Permaculture in the Lea Valley

Inside the glasshouses at Hawkwood Plant Nursery the home of OrganicLea, fruit and vegetable producers in the Lea Valley, Chingford.

Tempted outside by the February sunshine last weekend, the unseasonable warmth happened to coincide with an open day at organic growers OrganicLea in Chingford.  And so it was at the very beginning of the vegetable growing season I found myself with a group of visitors exploring twelve acres of fields and glasshouses in the Lea Valley guided by Tim Mitchell, one of the garden’s organisers.

The OrganicLea market garden is to be found, somewhat incongruously, between streets of semi-detached houses typical of the outer suburbs of London and the eastern edge of Epping Forest.  It occupies what was previously Hawkwood Plant Nursery, the London borough of Waltham Forest’s propagation centre for amenity plants grown for use in local parks and gardens.  When this facility closed ten years ago, OrganicLea saw an opportunity to expand – they had previously operated from a community allotment – and they now lease the whole site from the council.

The majority of the gardens are on a slope and several large oak trees, some of which experts believe date from the 17th century, punctuate the growing area.  According to conventional horticultural wisdom, this might not be considered an ideal position for a market garden.  However, by following principles of permaculture, OrganicLea has been able to work with the existing topography to create a productive garden.

Tim’s personal interest in permaculture came out of an interest in ecology. “I was interested in how humans can work alongside other species without destroying the habitats or poisoning those other species. Ecological food-growing  seemed to be the best working model. Although other species often thrive in our absence, it would be nice if we could join the party without ruining it.” he explains.

Permaculture is a term first used in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the two Australian pioneers of the concept.  It stands for ‘permanent agriculture’ and seeks to find ways of cultivating food crops sustainably, in harmony with the natural environment.  Their book Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements (1978) was followed by the establishment in 1979 of a Permaculture Institute in Tasmania.  Although Mollison spent some time as a campaigner against commercial agriculture, which he believed was damaging the environment in Tasmania, eventually he found it more worthwhile to develop ideas and teach others about sustainable growing practice, which is now a worldwide movement.

The diagram below shows how the permaculture design concept works, with the most intensive cultivation nearest to the house or settlement and much of the perimeter of the site left in a natural state, as a ‘wilderness zone’ for ‘foraging, inspiration and mediation’.

The French translation of Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements (1978)

Standing at the top of Entrance field, the first part of the site to be cultivated by OrganicLea, Tim pointed out a swale, or ditch, running the length of the cultivated area.  This, he explained, is the first line of defence against the force of rainwater running off the wooded hill above, catching some of it and and preventing erosion of the soil.  Beneath this, long, curved beds of vegetables divided by bark chipping paths follow the natural contour of the hill and absorb the remaining rainwater, reducing the frequency the beds need to be hand watered.

All the outdoor crops are cultivated by hand using the ‘no dig’ method.  Compost is added to the beds annually which smothers weeds and builds up topsoil without disturbing the soil structure beneath.  These beds operate on a ten year crop rotation plan, with two years of this cycle devoted to feeding the soil using a green manure crop.

At the centre of the site are the commercial glasshouses OrganicLea inherited ten years ago.  Tim explained, “The glasshouse is a boon as it allows us to run a viable commercial operation.  We can grow higher value crops like tomatoes and chillies which are sold to the public but also to restaurants.”  Up to sixty varieties of chillies are grown and are popular at OrganicLea’s three local market stalls.  Except for some propagation tables, the glasshouse is unheated, but even in February many of the long beds bordered by old scaffolding boards are full of winter salads.

The surrounding woodland has not been cleared but is managed for wildlife.  Out of twelve acres, just six are under production and the OrganicLea team is trying to monitor and increase biodiversity.  At the edge of this ‘wilderness zone’ there’s a poet’s corner dedicated to John Clare.  Tim says, “We like to think he passed through the woods here when he was living in Epping Forest.”

So today the last word goes to Clare – these lines are from London versus Epping Forest written when Clare was resident at the High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest between 1837 – 41.  Although London has now overwhelmed so much of the natural landscape, from this spot surrounded by trees it is somehow possible to experience a sense that nature is still greater than human activity.

Thus London like a shrub among the hills
Lies hid and lower than the bushes here.
I could not bear to see the tearing plough
Root up and steal the forest from the poor,
But leave to freedom all she loves untamed,
The forest walk enjoyed and loved by all.

