Exploring the RHS Digital Collections

Page’s Champion Auricula from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vol l by Robert Sweet (1827 – 1832) Engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.  All images from RHS Digital Collections

In April this year, the Royal Horticultural Society launched its new Digital Collections platform, with thousands of items from the Libraries and Herbarium now available online to the public for the first time.  From an accounts book belonging to landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, to historic nursery catalogues from locations across the UK, many items are unique to the RHS Collections.

Funded by the National Lottery’s Heritage Fund, this is the beginning of a major project that will see further content from the Society’s collection uploaded in the coming months and years.  Currently divided into sections for archive, artworks, bookplates, Herbarium specimens, nursery catalogues, photographs and books, there’s already a wealth of material to view.

In the books section, the RHS has been strategic in their choice of material to digitise, prioritising those books not already available on other platforms.  One of these is The City Gardener (1722) by Thomas Fairchild, a nursery owner in Hoxton, London.  Fairchild’s record of plants in cultivation, popular garden styles, and the challenges of growing in the polluted atmosphere caused by sea coal, gives an invaluable insight into the capital and its gardens during this period.

The City Gardener (1722) by Thomas Fairchild

As the name suggests, the bookplates section is comprised of illustrations taken from books in the RHS’s collection.  The dislocation of these images from their context does present something of an issue (for me, at least), as some of their meaning is lost.  However, the plates are full of interest, and hopefully the books from which they were taken are on the RHS’s list to be digitised in the near future.

This set of bookplates from The Orchard and the Garden, printed by Adam Islip (1602), shows a range of knot garden designs and instructions for laying them out.  These delightful, detailed woodcuts remind us of the enthusiasm for pattern, symmetry, and symbolism in the Tudor period.  The book must have found a ready audience, as this example is a third edition, the first being published in 1594.

The Orchard and the Garden printed by Adam Islip (1602)

These coloured engravings from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vols I and ll by Robert Sweet invite us into the world of the florist in the early 19th century.

At this time, the term ‘florist’ was given to those engaged in cultivating flowers for pleasure, or for show, rather than for the cut flower trade.  The favoured blooms were carnations and pinks, ranunculus, tulips, hyacinths, polyanthus and auriculas – although Sweet’s Directory also includes dahlias (then called georginas) and roses.  Double flowers were prized, as were the striped and flecked patterns of the tulips and carnations.  Engravings by S Watts (after original paintings by Edwin Dalton Smith) allow us to understand what these choice plants must have looked like.

The plants and bulbs discussed in the Directory were for sale from a network of growers and Sweet’s use of high quality coloured images to promote them demonstrates his talent for horticultural marketing.

Albion Tulip from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vol ll by Robert Sweet (1827 – 1832). Engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.

Hogg’s Queen Adelaide Dianthus from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vol ll by Robert Sweet (1827 – 1832).
Engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.

‘Porcelaine Sceptre Hyacinth’, Hyacinthus orientalis var. sceptrifirmis, engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.

The popularity of florist’s flowers is echoed in the historic nursery catalogues dating from the mid to late 18th century that have been added to the Digital Collection, containing pages of auricula, hyacinth and tulip varieties.  An 1890 catalogue listing over 1,400 fern varieties for sale from a company based near Manchester shows how horticultural tastes had changed by the late 19th century, when the craze for ferns had taken hold.

Fine double hyacinth and other curious flower roots, and seeds, imported chiefly from Holland, France, America, Italy, Botany Bay, &c. by John Mason, at the Orange Tree, 152, Fleet Street, London c. 1790

Catalogue of over 1.400 species and varieties of ferns and selaginellas cultivated by W. & J. Birkenhead, Fern Nursery, Sale; 17 and 19, Washway Road, Sale; and Park Road Nursery, Ashton-on-Mersey, near Manchester. Our principal nursery is five minutes’ walk and our Park Road Nursery eight minutes’ walk from Sale Station, on the Manchester, South Junction, and Altrincham Railway, five minutes from Manchester. First-class Queen’s Jubilee Gold Medal, 1887

A sketchbook belonging to Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932) is one highlight of the archive section.  Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Jekyll studied painting, embroidery, gilding, carving and photography, before focusing her attention on a career in landscape and garden design.

These wide ranging interests are evident in her sketchbook, containing a profusion of Jekyll’s sketches of flowers, leaves, architectural details, designs for jewellery, fragments of geometric pattern, swags, and places of cultural interest.  These have been individually cut out and assembled into a scrapbook of visual references.  Some projects must have taken considerable time to complete – four separate tile designs using studies of hawthorn combine cleverly to form a larger repeat pattern, and there are intricate designs for floral wallpaper.

Insights provided by the sketchbook demonstrate how Jekyll’s interest in decorative arts enriched her planting designs.

Floral swags, geometric design and a jug
Gertrude Jekyll

Floral patterns, architectural details and lettering
Gertrude Jekyll

Tile Pattern by Gertrude Jekyll

Floral Wallpaper pattern

Wallpaper, Blue Vine Design
Gertrude Jekyll

Jekyll’s interest in vernacular design is also clear, in her records of stitching designs from smocks worn by agricultural workers.  Jekyll has made these impressions by using pencil and paper, in the manner of a brass rubbing.  Her book Old West Surrey (1904) features houses, furniture, tools and clothes used by working people in the late 19th century, including smocks like these.

Stitching on Country Smocks
Gertrude Jekyll

The photography section records the history of the RHS as an organisation, with images showing the construction of RHS Kensington Gardens in the 1860s and the development of the gardens at RHS Wisley in the 1930s.  The delicate beauty of fern species in New Zealand is captured in a series of cyanotypes by Herbert B Dobbie, published in 1880, and a series of autochromes by William Van Sommer provide glimpses of English gardens from the early 20th century .

Cyanotype of Hypolepis distans, from the book ‘New Zealand Ferns’ Herbert B Dobbie, 1880

Autochrome of calceolarias, Barton Nurseries, by William Van Sommer 1913

Although it could be said that the RHS is rather late to the digitisation party – most major museums and libraries started to share their content online more than a decade ago – now that it has arrived, the RHS Digital Collection is undeniably full of wonder.  I hope you’ll be persuaded to explore, and discover your own treasures.  Link below:

Further reading:

RHS Digital Collections here

Spring Arrives at Fenton House

Apple blossom in the orchard at Fenton House, Hampstead

Standing in the orchard at Fenton House amongst the apple trees, now covered in blossom, is to experience something close to spring in the English countryside.  Mown pathways edged with rustic bent hazel rods invite visitors to wander beneath the canopy of the trees, through meadow grasses and bulbs, surrounded by flowers.  Yet, this peaceful place is not at the end of a quiet country lane, but in Hampstead, north London.

