Other people’s houses (and gardens) have always excited our curiosity. Today’s books and magazines dedicated to the latest styles in domestic architecture, interior design and gardens give us ideas, inspiration, aspiration. As visitors they allow us into houses we will never live in, guests of owners we will never know. In these worlds everything is perfect; there is no dust, no unfinished decorating projects.

De Zegepraalende Vecht  (the triumphant Vecht) could be seen as an interesting precursor of the modern lifestyle publication. Published in Amsterdam in 1719 it records the most notable houses and gardens on the river Vecht, illustrated in meticulous detail by Daniel Stopendael.

The Vecht, a branch of the Rhine originating in Utrecht, was already home to medieval castles but in the 17th century became the place for the newly wealthy from Amsterdam to build lusthooven or recreational houses. Whilst not on the scale of a royal palace, these are grand houses, by most people’s standards, which would have been used by their owners in the summer months.

Daniel Stopendael (1672 – 1726) was an artist and engraver based in Amsterdam producing architectural drawings and maps.  His father Bastiaan followed the same profession.

In his book, we don’t see inside the buildings, but the exteriors and the layouts of the gardens give a fascinating insight into the styles of architecture and garden design that were fashionable in the Netherlands at this time.  Larger houses, such as Hoogevechts, command several pages depicting all the features of the garden, while smaller houses have just a single page.

The influence of French garden design is everywhere, in the formal avenues, parterres, the hedges, topiary and the symmetry. The captions at the foot of each illustration are in Dutch and French.  A commentary on Gunterstein (one of the smaller houses mentioned in the book) describes how the French born owner Magdelena Poulle would ‘use prints of the latest French gardens to create designs, garden furniture, statues and features’. It seems likely this book might have been used in the same way, by those looking for ideas for their gardens.

Alongside the gardens Stopendael supplies glimpses of ordinary life on this stretch of waterway; people fishing, travelling, visiting; sometimes gardeners can be seen at work.  Many of the gardens use water from the river which is diverted to form canals and feed elaborate fountains.

The symmetry of the double fronted houses is repeated in the design of the gardens, with their lines of trees, hedges, and spaced topiary. The planting is precise and controlled. The trees are spaced evenly and pruned so that their naturalistic shape is preserved, and their height is maintained in a close relationship with the house (at least, at this point in the garden’s development). The hedges and topiary are meticulously clipped into solid geometric shapes in contrast to the looser form of the trees.

Wooden trellis supporting a line of espaliered trees together with a gardener and wheelbarrow.

Climbing plants are supported by wooden trellis on the wall of the house and the roof of the smaller building.

Interesting wooden seats either side of the garden gates.

Do you think these animals were allowed off their rectangular island from time to time?

I’m intrigued by Groenevechts (pictured below) where the planting becomes an extension of the building. On either side of the house are green ‘walls’ with a parapet and openings suggesting windows and a door.  A man passes through one of the green doorways to the garden beyond.

This text can be found at where you can also enlarge the illustrations and inspect them more closely – link below:

De Zegepraalende Vecht

Many of these houses still survive and can be identified via


The ladies’ bee mentor

Have you noticed that employing a bee mentor is all the fashion right now amongst garden commentators like Monty Don and Alys Fowler?  It seems we are continually excited by the idea of keeping bees (especially if we live in urban areas) and each generation produces its new set of bee experts.

Samuel Bagster (1800 – 1835) was a printer and author, with a special interest in bees. His book The Management of Bees, with a description of the Ladies’ Saftey Hive (1834) describes the natural history of bees and discusses the current ideas of managing bees, with details of hive designs.

Bagster explains the disadvantages of the traditional straw hive, still used by cottagers. Although romantic, the thatched roof is impractical, soon rotting and letting in rain and pests; an upturned milk pan is seen as an improvement.  Better still is the bee house, a painted wooden structure a bit like a cupboard with shelves inside to house a number of straw hives. Bagster observes

Amateur holders of bees, who prefer “the way their fathers trod,” have improved on the out-door exposure to wet and insects by putting their hives into a bee-house, which in some gardens, is a very ornamental object. The purse generally regulates the beauty. These houses are built about eighteen inches deep from front to back, four feet wide and six feet high with three shelves; and are capable of containing nine good sized hives, three in a row. The front is a fixture, perforated with nine holes opposite the places where the nine hives stand on the shelves; and before each hole an alighting board.

straw hive with thatched roof

straw hive with improvised milk pan roof



the cottage bee house

Bagster discusses ‘storifying’ systems, where the hives are placed on top of each other to give colonies more space, Stephen White’s collateral bee boxes and Madame Vicat’s hive where four boxes are screwed together.  Chapters on swarming, fumigation and an evaluation of Thomas Nutt’s ventilating hive follow.