Rhubarb in the Old Kitchen Garden.

Lettuce, with garlic in the background.

Endive

Rocket and broad beans

Swiss chard

Propagators on heated bench. The black pots in the background will soon be used for the chilli crop.

Inside the glasshouse. The green string is used to support beans, tomatoes and cucumbers.

The glasshouse from the top of Entrance Field.

Gloves drying out on trellis.

Further reading:

OrganicLea – well worth looking out for monthly open days and events.

Bill Mollison

David Holmgren

Permaculture Association (UK)

Garden Excursions

As the days lengthen, and spring approaches, I’m starting to plan some garden visits.  The two journeys I’m going to discuss today remind me, however, that these highly anticipated excursions do not always proceed as smoothly as we’d like them to, and perhaps never more so than when a group of people travel together.

The account of a solitary traveller is often seductive.  The reader is invited to travel as a companion to the author, and enjoys privileged access to locations that would be impossible to see without them.  But the reader’s relationship with a travelling group can be less comfortable.  The reader is now plunged into a situation where the complexities of the group dynamic make the outcome of the journey much less certain.

These two entertaining stories for children from the early 19th century involve trips to Kew and Vauxhall Gardens, both popular visitor attractions at that time.  I love the illustrations for the details they reveal about London life of two hundred years ago.  London is so much smaller, and the countryside so much closer than it is today.  We glimpse cobbled streets, lamp posts, signage and even a pot plant growing on somebody’s windowsill.  The Thames is as full of passenger boats as London’s streets are with taxis today.

The Dandy’s Perambulations (1819), written and illustrated by Isaac Robert Cruikshank (1789 – 1856), the elder brother of celebrated artist George Cruikshank, is a gently satirical account of a visit to Kew Gardens undertaken by two fashionable London dandies.  After a late start and various mishaps along the way, they never reach their destination.

One morning, after getting dressed Mr Pink leaves his home in Southwark to visit MacCarey in a basement flat, (from which he appears to have a business selling potatoes).  Deciding to visit Kew Gardens, the dandies hire velocipedes (an early version of the bicycle without pedals).  Some distance out of London they are attacked by geese, fall into a pond and are rescued by one Peter Parrot:
‘The only Dandy that was seen,
Or known to live, at Turnham Green.’

After losing one of the velocipedes and another unfortunate encounter, this time with a sow and piglets, they admit defeat and decide to come home agreeing;
.. no more to roam
Beyond the eastern town of Bow,
Or farther west than Rotten Row;

The second book has a long title –  A Second Holiday for John Gilpin, or A Voyage to Vauxhall; where, Though he had better Luck than Before, he was far from being contented. (1808).  In this tale, the Gilpin family visit the famous Vauxhall Gardens in south London and although they do reach their destination, the accident prone and reluctant traveller John Gilpin is appalled at the expense of the outing.  The character of John Gilpin would have been well known to readers after the success of William Cowper’s poem The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1782) where Gilpin rides further than he intended on a runaway horse.

Travelling to Vauxhall by boat Gilpin manages to lose his hat in the water, and on arriving at the gardens is ‘vex’d to find that he Four Shillings had to pay.’  An illustration shows the boat landing outside Lambeth Palace and the church St Mary-at-Lambeth (which now houses the Garden Museum).  After listening to some music they have dinner with wine, but John Gilpin thinks, ‘he’d rather had A pot of Trueman’s beer.’  Eventually a coach is called to take them home at yet more expense and Gilpin vows ‘he ne’er would have Another Holiday’.

The message from both these accounts seems to be – choose your garden travelling companions carefully!  Links to the full versions of both texts below:


Lambeth Palace and the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth


Dining at Vauxhall Gardens

Further reading:

The Dandy’s Perambulations  from the Children’s Library, The Internet Archive

A Second Holiday for John Gilpin  from the Children’s Library, The Internet Archive

Robert Cruikshank  Wikipedia

Hackney’s Botanical Cabinet

The Botanical Cabinet 1819  (images The Biodiversity Heritage Library)

If we took a walk along Mare Street in Hackney, east London today it would be hard to imagine this street was once home to one of the most celebrated plant nurseries in England.  Loddiges’ Paradise Field Nursery was founded in the mid-1770s by German born Joachim Conrad Loddiges (1738 -1826), and continued by his son George Loddiges (1786 – 1846) as The Hackney Botanic Nursery Garden.  With its range of heated glasshouses the nursery was famous for growing newly discovered plants from around the globe including the Americas, the Carribean, Australia and the far East.