Located just a short distance away from the clamour and bustle of Hampstead High Street, Fenton House is reached through a series of winding residential streets.  Dictated by the topography of this hilly part of north London, the gardens are laid out on various levels, cleverly connected by steps and pathways, the site bounded on all sides by mellow brick walls.  These walls, together with tall, tightly clipped yew hedges divide the garden into distinct areas, each with its own special character.  Some are wide and spacious; others smaller and more intimate, but all with a sense of surprise and discovery around each corner.

Fenton House is a rare survivor from a network of similar mansions constructed in this part of Hampstead in the mid 17th century for wealthy merchants whose business interests required them to live close to London.  It’s thought Fenton House was built in the late 17th century and had a succession of owners before it was purchased in 1793 by Philip Fenton, a trader in the Baltic states, and from whose family the house eventually took its name.  The house was inherited by James Fenton, who became an active campaigner against the development of Hampstead Heath in the 19th century.

In the early 20th century, the house came into the possession of Lady Katherine Binning and in 1952 the house and garden were gifted to the National Trust.  An avid collector, the house now serves as a museum for her collections of ceramics and needlework, and also houses the Benton Fletcher collection of musical instruments which was gifted the the National Trust in 1937.

At Fenton House the style of planting is not fixed to a certain point in the site’s history, and the gardeners enjoy some freedom to develop their own ideas. Retaining certain characteristics from the 1930s when it was still a family garden, albeit a rather grand one, the formal lawn is closest to the house and was once used as a tennis court.  Beyond this is the rose garden and a series of formal flower borders, enclosed by box hedges.

Echoes of the 18th century are represented by yew hedges and topiary, forming a perfect backdrop for the painted figure of a young man, and for period garden seats, placed at intervals around the garden for visitors to enjoy its quiet corners.

A wooden sign indicates a narrow path with steps down to the orchard and kitchen garden.  An impressive lean-to glasshouse placed against one of the walls is used to house tender plants and raise seedlings and cuttings for the garden.  The perimeter path passes the orchard where over thirty heritage apple varieties are planted, and leads to the kitchen garden, enclosed by a series of espaliered apple trees, supported by a metal framework.  Here, crops of vegetables and soft fruit are complemented by flowers – now with self-seeded forget-me-nots, and later in the season by perennial geraniums.

Despite the relative grandeur, there’s plenty of inspiration to take away from Fenton House that would work in a domestic garden.  The purple flowered wisteria tumbling over the high wall above the orchard has been carefully trained in a relatively tight space, and espaliered fruit trees could easily be used to create a soft division between spaces.  Other details, like the outdoor furniture, supports for climbing roses and terracotta rhubarb forcers create their own special atmosphere, whilst also being practical.

Some of us will remember a time when entry to the garden was a contribution by means of an honesty box, somehow adding to the charm of the place.  In recent years, the National Trust has introduced ticketed entry to the garden, but fortunately the settled sense of calm throughout the garden hasn’t changed, and Fenton House continues to be a joy to visit.

Fenton House and gardens are currently open (bookable in advance) on Fridays and Sundays from April to October – further details below:

Snakes head fritillaries in the meadow

Espaliered fruit trees border the kitchen garden

Pale pink cherry blossom in the orchard

Further reading:

Fenton House and Garden here

A London Inheritance here

Pemberton’s Hybrid Musk Roses

Rosa ‘Moonlight’ (Pemberton 1922)
photo: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma Wikimedia Commons

Choosing a rose for the garden can be a daunting task, as the growers’ catalogues tempt us with an ever expanding range of new and fashionable varieties.  But some roses from the past have qualities that, even now, are hard to match, and are well worth growing.

Described by rose experts Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix as ‘some of the very best of all garden roses’ hybrid musk roses are a small group of repeat flowering shrub roses, developed in the early 20th century by the Reverend Joseph Hardwick Pemberton (1852 – 1926).  Characterised by generous clusters of loosely double flowers in subtle shades of pink, apricot, white and pale yellow, they lend a romantic atmosphere to garden borders.

A fascination with roses seems to have run deep in the Pemberton family.  Joseph Pemberton’s grandmother grew roses, as did his father, who regularly attended rose shows in search of new varieties for the family’s garden at the Round House at Havering-atte-Bower, close to Romford in Essex.

As a child, Pemberton would regularly accompany his father to rose shows held at Crystal Palace, and following his father’s death in 1874, began entering rose competitions.  He enjoyed some success, firstly with help from the family’s gardener and then from various rose specialists he encountered at the shows. Later, with a reputation as one of England’s finest amateur rose exhibitors, Pemberton would travel to rose shows across the country accompanied by his sister Florence, also a rose enthusiast, with their prize-winning blooms.

The stars of the rose shows in the 1870s were hybrid perpetual roses like ‘La Reine’, ‘Générale Jacqueminot’ and ‘Madame Edouard Ory’.  With their enormous double flowers these repeat flowering roses were some of the most popular in the Victorian garden.

Rosa Mme. Edouard Ory (Robert 1854)
photo: Salicyna Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘La Reine’
photo: Stickpen Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Général Jacqueminot’
photo: A Barra Wikimedia Commons

Pemberton grew hybrid perpetual and hybrid tea roses like these for competitions, but he was nostalgic for the ‘old’ roses he remembered from his grandmother’s garden and regretted there was no appropriate category to display these roses at the shows.  In the introduction to his book, Roses: Their History, Development and Cultivation (1908) Pemberton remarks that ‘the old-fashioned roses – like Cinderella were left at home’.

The ‘old’ roses Pemberton was referring to included varieties like ‘Maiden’s Blush, Aimée Vibert, Rosa Mundi, Red Provence, and Lucida’.  Once, he took a box of these roses to a National Rose Society show in Kensington and ‘staged them, not for competition, labelled ” Grand- mother’s Roses’.  The roses attracted ‘considerable attention’ from visitors who enjoyed re-discovering these ‘forgotten favourites’.  One of the reasons ‘old’ roses had declined in popularity was that they flowered only once, finishing in July.

