the others did’.  Here’s an excerpt showing the improved yield and also the systematic nature of Forsyth’s records.

Trees treated according to the common method of pruning:

‘A Crasane produced one hundred pears, and the tree spread fourteen yards.
Another Crasane produced sixteen pears, and the tree spread ten yards.’

Trees headed down and pruned according to my method:

‘A Crasane bore five hundred and twenty pears.
A Brown Beurre bore five hundred and three pears.
Another Brown Beurre bore five hundred and fifty pears.’

Forsyth’s crops were even greater using his pruning method on smaller, standard trees; so much so, he ‘is obliged to prop the branches, to prevent their being broken down by the weight of it.’

In other chapters, Forsyth records similar successes with apples, plums, apricots, peaches and grape vines, and towards the end of the book publishes a series of endorsements from prominent people who have tried his pruning methods and his composition in their own gardens.

What’s inspiring today about Forsyth’s treatise is his willingness to use his vast horticultural experience pragmatically – and creatively – to address a problem.  He teaches us that from time to time it’s worthwhile to step back from the ‘correct way’ of doing things and experiment with a different approach to address the challenges that gardening presents us with.

Links below to Forsyth’s Treatise.  I’ve included a plate of the pruning tools used by Forsyth and an explanation of these from the text.

Standard Pear Tree
An old Bergamot Pear, headed down at the cicatrix a, taken from the wall and planted out as a dwarf standard.
b. A wound, covered with the composition, where a large upright shoot was cut off, to give the leading shoot freedom to grow straight.

Figs 2 and 3 show the insect (probably the Codling moth) so destructive to fruit trees.

Tools used by Forsyth both for pruning and for preparing wood to receive his healing composition

Forsyth’s directions for making his Composition from 1791

Gardener with pear tree, Ote Hall, Sussex. Photographed by Charles Jones circa 1901 – 20 (V&A Collections)

The above photograph gives a sense of the abundance of a wall trained pear, when pruned skillfully.

Further reading:

William Forsyth’s Treatise on the culture and management of fruit trees

William Forsyth (horticulturalist) Wikipedia

At the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company

New for 1942 – Burpee’s yellow cosmos front cover of the W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers Catalogue (via archive.org)

In mid-January, with its cold, short days and spring still some distance over the horizon, many of us delight in browsing through the new season’s seed catalogues. Whether we consult a paper catalogue, or visit a website, both immerse us in a colourful world of new growing possibilities and provide a welcome reminder of summer days to come.

But as we place our orders, who are the people who will receive and process them, fill the seed packets, package them up and post them to us?  In this remarkable photographic project from 1943, Arthur S. Siegel takes us into the heart of operations at seed dealers W. Atlee Burpee in Philadelphia to meet the staff keeping the supply of vegetable and flower seeds flowing to its customers during World War II.

The project was commissioned by the Office of War Information as part of a country-wide record of the role played by US companies in the war effort.  At once we notice the large number of women employed at W. Atlee Burpee, working across the roles, in administration, testing seed samples for viability, and operating the machines that sorted seeds into their packets.  The men are generally above conscription age – although there is one young man working in the vast storage and packing department.  The caption of a photograph showing a young woman sweeping the floor explains that she is doing the man’s job of a janitor due to the war.

The W. Atlee Burpee Company was established in 1876 and by the time David Burpee took over the business from his father in 1915, it was estimated to be the largest seed company in the world, employing 300 people and distributing over a million of its catalogues each year.  Whereas Atlee was focused primarily on vegetables, David liked flowers and produced dozens of new varieties of marigolds, nasturtiums and petunias.  David Burpee also ran the Victory Gardens campaign aimed at city dwellers and teaching them how to grow their own food during the produce shortages caused by World War II.

As a large company W. Atlee Burpee supplied farms and market gardens in the United States, as well as individuals.  Siegel’s photographs show rows of seed sacks ready for dispatch to agricultural businesses across the United States, while others are labelled for shipping around the world, to England, Ireland and South Africa.  The photograph of the company’s enormous Philadelphia building underlines of the scale of the enterprise.