Loddiges published annual catalogues listing the vast range of plants they stocked for sale.  From 1817 – 1833 the nursery produced The Botanical Cabinet, an illustrated magazine which must have served as a useful companion publication, showing the reader what some of their choicest specimens looked like.  The format followed that of The Botanical Magazine (established in 1787 and still published by Kew Botanical Gardens), with a full page illustration of a flowering plant and a corresponding page of description and cultivation details.

Coloured engravings by George Cooke from the 1819 issue of The Botanical Cabinet show some unusual plants grown by the nursery exactly two hundred years ago.  The magazine also reveals details of the Loddiges’ network of plant collectors, who would send seeds to the nursery or supply plants for the nursery to propagate.

Illustrations of the Loddiges’ hot houses from the 1818 magazine give some idea of the scale and ambition of the nursery.  The Hackney Society publication Loddiges of Hackney (1995) by David Solman provides an in depth study of the nursery’s establishment and eventual decline in the 1850s, as rising land prices in the area made it uneconomic to continue.  Various members of the Loddiges family are buried in the nearby St John-at-Hackney church and Abney Park Cemetery.

Sarracenia purpurea from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

This very singular plant is a native of North America, in bogs and swamps.  It has long been known in this country, having been cultivated before the year 1640, by Tradescant, who was Gardener to King Charles the First.

Passerina Spicata from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

This is a native of the Cape, and was introduced about the year 1787.  It is a pretty greenhouse plant.  Its delicate white flowers, though small, are very neat and pleasing, and it continues in bloom a long time during the autumnal months.

Hedysarum carneum from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

We raised this elegant plant many years since from Caucasian seeds, but very soon lost it.  Lately, however, we have obtained a fresh supply, which has produced us two or three plants, from one of which our figure was taken.

Primula minima from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

We received this elegant little plant from our friend Mr Schleicher, of Bex.  It flowered several times in the course of the summer.  Our drawing was taken in the month of July: it represents the whole plant of its natural size, being scarcely one inch in height, and surmounted by a single flower, which was larger than the whole plant, and of great beauty.

Arum triphyllum zebrinum from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

Cineraria aurantiaca from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

This is a native of the Alps of Switzerland.  We raised it from seeds received in 1817 from our friend Mr Schleicher, of Bex.  It is a hardy perennial, and we consider it a very ornamental plant.

Eucalyptus cordata from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

A native of Van Dieman’s Island (Tasmania).  From its robust habit and rapid growth, it will soon become a tall tree.  The whiteness of its leaves and branches gives it a most interesting appearance, but the flowers are not showy.

Camellia japonica variegata from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

This was one of the first varieties of the Double Camellias seen in this country.  It was brought over from China sometime about the year 1792.  We remember to have seen the first plant, soon after this period, at Sir Charles Raymond’s, Valentine House, Essex.

Stapelia bufonis from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

The curious plant which is now before us flowers in the latter part of the summer.  The blossoms are extremely interesting: their interior surface is wholly rough, with wrinkled protuberances, which together with its livid colour, have occasioned it to be named, as resembling a toad.  It is a native of the arid deserts of South Africa, and was introduced about the year 1800.

Hakea pugioniformis from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

Seeds of this plant were received among some of the first arrivals from Botany Bay.  It is a free grower, and attains the height of four or five feet, forming a handsome greenhouse shrub, and producing plenty of flowers.

Lilium pumilum from The Botanical Cabinet 1819.

We received this beautiful plant from our friend Mr Busch, at St Petersburgh, who sent it us, as being a different plant from the pomponium, which it unquestionably is.  Being a native of Russia, it is perfectly hardy, and may either be kept in a pot (which we prefer) or planted in a border.

Banksia paludosa from The Botanical Cabinet 1819.

A native of New South Wales, whence it was introduced, according to the Kew catalogue, in 1805.

