The history of the garden and the various roles women played in that history has been a great interest to me for many years. Naively I thought I would write a book on the subject since the information is well hidden in many books on these two subjects. I am not a writer. Nor am I a historian. I do want to put down on paper (so to speak) what I have learned. Hence this blog.
Marianne North is known at Kew for her botanical oil paintings. She traveled the globe twice, once in each direction, with a purpose. She intended to paint as many flowering tropical species as she could and any others she saw along the way. Her travels eventually made her sick and she died before the age of 60. Her collection of 832 oil paintings of over 900 species of plants, resides in a studio space in Kew Gallery that Marianne had constructed and paid for herself.
Born in Hastings, England, to an aristocratic family, Marianne was educated as a gentlewoman. She had a fine singing voice and took music lessons. She could draw and paint well but did not receive any formal training. When she was 25 years of age her mother died of a long illness. As a promise to her mother Marianne spent the next years taking care of her father and being his companion. Marianne and her father settled in London where she met Sir William Hooker (botanist and director of Royal Botanical Gardens Kew) and where she could visit Kew and Chiswick Gardens and develop her painting skills. With her father she made many journeys and traveled to Hungary, Italy, Greece and Egypt. At the age of 40 her father died and Marianne found herself alone.
She traveled some on her own but it wasn’t until she was invited to the United States that Marianne had found a renewed purpose to her life: to paint all the flowering species in all the tropical countries in the world. Armed with letters of introduction she began her first trip around the world. Her modus operandi was to either stay with someone she knew or met through her letters of introduction or rent a small house from which to do day trips. There she would walk the area alone or with a hired guide and spend the day painting. She frequently encountered people who thought it dangerous and shocking for her to be traveling on her own. Marianne would first sketch her subjects in pen and ink on paper and then finish it by squeezing the paint right out of the tube onto paper. She had developed a quick way of painting and is known to complete a picture a day. She was never considered a professional botanical painter as her paintings often lacked details due to the speed of her work. They are however, considered accurate. The result was bright, bold paintings of tropical plants in their natural settings.
Marianne’s travels were not without incident, however she certainly did not encounter difficulties or life threatening situations compared with other early travelers of the period. She did develop rheumatism which plagued her on her return trips home or in cool, high altitudes. It would be rheumatism that hastened her early death.
Four species and one genus are named after Marianne North; Northia seychellana a tree in the Seychelles, Crinium northianium a relative of the Amaryllis, Areca northiana a Feather Palm, and Kniphofia northiana the African Torch Lily.
Born in Suffolk, England, Margaret moved to London to teach painting of flowers and insects. She exhibited her work as a botanist at the Royal Academy and the Watercolour Society.
Margaret Meen‘s output of floral paintings is considerable. She made many hundreds of paintings of exotic plants at Kew Gardens and elsewhere. Her collection is now part of the Kew Herbarium. The Victoria and Albert Museum houses a handful of her watercolours. Although prolific, her work is considered amateur by botanical standards. Margaret did publish “Exotic plants from the Royal Gardens at Kew” (1790), which is dedicated to Queen Charlotte. Her intention was to publish two parts a year but that never materialized.
Alice Hutchings, Gertrude Cope, Eleanor Morland
‘They gardened in bloomers the newspapers said,
So to Kew without waiting all Londoners sped;
From the tops of the buses they had a fine view,
Of the ladies in bloomers who gardened at Kew.’
In 1896 the director at Kew decided to hire three women gardeners. It was a bold move and one it seemed he was hesitant to make. The Horticultural College for Women at Swanley in Kent approached Mr. Thiselton-Dyer to hire two of their qualified students as improvers. Alice Hutchings and Gertrude Cope were the first to be admitted and later in the year they were joined by Eleanor Morland. However Thiselton-Dyer allowed their admittance on the condition that they wore clothing that would not arouse their fellow workers.
Our ladies wore brown knickerbocker suits (bloomers), thick woolen stockings and brown cloth peaked caps – just like the men. Over this uniform they wore long mackintoshes when walking to and from work. Apparently the caps caused some discomfort as the ladies wore their hair long and it was difficult to keep it under the cap. According to the Journal of Horticulture the wearing of knickerbockers was preferred as ‘ the need to avoid potential damage to plants by voluminous skirts in crowded glasshouses.’ Perhaps that is so as the ladies did on occasion work in the orchid glass house, but also worked outdoors in the ‘pit’, the Rock Garden, and the Locked Garden.
