Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe. Photo courtesy of the National Botanic Garden of Ireland.
A few years ago I spent a month in Burma, and one of the highlights of the trip was to see the National Botanic Gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin, way up in the hills near Mandalay. It was rather strange to discover that neither the Burmese friends I’d gone with nor, indeed the staff we spoke to, seemed to know much about the history of the gardens other than the little printed on the information boards, so when I came back I decided to do some research.
I wrote that up for an article in Garden History in 2015 but in the process became very interested in one of the garden’s founders: Lady Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe.
Don’t be taken in by her title or rather grand appearance in this photo, as she was an intrepid and immensely practical woman who spent 24 years in Burma and let very little stand in the way of her love of plants and gardening.
detail of Dendrobium crepidatum, 1902
As gardeners we all know that woody plants are very adaptable. Think of topiary or cloud pruning, of pleaching or hedging where with a little bit of effort we can manipulate trees and shrubs into doing what we want, using their natural instincts to keep growing to our own advantage.
When I saw this 16thc miniature I wondered what was going on but as I started looking closer I realised that our manipulation of plants can be taken to a completely different level.
from My Father Talked to Trees, Wilma Erlandson, 2001
And then I found these much more modern images and they inspired this post.
Carved tree on the corner of the tomb
Just before the virus struck I was at the Garden Museum in Lambeth helping out on a course. We were in the new Clore Learning Centre which overlooks the courtyard garden designed by Dan Pearson, [featured in March edition of Gardens Illustrated]. I sat at the back listening to the speakers but also watching the rain lash down outside on the two large chest tombs standing amongst the greenery. One is that of Admiral Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame and the other that of the family of the 17thc plant hunters John Tradescant senior and his son John junior. [If you’re not sure who they were check last weeks post which was an introduction to today’s]
Luckily the rain stopped during the lunch break, so I went to take a closer look. Whilst Bligh’s monument is imposing but relatively austere that of the Tradescants is anything but plain.
The view from the Clore Learning Centre, in the rain, Feb 9th 2020. Bligh’s monument is the centre, the Tradescant’s tomb on the right.
In fact, as you can probably tell from even from the photo above, their tomb is a work of art, or rather a series of works of art, and the more I looked at it and researched it afterwards the more intriguing and unusual it became.
I’d just finished writing a post about something I’d seen at the Garden Museum when I realised there might be some readers who wouldn’t know anything about the subject and would need a bit of background. So I started writing that and of course the piece became so long that I had to split it into two… so today’s is the introduction to next weeks!
It’s about the 17thc gardeners John Tradescant and his son, also John. They were an extraordinary pair: Gardeners to the aristocracy and royalty, plant hunters, nurserymen and founders of the first museum to be open to the public. Famous in their own lifetimes, and continuously in the centuries since, their lives have even been romanticised by a modern novelist.
But how much do you actually know about them? Continue reading