Elevation of the steam apparatus for heating hothouses, &tc at Hackney. The Botanical Cabinet 1818

Ground plan of the Houses at Hackney. The Botanical Cabinet 1818

Further reading:

The Botanical Cabinet 1819

Loddiges of Hackney published by The Hackney Society

 

William Wordsworth’s Cottage Gardens

Cottages in the Vale of Lorton engraving by Rev Joseph Wilkinson from Select Views in Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire (1810)

Clustered like stars some few, but single most,
And lurking dimly in their shy retreats,
Or glancing on each other cheerful looks,
Like separated stars with clouds between.

These lines from A description of the scenery of the lakes in the north of England, published in 1822, show William Wordsworth’s affection for the traditional lakeland cottage.  By comparing cottages to stars in the night sky he suggests both their beauty, and the harmonious pattern formed by their interlinking networks in the landscape of the Lake District.

Wordsworth’s text was commissioned by the Rev Joseph Wilkinson, an amateur artist with a love for the Lakes, and it first appeared anonymously alongside Wilkinson’s engravings as Select Views in Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire (1810).  Later editions of the text were updated by Wordsworth and published without Wilkinson’s illustrations.

As well as a guide book for visitors, it discusses how the landscape should be managed sensitively so that natural and man made features co-exist without discord.  In a plea which anticipates the creation of national parks and the National Trust, Wordsworth advocates the preservation of the Lake District as ‘a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’.

Wordsworth’s cottages are described in detail, from the local stone used in their construction, the whitewashed exteriors, and their gardens. Cottages are generally passed down from father to son, and he notices that additions to the buildings made by each new generation give the cottages an organic, plant-like quality:

‘these humble dwellings remind the contemplative spectator of a production of nature, and may (using a strong expression) rather be said to have grown than to have been erected:- to have risen, by an instinct of their own out of the native rock – so little is there in them of formality, such is their wildness and beauty!’ 

Rough stone walls and roof slates provide shelter for plants such as lichens, mosses, ferns and flowers so that buildings appear clothed in ‘vegetable garb’.  Doubtless, the wet climate also contributed to the abundance of plant life.  The typical cottage garden described by Wordsworth matches the modesty of the cottage buildings and suggests an attractive (if idealised) way of life in complete harmony with nature:

‘.. the little garden with its shed for bee-hives, its small beds of pot-herbs, and its borders and patches of flowers for Sunday posies, with sometimes a choice few too much prized to be plucked; an orchard of proportioned size, a cheese press, often supported by some tree near the door; a cluster of embowering sycamores for summer shade; with a tall Scotch fir, through which the winds sing when other trees are leafless; the little rill or household spout murmuring in all seasons:- combine these incidents and images together, and you have the representative idea of a mountain-cottage in this country so beautifully formed in itself, and so richly adorned by the hand of nature.’

The section dedicated to ‘Planting’ indicates how significant Wordsworth considers plant choices to be (as well as the style of buildings) in preserving the character of the Lake District.  He is especially concerned with the appearance of larch plantations which, he argues, jar with the landscape, and do not even produce good timber.

On a smaller scale, he is critical of gardens that use too many exotic species:

‘what shall we say to whole acres of artificial shrubbery and exotic trees among rocks and dashing torrents, with their own wild wood in sight – where we have the whole contents of the nurseryman’s catalogue jumbled together – colour at war with colour, and form with form – among the most peaceful subjects of Nature’s kingdom every where discord, distraction and bewilderment!’

His suggestion for planting a domestic garden in this context confines exotic plants to an area very close to the house and blends cultivated shrubs with native species to blur the line between the garden and the landscape beyond:

‘a transition should be contrived, without abruptness, from these foreigners to the rest of the shrubs, which ought to be of the kinds scattered by Nature through the woods – holly, broom, wild-rose, elder, dogberry, white and black thorn &c. either these only, or such as are carefully selected in consequence of their uniting in form,’

This radical approach, it could be suggested, precedes that of William Robinson, who published The Wild Garden sixty years later in 1870 and is usually credited with pioneering naturalistic planting schemes in English gardens.

While Wordsworth examines cottage dwellings and local farming activities very closely, he says little about specific cottage inhabitants.  Cottage dwellers are portrayed, along with their buildings and sheep on the hillsides, as part of the landscape rather than individuals with ambitions and desires of their own.