The atmosphere at the warehouse seems busy and focused; the piles of order forms on workers’ desks and heaps of packages waiting for posting indicating the important role of growing food during wartime.  But the wartime catalogues continue to feature plenty of flowers alongside the vegetables, and these are given pride of place on the occasional colour pages of these mostly black and white publications.

Planning the garden and choosing some favourite flowers is the gardener’s annual response to this dormant season and the new year – but perhaps now, as in the 1940s, it’s also a response to uncertain times – sowing some seeds as an act of hope and optimism.

Exterior of the W. Atlee Burpee seed plant, Philadelphia 1943 photographed by Arthur S. Siegel (Library of Congress)

Sealing envelopes containing seed

Order assembler standing next to racks containing seed packages

Finding seed package in seed rack

Feeding envelopes to seed counting machines

The cashier totaling individual orders

Operator of a seed counting machine

Interior of the bulk seed warehouse

Bags of seed to be sent to England

Wrapper with packages of seed ready for the mail

Orders in trays before they are packed for shipment

Measuring bulk seed order

Seed packages arranged in seed rack

Mailing department – the envelopes are to be sealed and stamped

Typing address labels on a flat bed typewriter

Punching code information on mailing stencils

Testing seeds for germinating qualities

Storage of bulk seeds

Mailing department – the envelopes are to be sealed and stamped

Checking seed order against catalog

Weighing the outgoing mail

Germinating seeds after they have been removed from the oven

Accountant assembling the day’s returns

Checking an order against the catalog

Bulb storage racks

Women with a typical display rack of Burpee seeds

Seed filling machine

Due to the War the janitor is a girl

Outdoor sign over doorway entrance

Burpee’s Wildfire New Single Marigolds 1941

W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers, Philadelphia
Order form from the 1941 Catalogue

W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers, Philadelphia
1941 Catalogue

Burpee’s New and Better Vegetables 1942

Burpee’s new Calendulas – the X-Ray Twins ‘Glowing Gold’ and ‘Orange Fluffy’ 1942

Back cover of the catalogue 1942

Further reading:

Library of Congress: Arthur S. Siegel’s photographs of the W. Atlee Burpee Company

W. Atlee Burpee Company Seed Catalogue 1941

W. Atlee Burpee Company Seed Catalogue 1942

The Smithsonian Libraries: Biographies of American Seedsmen and Nurserymen

 

Thoughts about Garden Pruning Tools

A collection of pruning knives from ‘Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier’ (1813) Bibliothèque nationale de France

As I start to think about pruning the roses later this month, even in our small garden it’s a job requiring secateurs, bypass and anvil loppers, and a long handled pruner with a pole-mounted blade, operated by pulling a cord.  These indispensable tools have their origins in early 19th century France, and over time, they began to replace the traditional pruning knives and bill-hooks used in previous centuries.

Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier: Répresentant les Utensiles le plus généralement employés dans la culture des Jardins (1813) contains a wonderful visual record of the range of tools available to French gardeners at this time, showing older items alongside new introductions.  Tools for pruning include shears used for trimming hedges and borders, a basic pole pruner operated by a cord, pruning knives, croissants or semi-circular pruning hooks which could be attached to poles of different lengths, and saws of various sizes.

1. Serpe ordinaire. 2. Cisailles ou Ciseaux à tondre les haies ou les bordures. (shears for clipping hedges or borders) 3. Scie à main, ou Egoine (handsaw) 4. Petit Croissant qui se visse au bout d’une canne. 5. Hachette de Forsith. 6. Couteau à scie. 7. Cordeau avec ses piquets.

1. Croissant. (pruning hook) 2. Échenilloir. (tree pruner) 3. Rateau double à dents de bois, ou Fauchet. 4. Rateau simple à dents de fer. 5. Pioche de deux dents. 6. Couteau pour cueillir les asperges (asparagus knife).

There’s also an illustration of the sécateur – a brand new pruning tool invented by  M. le marquis Bertrand de Moleville.   (A royalist, Moleville lived as an exile in England during the years of the French Revolution, returning to France when it was safe for him to do so.)  Developed for for use in viticulture, the text explains how the summer pruning of vines was made more efficient using the new tool, claiming that the gardener was able to achieve in just one hour with the sécateur what would have taken four using the traditional serpette, or pruning knife.

