So said John Ruskin of Edward Cooke who was mentioned in the post of May 2nd about Stumperies.
Ruskin—a fellow enthusiast for the natural sciences—went on to say that Cooke was ” full of accurate and valuable knowledge in natural history with which he is always overflowing at the wrong times’
Cooke designed gardens that put rockwork, rootwork, and ferneries firmly on the Victorian horticultural agenda. But he was more than just a gardener. He was also a painter of some note, but, not as you might expect, for his botanical art or landscape painting, but for his marine pictures and seascapes.
Read on to find out more about him and his various careers and discover some of the gardens he was involved with, …..
The son of George Cooke, an engraver, Edward was born in 1811 at Pentonville, [the place not the prison]. His father was a friend of fellow German immigrants, Conrad and George Loddiges owners of the famous Hackney nursery. The Cooke family moved to 4, Loddgies Place when George, who was an accomplished engraver, began working on Loddiges Botanical Cabinet in 1817.
From the age of 9 Edward began helping his father prepare the aquatints for the magazine. Most of the drawings from which they worked were by George Loddiges himself but there are also some by Loddiges daughter Jane and even a few by the young Edward.
Loddiges, his plants and nursery were the first major formative influence outside his family on Edward. Cooke was later to write: ‘In him had I not only a kind well-wisher and friend, but in my profession he was a most valuable adviser. His critical remarks on my pictures were so judicious that I generally adopted them without scruple or doubt.’
Cooke kept a dairy from the age of 17 until his death in 1880. It has not been published and remains in private hands, but it was used extensively by Peter Hayden in his book on Biddulph Grange: A Victorian Garden Rediscovered. (National Trust, 1989).The quotes in this post are all taken from there.
The Cooke family moved to Barnes in 1829 and opened an academy for young ladies. Loddiges helped them plan the garden there and then sent the plants to fill it. There were “tall trees for the Shrubbery & some American plants’ as well as ” a load of Plants, Camellias, Ericas, Shrubs &c.’ The camellia collection in particular was admired by the gardener from Chiswick House: high praise indeed considering that the Duke of Devonshire’s magnificent collection had only just been installed. There was a vinery, conservatory and later, in keeping with Victorian fashions, an orchid house and fernery.
Sarah Whittingham in Fern Fever (2012) points out that “before the 1830s there was virtually no interest in collecting or cultivating native ferns.” and the first fern book G.W.Francis’s An Analysis of the British Ferns and their allies was not published until 1837.
From his diary we also know that Cooke probably collected most of the plants for his fernery himself: ‘Went to Barnes Common, got ferns and planted them in my rock work.’ He even collected ferns when abroad, storing them in bottles until they could be planted. But where did the fascination come from? I suspect from another friend and influence, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, who he probably met through George Loddiges. [Ward and his story deserves a post of their own one day soon]. Ferns and ferneries were to become one of Edward’s overriding passions.
On a parallel track Edward was developing his artistic career. After being employed by Clarkson Stanfield, a well-known marine painter, to draw nautical details as references for his paintings, he also drew and recorded onboard ships, and began publishing his work. Fifty Plates of Shipping and Craft was published in 1829, Twelve Plates of Coast Sketches: Brighton in 1830, and The British Coast (1831).
With his father he created Views of the Old and the New London Bridges, and helped on Views in London and its Vicinity (1826–34). But his father also illustrated other books which were to prove surprisingly influential on Edward including John Pinkerton’s Petralogy an early book on geology and geomorphology published in 1811.
In 1836 Edward was introduced by the painter Edwin Landseer to William Wells, a wealthy shipbuilder and art collector, who had retired to the Redleaf estate, near Penshurst, in Kent. Wells has modified the existing Tudor house, and developed its parkland and gardens. His improvement work was described in glowing tones by John Claudius Loudon in 1839.
Not only had Wells “heightened and improved the natural beauties of Redleaf” he had also “been constantly employed, for the last thirty years, in creating artificial beauties there”.
Amongst these were two features that seemed to have made a profound impact on Cooke.
One was the extensive rockwork or rock garden which Loudon says “constitutes by far the most singular feature of the artificial scenery of the place, and is totally different from anything else of the kind in England.” Wells had seen the occasional rock outcrops that occurred naturally, and re-levelled areas of the garden to either expose more of the rock-bed, or quarried some out to build upwards and create much larger features.
The other factor, although less unusual, were all the rustic buildings which Wells himself had designed. There were “some very picturesque cottages, a rustic conservatory, a rustic billiard-room, and various rustic seats… [Which]… Have formed a source of amusement… For many years, which was greatly heightened by the adaptation of the crooked branches and roots of trees to the architectural forms proposed.”
In addition to his gardening and architectural amusements, Wells was also a trustee of the new National Gallery and on a personal level encouraged and bought the work of contemporary young artists like Landseer for whom he built a rustic painting seat in the garden.
He commissioned work from Cooke too, and an entry in Edward’s diary recounts how “Mr Wells selected stumps and old pieces of wood which I painted into a picture’.
You can find the full Loudon account of Redleaf at:
Edward Cooke was indefatigable and loathed idleness. He began travelling abroad and continued painting boats and other marine subjects almost everywhere he went. He started exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1835 and in 1863 was elected an academician.
