Category Archives: Georgian Gardens

William Cowper’s Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rustic Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weston Lodge
The Residence of the late William Cowper Esq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Cowper, Illustrated by a series of views

The Task by William Cowper

William Cowper (The Poetry Foundation)

Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney

James Storer, engraver

 

More Children and Gardens

Dame Truelove’s Tales by Elizabeth Semple (1817)

My previous post considered gardens as described and illustrated in children’s literature from the early 19th century.  I found so many examples, I’ve decided to continue the theme, this time focusing on three books where children are depicted as active gardeners, encouraged by their parents and sometimes by the family’s gardener.

These ‘realistic’ stories with characters and events drawn from daily life are interwoven with messages concerning conduct of life.  This development of domestic realism follows a similar pattern to that in adult fiction in the early nineteenth century, with the novels of Jane Austen being the most obvious example.  In all these accounts, acquiring an understanding of gardening and the cultivation of plants is valued as a positive and productive way for children to spend their time, and children are often given a section of ground to cultivate for themselves as a reward for good behaviour.

Caroline, in Dame Truelove’s Tales is the youngest of the child gardeners.  Pictured above with a little garden rake and a watering can, she asks her father for a garden of her own.  Caroline and her three siblings share an area of ground where they practice gardening, but she has become frustrated with this arrangement, as her brothers and sisters show no aptitude for the activity and, worse, they are causing damage to her own efforts:

Dame Truelove’s Tales by Elizabeth Semple (1817)

Caroline’s wish is granted and the next day she finds an area has been planted with shrubs and flowers by Nicholas, the family’s gardener.  Caroline will weed and water the garden and Nicholas will help her with tasks she is not yet strong enough to do herself.

In The Gardeners from The Keepsake; or, Poems and Pictures for Childhood and Youth, four children are pictured carrying tools in readiness to start their work in the garden.

To the garden we will go,
Take the rake, the spade, the hoe,
Dig the border nice and clean,
And rake till not a weed be seen.

Then our radish-seed we’ll sow,
And mignionette, a long, long row,
And ev’ry flowret of the year,
Shall have a place of shelter here.

The poem goes on to describe the children growing flowers to decorate a maypole for the May Day celebration.

The Keepsake; or, Poems and Pictures for Childhood and Youth (1818)

Also from The Keepsake, is a series of poems about the four seasons.  In Summer children are pictured helping to spread freshly mown grass to dry in a hay meadow, and in Autumn they harvest hazel nuts from the woods.  The poems with their description of the weather, plants and the seasonal activities that are going on in the surrounding countryside convey a connection to the landscape and nature which seems sadly remote from what many of us experience today.

The Keepsake; or, Poems and Pictures for Childhood and Youth (1818)

Long and thick the grass is grown,
Ready for the mower’s care,
When his scythe has laid it low,
To the hay-field we’ll repair.

Each shall have a fork and rake,
To spread it widely to the sun:
Many hands together join’d,
Make the labour quickly done.

The Keepsake; or, Poems and Pictures for Childhood and Youth (1818)

When Maria’s task is done,
We will to the nut-wood go;
Each a bag and hooked stick,
Down to pull the cluster’d bough.

Oh! How tempting ripe they hang:
Softly, softly pull them down,
Lest the bright, brown nuts should fall,
And leave the empty husk alone.

Bags and pockets all are full,
And evening says we must not stay;
With heavy loads we’ll hasten home,
And come again another day.   

The Juvenile Gardener. Written by a Lady, for the use of her own children with a view of giving them and early taste for the Pleasures of a Garden, and the Study of Botany (1824)

As a shallow kind of person, I was initially rather disappointed with The Juvenile Gardener as it contains only one black and white illustration (in contrast to other books from this period, with their numerous colour plates).  Also, the children Frank and Agnes Vernon, and the narrator herself, are depicted as such paragons they are not wholly believable.  However, for anyone interested in the history of English gardens, these are evocatively described by the knowledgeable author.