Bagster’s own invention, the ladies’ safety hive, was developed for his wife who was nervous of handling bees.  His wooden bee house, looking something like a doll’s house in cross section, incorporates multiple spaces for the bees, which they can expand into, and so prevent the loss of colonies by swarming.

His instructions for managing the bee house are detailed and particularly important points are written in italics or even capital letters: ‘Remember the instructions to capture all the queens; and one only is to be put into the hive before you put the bees into the centre.  I repeat, ONE ONLY.’  Got that, ladies?

The ladies’ safety hive

The ladies’ safety hive – interior

Bagster supplies detailed instructions for making the ladies’ safety hive, but it could also be bought ready made from a florist in Newgate Street, his company’s office in Bartholomew Close or, from his house in Shepherds Bush.  Bagster would also deliver the hive, complete with bees.

Biodiversity Heritage Library

Samuel Bagster the Younger

Alys Fowler discusses her bee mentor

Rabel’s Parterres de Broderie

Livre de differants desseings de parterres by Daniel Rabel was published in Paris, in 1630 and these plates show a series of designs for his elaborate parterres.

Daniel Rabel (1578 – 1637) was an artist whose work included portraiture, botanical illustration and set designs and costumes for ballet.  He also published several books and established a botanical garden in Blois in the Loire valley.

Rabel’s sophisticated designs are representations of intricate embroidery with plants used as coloured threads to create the overall appearance of a piece of richly decorated fabric.

The scrolling design of these parterres could be made out of low growing herbs; Rabel suggests rosemary, lavender, camomile and thyme.  Sand would have been used for the compartimens or spaces in between the planting. Planning and constructing one of these parterres would have been a major task, making them an option for the wealthy. The embroidery effect could best be appreciated from an elevated position, from the windows of the house (or palace).

The French broderie parterres were developed at the beginning of the 17th century by Claude Mollet. The style was brought to England by Henrietta Maria after her marriage to Charles 1 in 1625, when she employed Mollet to modernise the royal gardens.

Could Rabel’s designs be used as inspiration for a garden today?  Certainly they would be invaluable if you were recreating a parterre in a historic garden specific to 17th century France. But the formality and artificiality of the embroidery concept together with tight control of plants necessary to create such intricate patterns seems out of step with current taste which favours a naturalistic look and lower maintenance planting.

The charming, if romanticised, gardeners pictured at the front of the book have secured a good view of the parterre garden.  She seems to have been gathering fruit while he poses with a spade and other gardening equipment including a large scissors, small sickle, watering can, rake and a line.  He seems to be wearing loose cut culottes, a bit like plus fours.

The Making of the English Gardener

John Rea’s Jewel Gardens

J Rea 01

To understand how a gentleman’s garden might have looked in the mid-17th century, John Rea’s book is a good starting point.  The gardens described are intended for the gentry and possibly the upwardly mobile, (maybe someone of the means and career trajectory of Samuel Pepys). Rea gives instructions for the construction of a fashionable garden to complement a country house, with areas for fruit, vegetables and flowers, which can be scaled up or down depending on the size of the building.

Rea describes himself as a ‘florist’; not an arranger of cut flowers as we understand the term today, but more of a horticultural expert who grew plants for sale and knew how to plant up gardens.

As well areas for growing plants, Rea recommends two essential buildings; an octagonal summer house for entertaining, sheltering from the rain, or sorting through tulip bulbs and a separate store for tools.

The ‘Draughts for Gardens’ which follow are designs for a flower garden, and show geometric beds (the darker areas, which Rea calls ‘Frets’), with gravel pathways between them.  The beds would have been edged with painted wooden boards or with French box, which Rea points out would take about three years to reach maturity and would need to have their roots pruned from time to time, to stop them taking too much goodness from soil and the rest of the plants.