Rosa gallica ‘Versicolour’ or Rosa Mundi
photo: Sian Rees

Rosa gallica var.officinalis (G) The Apothecary’s rose, Provins rose, red Damask or the red rose of Lancaster
photo: Sian Rees

Rosa alba ‘Maiden’s Blush’
photo: Nadiatalent Wikimedia Commons

As well as showing roses, Pemberton had a keen interest in hybridisation, believing that amateur growers could make a significant contribution to raising new garden worthy varieties.  By the late 1890s thousands of rose seedlings were produced annually by Pemberton using the garden and glasshouses at the Round House, with his sister Florence, gardener John Bentall and his wife Ann Bentall all involved in the project.  Around the time of his retirement as an Anglican minister, he set up a business with Florence offering roses for sale to the public.

Most of the roses introduced by Pemberton that we know today were the result of a systematic programme of hybridisation using Rosa ‘Trier’, a hybrid multiflora rose introduced by Peter Lambert in 1904, crossed with various hybrid tea roses.  Trier’ shared some of the qualities possessed by the ‘old’ roses Pemberton admired, including large trusses of semi-double flowers and a good scent.  Crucially, Trier was repeat flowering, giving Pemberton the best chance of producing roses with a similar form to the older varieties he loved, but that would repeat throughout the season.

Rosa ‘Trier’ (Lambert 1904)
photo: A Barra Wikimedia Commons

His hybrids using ‘Trier’ produced some highly successful results.  ‘Danae’ and ‘Daphne’ (1913) were some of the first of Pemberton’s hybrid musk roses to be introduced, followed by Rosa ‘Pax’ in 1918, named to celebrate the end of the first World War, and winner of a gold medal.  ‘Cornelia’, ‘Penelope’ and ‘Felicia’ were introduced in the early 1920s and new roses were released after Pemberton’s death in 1926.

John and Ann Bentall who continued to manage the rose fields at Havering-atte-Bower, also kept up Pemberton’s hybridisation work and introduced ‘Autumn Delight’, ‘Buff Beauty’ and ‘Ballerina’ in the 1930s.  It is thought their son Jack continued the rose nursery until the 1970s.

Pemberton’s hybrid musk roses have qualities that make them ideal for contemporary gardens.  For naturalistic planting schemes, the open structure of the flowers attracts pollinators, and both their form and subtle range of colours make them easy to associate with other plants, including wild flowers.  Their long flowering season is an advantage for those of us with small gardens, and most will tolerate some shade.  Although some varieties are now scarce, many such as ‘Felicia’ and ‘Cornelia’ have remained popular and are widely available.

Collections of Pemberton’s hybrid musk roses can be seen at Dutton Hall in Lancashire and (by appointment) at the St Francis Hospice, Havering-atte-Bower, based at Pemberton’s former home and gardens.  Rose breeders have continued the development of new hybrid musk roses, in particular Kordes in Germany, and Lens in Belgium.

Here follow some photographs of some of Pemberton’s hybrid musk roses and links to further reading below.  Most of these images are supplied by visitors to rose gardens who have uploaded their work to Wikimedia Commons.  Many thanks to them for their generosity in sharing their work.

Rosa ‘Prosperity’ (Pemberton 1919)
photo: Salicyna Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Pax’ (Pemberton 1918)
photo: Salicyna Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Maid Marion’ (Pemberton 1930)
photo: Krzystof Ziarnek Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Penelope’ (Pemberton 1924)
photo: Georges Seguin Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Daphne’ (Pemberton 1913)
photo: Geolina 163 Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Fortuna’ (Pemberton / Bentall before 1927)
photo: Salicyna Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Clytemnestra’ (Pemberton 1915)
photo: Geolina 163 Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Kathleen’ (Pemberton 1922)
photo: Meria z Geoian Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Felicia’ (Pemberton 1928)
photo: Geolina 163 Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Cornelia’ (Pemberton 1925)
photo: Salicyna Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Nur Mahal’ (Pemberton 1923)
photo: Wilrooij Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Vanity’ (Pemberton 1920)
photo: Geolina 163 Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Sammy’ (Pemberton 1921)
photo: Geolina 163 Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Thisbe’ (Pemberton 1918)
photo Salix Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Daybreak’ (Pemberton 1918)
photo: Salicyna Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Aurora’ (Pemberton 1923)
photo: Salicyna Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Francesca’ (Pemberton 1922)
photo: Salicyna Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Autumn Delight’ (Bentall 1933)
photo: Geolina 163 Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Buff Beauty’ (A Bentall 1939)
photo: Salicyna Wikimedia Commons

Rosa ‘Ballerina’ (Bentall 1937)
photo: Libby Norman Wikimedia Commons

Further reading:

Rev Joseph Hardwick Pemberton Wikipedia here

Essex Gardens Trust Rev J H Pemberton here

Plant Heritage National Collection Pemberton and Bentall’s Hybrid Musk Roses here

Pemberton Rose Garden at the St Francis Hospice here

The Ultimate Guide to Roses (Macmillan 2004) Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix

Rose suppliers:  Trevor White Roses, Peter Beales Roses, David Austin Roses

Romance in the Garden

The Tempting Fair
print made by John Jones and published by John Harris 1780 Hand-coloured mezzotint with some etching  All images © The Trustees of the British Museum

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I was delighted to happen across these satirical prints depicting romantic dramas.  Produced by various artists and published in London, mostly in the late 18th century, they are now part of the British Museum’s collection.  All set in parks and gardens, this pleasing combination of love and horticulture seems singularly appropriate to the season.

With the cultural constraints imposed on personal interactions between the sexes in this period, it’s not difficult to see why lovers might have preferred to conduct their encounters out of doors, away from the inquisitive eyes and ears of the household.  The garden, with its avenues and groves, was a perfect place to escape observation; to stroll, or sit together for a while on a conveniently placed bench, and enjoy some privacy.

A range of romantic motivations is revealed by the characters in these prints.  Some innocent individuals long for love, whilst others appear ambivalent about the nature of the attentions they are receiving.  The English taste for innuendo is evident in the scenes of illicit meetings and predatory searches for a partner.  The absurdity of lovers’ behaviour to the eyes of outsiders is a constant theme, either witnessed by onlookers, or by the viewer.