The illustration of the sécateur is given a whole page to itself in the 1813 edition, indicating its importance.  In just a decade, by the time the third edition of this book was published in 1823, the extraordinary influence of the sécateur can be seen in a whole range of new or improved pruning tools, using its bypass blade technology.

Sécateur – invented by M. le marquis Bertrand de Moleville for use in viticulture

The sécateur appears to have attracted the interest of a Paris based firm of engineers, Arnheiter and Petit.  As well as manufacturing new tools to the specification of independent designers, the company developed tools themselves.   In the 1820s they produced the ébranchoir, or ‘tres-grands secateur’ – we would call it a lopper – and produced three échenilloirs, or tree pruners, a vast improvement of an existing tool said to have come originally from Germany (see illustration XX).

Their loppers use the same design principle as the sécateur, but on a larger scale, allowing branches of greater diameter to be cut effectively.  The first has handles around one and half feet in length and can cut branches the diameter of a thumb.  Made entirely of steel, it must have been quite heavy to use.  The second lopper cuts branches of the same diameter, and can be used on taller trees.  Both arms of this ébranchoir end in sockets which were attached to wooden poles, giving the tool greater reach, but without making it too heavy.  The échenilloirs, or tree pruners, benefitted from refined mechanisms and a reach of ten feet.

Ébranchoirs or loppers – from the third edition of Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier (1823) Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla

Tree pruners with a pulley mechanism – still used today.

Tree pruners operated with a cord

Échenilloir à Croissant – designed by M. Reginer

Two tools illustrated on the page below were specifically for cutting roses.  Object 3 in the diagram is a version of the sécateur called the sécateur-cueille-rose.  The other tool, which resembles a pair of ornate scissors, (objects 1 & 2) is a cueille-rose or donne-rose and was marketed for use by women.  The text includes the address of a shop in the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris which sold it.

Looking at my own pruning tools today, it’s surprising how little the designs have changed.  My secateurs are sprung, and have plastic handles, but are broadly similar to Moleville’s original.  Our tree pruner (inherited from my father and probably made in the 1970s) is essentially the same as the pulley version made by Arnheiter and Petit, apart from its modern aluminium handle and plastic cord.  Our bypass loppers have telescopic handles and an anvil blade (introduced later in the 19th century) – but these tools from France developed two hundred years ago, over a remarkably short ten year period, are still vital for the 21st century gardener.

Links to both editions of Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier below – and some coloured plates from the 1813 edition of the book showing spades, cloches and wheelbarrows and watering cans – nothing to do with pruning, but because they evoke the period so well.

Further reading:

Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier second edition 1813

Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier third edition 1823

 

At New York’s Christmas tree market

Christmas tree market, Barclay Street Station, between 1885 – 1895. (all images from the Library of Congress)

Resembling an evergreen stockade, the crossed upright rows of Christmas trees for sale outside Barclay Street Station in Manhattan make a dramatic sight, balanced on their sturdy frames and stretching far into the distance.  Taken between 1885 and 1895, these remarkable archive photographs from the Library of Congress record the city’s Christmas tree market.  

The New York trade in Christmas trees is said to have started in the 1850s very close to Barclay Street with a woodsman named Mark Carr, who brought trees from his land in Catskill mountains in New York state and sold them in nearby Vesey and Greenwich Streets.  The trees were popular, and by the 1870s there was a flourishing market in all types of Christmas evergreen decorations centred around this location, with enormous loads of trees brought here for distribution both to wholesalers and the public.

In an article published on Christmas Day, 1878 and entitled ‘Christmas Green.  Where it Comes from and How it is Brought Here’, The New York Tribune describes how the majority of the trees came to New York from Maine, transported by rail.  It was estimated a total of 125,000 trees were available for sale in that year and the cost of the trees was according to size, as the reporter explains:

‘Prices have ranged from 50 cents to $1 “a bunch” wholesale; .. the number of trees in this unit varying from two to a dozen, as they range from ten feet in length, to four feet.  Larger trees are sold singly, and some choice specimens, 31 feet high are worth from $8 to $12.’

