Category Archives: William Curtis

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

Cuckoo Flowers

Lychnis flos-cuculi from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

The arrival of the cuckoo in April remains a popular sign of spring, even for the majority of us now living in towns or cities who might not actually hear the call.  The unmistakable sound of the cuckoo is embedded in our creative culture – in music, poetry and in the common names of some of the UK’s native wild flowers, all of which help us preserve a link with the natural world and the changing seasons.

Flora Londinensis, written by William Curtis and published in six volumes between 1777 – 1798 is an illustrated survey of all the wild plants that could be found within a ten mile radius of London.  Curtis sheds some light on the reason why Lychnis flos-cuculi is known as the cuckoo flower observing that, ‘from the earliest ages’ people have made a connection between the flowering of certain plants and ‘the periodical return of birds of passage’.

Before the return of the seasons was exactly ascertained by Astronomy, these observations were of great consequence in pointing out stated times for the purposes of Agriculture; and still, in many a Cottage, the birds of passage and their corresponding flowers assist in regulating “The short, and simple Annals of the Poor.” 

Curtis points out that  ‘we have several other plants that, in different places, go by the name of Cuckow Flower’ including cardamine, arum, orchids and wood sorrel.  He talks about a double form of the lychnis flower being cultivated in gardens.

Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of plantes (1597) contains many examples of local plant names.  He confirms that cardamines are commonly known as Cuckow flowers, while noting that in Norfolk they are called Caunterburie bels and in Cheshire (his place of birth, in Nantwich), Ladie smockes.  

Another cuckoo flower mentioned by Gerard is the common woodland plant Arum maculatum.  He lists the plant’s common names:

The common Cockow pint is called in Latin Arum: in English Cockow pint and Cockow pintle, wake Robin, Priest’s pintle, Aron, Calfes foote, and Rampe, and of some Starch woort.

According to Wikipedia, ‘pint’ is a shortening of the word ‘pintle’, meaning penis, derived from the shape of the spadix. 

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Cardamine pratensis from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Arum maculatum from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

A double form of Lychnis flos-cuculi ‘Jenny’ (photo Wikimedia Commons)

In the eighteenth century it was understood that cuckoos left the country to overwinter in warmer places, but not known that they travelled as far as Africa.  While we know more about the cuckoo’s migratory patterns now, fewer of us experience the cuckoo first hand, so may not know about the changing call of the cuckoo over the season.  Gerard talks about the time in April and May when ‘the Cuckowe doth begin to sing her pleasant notes without stammering’.  In his poem The Cuckoo John Clare also observes a loss of voice, but in summer:

When summer from the forest starts
Its melody with silence lies,
And, like a bird from foreign parts,
It cannot sing for all it tries.
‘Cuck cuck’ it cries and mocking boys
Crie ‘Cuck’ and then it stutters more
Till quick forgot its own sweet voice
It seems to know itself no more. 

This alteration in the cuckoo’s call is described as a ‘change of tune’ in Jane Taylor’s poem, memorably and beautifully set to music by Benjamin Britten in his collection of twelve songs entitled Friday Afternoons.  Do listen on the link below.

Cuckoo, Cuckoo!
What do you do?
“In April
I open my bill;
In May
I sing night and day;
In June
I change my tune;
In July
Far far I fly;
In August
Away I must.”

Jane Taylor, 1783-1824

from History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick 1797 – 1804

Cuckoo! by Benjamin Britten

Flora Londinensis

Arum maculatum entry Wikipedia

(images from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, unless otherwise stated)

Camellias from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine

from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine Vol 2, 1788  (illustration 42)  Camellia japonica (Rose camellia)  ‘This most beautiful tree .. is a native of both China and Japan.  Thunberg, in his Flora Japonica, describes it as growing every where in the groves and gardens of Japan, where it becomes a prodigiously large and tall tree, highly esteemed by the natives for the elegance of its large and very variable blossoms, and its evergreen leaves; it is there found with single and double flowers, which also are white, red and purple, and produced from April to October.’  (All images via the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

February and March is the time when camellias start to bring colour and glamour to the spring garden.  Native to southern and eastern Asia, the camellia was grown as an ornamental plant in China and Japan for centuries before it was collected and introduced to England in the 1730s.  Robert James Petre (1713 – 42) is said to have raised the first camellia to flower in his hothouses at Thorndon Hall, Essex.

In the late 18th and early 19th century cultivation in glasshouses was the typical method of growing these plants.  The conservatory at Chiswick House houses a camellia collection grown in this way.  As camellias were rare and expensive plants, no one wanted to take any risks with their hardiness by planting them outside.  As William Curtis observes in the second volume of his Botanical Magazine published in 1788,

With us, the Camellia is generally treated as a stove plant, and propagated by layers; it is sometimes placed in the greenhouse; but it appears to us to be one of the properest plants imaginable for the conservatory.  At some future time it may, perhaps, not be uncommon to treat it as a Lauristinus or Magnolia: the high price at which it has hitherto been sold may have prevented its being hazarded in this way.  

As well as correctly predicting that the camellia was probably hardier than it might have looked, Curtis also discusses the way that camellias often drop their flowers in their entirety before they are fully finished and records the practice of collecting these blooms and re-attaching them to the plants.

