Author Archives: plantingdiaries

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

Cecil Beaton at Waterperry House

‘Pruning pear cordons in the walled garden. Angled method of training ensures maximum amount of sunlight on each fruit tree.’ Women’s Horticultural College at Waterperry House in Oxfordshire, 1943  All photographs by Cecil Beaton from the Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection at the Imperial War Museum, London. Copyright: © IWM DB252.

Beneath a bright sky, scattered with light cloud, groups of young women dressed in a practical uniform of dungarees and short sleeved shirts are hard at work in the summer sunshine.  Captured by photographer Cecil Beaton, these scenes of wartime England in the early 1940s show horticultural students from the Women’s Horticultural College, based at Waterperry House in rural Oxfordshire, cultivating vital food crops for the war effort.

Engaged in an array of tasks, women are shown driving tractors, and operating other horticultural machinery such as the Plant Junior Hoe, as well as planting, pruning and harvesting by hand.  The gardens are recorded at a busy moment in the growing season, probably in June or July, with crops of lettuce and ripe strawberries ready for market, alongside onions and tomato plants still growing on.  New seed drills are in the process of being marked out with twine in the freshly turned soil, in preparation for successional sowings.

Better known for his stylish studio portraits of celebrities and royalty, Cecil Beaton produced these images of Waterperry for the Ministry of Information between 1940 and 1944.  He is thought to have made two visits to the site, one of which was in the summer of 1943.

In his role as war photographer, Cecil Beaton (1904 – 1980) produced over 7,000 images recording the war in the Middle East and East Asia, as well as the effects of the blitz in the UK and the domestic war effort.  These photographs were the subject of three books published during the war years and the images were transferred to the Imperial War Museum’s collection in 1948.  As well as people, Beaton had a lasting interest in flowers and gardens, including his own at Reddish House in Wiltshire, which featured regularly in his work.

Beaton depicts the young Waterperry horticulturalists bent double thinning rows of vegetables, leaning across cold frames to tend courgette plants inside, or heaving crates of produce into the back of a van, bound for the college shop in Oxford market.  As Beaton records the physical demands of gardening, his interest in performance and drama is also apparent, his choice of poses giving the women an emblematic appearance, like heroic figures in a patriotic wartime poster.

The captions accompanying Beaton’s photographs are written in the same style as a wartime news reel commentary, with the brisk delivery and clipped pronunciation typical of the era.  If some of the assumptions about women’s roles and capabilities seem dated today, so do the horticultural methods – it’s hard to imagine crop spraying now without any face protection for the gardeners.  There is hardly any plastic in evidence, however, with tomatoes tied to their supports with raffia and vegetable crates made out of wood.

The Women’s Horticultural College was founded by Beatrix Havergal (1901 – 1980) in 1927 at Pusey House, Oxfordshire.  The college moved to Waterperry in 1932, acquiring the site from Magdelen College, Oxford in 1948.  Havergal trained in horticulture at the Thatcham Fruit and Flower Farm near Newbury before joining Downe House boarding school as head gardener in the early 1920s.  It was here that she met her life-long partner Avice Sanders, the school’s housekeeper.   Havergal’s two year courses for women covered both theory and practice in horticulture and secured a high reputation for standards.  In failing health in her later years, Havergal eventually sold the site to the School of Philosophy and Economic Science in 1971, who remain the owners.

The formidable looking Beatrix Havergal appears in two of Beaton’s photographs; a portrait shows her in a glasshouse thinning bunches of grapes with a scissors and in another she is with students pruning pear cordons in the walled garden.  Head of Fruit Growing, Jo Cockin is shown in another photograph instructing students how to spray trees with noxious sounding Nico dust.

Alpine specialist and photographer Valerie Finnis was, of course, a student and later a tutor at Waterperry, joining the college in 1942.  Looking again at the composition of Valerie’s photographs from those early years of her life at Waterperry, it’s likely that Beaton’s wartime images were a significant influence in her portrait work.  Garden People (2007), the book about Valerie’s life, contains a striking image of two students balanced on stepladders in the walled garden tying in the shoots of a fan-trained peach tree.  Intent on their work and with their backs to the camera, this rather unusual pose, together with the stylised symmetry of the photograph is highly reminiscent of Beaton’s approach.