Many of Wilkinson’s engravings (which Wordsworth is said to have disliked) do show people, although the figures don’t integrate particularly well into the mountainous landscapes.  Wilkinson’s cottages (and gardens) are more successful, however, showing some of the character Wordsworth admired, and recording a way of life that was already disappearing with the advances of the industrial revolution.

View in the Vale of Newlands

Cottage in the vale of Newlands, between Keswick and Buttermere

Scale, or Skell-gill Farm House, above Portinscale

Cottages at Braithwaite

Cottages at Braithwaite

Cottages in Appelthwaite, looking from Skiddaw

Cottage near Rydal

Vale of the Lune, Lonsdale, looking towards Ingleborough Hill & Hornby Castle.

Further Reading:

A Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England by William Wordsworth (1822) here

All forty eight engravings of drawings by Rev Joseph Wilkinson featured in the 1810 version of the Guide, then entitled Select Views in Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire can be found on the Romantic Circles website here

Jenny Uglow’s interesting blog piece about Joseph Wilkinson for Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum here

More information about the various versions of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes here

Knot Gardens for the Country Housewife

The Country House-wives Garden – the second section from a book entitled A new orchard and garden, or, The best way for planting, grafting, and to make any ground good for a rich orchard; particularly in the north parts of England by William Lawson (first published 1618)  From the Biodiversity Heritage Library

If you are curious to know what a knot garden looked like in a smaller domestic garden of the early 17th century, The Country House-wives Garden (1618) by William Lawson gives some intriguing insights into the vast range of designs, and plants that were used. Lawson includes in his book several knot patterns which could be followed or used as inspiration for an individual’s own design, remarking that ‘they are as many, as there are devices in Gardeners brains’.

The number of formes, Mazes, and Knots is so great, and men are so diversly delighted, that I leave every House-wife to herself, especially seeing to set downe many, had been but to fill much paper; yet lest I deprive her of all delight and direction, let her view these choice, new forms;  

He suggests the knot should be located within a square area bordered with shrubs, and be planted up in late September.  Plants that might be used include roses, rosemary, lavender, bee-flowers, Isop (hyssop), sage, thyme, cowslips, peony, daisies, clove gilliflowers (carnation), pinks, southernwood and lilies.

One of the characteristics that distinguishes a knot garden from a parterre is that the lines in the knot design appear to cross over each other, as if the pattern has been made out of a continuous strand of thread.  This is achieved in the garden by using a combination of continuous and interrupted lines of plants, so that the continuous lines appear to travel over the interrupted lines.  Lawson’s first illustration shows how the ground for the knot garden is divided prior to planting using stakes and lines, so that the plants could be arranged accurately to make a geometric design.

William Lawson (1553/4–1635) was a Church of England clergyman based in Ormesby, Yorkshire.  His only book, A new orchard and garden, or, The best way for planting, grafting, and to make any ground good for a rich orchard; particularly in the north parts of England was first published 1618.  It shows a general audience how to plant and look after fruit trees, and provides glimpses of other popular garden features such as camomile seats and topiary (his ambitious suggestions include men in battle or hounds chasing deer).  The second section of the book, The Country House-wives Garden is aimed specifically at women, supplying general seasonal information about laying out and managing a garden for flowers, vegetables and herbs.

Planting suggestions for knots are also discussed in detail by John Parkinson . In Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (1629) he mentions sweete herbes clipped regularly to preserve the form of the knot, with the prunings used as strewing herbs for the house.  Germander, hyssop, pinks and carnations, lavender, thyme, savory and French or Dutch box were all popular, as was thrift, the summer flowers gathered, ‘to deck up an house’.  Cotton lavender or santolina is mentioned, but as a relatively new introduction to England it was only found in the gardens of the wealthy:

The rarity and novelty of this herb, being for the most part but in the Gardens of great persons doth cause it to be of the greater regard

Parkinson favours box for a knot garden, as it is evergreen, keeps it shape better than many other plants and is tolerant of a range of planting conditions.  He explains his secret of pruning the roots to stop them spreading and damaging other plants in the knot:

You shall take a broad pointed Iron like unto a Slise or Chessell, which thrust downe right into the ground a good depth all along the inside of the border of Boxe somewhat close thereunto, you may thereby cut away the spreading rootes thereof, which draw so much moisture from the other herbes on the inside, and by this means both your herbes and flowers in the knot, and your Boxe also, for that the Boxe will be nourished sufficiently from the rest of the rootes it shooteth on all the other sides.