Two gardens feature in the story, the first located in the north of England where the family live, and the second is Seaview in Hampshire, which belongs to an uncle.  Here is a description of the flower garden at Seaview as it appears in late summer:

The smooth lawn, the numerous flower-beds, of different forms; the stages of hardy green-house plants, brought here for the summer; the trellis covered with roses and carnations; – all combined to form a scene of great beauty.  ..But what pleased them most was a walk from the flower-garden to a summer-house, on each side of which was a hedge of dahlias, of every colour and shade in full bloom.

As Frank learns to appreciate gardens by means of practical experience in his own section of the family garden, Mrs Vernon teaches both children about botany and wild flowers.  She mentions William Curtis’s Flora Londinensis as the best book to consult on the subject and recommends Sowerby’s British Botany and Curtis’s Botanical Magazine for images of exotic plant introductions.

The gardeners employed by the families are both characters in this narrative.  The Vernon’s gardener William has the task of planting a garden for their son Frank in the spring, and chooses annual flowers and vegetables that will produce a quick and satisfying result for a young child. He also teaches Frank about weeds, how to take cuttings of herbs and to recognise the seeds of vegetables and flowers.

Maclaren is the gardener at Seaview, in Hampshire, who is pictured in the book’s one engraving (above) feeding goldfish with Mrs Vernon and her children.  We learn that he was so upset by a former employer’s ten children wreaking havoc in the garden, that he resigned his post – and he is suspicious of Frank and Agnes until he realises they can be relied on to behave themselves outdoors.

But the most remarkable garden they visit (in spite of being the least grand) comes at the end of their visit to Hampshire when the children visit a ship of war.  Unlikely as it seems, the midshipmen have planted a garden on board the ship:

Frank smiled when they took him to a gallery outside the cabin-windows, to see their garden, which consisted of some large boxes filled with earth, in which grew some lettuces, radishes, and cabbages, which were not in the most flourishing state; but Frank was convinced, that on a long voyage, even these vegetables would afford a treat to those who could not procure better.

If ever there was a garden asking for a picture, it must be this one?

Links: all texts available via archive.org

Dame Truelove’s Tales

The Keepsake

The Juvenile Gardener

Children and Gardens

Shepherd and his flock pass by a cottage garden from Little Mary; or, the Picture-book by Sabina Cecil 1823 (printed and sold by John Marshall, 140 Fleet Street, London (NB. Text on frontispiece actually notes date of publication as 1800.)

Gardens belonging to the general public are rarely as well documented as the grander gardens of the wealthy.  So it was a happy surprise to find how frequently gardens of middle class (and some working people) are described and pictured in a sample of children’s literature from the early 19th century.

While the gardens mentioned in these stories might not always represent actual places, the images and descriptions provide vivid glimpses of how gardens looked and were used by their owners and visitors.  We also sense some tension in the relationship between children and gardens.  Although gardens are viewed as positive places for children to play and learn about plants, they are also places of potential danger.  A genre of books teaching moral conduct show the pitfalls that await reckless children out of doors, such falling out of trees, drowning in open water or being attacked by bees.

The books I’ve consulted, many written by women, are from the Internet Archive’s Children’s Library, made available by various US universities (see links at the end of this post).

Little Mary; or, the Picture-book by Sabina Cecil (1823) is a picture book designed for young children, using hand coloured illustrations and bold text suitable for children learning to read.  A series of household objects and plants are discussed, including a crocus and a moss rose.  The characteristic mossy growths on the sepals of the moss rose are clearly visible in the illustration of this fashionable plant.  Mary’s visit to Tatton Park where she sees deer for the first time is also recorded.