The popularity of ready-made evergreen decorations such as wreaths, garlands and crowns, is noted – ideal for a busy, city clientele who lacked time to make them at home.  These decorations were supplied from nearby New Jersey, and an enterprising New Jersey woman is credited as the first person to identify a market for them:

 ‘It is only a few years since a New Jersey market woman picked a sheet full of ground pine, tied the corners together, brought it with her “truck” to the city, and sold it in the market for 50 cents.  This was the beginning of the very considerable business which employs hundreds of people in New-Jersey for several months in each year.’

‘.. the Jersey people have become so skilfull in manufacture, and familiar with the ways and wants of the market that they are practically the decorators of the city, so far as it is decorated with “Christmas green”.’

Details of specific plants used in the decorations are mentioned:

‘The wreaths and other “designs” are made mostly of broad-leaved evergreens, like holly, rhododendron, kalmia and boxwood, although tufts of pine needles, hemlock and cedar twigs, and mosses, green and gray, are used, while the shining green is relieved by red berries of holly and the scarlet and orange pods of bittersweet (celastrus scandens).  Small bunches of evergreens, like rhododendron and holly, with tough and persistent leaves, are also brought .. in immense quantities.’ 

Some of the trees are shown in their final destinations – in outside spaces like Madison Square Gardens, and inside the homes of citizens.  When I visited New York in mid-December some years ago and experienced the city decorated for the holidays, evergreen displays were still very much in evidence.  Trees, wreaths, and boughs of fir and spruce placed in window boxes outside shops and restaurants all contributed to the memorable seasonal atmosphere.

Horse Christmas trees were a tradition where those kindly disposed towards animals provided troughs of food arranged around a tree which was sometimes dressed with apples and other treats.  These horse trees appeared in markets, organised by the traders for their hard working animals, and sometimes by the roadside, provided by volunteers.  The troughs and the tree would have acted as a sign for those passing by in need of refreshment.

In one photograph, a sign advertises a Christmas dinner for horses and free coffee for the drivers – delivered by women dressed warmly for the freezing weather.  Precise locations for these horse trees aren’t specified, (and might not be in New York), but are a reminder of a ‘Christmas Green’ tradition almost forgotten as transport systems modernised and the horses gradually disappeared.

Christmas tree market at Barclay Street Station between 1885 – 1895 – the telegraph poles in this picture also have a tree-like feel to them.

Christmas tree market, New York between 1885 – 1895

Load of Christmas trees, New York

Elizabeth and J Hamilton Fish, 3rd, children of Rep. and Mrs J Hamilton Fish of New York, and their attractive Christmas tree (1930)

Small children in front of Christmas tree in New York City, lodging house (between 1900 – 1909)

Unemployed workers in front of a shack with Christmas tree, East 12th Street, New York City. Photograph: Russell Lee 1938

Christmas tree in Madison Square Gardens, circa 1910 – 1915 (Bain News Service)

Christmas tree in Madison Square Gardens, circa 1910 – 1915 (Bain News Service)

Christmas tree in Madison Square Gardens, circa 1910 – 1915 (Bain News Service)

Christmas tree in Madison Square Gardens, circa 1910 – 1920 (Bain News Service)

Christmas Tree for Horses (Harris & Ewing) 1918. The notice advertises Free Christmas Dinner for horses, hot coffee for drivers

Horses eating and Christmas tree (Harris & Ewing) 1927 or 1928

Horse Christmas tree 1919

Horse Christmas tree 1919

Horse Christmas tree 1919

Further reading:

Prints and Photographs at the Library of Congress

Thanks to the New York Times for its link to this interesting piece – ‘Christmas Green.  Where it comes from and how it is brought here.’  published 25th December, 1878 New York Tribune

The area around Barclay Street in New York has a rich horticultural past and was once home to dozens of seed merchants – more about them and their colourful seed catalogues in a previous post here: The Seedsmen of Lower Manhattan

Thomas Kibble Hervey’s The Book of Christmas (1836) examines Christmas and New Year traditions and is widely credited for the resurgence in popularity of the holiday season in Victorian times – previous post here: Bringing in the Green

Oudolf Field, Bruton

Echinacea, or coneflower in Oudolf Field, Hauser & Wirth, Somerset

Located in the tranquil Somerset countryside, Hauser & Wirth’s arts centre just outside Bruton is a destination both for modern art – and its gardens.  Landscaping for the entire site has been designed by Piet Oudolf, and the Oudolf Field, described as a one acre perennial meadow, is its centrepiece.

