Tag Archives: Plant hunters

The Pioneers of Gardening and Empire

Miles Hadfield (1957)  London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd

A highly personal account and set of opinions of famous early gardens and gardeners, designers, plant hunters, breeders and writers — a nice wide range of the people who have shaped how the UK thinks about gardens and the plants available to fill them. It serves as a good introduction in some ways, and I don’t regret the pound spent on rescuing it from an outside box at Haye-on-Wye. It is quite a superficial account, however, and its immense admiration of the aristocracy and support of England’s ambitions and practices of empire are just so problematic — it was first published in 1957. Yet very instructive of a certain mindset, so I almost gave this three stars.

On empire: This is a story of white men exploring lands which to them are unknown, backed up by either the threat or the actual presence of troops. From when I was little, the idea of traveling, seeing things you had never seen before, learning about plants and animals always seemed so wonderful and it is only in learning about how this happened in reality that I gave it up as a dream. Such explorations (at least those of the western world since Columbus really) have been in the context of conquest, with scientific inquiry dependent upon and furthering the project of empire. Thus curiosity about the world and a love of knowledge sit with more or less ease alongside a project of death and domination depending on the person involved. There is almost no respect for local knowledge described here, particularly grievous in countries like China and India with long histories of scholarly investigation of the natural world (which are noted, then ignored completely), but grievous anywhere where local survival has always depended on a deep knowledge of local plants and their properties. In an immensity of arrogance and assumption of anglo superiority that I still find staggering, everything must be learned anew, documented and studied by Europeans, and seeds obtained by any means necessary for profit back in the UK. Thus Hadfield is able to write:

Maximowizc, Hance and their friends for long worked under impossibly restrictive conditions. Most of China was in a wild, lawless state at the mercy of petty chieftains. The inefficient central government, instead of carrying out the terms of its treaties with the European trading states, was awkward and obstructive. At last Britain and France sent an army. The Chinese forces collapsed and in 1860 a new treaty was made. Maximowizc and Hance must have been overjoyed at the terms. Foreigners were now to be allowed much greater freedom of movement in the interior. The European consular services were strengthened. Religious missions were permitted to increase their work and members, while an organisation, the Imperial Maritime Customs, was set up under an Englishman, Sir Robert Hart. All this meant that more men would come into China who could be pressed into service as collectors — apart from others who might collect and botanise independently’ (185).

At last Britain and France sent an army? What? They are well into their project of conquest, and Hadfield is here referring to the 2nd Opium War, fought by Britain to force the Chinese government to legalise opium, promote the exportation of ‘coolie’ labour and force open the entire country to British trade. An undertaking that makes me literally shake with anger, and gives context for an ‘awkward’ and ‘obstructive’ government. There are a few stories such as that of collector and missionary-botanist was Father Jean Andre Soulié, who apparently ‘helped by high cheek-bones’ was able to travel disguised as a native, tricking all those gullible people thirsting for European blood in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Right. He was killed by Tibetens during an uprising. Interestingly, he is also the introducer of the Buddleia davidii or butterfly bush, that is beautiful and wonderful for butterflies and bees, but has since become an invasive species which you can see lodged everywhere in UK buildings and along railroad tracks as it thrives on lime and sends mortar crumbling into dust. There is a fact sheet on the history of its invasion here.

There is not a thought in this book for ecosystems, or the dangers of introducing foreign species into new environments. I suppose that is a new ‘discovery’ Europeans have made.

This is primarily a story of men, and where women enter into it, it is in their role as assistants. Jane Webb for example, an early pioneer of Science Fiction and author of The Mummy, is described thus: ‘Indeed, Jane Webb, the high-spirited girl, disappears to become Mrs. Loudon, the most capable assistant of Mr Loudon… (162)’ though it does go on to acknowledge her work as a writer on popular gardening. Still. She was at least his equal.

And finally, an insight into some of the fine class distinctions of gardening. On the one hand this is almost entirely a tale of self-made men, capable and energetic, born into the working-classes (and so many of them Scottish!) and working their way up through gardening to positions of wealth and distinction. Thus, while much print is spent admiring their noble patrons, the fact remains that the pioneers themselves were hardly noble. And yet, there is this, on recent developments in gardening:

William Kent, Launcelot Brown and Humphry Repton, we can feel certain, were turning in their graves, their spirits distraught by the lack of taste shown by the Victorian gardener.

For one thing, the pendulum again swung right over to the other side: colour, and garish colour at that, came into full favour once more. While the study of nature–and, of course, plants–on scientific lines progressed by leaps and bounds, “nature” is the sense understood by all the gardeners from Kent to Loudon went right out of fashion. First of all we must blame the new school of practical gardeners; these men were exceedingly skillful at cultivating plants. And next we must accuse the greenhouse…Their cost fell considerably, and a whole new class of society–and a class with neither tradition nor very refined tastes–could now own them.

He goes on to rail against the ‘bedding out’ of plants, their strange and extravagant results and etc.

As someone with a hatred of empire, as a woman, and as a member of a class with neither tradition nor refined taste, I won’t write more about the content, but there is lot more to think through here in terms of how class, gender, race, nation and empire intersect all in the context of plants and gardening.  And in spite of it, I retain my love of plants themselves and all their wonders, and my joy in botanic gardens. So here is an incredible flowering tree mentioned in the book, along with the race to bring it to the UK and successfully get it to flower: the Amherstia nobilis, or Pride of Burma:

Amherstia Nobilis - Mumbai Jan 2010

A short bio of the author Miles Hadfield, of a family of property fallen on hard times and the founder of the Garden History Society and its first President, can be read here. The book is also a good starting list for the key figures in the history of British gardens for further investigation, so here it is:

  • Henry Lord Danvers founds the Oxford University Botanical Garden 1621
  • John Godyer: Early botanist, with Thomas Johnson – updated Gerard’s Herball 1633
  • The Tradescants: Their Ark in South Lambeth opens in 1628, early plant hunters
  • John Parkinson: Introduced (?) idea of gardening for beauty with Paradisi in Sole Parasisus Terrestris in 1629
  • André Le Nôtre – French–and this author doesn’t much care for many of the French–but very influential as the designer of the formal gardens of Versaille
  • Phillip Miller – Head gardener and rescuer of a failing Chelsea Physick Garden, opened by the Apothecaries Company (1673)
  • William Kent – with Lord Burlington propagator of the ideal of the Palladian Villa and move from ‘garden to landscape’ as best seen at Stowe 1713-ish, inventor of the ha ha, laid out Kew Gardens
  • Lancelot Brown, aka Capability Brown – head gardener at Stowe (also Blenheim Palace) and transformer of multiple gardens into landscapes through his own garden design business started 1749
  • Humphrey Repton – third great landscape designer, worked with John Nash, wrote Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. thankfully brought back ‘cottage’ flower gardens as well as introducing ‘ornamental cottages’
  • William Jackson Hooker – great figure in ‘history of scientific gardening’, head gardener of Kew beginning in 1842, ensured Kew botanists on many major expeditions of conquest around the world
  • David Douglas – Explored North American Pacific Coast, numerous dubious adventures involving Native Americans a little upset about his activities
  • John Claudius Loudon – from Cambuslang! pioneered the modern agricultural college, made the interesting decision to undertake a foreign tour through Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, produced Encyclopaedia of Gardening updating Miller’s Dictionary and launched The Gardener’s Magazine. Improved and designed Kensington Gardens.
  • Jane (Webb) Loudon – Writer of The Mummy (1829) and numerous books and articles on gardening, popularising gardening
  • Joseph Paxton – gardener at Chatsworth, builder of greenhouses leading to his design of Crystal Palace.