For those of us interested in gardens of the past, these prints reveal a multitude of garden features – a series of beautiful painted wooden benches in various styles are my particular favourites.  Details of the lovers’ clothes are also fascinating.  But now, let us go to the garden, take a walk amongst the flowers and learn love’s lessons:

Willy of the Dale published by Sayer and Bennett 1783 Hand-coloured mezzotint

There’s a suggestion that Willy of the Dale might not be entirely sincere when he pats the cheek of his female companion and steals a kiss as they stand by the water’s edge – and perhaps Damon the gardener’s gift of a posy of flowers is not quite the innocent transaction it appears; he seems to expect something in return from Phillis, his young companion.

Damon and Phillis published by Robert Sayer 1760s – 1792 circa Hand-coloured mezzotint

Persuasion published by Peter Concena 1801 Mezzotint with some etching

The seated woman in Persuasion seems ambivalent about the garland of flowers she is receiving from her kneeling admirer.

However, in The Thorn, the young man’s proposal in the garden, with its winding pathway and trellis shelters, is accepted.

The Thorn published by Laurie and Whittle 1804 Hand-coloured stipple and etching

The Sympathy of Love and Harmony print made by John Jones and published by William Richardson 1780 Hand-coloured mezzotint with some etching

Here, music is used as a metaphor for harmony in love.  The man plays the flute as his partner holds up the book of music for him to read, whilst resting her hand on his knee.  The black and white print appears to be a later version of the theme.

Rural Retirement published by Haines and Son 1796 Mezzotint with some etching

The Park. or the most Fashionable Dress for the Year, published by Sayer and Bennett 1777 Hand-coloured mezzotint with some etching

The Park, or the most fashionable dress for the year 1777 shows a young woman dressed in blue silk with a red parasol, with a smart young couple and their dogs walking along a tree lined avenue, populated with regularly spaced benches for those who need to rest or converse.   Here, the park is a place to dress up and be seen, and perhaps make new introductions.

A Scene in Kensington Gardens published by Sayer and Bennett 1782 Hand-coloured mezzotint

A Scene in Kensington Gardens features a somewhat awkward meeting between two lovers, as a woman in riding dress, and a dog, look on.

The Kiss Return’d published by John Raphael Smith 1772 Mezzotint

‘A young man in simple dress, clutching the edge of his coat in one hand and his hat in the other, kissing a fashionably-dressed lay who holds a fan, watched by a gentleman who stands on the right, hands in his pockets, laughing; in a garden with a wall and columns behind.’ British Museum

Jack on a Cruise published by Sayer and Bennett 1780 Hand-coloured mezzotint with some etching

A certain urgency in the search to meet a partner is clear in Jack on a Cruise where a young woman pursued by a sailor gives a coy, but knowing, look to the viewer.  The British Museum commentary notes the grand nature of this garden setting – ‘an urn with serpents sits on a high rectangular pedestal under a large tree, and in the distance is a pavilion in the form of a temple with a dome, pediment, and Corinthian columns.’

January and May published by Carrington Bowles 1785 Hand-coloured mezzotint

‘Beneath the title is engraved, ‘From Pope’s favourite Poem of January and May, or the Merchant’s Tale, from Chaucer’. A garden scene. A young woman (right) kneels on the back of her blind old husband, who stoops down, clasping the trunk of a pear-tree to support her that she may reach her lover who sits in its branches leaning towards her. The old man is dressed in an old-fashioned manner, with wide cuffs; the other two are fashionably dressed: she wears a feathered hat and long elbow-gloves; the anchor of Hope is suspended from her neck on a ribbon. He wears boots with deep tops, and a round hat. In the background (right) is a piece of water crossed by a wooden bridge with Chinese rails. Beneath the design are engraved eight lines from Pope, beginning, ‘At least kind Sir, for Charity’s sweet sake / Vouchsafe the Trunk between your arms to take,’. (She is pregnant, and has deceitfully asked her doting husband to help her to reach a pear for which she craves.)’ British Museum

In London, close to King’s Cross, a tea house with public gardens called Bagnigge Wells became notorious towards the end of the 18th century as a centre for prostitution and both these prints show women dressed elaborately to attract customers.

A Bagnigge Wells scene, or No Resisting Temptation print made by John Raphael Smith published by Carrington Bowles 1780 Hand-coloured mezzotint

‘Two finely dressed prostitutes in the grounds of the pleasure garden with a fountain playing in the background.’  British Museum

The Road to Ruin published by Laurie and Whittle 1799

‘A young man, probably an apprentice, in fashionable but ill-fitting dress, stands smoking between two prostitutes, who berate him, arms akimbo. In the background is the fountain, water spouting from a swan.’  British Museum

A Man-Trap published by Carrington Bowles 1766 – 1789 circa Hand-coloured mezzotint with some etching

The theme of the seductress is continued in A Man Trap, where a woman with a magnificent hat and apricot coloured shoes reclines on a garden seat.  Looking provocatively at the viewer, the sign to her right reads ‘Spring Guns’, indicating the young men she seeks to attract.  The association of gardens with nefarious activity continued into the 19th century, with Vauxhall Gardens eventually closing its gates, in part due to its poor moral reputation.

The Love Letter published by Sayer and Bennett 1784 Hand-coloured mezzotint with etching

‘Two fashionably-dressed young women walking in a garden, the one on the left holding a love letter; a large house in the background to left and a bench in the distance to right.’  British Museum

The Musing Fair published by Laurie and Whittle 1797 Hand-coloured mezzotint with some etching

The young woman in The Musing Fair is reading a book called ‘The Farmer of Englewood Forest’ – and perhaps hoping she might meet a similar kind of man one day?

Has the pensive looking woman in Reflections in a Flower Garden experienced disappointment in love?

Reflections in a Flower Garden published by Laurie and Whittle 1803 Hand-coloured mezzotint

Pretty Miss’s Mournful Surprize, on the Death of her Peacock published by Carrington Bowles 1766 – 1784 circa Hand-coloured mezzotint with some etching

‘A girl standing weeping in a garden holding her apron to her eyes, seeing a peacock lying dead, fallen from a wall on the left.’  British Museum

Peacocks, originally from India, were popular as living adornments to the gardens of country houses in the 18th century and it would seem likely that some owners became personally attached to their birds, as well as appreciating their decorative qualities.  This strangely out-sized bird appears to have met its death by falling off a wall (according to the British Museum commentary) – perhaps its wings were clipped so it couldn’t fly away from the garden?