Waterperry is currently in the process of digitising their archive, which includes glass negatives of some of Beaton’s photographs taken in their gardens for the Ministry of Information.  As this work progresses, it’s hoped eventually to be able to attach names to more of the faces in these evocative images, and gain further insights into the lives of those who participated in Beatrix Havergal’s remarkable Horticultural College.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll agree Cecil Beaton has captured something uplifting in the achievement of these women working together as a team to produce much needed food for the nation.  Links to the photographs and other sources below:

‘The exterior of Waterperry House. A horticultural school for women now training students in all branches of agriculture and horticulture with special regard to producing disease free crops.’ © IWM DB243

‘Working on the beds which are planned for space saving. Lettuces are planted between tomatoes.’ © IWM DB246

‘Watering time in the frames for the cucumbers and marrows.’ © IWM DB247

‘Expert knowledge of all glass house plants is combined with practical experience of planting and growing.’ © IWM DB248

‘A girl is tying up tomatoes out-of-doors.’ © IWM DB250

‘Beatrix Havergal, Principal of Waterperry, trained horticulture expert, now trains girls to become efficient gardeners and students of both the practical and theoretical side of horticulture. Here she is tending to the grape vines.’ © IWM DB251

‘The tractors and machines used for haymaking in the fields are all worked by the students.’ © IWM DB253

‘Picking tomatoes for market day.’ © IWM DB254

‘Washing lettuces and vegetables before packing them up for the weekly market day in Oxford where they are sold at the school’s own shop in the market.’ © IWM DB255

‘Tomato plants ready for the van to go to Oxford market.’ © IWM DB256

‘Packing the van with vegetables for market. All fruit and vegetables grown for study purposes are sold in the market.’ © IWM DB257

‘The Plant Junior Hoe which saves time and labour and hoes fields of carrots in record time. Easily handled by women.’ © IWM DB258

‘Hard work but fun, digging a trough for seed sowing in the experimental vegetable growing fields.’ © IWM DB259

‘Two girls sowing seeds in a field.’ © IWM DB260

‘Disease free fruit is grown in connection with the research station at East Malling, Kent. Here a student is potting strawberry runners. All the plants are grown in groups widely separated from one another so that should any blight occur it does not spread and the whole group is destroyed.’ © IWM DB261

‘Under the strawberry nets. Pounds are sent to market in Oxford and used for jam making.’ © IWM DB262

‘A young girl carrying onion plants.’ © IWM DB263

‘Thinning onions and assuring a good crop and no more onion shortages for the housewives of Britain.’ © IWM DB264

‘It takes two to spray a fruit tree. One girl pumps at the barrel while the other holds the spray to reach the highest boughs. Spraying fruit trees is one of the most important steps in producing high grade disease free fruit.’ © IWM DB265

‘Dust-blower spraying fruit trees to protect them against insects and pests. Nico dust is one of the modern discoveries of pest control. Miss Cockin Head of the Fruit Growing Staff shows students the correct way to spray trees in the apple orchard.’ © IWM DB265

‘In the tomato houses trimming and training plants takes neat fingers, work for which women are especially suited.’ © IWM DB249

‘Food production demands full time work but the students work on the herbaceous border in their off hours. Learning about plants and flowers and preserving one of the most beautiful borders in Oxfordshire.’

Further reading:

Cecil Beaton’s WW2 photographs for the Ministry of Information at the Imperial War Museum here

Waterperry Gardens here

Beatrix Havergal on Wikipedia here

An English Picnic

Picnic at Longleate from Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816)

Who doesn’t love a summer picnic?  Here, in London, as soon as the sun begins to shine, it seems that every public green space, regardless of size, is pressed into service as a picnicking venue. Outdoor dining, in various forms, grew in popularity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, alongside the fashion for day excursions to picturesque spots, landscape gardens and historic sites.

The picnic, or pique-nique has its origins in 18th century France, describing an indoor, male-only gathering, where invited guests contributed food and drink.  As French nationals fled revolutionary France for England, picnics, in their indoor format, and often including an amateur theatrical performance, started to become popular in London.

Another French term for a shared meal, which took place outdoors in a rural setting, was Le Repas Champêtre.  This gathering was open to women and children, as well as men.  In Le Repas Champêtre / Costumes de Lucerne (1820s), by the Swiss artist, Gabriel Lory le fils, a group of agricultural workers in traditional dress share a meal under a tree on the edge of a hayfield, surrounded by their rakes.  It’s likely the women are also working, perhaps taking it in turns to look after a baby and toddler under the shade of a large tree.