Parkinson also mentions materials used to edge the beds of the knot garden including tiles, stones, oak boards, lead cut into the shape of battlements and, somewhat surprisingly, sheep shank bones, with rows of knuckle ends being visible above the ground.  However, he records that many people ‘mislike’ the shank bones and that they are not used widely.

The last word on knot gardens goes to Lawson.  His description of the garden as a place where ‘nature is corrected by Art’, defines the character of knot gardens perfectly, and at the same time perhaps, gives us a definition for all gardens:

And all these (plants), by the skill of your gardener, so comely and orderly placed in your borders and squares, and so intermingled, that none looking thereon cannot but wonder, to see what nature corrected by Art can doe.

The ground plot for knots, together with a design for a knot.

Designs for Flower de luce and The Trefoyle

The fret and Lozenge

Crossbow and Diamond

Ovall and Maze designs

Plan of a late Elizabethan Garden from A new orchard and garden, (first published 1618)

Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (or, Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise) 1629

Further reading:

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The Country House-wives Garden

Parkinson on Knot Gardens

The Enchanted Garden

William Morris, Philip Webb Design for Trellis wallpaper 1862 ©William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

The Enchanted Garden, currently showing at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London explores our enduring fascination with gardens.  Devised in collaboration with the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, this exhibition features around twenty mostly British artists working from 1850 to 1950, examining their individual responses to the garden, and documenting the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement and the Bloomsbury Group on the stylistic development of the English garden.

William Morris’s study for Trellis (1862), his first wallpaper design, shows detail of a wooden garden trellis supporting perching birds and climbing roses.  Morris took inspiration from both the natural world and the history of design, and his Trellis pattern brings both these themes together.  It also connects today’s domestic gardens with those from the past, as versions of this ordinary structure have been in use supporting climbing plants and dividing space in gardens since medieval times.  It is somehow typical of Morris that he has included in his design the tiny nails that hold the trellis structure together.

The cottage garden remains one of the nation’s favourite garden styles and Ralph Hedley’s Roses for the Invalid (1894) is a nostalgic tribute.  A young woman and a girl collect pink roses from the garden, adding them to a basket of flowers and strawberries for a sick relative or neighbour in an idealised picture of the poor, but decent and deserving cottage gardener.

The vegetable garden in Stanley Spencer’s Gardening (1945) features two naively painted figures harvesting leeks.  The texture of the man’s tweed jacket and corduroy trousers and the detail of the girl’s print dress evoke nostalgia for the Dig for Victory effort of World War Two. The pair work with heads bowed, so deeply absorbed in their task that instead of their faces we see only the crowns of their straw hats.

The theme of the garden as a magical place is explored, where strangeness and beauty occasionally have darker undertones.  In Mark Lancelot Symon’s Jorinda and Jorindal (about 1930) a brother and sister have ventured out of the safety of the garden into woods, where they’ve encountered a witch.  The children are shown frozen to the spot underneath a flowering hawthorn, a plant once associated with witchcraft, in which Jorinda appears entangled.  The intense sunlight flooding every corner of this Pre-Raphaelite inspired painting is in seeming opposition to the dark fate that has befallen the children.

By way of contrast, Monet’s Waterlilies, Setting Sun (on loan from the National Gallery) depicts the garden in late evening.  But here the encroaching darkness has no menace, but is filled with stillness and tranquillity.

The gardens belonging to William Morris at Kelmscott Manor, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell at Charleston in East Sussex and Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House, also in Sussex, still provide inspiration for gardeners today.  In Grant’s The Doorway the profusion of the summer garden is glimpsed through the open door, in contrast to the cool interior of the house.  May Morris’s View of Kelmscott Manor from the Old Barn also uses a doorway to frame the garden, the bleached whiteness of her painting communicating the heat of high summer, almost in the manner of an over exposed photograph.

This may be a small exhibition, but the choice of work and ideas explored are so considered, it stays with you for longer than many larger shows.  The Enchanted Garden is at the William Morris Gallery until 27th January 2019 Admission free (closed on Mondays).