Entering the Field, grass paths of varying widths weave through the dense planting, allowing visitors to experience the immersive effect of bold blocks of grasses and flowering perennials.  Nearest to the gallery buildings is a concealed pond area which was attracting dragonflies on the day we visited in August, and at the top of the Field is a pavilion designed by Smiljan Radic.

Here in this meadow garden, created by one of the world’s best known landscape designers for an international art gallery, it seems like a good moment to consider the status of gardens as an art form.  In that context, the Oudolf Field feels very much like a living installation.

The term ‘meadow’ suggests planting that is loose and informal, and this introduces an immediate conundrum for the visitor.  The detail of Oudolf’s design is very tightly controlled, and while in August the overall effect of the mature planting is one of meadow-like irregularity, this belies a rigidity that underpins the design.

The perennial plants are placed and ordered with great precision – much as they might have been in a 17th century parterre.  But unlike a parterre garden, this design is not symmetrical,  and instead of being clipped into artificial patterns, the plants  are chosen for their wilder character, and allowed to keep their natural shapes.

Beds edged with corten steel meet manicured grass or gravel pathways, providing the crisp edges we’d expect in a traditional formal garden. This contrast between formality and informality is one of the trademarks of Oudolf’s style, working best when all the elements are meticulously maintained – which is certainly the case at Hauser & Wirth and a great credit to the skill of their gardeners.

Oudolf uses lots of contrasts in his planting, and some of these create almost painterly effects.  Hazy fine textured grasses are a favourite, as are the diffuse patches of green and yellow produced by perennial plants like Amsonia hubrichtii.  This interesting plant carries small pale blue flowers in May and June on stems covered in fine needle-shaped leaves.  These turn yellow and orange in autumn, providing intense splashes of colour amongst the paler grasses and forming a backdrop for flowers with an upright habit, such as veronicastrum and agastache.

In other areas, blocks of perennial flowers with rounded shapes like sedums (Hylotelephium), echinacea, helenium and various umbellifer species form a pleasing contrast with the flower spikes of persicaria, lythrum and perovskia.

Oudolf’s gardens are designed to reach their peak from late summer through autumn, and the plants are left to die back naturally – their structures providing winter interest and acting as a seedbank for birds.  In February and March everything is cut back to ground level and the growth cycle begins again.  Perhaps it is not intentional, but sculptor Richard Long’s Stone Circle (1980) located close to the pavilion seems to echo this circle of life theme.

Well worth a visit when travel becomes possible again – some links to Hauser & Wirth and Piet Oudolf’s website below:

Fine cut leaves of Amsonia hubrichtii turn from green to yellow in August, forming a hazy backdrop for late flowering upright spikes of pink veronicastrum and Eryngium agavifolium

Yellowing leaves of Amsonia hubrichtii form a striking contrast to the upright blue spike of agastache

Contrasting shapes of Hylotelephium (sedum) in the foreground with blue spikes of Perovski (Russian sage) directly behind

Detail Hylotelephium (formerly sedum)

Lythrum (centre) with Dianthus carthusianorum, or Carthusian pinks in the foreground

Contrast of texture and colour with purple Hylotelephium (sedum) in foreground, the yellow grass Carex elata ‘Aurea’ behind

Heleniums in flower

The pond at Oudolf field was attracting dragonflies on the day we visited. The flowering rush Butomus umbellatus in the foreground

Damera peltata, sometimes called the umbrella plant, in the pond area.

The Radic Pavillion

Plan of Hauser & Wirth, Somerset showing a simplified design of the Oudolf Field

Detail of corten steel edge to the borders juxtaposed with gravel and lawn

A large clump of yellow and orange heleniums provides a block of colour amongst the paler grasses and perennials

Oudolf’s design for the gallery courtyard. The late season grass Sesleria autumnalis brings a freshness to the planting

Further reading:

Hauser & Wirth, Somerset

oudolf.com

All about the show

Chrysanthemum ‘Mrs. Warren G. Harding’ at the US Agriculture Department’s Chrysanthemum Show, October 30th 1923  (all images via The Library of Congress)

A flower show can encompass anything from a local amateur competition in the village hall, to a huge event attracting a national audience.  These remarkable photographs from the Library of Congress record an annual exhibition of chrysanthemums hosted by the US Department of Agriculture and held in Washington in the early part of the 20th century, generally in November.