For those who already have an enclosed garden, Rea explains that these designs can be altered to fit the space available

‘And because divers have Gardens already enclosed, that the measure of the forementioned Fret will not fit, I have therefore designed Draughts of several sizes, that every one may take that which best agrees with his ground, and is most proper for his purpose;’

Do the patterns suggested for the flower gardens have a meaning?  According to Rea the arrangement of the flower beds are supposed to represent jewel boxes, with the flowers as the jewels. Reas describes the ‘draughts’ as fashioned ‘in the form of a Cabinet, with several boxes fit to receive, and securely to keep, Natures choicest jewels.’  

Rea’s planting suggestions for the ‘jewel box’ gardens appear throughout his text and include the flowering plants that were most prized at this time.  Rea encourages the garden owner to consider the balance of plants when planting the beds.

‘Now for planting the Beds in the Fret, you must consider every piece, and place the Roots so as those of a kind set in several Beds may answer one another; as in the corners of each Bed the best Crown-Imperials, Lilies, Martagons and such tall flowers; in the middles of the five Squares great Tufts of the best Pionies, and round about them several sorts of Cyclamen; the rest with Daffodils, Hyacinths and such like: the streight Beds are fit for the best Tulips, where account may be kept of them: Ranunculus and Anemonies also require particular Beds; the rest my be set all over with the more ordinary sorts of Tulips, Fritillaries, bulbed Iris and all other kinds of good Roots, in such sort you will find directed where they are described.’

Could these designs be used as inspiration for a modern looking garden in a historical setting? The designs have a scale and authenticity which would match a 17th century house, and there’s no reason why the planting couldn’t be updated, using the perennials and grasses that we like now.  Or perhaps elements could be used; the edging of one of the designs could be introduced somewhere in a modern garden making a link back to the jewel gardens of the past.

JR Parterre 01

JR Parterre 02

JR Parterre 03

JR Parterre 04

JR Parterre 05

JR Parterre 06

JR Parterre 07

JR Parterre 08

A link to Rea’s book at the Biodiversity Heritage Library:

Brian Stephens’ biographical essay on the life and work of John Rea:

The Fountains of Georg Andreas Böckler


Georg Andreas Böckler (1617 – 1687) was a German architect and engineer. He also wrote about architecture and related topics such as hydraulics. Published in 1664, Architectura curiosa nova features dozens of designs for fountains, showing how water could be manipulated by means of hydraulics to create an extraordinary range of different effects.

The first section of his book discusses the internal workings of fountains, while these illustrations from the second section represent a small sample of the 71 fountain designs shown. By comparison to some of the fountains that follow later in the book they are relatively straightforward in their construction, with jets of water emanating from one central column or pedestal.

The effect of these seeming endless variations of fountain designs is rather like a plant catalogue showing different hybrid flower shapes; like a succession of dahlias with the rolled, pointed petals of the cactus varieties, or the pompons with their round, ball shapes.

Some of the fountain pedestals resemble domestic items, like candelabra; in others the water performs a trick; holding up a ball, or tells a joke, where the fountain rains down onto a figure holding an umbrella.  The texture of the water ranges from single jets sprays, to continuous surfaces, created by rows of jets placed next to each other.  When the jets are directed upwards in a circle, the water forms a bowl shape, or if the jet circle is perpendicular to the ground, a curious circular shape is formed, like a flower or a Catherine wheel, (although I don’t believe the mechanism would have spun around).













These jets seem to resemble a wheat sheaf







Biodiversity Heritage Library

Georgian Gardens for Women

What kind of garden did women want in the late Georgian period?  Maria Elisabetha Jacson (1755 – 1829) thought she knew, and using a lifetime’s interest in botany, wrote this book about designing gardens. The Florist’s Manual, or, Hints for the Construction of a Gay Flower-Garden was published in 1816 and sets out the author’s philosophy of garden design with coloured illustrations showing model garden layouts and lists of plants that could be used in the borders.

The book, which ran to three editions, is aimed at women and Jacson encourages her readers to take an active role in directing how their garden should look, from the shapes of the borders to the choice of plants, rather than leaving it to their gardeners:

A Flower-Garden is now become a necessary appendage of every fashionable residence, and hence it is more frequently left to the direction of a gardener, than arranged by the guidance of genuine taste in the owner;

Two hundred years on, the book remains a valuable resource for information about the design of gardens in the late Georgian period, and which plants were available and fashionable. In terms of scale, these are not gardens for stately homes, but for the aspirational middle classes.