He took up photography and was fascinated by science, becoming an early member, along with George Loddiges, of the Microscopical Society. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1857 and of the Royal Society in 1863. He was also a member of the Athenaeum, the Alpine Club and the Palaeontological Society.
“Many of his pictures are scientific lessonbooks: the dip of the strata, the grains of the sand, the shapes of the leaves, the curvatures of the trunks of the Palm trees, the form of the rain clouds, the line of the waves, and hundreds of such instances betoken not only the artist but the man of science. There is an amount of absolute truth about them, apart from imagination which will give his pictures a permanent value.” [Gardeners’ Chronicle 10 January 1880]
But it was botany and plants that still were his main occupation apart from painting.
Edward Cooke married Jane Loddiges, George’s daughter, in 1840, and in 1842 he built an orchid house at Barnes. The ‘kiddy house’ as it was known was filled with gifts of plants from Loddiges. A second house was quickly built and equally quickly filled. Some were placed in half coconuts, as they were in the Hackney nursery, others were tied to branches of trees collected from nearby woods. Later that year Cooke read Loddiges’ copy of a massive book on the orchids of Guatemala and Mexico. It was his first introduction to another significant figure in his life: James Bateman.
Sadly Cooke’s father, his three sisters, his wife Jane and their daughter all died within a short space of time, and by the end of 1843 Edward was left a widower with 2 infant sons. His father-in-law,George Loddiges, died in 1846 and the links to Barnes was broken when in 1849 Cooke decided to move with his remaining family to the new and expanding suburb of Kensington.
In a sign of his botanic passion he named his new house ‘The Ferns’ and set about developing a garden. It had many of the features that were about to become fashionable. Having visited Highnam Court in Gloucestershire, and seen James Pulham’s newly-invented artificial rockwork in the garden there he commissioned Pulham to create “Fernery and Rockery Banks… in Tuffa”.
For more on Highnam Court which is the earliest surviving Pulhamite rock garden in the country see our database:
Cooke used Pulham’s artificial stone to surround an ‘aquarium’ and, together with old tree roots and stumps, it served as the picturesque background for a range of woodland plants. From Redleaf came stone to construct a grotto inside the hothouse. Plants came not only from the gardens at Barnes but from his many gardening friends, whilst others were native plants dug up on ‘fern strolls’ or country walks.
This was not quite the first garden he had designed. The previous year his sister had married Nathinael Ward’s son and Ward himself had moved to Clapham. Cooke designed a fernery for the new house and made suggestions for the rest of the garden. After this “Mr Cooke’s counsel was eagerly sought … by his acquaintances in the arrangement and planting of their grounds.” [Gardeners Chronicle, 10 Jan 1880) Amongst those who sought such advice was James Bateman. His invitation to Cooke to visit in 1849 was the beginnings of one his involvement with what was to become one of the greatest of all Victorian gardens: Biddulph Grange. [See earlier post May 2nd]
Cooke later worked with Ward on new designs for Wardian cases including some of those shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. These were planted by his brother-in-law Conrad Loddiges and won a bronze medal. The following year Cooke provided the illustrations for the second edition of Ward’s book On the Growth of Plants in CLosely Glazed cases.
By 1855 Cooke was on the move again. This time he moved to 9, Hyde Park Gate South which was immediately renamed The Ferns. Here too he designed the gardens, including a massive stumpery, wild garden and bog. He noted in his diary in December 1855: “a van came bringing a quantity of stumps from Mr Bateman. One huge one 14 Cwt. was hoisted over the wall.” James Pulham worked for eighteen months to create a terrace, rockery, ‘rocky-pool’, and rock-work in the hothouses, in both Pulhamite and real stone. Sadly the garden has now been built over.
His two London gardens were, according to his obituary in Gardeners Chronicle, “models of what small town gardens might be made by one who combined artistic power of grouping and genuine love of plants”. Unfortunately I can’t find any illustrations of them.
His artistic career continued to be successful and in 1865 he commissioned Norman Shaw to design a country house for him at Glen Andred in Sussex. Here he laid out a garden which was “the biggest and boldest and most original of his work” [GC 10.1.1880).
The site was apparently chosen because of its geology. ‘Rocks and Rock scenery was sine qua non with Mr Cooke…. But even then the rocks were not always just where they were wanted. But they came at his command. If they would not show themselves at the surface he made them do so. With a long wire he probed the soil around and between the buried rocks and then scooped away the sand with a diligence proprio manu , till bold bluffs, mountain gorges, wooded ravines , with limpid rivulets trickling between, rewarded his exertions.” [GC 10 1 1880] Each area of the garden was given a name. The result is recorded in his diary when he takes nurseryman Harry Veitch to see the ‘Arboreum and stumpery, Ward’s Rock and Mount, Glen, Eagle Rock, Scotland, Crinkum Crankum, Wildeness, Bellosguardo and lawn.’ There was a Wardian Valley, a Loddigesia and, following a visit to Northumberland a Cragside.
He also became fascinated by the weird and the grotesque and in 1872 published a book of imaginary creatures called Entwicklungsgeschichte—grotesque animals. Could there be any similarities between his animal fantasies and the grotesqueness of the stumpery?
According to his letters Cooke found inactivity unbearable, and was constantly working until his death at Glen Andred in January 1880. For more information about him see John Munday’s biography: E.W.Cooke, R.A., F.R.S.: His Life and Work,(1999) which is based on his extensive diaries.