From Little Mary; or, the Picture-book by Sabina Cecil 1823

From Little Mary; or, the Picture-book by Sabina Cecil 1823

From Little Mary; or, the Picture-book by Sabina Cecil 1823

From Little Mary; or, the Picture-book by Sabina Cecil 1823

From Little Mary; or, the Picture-book by Sabina Cecil 1823

The Little Visitors: in words chiefly composed of one and two syllables by Maria Hack (1815) is designed to encourage older children to read and to inform them about the world.  This atmospheric narrative takes the form of a visit by Ellen and Rachel to their aunt.  Almost the first thing they do when they arrive is to tour the garden, with their aunt as their knowledgeable guide.

Their aunt went first, and opened the glass door in the hall, and then led them down the stone steps into the garden, which they saw was a very handsome one.  There were four large beds of flowers in the front, and fine tall trees and shrubs at the further end.  The children were much pleased with the rose trees, on which were great numbers of flowers, some full blown, and some only in bud.

Their aunt left them, and went into the house to fetch a knife.  She soon came back, and began to cut the stalks of some of the flowers.  She gave each of the little girls one full blown rose, and two nice buds; three fine pinks, a large tulip, a pretty bunch of sweet peas, and a white lily, and then she cut two handsome pieces of sweet-brier, to place at the back of each nosegay.

Later on they take a shady route through the garden, rest on a seat ‘made of branches of knotted wood, painted of a green colour’ and visit a shell grotto;

On turning a winding corner of the path, they saw a little door before them, with ivy growing round it.  The inside of this place was very small, and made of knotted branches of trees.  .. All at once they came to a very handsome light grotto, with spars and shells on the walls, and the windows were made of glass of many colours.

On another visit to a friend of their aunt the girls are delighted to see goldfish for the first time.  (Goldfish are so familiar to us now, it is easy to forget that two hundred years ago they were more unusual).  The illustration below shows the two girls at the edge of the goldfish pond, with the two women observing them at a distance.

This garden was a very large one, and they went some way before they came to where the fishes were kept: at last they walked through a narrow path, with high rows of laurel on both sides, which led to an open spot which had rock all around it, with ivy and moss growing over it and mountain flowers blooming on its sides.  The tops of the trees rose above the rock, and cast a pleasant shade over the scene beneath.  On one side was a fountain, that cooled the air as it foamed into the basin below, and ran into the little fish-pond, which was at some distance, where Ellen and Rachel bent their steps.  There were a great number of fish.  They threw in crumbs of bread, which the little creatures soon eat up.

From The Little Visitors: in words chiefly composed of one and two syllables Maria Hack (1815)  Ellen and Rachel arriving at their aunt’s house.

From The Little Visitors: in words chiefly composed of one and two syllables Maria Hack (1815)  Feeding the goldfish

We catch glimpses of a smaller, plainer garden through the window of Mrs Clifford’s house in Little Downy, or, the history of a field-mouse: a moral tale by Catherine Parr Strickland (1822).  This is the saga of a family of mice (an example of a genre of children’s literature using animals as characters).  The garden is separated from the surrounding countryside by a high hedge, which contains beds divided by pathways.  There are a pair of bee hives at the end of the garden and we can see a trained vine on the wall of the house.  Here is the narrator’s description of the garden:

situated .. on a beautiful sloping green bank, under the shade of a fir tree, not many yards from a nice white brick house, the front of which was covered with vines and wall-fruit; there were pots of balsams and geraniums, placed on the beds opposite the windows and glass door. 

From Little Downy, or, the history of a field-mouse: a moral tale by Catherine Parr Strickland (1822)

From Little Downy, or, the history of a field-mouse: a moral tale by Catherine Parr Strickland (1822)

The Accidents of youth: consisting of short histories, caluculated to improve the moral conduct of children, and warn them of the many dangers to which they are exposed (1819)

The potential dangers of playing out of doors (as well as inside) are spelled out in graphic detail in The Accidents of youth: consisting of short histories, calculated to improve the moral conduct of children, and warn them of the many dangers to which they are exposed, published anonymously in 1819.  With its disobedient children, acerbic parents and satirical tone these stories anticipate Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, or Roald Dahl’s children’s stories.