The blossoms are of a firm texture, but apt to fall off long before they have lost their brilliancy; it therefore is a practice with some to stick such deciduous blossoms on some fresh bud, where they continue to look well for a considerable time.

Seems strange to us now, but maybe not the worst February garden job for the 18th century gardener?

The similarity of the shape of the camellia flower to that of the rose is noted by Curtis in his list of synonyms for the plant which is listed as Rosa chinensis.

William Curtis (1746 – 1799) started his career as an apothecary, but his interest in botany and natural history soon caused him to change direction and focus on botany and horticulture full time.  He was the director of the Chelsea Physic garden from 1771 – 77 and then established his own botanic garden in Lambeth in 1779.  He published Flora Londinensis in six volumes between 1777 – 1798.  Illustrated in colour, the book records all the wild plant life then growing in the environs of London.

Flora Londinensis was not a commercial success, but provided a model for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, which Curtis launched in 1787.  Using broadly the same format as his book, the magazine features a full page colour illustration of an exotic plant with a page of botanical information written in a scientific but accessible style that a non-specialist audience could understand.  The magazine was very popular, the public showing greater appetite for curious and rare specimens than the wildflowers and weeds on their doorsteps.  The magazine is also a fascinating record of when plants were introduced to England and which nurseries, gardens or individuals were cultivating them.  The magazine is still published today by Kew Gardens.

A long line of distinguished botanical artists have supplied illustrations to the magazine.  Sydenham Edwards and James Sowerby were early contributors, and from the mid 1820s Walter Hood Fitch was the principal artist for some forty years.

There is still a belief today that camellias can be rather tender and tricky to cultivate, when in fact these plants are pretty tough garden characters.  In the City of London where I garden the tall buildings generate strong localised gales which can shred broad leaved plants.  The camellias, however, take this battering in their stride with their dark waxy leaves impervious to dessicating winds.  Passers by always admire the largest camellia in the garden (possibly Camellia japonica ‘Governor Mouton’) with its red and white double flowers which begin in late January.

Although still popular with the public, camellias don’t seem to be favoured by today’s garden designers.  I wonder if this is because the dark green foliage creates a rather formal effect together with the waxy flowers which don’t fit easily into the current fashion for naturalistic looking planting schemes?  It’s a shame as they do have advantages.  As evergreen shrubs they provide all year round structure and do well in shade, making them especially useful in town gardens shadowed by neighbouring buildings and trees.  They also grow well in containers.  Some of the white, single flowered varieties could be integrated into a naturalistic planting scheme, such as Camellia rosthorniana ‘Elina’ which has a pink tinge to the flowers, like apple blossom.

On the minus side, the red and pink flowered varieties can be problematic in the spring garden, as they clash with yellow flowers like daffodils.  Also, not all camellia varieties shed their flowers, so to keep the plants looking fresh, they need to be dead headed regularly.

A world without camellias would be a sad place, however, as it would mean life without tea, that essential drink derived from the leaves of Camellia sinensis.  An entry in the magazine for 1832 shows the tea plant accompanied by a discussion about tea production in China and tea consumption around the world.

I particularly like the details about the growers of camellias attached to the illustrations in the Magazine – a few samples appear below:

from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine 1814 (illustration 1670) Camellia japonica var myrtifolia (myrtle leaved red camellia)  ‘For this very rare and beautiful variety of camellia we are indebted to Messrs. Chandler and Buckingham, Nurserymen at Vauxhall.  The flower is round and compact, with the inner petals gradually diminishing in size; approaching, except in colour, to the Bourbon or double white variety.’

from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine 1817 – 19 (illustration 2080) Camellia sasanqua (Palmer’s Double Sasanqua) ‘Our drawing, as well as a living specimen of the blossom and foliage, was kindly communicated by Mrs T Palmer, of Bromley, in Kent, in whose greenhouse the original flowered last spring.  It was brought from China by Captain Rawes, together with several other curious and rare plants.’

from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine 1825 (illustration 2571) Camellia japonica var. Chandler’s New Camellia  ‘This variety was raised from seed by Messrs. Chandler and Buckingham at their nursery, Vauxhall.’

from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine 1825 (illustration 2577)  Camellia japonica var. Knight’s New Warratah Camellia  ‘This variety of Camellia japonica was raised, by Mr Joseph Knight, by seeds procured from the Warratah, or Anemony-flowered variety, impregnated probably by the pollen of of semi-double variety, at the Exotic Nursery, in the King’s Road.’

from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine 1832  Thea virdis (Green Tea) (now named Camellia sinensis) (illustration 3148)  ‘A shrub, rising to the height of eight to ten feet in the conservatory of the Botanic Garden of Glasgow.’  ‘Flowers .. upon a short peduncle, drooping, so that the flower is scarcely to be seen but by looking at the underside of the branches.’

Camellia Show at Chiswick House 22nd February – 25th March 2018

Camellia Show at Chiswick House

William Curtis

(NB. images from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine can be found on the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s Flickr Collection – link below)

Biodiversity Heritage Library