Eleanor, Gertrude, Alice
The ladies did cause a stir in the village of Kew. The Daily Telegraph wrote articles on them and commented that ‘Mrs. Grundy will, no doubt, raise her hands in horror at the idea; but, after all lady -gardeners in trousers are much better equipped for the work than was the first gardeneress, Eve, when she showed Adam how to gather fruit, and afterwards eat it.” The Gardener’s Chronicle did not approve of the idea of women ‘ digging in manures and tramping over the fields’, and the Journal of the Kew Guild admitted ‘The experiment has so far proved satisfactory…’ however qualified with but ‘…they can scarcely hope to become all-round gardeners capable of managing a garden single-handed’.
The Horticultural College for Women at Swanley in Kent opened in 1889, teaching a two and three year program for both men and women. In 1895 it became a college for women only. It existed until 1945 when the property was bombed. Later the college became part of Wye College, Ashford, Kent.
Kew Gardens in England is one of the world’s most renowned botanical gardens. Kew has a very long history and has seen and undergone many changes in its time. It is a place that has been farmed on, built upon, designed, land added to and removed, re-designed, re-built, over and over again by its various owners. It has been graced by the designs of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and others of equally great import and reputation. While men deservedly bear the majority of the honors there are many women in Kew’s history that deserve more recognition. I will present this in two parts. The list is long, so let us begin.
Following the Jacobean Rebellion of 1715, the owner of Richmond Lodge was forced to flee and abandon his lands. Soon after, the lands reverted to the crown and became the new home of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Prince George II of Hanover married Caroline, Princess of Brandenburg-Anspach in 1705.
Caroline was an intellectual and very much interested in the arts. She was acting regent while George was in Hanover and appeared to be the one who really ruled. After a quarrel with George I, the two moved into Richmond Lodge with its extensive grounds.
Caroline was an avid gardener. She knew the formal gardens of Herrenhausen in Hanover and Charlottenburgh near Berlin. She was also quite aware of the gardens of Versailles with their avenues, parterres, fountains and statuary. Caroline did not want the formality so popular everywhere. She is known to have said that she wanted to set about “helping Nature, not losing it in art”. And so a patron of the early English Landscape movement was born. She added houses and garden buildings such as the Hermitage, the Queen’s Pavilion, and Merlin’s Cave, although none survive today. When George was crowned king in 1727 he gave the grounds of Richmond to Caroline as a gift. Two years later the estate covered 400 acres. By the time of her death in 1737 she left debts of £20,000 for all her gardening activities.
In 1736 Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha married Prince Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of George II and Caroline. They lived at the White House (renamed from the former ‘Kew Farm’ property) next door to Richmond Lodge.
Both Frederick and Augusta were avid garden enthusiasts. Frederick had many plans for the White House gardens. He added 75 acres of land and various trees, shrubs, water features, temples, and some Italian statuary. He wanted to include an aqueduct and a “mound to be adorned with the statues or busts of all these philosophers and to represent the Mount of Parnassus”. Unfortunately he died before implementing these plans.
Augusta took up Frederick’s plans with great speed and with the help of Lord Bute and Reverand Stephen Hales, botanists. With the mound and the aqueduct finished by 1754, she added the House of Confucius and the Chinese Arch. These were some of the earliest examples of chinoiserie that was influencing Europe at this time. William Chambers, architect, was hired to add even more buildings such as The Orangery, the Great Stove (the largest known hothouse), Alhambra, Domed Mosque and the Pagoda.
Princess Augusta had a keen interest in plant collecting. She was fortunate to belong to a time when the accessibility of species from new worlds was peaking. Comprised of both tender and hardy exotics she labelled them according to the new Linnaean system. The collection contained over 2,700 species and formed the basis of the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The Princess of Wales Conservatory was named for Princess Augusta, and opened by Princess Diana on July 28, 1987.
Augusta’s son George III married Charlotte-Sophia, Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761. After the death of Princess Augusta in 1772, Richmond Gardens, Kew Gardens and other properties came under single ownership for the first time. George III had been deeply influenced by Augusta and was involved in all aspects of the gardens. He was nicknamed ‘Farmer’ George for his interest in agriculture.
His wife Queen Charlotte shared his enthusiasm but she leaned towards botany. Along with four of her daughters, Charlotte took lessons in botany and in botanical illustration (in part from Margaret Meen). She increased the collections of new and exotic plants and purchased a herbarium to assist in their studies. The magnificent Bird of Paradise, Strelitzia reginae, was named in her honour. She did take pleasure in her cottage ‘ornee’, a thatched cottage near the menagerie created by Augusta. It was not unusual to see kangaroos, various species of cattle and birds from the aviary around the cottage grounds.
Giant Amazon Waterlily
Granddaughter of King George III and Queen Charlotte, Queen Victoria added crown lands to the gardens. She opened the grounds to the public in 1898.
The Victoria Medal of Horticulture was established in her honour, and is conferred to 63 of Britain’s horticulturists. The Giant Amazon Waterlily (Victoria regia) is named after her as was the Victoria Regia House, now the Waterlily House.