Hoping your Valentine’s Day is a happy one.

Further reading:

These prints are from The British Museum’s vast online collection here

More about Bagnigge Wells from A London Inheritance here

Constant Alexandre Famin’s Foliage and Flowers

Poppy by Constant Alexandre Famin, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg

Today, if an artist needs visual reference for any plant, whether it’s the form of a leaf, or a flower or seed pod, it’s available instantly in a matter of seconds, via the internet.  At the same time, gardening books, magazines and catalogues, also packed with photographs, assist with identification and remind us how a vast array of plants actually look.

We’re so accustomed to the availability of these botanical resources, we take them entirely for granted, but in the 1860s, when these photographs of foliage and flowers were taken, those who worked in creative industries had to rely on physical specimens (if they were in season) or drawings, woodcuts and engravings as references for their work.

Famin’s innovative plant themed photographs were aimed at artists and craftspeople, giving them year round access to accurate and detailed reference images of plants.  Each image, taken from a glass negative, was printed onto paper and mounted onto cards – perhaps easier to use in the studio than propping open a book or folder.  For fragile flowers like iris, lilac and poppies, with their complicated forms and fleeting blooms lasting just a matter of days, these photographs would have been especially valuable at times when living specimens were unavailable.

Typically in this series, Famin arranges multiple stems from the same plant and photographs them so that they fill, or sometimes spill over, the edge of the frame.  The effect is to produce a sense of intensity; for a moment, as we view each image, we are overwhelmed with the special character and presence of each plant.

One of the most evocative photographs depicts a sheaf of oats and corncockle flowers, an annual weed of arable fields, seeming to shimmer against a dark background.  The sheaf also contains what appears to be crested dog’s tail grass, demonstrating the diversity of plants present in crops before the widespread use of selective weed killers.

Even though examples of his work are held by some of the world’s leading museums, information about the life of French photographer Constant Alexandre Famin (1827 – 1888) is sparse.  We do know that Famin had a commercial photography business with two studios in Paris, producing images of parkland, the countryside, and examples of architecture as reference for painters.

The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg has twenty four examples of Famin’s still life plant images in their collection, but judging from the numbering at the bottom of each of these, there appear to have been at least 200 photographs in the series.  A brief online search reveals more of Famin’s plant images – photographs of hyacinths, hollyhocks and foxgloves appear from time to time in auction sales.

Judging by the seasonal variety of the specimens he recorded, Famin’s plant series must have been produced over the course of at least one calendar year.  Beginning with spring flowering narcissus and apple blossom, the images continue with summer roses, poppies, strawberries and currants.  A range of trees include oak, hawthorn and walnut, often with their late season fruits.  Gathering the freshest specimens for the project must have taken some effort and meticulous planning.

Although there’s consistency to the composition across Famin’s  botanical series, there’s also some variety in the images, reflecting the character of each plant.  Light reflecting from the surface of blackberry, strawberry and holly leaves gives them an unexpected solidity, and a metallic quality.  The sculptural spikiness of holly leaves, and the armoured fruit cases of the horse chestnut contrast with softer textures of hydrangea and fuchsia flowers.  A magnificent opium poppy shows some unexpected motion blur in one of the leaves – perhaps it escaped from careful positioning during the long exposure.  Looking now at these skillful photographs, they seem more than just reference, but artworks in their own right, representing plants in a new way.

Links to sources below.

Dog Rose

41. Apple blossom

56. Narcissus


175. Bay

88. Red currants

127. Vine leaves


194. White lilies

173 Peach blossom


170. Holly

198. Horse Chestnut

85. Hydrangea


143. Oats and corncockle

163. Oak leaves

29. Irises

200. Walnut

23. Fuschia

154. Blackberry

Sweet chestnut

148. Strawberry

Further reading:

Constant Alexandre Famin’s photographs at theMuseum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg here

Photo Central has some of Famin’s work for sale here

Biographical details at Monoskop here

Martin Engelbrecht’s Garden Dioramas

Six perspective prints as diorama – gardening
© Deventer Museums

This brightly coloured scene, with its band of male and female gardeners preparing the ground and planting, is a garden themed paper diorama designed and published by the studio of Martin Engelbrecht (1684 – 1756).

The highly organised and productive garden is framed by a pair of fig trees planted in narrow raised beds, trained tightly against a wall and supported by a framework of wooden trellis.  Further back, cold frames with wooden lids are propped open and plants in terracotta pots are arranged on shelves and stands, adding height and interest to the garden.  A gardener appears to be pruning a tree planted in an avenue, and an ornate looking glasshouse is visible in the distance.

Rich in detail, the composite image is formed from a series of six engravings, each containing elements of buildings, plants, people and landscape features.  These were designed to be cut out, arranged in the correct sequence, and attached at intervals to a wooden frame.  When viewed together from the front, an illusion of perspective is created, forming a three dimensional miniature world into which an imaginative guest is invited to enter.

This diorama is one of dozens produced by artist and engraver Martin Engelbrecht’s studio in Augsburg, Germany during the mid 1700s.  According to the Houghton Library at Harvard University, Engelbrecht was the only publisher to be given royal permission to publish these miniature scenes.  His project was a success with public, enabling Engelbrecht ‘to employ several artists, including Jeremias Wachsmuht and Johann David Nessenthaler, who were mostly involved in developing the peepshow series’.

Despite their ephemeral nature, and great fragility, examples of Engelbrecht’s dioramas still survive in museum collections around the world.  Many of these depict grand houses, gardens and Biblical tableaux, but Engelbrecht’s studio also produced scenes more connected to ordinary life, such as trades.

The extensive diorama collection held at the Deventer Museums in The Netherlands include scenes from a bookbinder’s shop and a printer’s studio, as well as this working garden.  There are also scenes from a coal mine, a shipwreck and a field battle.  Engelbrecht’s dioramas are fore-runners of miniature paper theatres, which became hugely popular in the 19th century, both as toys and souvenirs of a trip to a performance.

© Deventer Museums

© Deventer Museums

There are several elaborate garden dioramas in the Deventer collection, full of interest for those curious about historic gardens as destinations for entertainment.  Featuring ornate statues, fountains, orange trees in containers and long avenues of clipped hedging with topiary, these formal gardens are populated with fashionably dressed visitors.  Engelbrecht’s artists always pay close attention to details of their clothes, and even their pet dogs.