ME Jackson 02a

ME Jackson 07a

ME Jackson 08aa

ME Jackson 08ab

Jacson’s recipe for successful planting is a ‘mingled flower-garden’ in which plant species are combined for their beautiful and naturalistic effect and for ‘a succession of bloom’. This a break with the common practice she describes of grouping the same species of plants together in formal beds. Jacson explains the disadvantage of this form of planting, which is that once the flowers are over there is a gap.

.. in some gardens this appearance of a whole is entirely destroyed by the injudicious taste of setting apart distinct borders for pinks, hepaticas, primulas, or any other favourite kinds of flowers;

.. these distinct borders, although beautiful in themselves, break that whole which should always be presented to the eye by the mingled flower-garden; as single beds, containing one species only, form a blank before that species produces its flowers, and a mass of decaying leaves when the glow of their petals is no more.

The book contains extensive lists of colour co-ordinated groups of plants with times of flowering from February to August so that readers could apply her plant selections to their own gardens.  From her list of plants ‘red shade from pink to scarlet’ we might choose Hyacinths and primulas for February to May followed by Cistus, Gaura (red and white striped flowers) and Mondara didyma from May to October.  Interestingly Jacson prefers to group similar colours together rather than mixing contrasting colours together.

Jacson suggests using groups of the same plant so that the planting scheme doesn’t look fragmented, advice which feels startlingly contemporary;

.. without frequent repetition of the same plant, it will be in vain to attempt a brilliant flower-garden

Jacson admits that designing a garden or border is quite a difficult thing to do successfully, which, for anyone who has tried, is hard to disagree with?

It is more difficult than may at first appear, to plan, even upon a small scale, such a piece of ground; nor perhaps, would any but an experienced scientific eye be aware of the difficulties to be encountered in the disposal of a few shaped borders interspersed with turf. 

The Florist’s Manual is available online at the Wellcome Library and The Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Wellcome Library

Biodiversity Heritage Library


Of the Marigolds of Peru

Gerard Sunflower 01a

from ‘The Herball, or General Historie of Plantes’ by John Gerard (1597)

To discover the range of plants that were available and grown in late 16th century gardens The Herball, or General Historie of Plantes is an invaluable resource.  The book records and illustrates plants known to European cultivation including trees, shrubs, plants grown for the kitchen and garden, herbs, wildflowers and weeds. At the same time the author John Gerard provides insights into contemporary domestic culture, such as the use of plants for medicine, decorating houses and even feeding caged birds, while his travels around London and beyond reveal the places where wild plants can be found.

To give a flavour of the book, here follows a selection of plants commonly known at that time as marigolds. Gerard makes this observation about sunflowers, then known as the Marigolde of Peru, expressing the wonder at their size that we still share today

The Indian Sunne or the golden flower of Peru, is a plant of such stature and tallnesse, that in one sommer being sowen of a seede in April, it hath risen up to the height of fourteene foote in my garden, where one flower was in waight three pounde and two ounces, and crosse overthwarte the flower by measure sixteene inches broade.

Gerard records three other plants that still bear the common name of marigolds. Calendula or the pot marigold appears illustrated in several double forms as well as a single and Gerard observes that, ‘The Marigolds with double flowers especially, are set and sowen in gardens’.  He also says that the marigold is called Calendula because of its long flowering season; ‘it is to be seene to flower in the Calends of almost everie moenth.’

Gerard Marigold 01a

Gerard Marigold 02a

Gerard describes the African marigold as having ‘verie faire & beautifull double yellow flowers, greater and more double than the greatest Damaske Rose, of a strong smell, but not unpleasant’.

Gerard African Marigold 01a

Both the African and French marigolds described by Gerard are actually from the genus tagetes which originates mostly from North and South America.  The plants shown in these woodcuts are not dissimilar from the tagetes hybrids available today, mostly sold as summer bedding.  The woodcut showing the great single French marigold reminds me of Tagetes patula with single flowers of burnt orange which can grow up to 1m high. They look spectacular in the late summer borders at Great Dixter.

Gerard French Marigold 01a

Of both African and French marigolds Gerard says ‘They are cherished and sowen in gardens every yeere’. Today marigolds (and sunflowers) of all types look great in the kitchen garden or allotment – there is something about the yellow and orange flowers that blend especially well with brassicas.  As well as attracting pollinators it is thought that tagetes protects crops against pests such as whitefly.

Biodiversity Heritage Library