The adventures of Maria Graham

As most people know the role of women in  garden history – ok all history – has been under-recorded and severely underrated.  But things are changing. In particular women’s  place  in the study and collection of plants in the late 18th and early 19thc has been the subject of much research and re-evaluation in recent years.  Not only did women start writing books about botany – admittedly originally aimed mainly at children and  their own sex – but there’s plenty of evidence they collected, grew and studied plants too.  Of course most of that was  done within easy reach of where they lived, but a few, notably the wives and daughters of “empire-builders” [those in commerce, the army or navy and government officials] were able to travel overseas and continue to pursue their interests. Such work  usually ended when their husband or fathers  finished a tour of duty, or died.   But today’s post  is about  Maria Graham,  an adventurous woman who decided her husband’s death was not going to be the end of her life as well…

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“An easy first in his profession”

If you’re someone who reads this blog regularly then you can probably name many of Britain’s great garden designers, but who is/was the most prolific?  Was it Capability Brown with more than 200 major projects? Gertrude Jekyll who is now thought to have had a hand in over 400? Humphry Repton?  William Sawrey Gilpin?  Percy Cane? Whoever you’ve guessed I doubt  it was today’s subject, or that they would even have figured on your shortlist.

Here’s a clue. This year marks the centenary of his death which followed  a long career that spanned journalism, designing the grounds at the new exhibition centre at Earls Court, and laying out the gardens of vast new palaces in India as well as many parks and gardens in Britain. Yet nowadays  his name is virtually unknown.

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THE Concise British Flora….

Recognize this?

In the early 1960s a shy Devon clergyman  was persuaded to send in some of his drawings and watercolours of British wild flowers to a publisher.  They agreed to publish but could hardly have been expecting the public response to the book. It was an immediate best-seller and became a standard reference work almost overnight,  and hardly  out of print ever since. My own copy bought when I was still at school with Christmas or birthday present money is a bit battered but still much loved and used.  The idea may have been simple, but the layout, classification and notes were impeccable, and the drawings themselves both accurate and delicately beautiful.  

I’d guess most readers of a certain age in the UK will have known instantly from the image  which book I’m talking about and the name of its author, who died 50 years ago this coming week, but if not read on to find out more…

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Piranesi and the Gardens of Rome

detail from the Villa Albani

Italy has always been famous for its classical monuments and, since the Renaissance,  for its gardens too.  Both attracted tourists in growing numbers, particularly as the Grand Tour became an essential part of the education of almost every young northern European member of the elite.

Aristocratic or not  tourists have always  wanted souvenirs. Some wanted to take home antique sculptures, others to have their portraits painted in Italian settings by Italian artists, but others less wealthy had to be content with buying prints, and so the production of engravings of the major sites, towns and landscapes became a lucrative business.

The greatest exponent of these views – or vedute as they are known – was Giovanni Battista Piranesi  who possessed “one of the most imaginative minds ever to have brooded on the visual arts”.

detail of the Villa Pamphili

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Spheres of Influence…

There is a long history of philanthropic and/or paternalistic  industrialists  providing recreational and garden space for their employers. We’ve all heard of Bourneville, Port Sunlight and Saltaire, while Helena Chance’s recent book  ‘The Factory in a Garden’.  (2017) gives a comprehensive overview of such schemes in both  Britain and the United States if you want to know more.

However research, including by of all people, the American Space Agency [NASA] over the past 50 years or so  clearly shows that it’s not just plants outside but those inside that are beneficial so houseplants are more than just green ornaments, they are good for your health too.

A 1989 NASA report  concluded : “If man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature’s life support system.”  That’s because plants essentially do the opposite of what humans do when they breathe. They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, and in the process  refresh the air, and remove toxins.  Other research shows that indoor plants  reduce stress levels, make people feel good,  promote concentration and as those earlier industrialists knew only too well, they help create a more contented workforce and increase productivity.

Today’s post is about a new post-industrial workspace packed with over 40,000 plants from all over the world in a group of three connected glass buildings which opened last year, and which I was lucky enough to be able to visit last weekend. You might be able to guess from the typeface and logo where I was and whose workforce this was designed for.


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