Ralph Hedley Roses for the Invalid 1894 Oil on canvas ©Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Edmund Blair Leighton September 1915 Oil on panel ©Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

William Edward Stott The Widow’s Acre c. 1900 Oil on canvas ©Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Claude Monet Waterlilies, Setting Sun c. 1907 Oil on canvas ©The National Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury, 2006

Lucien Pissarro The Fairy 1894 Oil on canvas ©The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford Presented by the Pissarro family, 1951

Duncan Grant The Doorway 1929 Courtesy the Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London ©Estate of Duncan Grant. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018

Lucien Pissarro My Studio Garden Oil on canvas 1938 ©The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford Presented by the Pissarro Family, 1951

May Morris View of Kelmscott Manor from the Old Barn c. 1880s Watercolour ©William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

The Enchanted Garden William Morris Gallery

William Cowper’s Gardens

Cowper’s Summer House engraved by James Storer.
‘Had I the choice of sublunary good,
What could I wish that I possess not here?’ Book III, The Task

It’s probably fair to say that William Cowper’s poetry is not as well known today as that of Wordsworth or Coleridge, the Romantic poets he is said to have influenced.  But in his lifetime Cowper was hugely successful, with copies of his epic poem The Task running to multiple editions.  Cowper’s love of the English rural landscape, and his appreciation of gardens is well recorded both in his poetry and in accounts of his life.

In The Garden, (Book III, The Task) Cowper celebrates the gardener’s skill in sowing seeds, planning flower borders and pruning, but is withering about the large scale improvement of gardens, and costly changes made to the landscape by figures like Capability Brown:

Improvement too, the idol of the age,
Is fed with many a victim. Lo, he comes!
Th’ omnipotent magician, Brown, appears!
Down falls the venerable pile, th’ abode
Of our forefathers — a grave whisker’d race,
But tasteless. Springs a palace in its stead,
But in a distant spot; where, more expos’d, ⁠
It may enjoy th’ advantage of the north,
And aguish east, till time shall have transform’d
Those naked acres to a shelt’ring grove.
He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn;
Woods vanish, hills subside, and valleys rise:
And streams, as if created for his use,
Pursue the track of his directing wand,
Sinuous or straight, now rapid and now slow,
Now murm’ring soft, now roaring in cascades —
Ev’n as he bids! Th’ enraptured owner smiles. ⁠
‘Tis finish’d, and yet, finish’d as it seems,
Still wants a grace, the loveliest it could show,
A mine to satisfy th’ enormous cost.
Drain’d to the last poor item of his wealth,
He sighs, departs, and leaves th’ accomplish’d plan
That he has touch’d, retouch’d, many a long day
Labour’d, and many a night pursu’d in dreams,
Just when it meets his hopes, and proves the heav’n
He wanted, for a wealthier to enjoy!

William Cowper (1731 – 1800) worked in the legal profession in London, for which he seems to have felt ill suited, and after experiencing a personal crisis, was moved by his family to St Albans for treatment where he stayed until 1765.  After his recovery Cowper lived in Olney where he formed a friendship with John Newton (they wrote hymns together) and then in nearby Weston Underwood where he wrote some of his best known poetry.

Such was Cowper’s continuing popularity in the years shortly after his death in 1800, an illustrated guide book was published by Islington based engravers James Storer and John Greig.  Cowper, illustrated by a series of views, in, or near, the Park of Weston-Underwood, Bucks (1804) provides a commentary on the poet’s life, information about Cowper’s house and garden, and identifies key locations in Weston Park mentioned in The Task that the general public could visit.  This detailed account gives valuable insight into the design of gardens from this period, including the plants and features used.  The authors also describe changes to the gardens and landscape since Cowper’s time, and reveal that the ‘fav’rite elms, That screen the herdsman’s solitary hut;’ (from Book I of The Task) were in fact poplar trees.

The book opens with an engraving (above) of Cowper’s summer house, which he used in the summer months as quiet place to write.  According to Cowper, this tiny building had previously been used by an apothecary, and its dimensions are recorded as being six feet nine inches by five feet five.  Cowper accessed this building from his walled garden by crossing a neighbour’s orchard.

In this wall a door was opened, which being separated from his garden by an orchard, he rented a passage across the latter, for which he paid one guinea per annum: from this circumstance the place was called Guinea Field.