Commercial photographers from the Harris & Ewing studio attended the event over a period of years producing a varied record, including visitors from the top tier of American political society, members of the public, a gardener at the glasshouse, and details of the plants themselves.

Negotiating the narrow pathways of the glasshouse with its banks of fragile flowers, whilst persuading VIP guests to be photographed, cannot have been easy.  While some appear happy to pose, others are less enthusiastic.  But the candid expressions of the guests capture the event’s atmosphere perfectly, allowing the viewer privileged access to the show.

What of the chrysanthemums on display?  A close inspection of the glasshouse signage reveals the banks of smaller flowered plants closest to the walls are ‘pompons and single varieties for outside planting’ while the spectacular blooms in the central aisle are ‘Japanese and Chinese varieties for greenhouse cultivation’.  Each of these plants, grown individually in terracotta pots, is carefully staked to support the flower and labelled.  All the plants are staged in rows on a structure increasing in height like steps, showing all the flowers to their best advantage.

Originally from China, chrysanthemums have been cultivated in China and Japan for centuries, both for decorative purposes and for their medicinal properties.  The plants were introduced to Europe in the late 18th century, and by the mid 19th century, when The National Chrysanthemum Society was established in London in 1846, their popularity was well established.

In the United States greenhouse varieties imported from Japan started to become fashionable by the 1860s alongside the garden types.  By the time the Agriculture Department’s events were in their heyday, the latest varieties from American breeders were the stars of the show – often named after celebrities of the day, from Grace Coolidge to military figures like General Pershing and Admiral Beatty.  Another is named for the Garden Club of America.

Chrysanthemums bloom late in the season and their colours, from shades of yellow and bronze, to rusty reds and purples mirror the tones of autumn leaves.  Others come in shades of pink and even pure white.  Their forms are wide ranging, including single, semi-double, pompons, incurving where the florets or petals form a ball shape, or reflex where the florets curve downwards and overlap.

The early part of the 20th century was a golden period for chrysanthemum shows on both sides of the Atlantic, when gardeners working at large houses and estates were still employed in sufficient numbers to grow the large bloomed varieties that required glasshouse cultivation.  Aside from gardener Martin Graner photographed in 1913, the multitude of gardeners who raised the magnificent plants for the Department of Agriculture’s show, and displayed them so beautifully are undocumented, but the quality of their work lives on in this extraordinary record.

Alice Roebling, Mrs. Robt. Roebling, Chrysanthemum Show, November 3rd 1926

1916

1915

1917

from the show of 1922

Mrs. Wm. M. Jardine and Mrs. Coolidge, Chrysanthemum Show, November 5th 1925

Sec. Jardine and Mrs. Coolidge at Chrysanthemum Show, November 5th 1925

Mrs. Kellogg, Mrs. Jardine, Mrs. New, Chrysanthemum Show, November 3rd 1926

Martin Graner, gardener, inspects Chrysanthemum ‘Jessie Wilson’ (1913)

Chrysanthemum ‘Jessie Wilson’ (1913)

Chrysanthemum ‘Grace Coolidge’ (1924)

Joffre, Joseph Jacques Cesare. Marechal of France 1916. Chrysanthemum ‘General Joffre’ (1917)

Japanese seedling 1917. General Pershing (1917)

Chrysanthemums at the Annual Dept. of Argric. Show, Wash., that have been named after celebrities. Lft. to rt. Grace Coolidge, Gen. Pershing, Princess Nayako, Secy. Meredith, Admiral Beatty. 1924

between 1915 and 1923

This over-exposed photograph from 1921 shows how much light streams in through the glasshouse roof even in November

Further reading:

Harris & Ewing Photographers

NCS USA  Chrysanthemum classifications from the National Chrysanthemum Society, USA

NCS UK  National Chrysanthemum Society, UK