Six perspective prints as diorama: Garden with statue
© Deventer Museums

© Deventer Museums

Four perspective prints for diorama – possibly views of Versailles?
© Deventer Museums

© Deventer Museums

Three perspective prints as diorama – by the fountains
© Deventer Museums

© Deventer Museums

Engelbrecht’s dioramas present a challenge for the production of images for online viewing.  Some institutions place all the layers together on top of each other – which is effective, but results in some details being obscured or appearing to be cut off.

Here, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has photographed each level of their Italianate Garden diorama separately, which shows clearly how the final composite image is built up and draws attention to features such as the parterre and canal (see below).

Paper Theater or Diorama of an Italianate Villa and Garden (ca. 1730 – 56) Studio of Martin Engelbrecht, Ausburg  Metropolitan Museum of Art

This garden diorama from the Smithsonian Libraries is assembled in a wooden frame, and the edges of its cut-out layers are clearly visible.  This enables the photographer to explore the texture of the paper, as well as to demonstrate the depth of field created in the diorama.  Some detail in the engravings at the sides and towards the back is lost, but the image somehow captures very successfully the heady atmosphere at this garden party.

Garden Scene with Dancers c. 1740 Smithsonian Libraries

All these garden dioramas possess an abundance of charm, but my favourite remains the behind the scenes glimpse of Engelbrecht’s gardeners, working together to make a beautiful garden.

Martin Engelbrecht (1684 – 1756) artist, engraver, publisher of prints

Further reading:

Deventer Museums’ Collection of Engelbrecht’s Dioramas here

Houghton Library blog re. Engelbrecht’s Miniature Theatres here

Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Italianate Garden here

Garden Scene with Dancers (Smithsonian Library here

Keika’s One Hundred Chrysanthemums

From One Hundred Chrysanthemums by Keika published in three volumes, Japan (1893). All images © The Trustees of the British Museum

With flowers in shades of gold, copper and red, echoing the tones of autumn foliage, chrysanthemums reach their peak in November.  As short day plants, chrysanthemums produce their spectacular blooms in response to decreasing day lengths and longer nights, providing an especially welcome sight at the end of the growing season.

The chrysanthemum has been celebrated in Japan for centuries, long associated with the imperial family whose symbol is a golden chrysanthemum flower.  From the 17th to 19th century, chrysanthemums were the focus of intensive development amongst Japanese horticulturalists and hundreds of new cultivars were created.

In her series of woodcuts entitled One Hundred Chrysanthemums by Keika (1893), the Japanese artist Keika Hasegawa captures the astonishing variety of their forms.  Published as a book in three volumes, and with an entire page dedicated to each chrysanthemum cultivar, Hasegawa’s powers of observation are matched by her extraordinary skills in depicting these flowers.

Many chrysanthemums show their strongest colour on the top side of their petals, contrasting with a paler tone on the underside.  The curving nature of the petal sometimes allows both colours to be visible at the same time, an effect Hasegawa captures perfectly.  She also observes the way the petals of some varieties curl inwards along their length to form tight quills, giving the flowers a spiky shape.  Other blooms reveals startling colour breaks, as if one half had been dipped in pigment.  The petals of another white chrysanthemum appear to be rolled up along their length.

One single yellow flower is shown supported by a paper collar, keeping the petals flat and preventing them from arching downwards, perhaps suggesting this bloom was being prepared for exhibition.  As well as the detail of the flowers, Hasegawa records the distinctive curved shape of their veined, dark green leaves, and their somewhat coarse texture.

In the latter half of the 19th century chrysanthemums with enormous blooms, as much as 20cm across were introduced in Japan.  In the second volume of her series, Hasegawa occasionally represents a flower horizontally across two facing pages, suggesting the scale of these super-sized specimens.

Today the chrysanthemum still takes centre stage in the autumn months in Japan, when Kikatenrankai, or specialist shows and exhibitions dedicated to these flowers take place.  As well as single specimens, some chrysanthemum plants are encouraged to branch and produce a mass of flowers supported by central wheels.  Others form cascades, as if growing over the edge of a cliff, and there are even bonsai chrysanthemums.  All these forms demonstrate the precision and control of the grower, a strong theme in traditional Japanese gardening.

Sadly, I’ve been able to discover very little about the life of the artist, Keika Hasegawa.  The British Museum (from whose online collection these images are taken) was kind enough to check Japanese online sources, but these yielded no details of Kasegawa’s dates, her training or information about her process.  The University of Otago in New Zealand which has a book of textile designs by Hasegawa in its collection records only that ‘the artist flourished c. 1893-1905’.

It’s my hope that in future more details about Keika Hasegawa’s career will come to light, providing some context for her extraordinary work.  Until then, I would encourage everyone to marvel at One Hundred Chrysanthemums by Keika – links to all three volumes below:

This chrysanthemum appears across two pages – from Vol 2

Further reading:

Vols 1 & 2 of One Hundred Chrysanthemums by Keika at the British Museum online collection here

Vols 2 & 3 of One Hundred Chrysanthemums by Keika at Smithsonian Libraries here

64 colourful printed textile patterns produced by the Japanese artist Keika Hasegawa, University of Otago here

Kikatenrankai – Chrysanthemum Exhibition or Festival taking place in Japan in October and November – an illustrated description here

Profile of the Chrysanthemum on Wikipedia here

Garden Inspiration at Restoration House

Front gate at Restoration House, Rochester

Back in September, I paid a visit to Restoration House, a remarkable house and garden located in Rochester, Kent.  Originally two buildings of medieval origin, these were combined in the late 16th or early 17th century to create a city mansion house.  Restoration House takes its name from a visit King Charles II made on the eve of his restoration to the throne in May 1660.  But this name also seems singularly appropriate to its current owners, Johnathan Wilmot and Robert Tucker, who’ve cared for the house since 1994 and restored it with sensitivity and meticulous attention to historical detail.

On the day we visited, we were greeted by an enthusiastic band of local volunteers who invigilate the rooms open to the public, and welcome guests.  Moving through the house, a combination of plain waxed floorboards, wood panelling and limewashed walls produces a softness in the light, and a sense of calm, forming a perfect setting for the owners’ extensive collections of elegant period furniture, paintings and sculpture.