Le Repas Champetre / Costumes de Lucerne 1820s after Gabriel Lory le fils © The Trustees of the British Museum

It was this atmosphere of idealised rural simplicity that wealthier classes wished to re-create, although their version of Le Repas Champêtre was activity of leisure, rather than a daily necessity.  An English print entitled The Anglers Repast (1789), shows a well-dressed group setting up their outdoor meal helped by a black servant, who is unloading their boat and passing a bottle of wine to one of the guests.  The use of the word ‘repast’ suggests a modest meal appropriate for a working fisherman, but the presence of a servant, the group’s clothes and the household chairs transported for the comfort of the female guests all indicate this fishing excursion is entirely for pleasure.

The Anglers Repast 1789 William Ward after George Morland © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Spinnie 1810 – 1839 circa William Harvey © The Trustees of the British Museum

From the early 19th century the term picnic started to be used more broadly in England to include outdoor gatherings where food was consumed.  The historian Alexander Lee records several examples of picnics in books for children, the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth and most famously in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) which describes the fractious picnic outing to Box Hill, Surrey.

Detail of Picnic at Longleate from Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816)

An impressive double page illustration from Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816) provides a glimpse of a picnic excursion to Prospect Hill, at the Longleat Estate in Wiltshire. Two women are seated on the ground on what looks to be a white tablecloth, which one of the servants is arranging for them, while their two male companions survey the scene.  The second servant is unpacking a basket containing wine and other paraphernalia for their enjoyment including a parasol.

Repton is clearly approving of excursions like these, applauding the Marquis of Bath for his generosity in welcoming visitors to his estate:

‘This magnificent Park, so far from being kept locked up to exclude mankind from partaking of its scenery, is always open, and parties are permitted to bring their refreshments; which circumstance tends to enliven the scene, to extend a more general knowledge of its beauties to strangers, and to mark the liberality of its Noble Proprietor, in thus deigning to participate with others the good he enjoys.’

The popularity of country seats with their grand gardens as picnicking spots is revealed in prints showing gatherings at Stourhead, also in Wiltshire, Forde Abbey in Dorset and at Leeds Castle in Kent.  Sheltered by a bank, shaded by a tree, or close to open water, the participants look relaxed in their idyllic surroundings.

Ford Abbey, Dorsetshire. 19th century, anon © The Trustees of the British Museum

Leeds Castle, Kent 1800 James Storer after John Nixon © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gardens at Stourhead, Co. Wilts George Cooke, after John ‘Warwick’ Smith © The Trustees of the British Museum

Richmond 1819 James Charles Allen after Ramsey Richard Reinagle © The Trustees of the British Museum

An English Scene 1830 – 1850 circa
Alfred Ashley © The Trustees of the British Museum

Images of picnics influenced by The Romantic Movement have their own particular character.  Their focus on wild places, and the appreciation of nature is apparent, showing mixed groups of men and women enjoying the mountains of the Lake District and the coast of Cornwall.  These participants seem more self–reliant, transporting their own refreshments and equipment, without the help of servants, to a viewpoint from which to appreciate the spectacular scenery.

In Derwent Water, Cumberland (1849) by George Baxter (1804 – 1867) it’s not difficult to imagine William and Dorothy Wordsworth at a gathering like this with their circle of literary friends  – which was doubtless what Baxter had in mind when he produced this souvenir of Cumberland, a destination popularised by Wordsworth’s poetry and cultural commentaries.  The group’s lively conversation is significant, hinting at the importance to the Romantic Movement of group excursions like these as an opportunity to exchange ideas, as well as to appreciate the views.

Baxter was a pioneer of colour printing, and his system involved a key plate, over which a sequence of separate colours were added in a specific order.  Although his patented process was successful and popular, his business was never profitable.  This print also appeared as an illustration in the books Loitering among the Lakes and the Scripture Pocket Book.  (As part of researching this subject, I’ve realised we have Baxter’s charming print, bought at auction in Cumbria as part of a larger lot, and presently residing in our spare room – now with greater honour, knowing the British Museum has one in their collection.)

Derwent Water, Cumberland
Print by George Baxter using his patent oil printing process (1849) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Windermere lake, looking down William Le Petit after George Pickering © The Trustees of the British Museum

Cornwall 1836 – 1864 circa Ebenezer Challis after Thomas Challom © The Trustees of the British Museum

Whatever kind of picnic you enjoy, I hope these images will tempt you on your own excursion this summer.  While fashions come and go, the appeal of the picnic is unchanging.