In The Climbers, a story about the dangers of climbing trees, little Henry is berated by his father for causing the accident, despite being quite badly injured.  In the chapter entitled The Bees, William thrusts a stick into a hive to get some honey, and is horribly stung.  Here’s a flavour of the prose:

The Accidents of youth: consisting of short histories, calculated to improve the moral conduct of children, and warn them of the many dangers to which they are exposed (1819)

The Accidents of youth: consisting of short histories, calculated to improve the moral conduct of children, and warn them of the many dangers to which they are exposed (1819)

The Accidents of youth: consisting of short histories, calculated to improve the moral conduct of children, and warn them of the many dangers to which they are exposed (1819)

More tales from the Georgian Garden in a future post – in the meantime, here are links to the various texts at the Internet Archive:

Little Mary; or, the Picture-book

The Little Visitors

Little Downy, or, the history of a field-mouse

The Accidents of Youth

 

Wordsworth House and Garden

On a damp, grey day in early April it’s not every garden that tempts visitors to linger. But when I visited the walled garden at Wordsworth House in Cockermouth, Cumbria at the beginning of the month there was much to see of interest, as well as providing some welcome shelter from cold winds.

Although early in the season, signs of spring were evident.  Daffodils were flowering, with tulips not far behind them; new shoots visible on the roses and perennial plants were starting to emerge from their  long winter dormancy.

Wordsworth House is the birthplace of William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), who lived here with his family in the 1770s.  The National Trust, which acquired the house in the 1930s, has designed the garden in late eighteenth century style, with plant varieties that would have been available in the period.   Attractive slate labels show the names of these plants, information about their uses and introduction to cultivation in the UK.  The apples Greenup’s Pippin (1790) and Acklam Russet (1768) are cultivated with the the dual purpose pear Williams Bon Chretien (1770), Morello Cherry (pre 1629) and the Gargarin Blue Grape.  The garden also has a collection of Orpington and Silkie hens.

Beans and peas and other household vegetables are grown in open beds at the centre of the garden and the traditional supports for these made out of local materials such as birch are already in place for the coming season.  Supports for flowers like peonies are also constructed using poles and string.

The garden backs onto the river Derwent, which looks tame enough today, but in 2009 William Wordsworth’s ‘beauteous stream’ burst its banks.  Both the house and gardens were damaged by flooding (as were other buildings in the town) with many garden plants swept away by the waters, and even the heavy wooden gates at the front of the building (now replaced) were wrenched from their hinges.  The force of the water must have been immense.

Today the re-planted garden with its fruit trees, roses, flowers and herbs looks well established, which is a tribute to the efforts of head gardener Amanda Thackeray and the National Trust’s team of volunteers.  It’s also a good reminder that it is possible to create a garden with a sense of permanence in a relatively short period of time.

Wordsworth House and Garden, Spring 2018

new shoots of lovage (Levisticum officinale)

Back home, whilst considering the old fruit varieties I was delighted to come across a catalogue of fruit trees from the relatively local grower William Pinkerton, based in Wigan, and dating from 1782.  Despite its fragile looking state it’s available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library via the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library.  The comprehensive list includes a surprising number of peaches, nectarines and apricots as well as apples, pears, plums and cherries.  Although not individually named, Pinkerton offers a staggering 74 varieties of gooseberry.  It would be fascinating to know how many of these varieties are traceable today – the Green Gage and La Mirabelle plums certainly sound familiar.  The catalogue is reproduced below.

William Pinkerton’s Catalogue of Fruit Trees, Wigan, Lancs 1782

I wonder if this nectarine variety is anything to do with Thomas Fairchild?

William Pinkerton’s Fruit Catalogue 1782

Wordsworth House and Garden

William Wordsworth

Bernwode Plants  masses of information about heritage fruit trees