(As this house is also a home, it’s not usually permitted to take photographs, but for anyone curious to learn more about the story of Restoration House, and see images of its interiors, there are links to the website and to an excellent feature at the Bible of British Taste below).

Outside, the gardens are a continuation of the owners’ skill in choosing and arranging beautiful plants, objects and materials to create a series of contrasting spaces. Working with the considerable challenges of the site, with frequent changes of level and tall walls that enclose and divide the garden, some areas are relaxed and intimate, inviting one or two people to linger and enjoy a view, while others like the impressive box parterre and the Renaissance garden have a more formal atmosphere.  Two gardeners maintain these gardens to an exceptionally high standard.

Front view, Restoration House, Rochester

Back view of Restoration House with lawn mown diagonally creating a diamond pattern

As well as historical planting, the garden full of brightly coloured salvias, enjoying the early autumn sunshine

The Renaissance garden which incorporates a section of Tudor wall

Passing through the garden, one of the delights is the tiny kitchen garden.  Bordered by an open structure made of wooden poles and trellis supporting espaliered apple trees, the square space is divided by narrow brick paths.  Asparagus is grown here, together with flowers for the house.  On one corner, an antique iron gate adds to the rustic feel.

The kitchen garden is enclosed with an open structure made of wooden poles and trellis work

Inside the kitchen garden where fruit, vegetables and flowers are grown

Handmade wooden trellis

Espaliered apple with wooden ladder and tools. The trug is one of the few plastic items we saw in the garden

A fine ironwork gate in the kitchen garden

Two charming greenhouses, both constructed using salvaged glass and frames, contain collections of pelargoniums in terracotta pots and tropical plants as well as various galvanised watering cans.

Greenhouse made out of various salvaged materials

Leaded windows in another greenhouse

A variety of materials are used for paving and pathways in the garden from stone flags, to brick and granite setts.  Some of the setts form mini stepping stones to prevent too much wear in areas of lawn which receive high volumes of traffic from visitors.

Herringbone brickwork pathway


Setts sunk into the lawn

Wooden structure supporting clematis and steps leading to another section of the garden

There’s an abundance of statuary in the garden, and one of my favourite pieces was this young man, placed amongst the cold frames and a collection of planted containers.  Elsewhere, a kneeling ram on an ornate stone plinth is placed against the dark green backdrop of some yew topiary, and makes a pleasing contrast to the functional plainness of a garden bench nearby.

Statue of a young man with cold frames and pot arrangement

Sculpture of a kneeling ram with garden seat

The garden is full of topiary, much of it carefully clipped into bottle shapes.  These strong forms are a theme in the garden and help to create a sense of unity between the various spaces.  Here, two matching trees frame the entrance to a lower part of the garden, their formal shapes contrasting with the spreading branches of an enormous quince tree.  Topiary seems to possess the ability to look at home in every garden, whatever its size.

Yew topiary with quince tree beyond

Twin containers framing a doorway to the house

Many of the plants in the garden like box, lavender, sage, mulberry, quince, medlar and apple trees would have been familiar in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  When we visited, lavender and sweet woodruff were being used as strewing herbs in the toilets.  This custom dates back to medieval times, where fragrant herbs were placed on floors so that people walking on them would release their sweet smelling fragrances.  Although the concept of strewing herbs was familiar to me, this was the first time I’d experienced the actual effect, which brought this element of social history vividly to life.

The garden also includes plants that were introduced to England later, such as dahlias and salvias, which have become popular in recent years, valued for their intense colours and long flowering season.  Inside, Restoration House is full of flowers cut from the garden.

A mulberry tree dominates this bed, close to the kitchen garden


Fruitful lemon tree in a terracotta container

Thanks to Johnathan Wilmot and Robert Tucker for sharing this special and atmospheric place.  On their website, there’s much more about the history of the building and the battle to acquire the land on which the Renaissance garden now stands.  Restoration House and Gardens are open on Thursdays and Fridays from June to September – see below for more details.

Further reading:

Restoration House website here

Views of the interiors of Restoration House from the Bible of British Taste here

Strewing herbs on Wikipedia here

At the Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute Flower Arranging Show

Images of women arranging flowers at the Caernarvonshire Federation of Women’s Institutes flower arranging competition 8th October 1959 Photographer: Geoff Charles All images © People’s Collection Wales

Whilst browsing The People’s Collection’s online archive recently, I came across the remarkable photographs of Geoff Charles.  Produced during Charles’s long career as a journalist in Wales, his images record the communities, cultural life and working lives of Welsh people across the country from the mid-1930s to the 1970s.

The agricultural show was a regular subject for Charles, as were smaller local produce and flower shows.  One of these was the Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute Flower Arranging Show which Charles photographed in October 1959 and 1960. In three particularly striking portraits the intense concentration of the competitors is palpable, as they each make finishing touches to their arrangements.

Most of the arrangements produced for the show are quite formal and stiff, unlike the more naturalistic styles fashionable today.  The seasonal flowers in the competitors’ vases looks as though they’ve come from their own gardens, with dahlias and chrysanthemums as popular choices.  One woman has used trailing hops in her design, to balance the height of the taller blooms, and perhaps showing the influence of the florist Constance Spry, who liked to use unusual plants in her work.  Charles records the long lengths of white paper covering the display tables, employed to form a neutral backdrop to each vase of flowers.

Visitors to the show are mature women, dressed in their best clothes and hats, as if for a church service.  A great observer of people, Charles captures expressions of surprise, and momentary glances between the women that reveal subtleties of their personalities, as well as the competitive spirit at the occasion.

Geoff Charles (1909 – 2002) was born in Brymbo near Wrexham in Wales, and trained as a journalist in London in the 1920s.  Charles bought his first camera whilst working for the Wrexham Star, and by the mid-1930s became manager of photographic section at Woodall’s Newspapers.  Influenced by Picture Post’s style of photo-journalism, he contributed stories to various newspaper titles in Wales for decades, including the Welsh language paper Y Cymro (The Welsh, or The Welshman).  His archive of 120,000 photographs is preserved at the National Library of Wales.

Charles documented people with the same steady gaze, whether they were attending local gatherings or events of national importance.  At a state occasion, for example, he would be more likely to photograph a guest like Prince Charles waiting for it to begin than to create a conventional royal portrait.