Most of these prints are from the British Museum’s online collection – links below:

The British Museum Collection online here

Alexander Lee’s History of the Picnic in History Today here

Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening here

George Baxter, engraver and printer, Wikipedia here

Julien Gérardin’s Spring Blossom

Autochromes by Julien Gérardin from the collection of the École Supérieure d’art et de design de Nancy (ÉNSAD)

Now, in April, the overwhelming wonder of cherry blossom heralds the season of spring.  Over one hundred years ago, Julien Géradin documented the spectacular beauty of cherry orchards in flower in a series of autochromes taken at the gardens at Jarville, near Nancy, eastern France, and in the surrounding countryside.

Enormous, established trees tower above the women posed next to them, speaking of a time before the mass industrialisation of agriculture, and before smaller, more compact trees were introduced for ease of pruning and harvesting.  Between the widely spaced trees, the grass is unmown and filled with wild flowers.

It’s all too easy to over expose images of white flowers in bright light, and Gérardin avoids this, both by choosing slightly overcast conditions, and by making use of the shade cast by the canopy of the trees.  The clusters of white flowers, almost luminous in places, fade and darken towards the edge of the image, seeming to melt into the thick, black border of the photograph.

Photographs of women posed in outdoor locations, typically with parasols, or coloured shawls, was a convention started by the Lumière brothers, inventors of the autochrome, as a device to demonstrate, and market, their colour photographic process.  Gérardin continues this convention in his work, and the shawls worn by his models in peach, apricot and terracotta shades provide a point of focus amongst the cool textures and tones of the blossom and meadow.

Géradin’s use of colour is always considered, and occasionally he rejects coloured props altogether.  In one image, a simple white blouse worn by a young woman seems to amplify both the clouds of pale blossom above her head, and the fallen petals beneath her feet; while the inky black of her coat and long skirt echoes the dark trunks of the trees.  Occasionally, however, the formality of the women’s clothes, especially the elaborate hats worn by some of his models, creates a curious tension with the naturalistic, rural setting.

Géradin frequently included local agricultural workers in his photographs, sometimes posed on their own, or in groups with baskets, rakes and other gardening paraphernalia.  Instead of shawls, they wear coloured aprons.  The young woman in a light blue blouse who features in a number of these images was a servant in the household at Jarville.

The flowering trees hardly ever appear in their entirety in Géradin’s photographs.  By presenting them cropped in this way, he suggests an even greater abundance of blossom beyond the confines of the frame, and creates a sense that the memory of this spectacle, whilst powerful, is always fragmentary.

Julien Gérardin (1860 – 1924) worked as a notary in the French town of Nancy, where he also lived.  As an amateur photographer, and member of the prestigious Société Lorraine de Photographie, he produced hundreds of autochromes in the early years of the 20th century which are now part of the collection of the École Supérieure d’art et de design de Nancy (ÉNSAD) and include many images of plants, parks and gardens.  With great generosity, ÉNSAD has digitised all Géradin’s work, which is available on their website for all to enjoy – links as usual below.

Femme Dans La Campagne

Femme Dans La Campagne

Femme Dans La Campagne (Houdemont)

Femme Dans La Campagne (Houdemont)

Dans La Campagne

Femme au jardin en fleurs

Femme au jardin en fleurs

Femme au jardin

Femme en costume japonaise dans le jardin (Jarville)

Femme en costume japonaise dans le jardin (Jarville)

Femmes sous un arbre en fleurs

Trois paysannes ou servantes à la brouette

Servante ou paysanne au jardin

Servante ou paysanne au jardin

Servante ou paysanne au jardin

Servante ou paysanne au jardin

Further reading:

Autochromes at ÉNSAD here

Julien Gérardin’s Wikipedia entry here

Science and Media Museum’s History of the Autochrome here

The Sick Rose: A Botanical Exploration

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

There’s something sinister about the tangled, prickly stems framing William Blake’s illustration for his song, The Sick Rose.  The large, crimson flowered rose is no longer upright; it has collapsed, its beautiful head now lying on the ground, alerting us that all is not well in the garden.

At the top of the image, where we might expect a healthy rose to appear, is the arched, segmented body of a caterpillar.  Its shape seems to mimic the pattern of the prickly rose stem just behind it; perhaps a natural camouflage device offering some protection from predatory birds, or a gardener seeking to remove it before more damage is done.