The section of the book which describes Weston Park (belonging to George Courntenay) and its surroundings begins with an invitation to walk with the authors, taking in scenes that would have been familiar to Cowper:

We propose, therefore, to follow him with as little deviation as possible in his ramble; and as there are many who may wish to gratify themselves with a sight of the places to which he has given celebrity, who are unacquainted with a way so indirect, we shall, for their accommodation, return by the road, and, by this proceeding, give a ready clue to every object.

The first place of interest is the Peasant’s Nest, a cottage referred to by Cowper in The Task and this view is taken from the high walk in the park, the only place from which it can be seen to advantage.  If you look very closely, there are three men harvesting corn in the field in front of the cottage.

The Peasant’s Nest
‘Oft have I wish’d the peaceful covert mine.’

The next stop is a rustic bridge, built some sixty years previously for the purpose of keeping up a piece of water in the Park: it spans a deep brook, forming a scene remarkable for its wild and romantic beauty, which, after winding its latent course along the bottom of a woody vale, meanders through the Park ..

(Our concept of ‘wild’ nature must have changed in two hundred years, as the scene in the engraving is, to modern eyes, one of pastoral tranquility).

The Rustic Bridge

The alcove, which was erected at the same time as the bridge is reached via a steep path shaded by oaks and elms.  In the engraving it looks as though the avenue of trees is being extended, with wooden structures arranged around the trunks of sapling trees to prevent them being damaged by cattle.

The Alcove from the Avenue.
‘How airy and how light the graceful arch’

View from the Alcove.
‘ – Now roves the eye:
And, posted on this speculative height,
Exults in its command.’

The area around the alcove is protected from sheep by a chain link fence, inside of which is a border of shrubs and flowers.

The Wilderness.
‘Here, unmolested through whatever sign
The sun proceeds, I wander.’

From the Avenue we enter the Wilderness by an elegant gate, constructed after the Chinese manner.  On the left is the statue of a lion, finely carved in a recumbent posture; this is placed on a basement, at the end of a grassy walk, which is shaded by yews and elms, mingled with the drooping foliage of the laburnum, and adorned with wreaths of flaunting woodbine;

The urn in the engraving contains the ashes of one of George Courtenay’s favourite dogs, with an inscription by Cowper.

The Temple in the Wilderness.
‘Whose well roll’d walks
With curvature of slow and easy sweep’

In front of the Temple is a hexagon plat, surrounded with a beautiful variety of evergreens, flowering shrubs, and elms, whose stems are covered with a mantle of venerable ivy.

Weston Lodge
The Residence of the late William Cowper Esq

The authors disapprove of changes made to Cowper’s garden at Weston Lodge:

..it has a good kitchen garden, and an orchard, which was formerly Cowper’s Shrubbery; but the pursuits of its present possessor differing, in some degree, from those of the poet, every appearance of this kind is obliterated, except that an officious flower occasionally rears its head, and, in tacit terms, upbraids the destroyers of such a scene.

Weston House
(from the Grove)
The Seat of George Courtenay Esq

The Elms
‘There, fast rooted in their bank,
Stand never overlook’d our fav’rite elms,
That screen the herdsman’s solitary hut;’

Out of respect for Cowper, the authors have called this stand of trees The Elms, which they believe are in fact poplars:

In compliance with our intention to illustrate the poet, we have retained the name he has conferred, though we were convinced, from ocular demonstration, it was erroneous; and have also received a communication from Mr Courtenay, who observes, that Cowper wrote the passage in The Task, which refers to these trees, under the influence of a mistake, and he had often told him of the circumstance.

The Shrubbery
‘The Saint or Moralist should tread’
This moss grown alley.’

Many of the lines related to gardens in The Task suggest Cowper recognised their healing qualities.  The Moss House was a place of silence Cowper valued as a retreat when his feelings were at a low ebb, and he placed a board inside containing lines of his poetry.  The original board was stolen, so was replaced with another containing these lines from The Task:

No noise is here, or none that hinders thought.
Stillness, accompanied with sounds so soft,
Charms more than silence.  Meditation here
May think down hours to moments.  Here the heart
May give a useful lesson to the head,
And Learning wiser grow without his books.

Further Reading:

Cowper, Illustrated by a series of views

The Task by William Cowper

William Cowper (The Poetry Foundation)

Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney

James Storer, engraver