Charles seems to have attached great value to the roles played by women, recording their working lives in factories and laundries, as well as craft based industries like weaving and ceramics across Wales.  Charles was also a regular visitor to events organised by the Women’s Institute in Wales, and with his journalist’s eye for a story, was expert at capturing the character of their Christmas parties, cookery demonstrations and drama festivals.

Today Charles’s work has an elegiac quality, as so much of what he recorded has disappeared.  People, buildings, and whole industries have gone, and with them, the settled way of life for dozens of communities.  Charles understood the importance of preserving images from these times for future generations to appreciate, so it seems entirely fitting that over 1,500 of his extraordinary images are now made available to all online by The People’s Collection, a website which documents the cultural heritage of Wales.

Links below to Charles’s work – including more scenes from Women’s Institute gatherings.

Images of women arranging flowers at the Caernarvonshire Federation of Women’s Institutes flower arranging competition 8th October 1959

Images of women arranging flowers at the Caernarvonshire Federation of Women’s Institutes flower arranging competition 8th October 1959

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Selection of Geoff Charles’s photographs at the People’s Collection Wales here

Geoff Charles Biography – People’s Collection Wales here

Geoff Charles Wikipedia here

Picture Post (1938 – 1957) here

Reflections on The Cloister Garden at the Museum of the Order of St John

Swift sculpture by Mark Coreth placed in the 200 year old olive tree in the Cloister Garden, at the Museum of the Order of St John

This month I’m bidding farewell to the Cloister Garden at the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell which I’ve had responsibility for maintaining since 2019.  So, one day back in June, I visited the garden with my camera to reflect on the space and the important role it plays in this part of London, where accessible green space can be hard to find.

Entered through an archway on the east side of St John’s Square, the garden is sheltered by walls on all sides, including that of St John’s Priory Church.  These walls, together with two enormous plane trees in the churchyard, seem to absorb much of the thundering traffic noise from nearby Clerkenwell Road and establish the garden’s atmosphere of tranquility.

The Priory in Clerkenwell was set up in the 1140s as the English base for the Order of St John.  This medieval military Order, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, had its headquarters in Jerusalem, where members provided care for the sick and wounded.  Today the Order of St John is best known for the health organisations it continues to run, including the St John Ambulance.

The garden is a paved space and with its formal, symmetrical layout is somewhat reminiscent of a paradise garden, with a series of pathways and narrow beds creating four main areas surrounded by fragrant plants.  Developed centuries ago in Iran, this style of Islamic ‘fourfold’ garden, or chaharbagh, became popular in Asia and the Mediterranean.

Western travellers, such as the Knights Hospitaller would have encountered gardens in this style, and over time some elements found their way into European garden design.  Water was an essential feature of paradise gardens, and at one time there was a pool at the centre of the Cloister Garden, now replaced with a mature olive tree forming a dramatic central focus.  Visitors can still experience the sound of running water, however, from a small fountain located on the north wall of the garden.

Designed by Alison Wear in 2011, the planting uses medicinal herbs like rosemary, lavender, and wormwood, alluding to the medical traditions of the Order of St John, which cultivated these plants for their healing properties.  As well as these, Wear has included modern decorative perennial plants like Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Geranium ‘Brookside’, oriental poppies and crocosmia for their succession of attractive flowers.  The space also serves as a memorial garden for St John’s Ambulance members associated with the site, whose names are remembered on the walls of the cloister on the east side of the garden and by roses planted  in the adjacent raised beds.

Much of the planting is quite low, so that in places visitors can step over the beds conveniently, as well as using the pathways.  This aspect of Wear’s design encourages people to slow down, adding to the sense of calm in the space, and seating is provided for those who wish to stay a while.  Once seated in the garden, the low planting immediately feels taller, and more immersive, while the formal lines appear looser, especially when looking diagonally across the space.

Our increasingly hot summers in London have been harsh on some of the capital’s gardens, but the Cloister Garden, having a high proportion of plants that come from the Mediterranean region, tolerates the heat well.  Indeed, herbs like oregano, hyssop, myrtle and sage, as well as the twin bay trees seem to relish these conditions.  The 200 year olive tree, brought here from Jerusalem some years ago, also thrives.  While not designed specifically as a wildlife garden, flowers like lavender attract a range of bees and other insects, and birds are regular visitors, especially when the garden is empty of people.

During my maintenance visits, it’s been abundantly clear how much the garden is appreciated by visitors; whether they are local residents, tourists or those who work locally and come to enjoy the outdoor space at lunchtime.  Some people have told me that being in the space, even briefly, helps improve their sense of wellbeing.  Some like to spend ten minutes of quiet before a long day at the office, while others bring the office to the garden and have their work meetings here.  It’s interesting to see how visitors move the lightweight café tables and chairs around to suit the size of their group, or their preference for sun or shade.

One frequent visitor would still come in the early morning to read his book, even in the pouring rain, when he would take shelter underneath a huge golf umbrella.  Rachel Job from the Museum told me about a visitor from Puglia who was visibly moved by the health of the garden’s olive tree, as the olive groves in his part of Italy had been ravaged in recent years by Xyella, a bacterial infection.  Another local woman would regularly ask after the resident robin that liked to search for food scraps in the garden.

I hope next time you find yourself in Clerkenwell you’ll take a few minutes to visit the Cloister Garden for a moment’s respite from the clamour of London.  The Museum of the Order of St John is located at St John’s Gate and hosts exhibitions relating to the long and rich history of the Order.  The garden is generally open – closing occasionally for events and workshops – details of opening hours here and more links below:

The olive sits like a tree of life, in its central position in the garden

Peacock butterfly sunning itself on the wall of St John’s Priory church

Hypericum x hidcoteense ‘Hidcote’ often called St John’s wort

Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’ or the Apothecary’s rose.

Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’ or the Apothecary’s rose.

Rosa ‘The Generous Gardener’

Rosa ‘St John’ – grown here as a short climber this floribunda rose flowers continuously from May to December.

Flowers of Acanthus mollis and self seeded Digitalis purpurea form pleasing vertical accents. The pink rose is Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll’

Further reading:

The history of the Order of St John – Museum website here

The Order of St John Wikipedia page here

Penelope Hobhouse’s Gardening Through the Ages Simon & Schuster (1992)

Article by Andrew Kershman (showing how much the olive tree has grown since 2016) here

RHS on Xyella fastidiosa here