Sometimes called the ‘worm i’ the bud’, a moth larvae was once well known for attacking rose buds and hollowing them out from the inside, spoiling the flowers.  The florist, Thomas Hogg, writing in 1822 observes that rose buds, ‘are very often destroyed in the spring by a small dark red grub, which feeds upon them, folds itself up in the leaves, and then changes into a moth chrysalis;’.  John Fraser, who managed a plant nursery in Lea Bridge Road, East London in the mid-19th century, refers to a caterpillar which attacks the rose shoots as soon as they begins to grow and suggests picking the pests off by hand.

It’s unclear exactly when this troublesome caterpillar disappeared from the English garden, and unlikely that it was mourned by gardeners – but its loss is an indicator of the gradual decline in biodiversity.  It would also explain why we no longer know much about this moth, which is not mentioned in today’s gardening literature.

Used as a metaphor for sexual violence in The Sick Rose, the relationship between the rose and the caterpillar is echoed in popular songs from the late eighteenth century.  Published by Joseph Ritson, A Select Collection of English Songs (1783) contains songs where women are symbolised by the rose, and where the interaction between a rose and an insect is sexualised.

In one of these songs, adapted from a Spanish madrigal by Mr Garrick, a bee is attracted away from a damask rose by the sweetness of a young woman named Louisa, and leaves his sting in her lip.  This verse from another song, by Sir William Yonge explores a similar theme:

‘With wanton flight the curious bee
From flow’r to flow’r still wanders free;
And where each blossom blows,
Extracts the juice of all he meets,
But, for his quintessence of sweets

He ravishes the rose.’

By replacing the bee with a caterpillar, in The Sick Rose, a creature people were far less well disposed towards, the attack on the rose seems more shocking.  Instead of flying by day, like the bee, the moth flies unseen by night, suggesting danger. As the tiny eggs laid on the rose bud hatch, they will eventually cause its destruction.

Joseph Ritson (1752 – 1803) was a significant figure in the life of William Blake.  A publisher who employed Blake as a commercial artist, Ritson produced compilations of English and Scottish songs, poetry, literature, fairy tales and nursery rhymes; all subjects that interested and inspired Blake.

A Select Collection of English Songs appeared in three volumes; the first is a compilation of love songs, the second a collection of drinking songs and other miscellaneous songs and ballads, while the third contains musical notation for the songs.  Blake provided several engravings for this book, taken from a series of paintings by James Stodhart.

In the light of Blake’s involvement with Ritson’s song collection, it seems evident that Blake has drawn inspiration from the songs it contains.  Throughout his Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake uses the conventional forms of these popular lyrics, but adjusts the content, reflecting his own unconventional viewpoint.

A Select Collection of English Songs Vol 1
Engraving by William Blake after Stothard

A Select Collection of English Songs Vol 1
Engraving by William Blake after Stothard

A Select Collection of English Songs Vol 1
Disdain returned

A Select Collection of English Songs Vol 2
(engraving – Heath)

Blake’s image of The Sick Rose is highly stylised, and not really possible to identify as a particular species or variety, but we know that at the end of the 18th century, the range of roses grown in England was a fraction of those available today.  In Roses, or, A monograph of the genus Rosa (1805), the author Henry Charles Andrews estimates ‘within a hundred’ varieties were cultivated.   In his book, sixty are illustrated, observed in his friends’ gardens as well as at leading nurseries in Chelsea, and at Loddiges in Hackney.   I’ve included some of the roses from Andrews’ monograph that have thorny stems and red flowers, including the moss rose, which was hugely popular in Georgian gardens.

Moss Rose from Roses, or, A Monograph of the Genus Rosa

Province Rose

Double Sweet Brier or Eglantine Rose

Rosa Gallica, officinal or French Red Rose

Rosa ferox
Fierce or Hedge-hog Rose

It’s now more than two centuries since William Blake published his Songs of Innocence and Experience, and over time, some of the cultural connections they contain, that would have been clear to his contemporaries, have become eroded.  All the texts discussed here, which shed light on these connections, enrich our understanding of Blake’s songs in some way, supplying context and illuminating their meaning.  Thanks as ever to libraries and archives that continue to digitise their collections and make them available.

Further reading:

Songs of Innocence published 1789 and together with Song of Experience 1794
The British Library’s commentary here

Joseph Ritson on Wikipedia here

A Select Collection of English Songs Vol 1 here

Another interesting book about English Songs by John Aikin and Mrs Barbauld:
Essays on Song Writing: with a collection of such English songs as are most eminent for poetical merit (1772) here

Roses, or, A Monograph of the Genus Rosa here