Aunt T & her Pot Pourri…

 Mrs C.W.Earle [Maria Theresa Villiers] from Memoirs and Memories ???

Mrs C.W.Earle [Maria Theresa Villiers] from Memoirs and Memories

She may look a bit like Lady Bracknell or Charlie’s Aunt but she wasn’t really  like that in real life.  Maria Theresa  Villiers may have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth but she seems to have been happier settling for a silver plate version, and to her many friends and family she was just Aunt T.  Born into an aristocratic family she  turned down the chance to become a maid of honour to Queen Victoria and instead opted to become an artist.
Later, however, she settled into a superficially conventional life when she married Charles Earle, an Indian army officer turned business man and became a good ‘poor man’s’ wife looking after her family and gardening on “a small piece of flat ground surrounding an ordinary suburban house.”  A friend of William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, at the age of 60, despite her husband’s opposition, she began to write  about her garden in what was to become probably the most popular series of gardening books of the Edwardian era.
Read on to discover more about her writing but also how she retained her radical streak  and became a supporter of the suffragettes, and a militant vegetarian.

The Grove, the Earl of Clarendon's country house near Watford

The Grove, the Earl of Clarendon’s country house near Watford, c.1900.

Theresa  Villiers was born in one of the grand Nash terraces overlooking Regents Park  in 1836.  The eldest of three sisters, she was the niece of the Earl of Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary in several Liberal administrations, and  her family was liberal and cultured. As  result she met many of famous names in literary and artistic London. 

Her father died young and her mother was given the use of  the dower house of The Grove, the earl’s estate at Watford and she was bought up there as well as London.  She became known as Radical Theresa because although, like other aristocratic young women,  she was presented at court she declined the opportunity  to become a maid of honour to Queen Victoria.  Instead, encouraged by Ruskin, she attended classes at the South Kensington School of Art where she won the gold medal for “an amateur” and her work was commended by Edward Burne-Jones who became a life-long friend. Apparently  she continued painting in watercolours all her life, although I have been unable to track a single one down so far so if you know of the whereabouts of any of her pictures please let me know.


Charles Earle aged 54  after a painting by George Frederick Watts, from Memoirs and Memories

Her artistic career was, however, short-lived. Her family often wintered on the Mediterranean or in Italy and it was there, in 1857, that she met Charles William Earle, who was then a captain in the Indian army. She was 27 when she married him in 1864, after his term of duty had finished, bearing him three sons and becoming what she described a good ‘poor man’s’ wife.  Of course, this was ‘poor’ only compared with the rest of her family. One of her sisters married the future Earl of Lytton, who was to become Viceroy of India and the other married Henry Brougham Loch, [later Lord Loch] a future Governor of the Cape.  Earle had to work for his money and went into the telegraph business.

Bryanston Square, Marylebone

Bryanston Square, Marylebone

His earned income was supplemented in 1879  when he inherited enough money for them to have a London home in  fashionable Bryanston Square  and this enabled Theresa to hold “salons… almost of the French style” where politicians, artists and writers were regular guests. They knew the Rossettis, George Frederick Watts, Alfred Austin and Ethel Smythe and,  more shockingly,  George Eliot and her partner George Lewes as well as Oscar Wilde.  As an obituarist said  “she never surrounded herself with orthodoxy.”

There was also enough money to buy  a small country house with a couple of acres at Cobham in Surrey. This was “Woodlands” which she described as “a small piece of flat ground surrounding an ordinary suburban house.”  That soon changed as she designed and created a garden which was “a more congenial setting for her personality.”  It was made more difficult because she could only afford to employ  a single gardener and a boy to run it, but the new garden soon began to attract attention from her friends and acquaintances and led to her being asked for horticultural advice.

Lady Constance Lytton

Lady Constance Lytton

One in particular – “my foreign friend… came to stay with us ..and as she was furnishing a country house near Frankfort, I began telling her all I knew as regards furnishing and gardening…. Oh I shall never remember all you tell me, if you would write it down, I should be grateful to you.” So encouraged by her niece Constance Lytton”I began to write.” In fact Theresa  dictated her thoughts to  Constance and but for her  “it would probably have been consigned to the flames, as I feared my husband did not like my publishing it.”   But publish she eventually did in 1897, at the age of 61, although tragically Charles’s opinion about the book and its success is not known as he was killed in a bicycle accident the very day of publication.

The book that Lady Constance Lytton encouraged her Aunt T to write,  followed in the wake of a wave of gardening books written by authors who used their own gardens as an exemplar for imparting their advice and thoughts.

screenshotAlfred Smee’s My Garden first published in 1872 seems to have started the trend. He included chapters on “My Garden Tools” and “My Frames and Glasshouses” as well as more conventional gardening advice. Others included Eleanor Vere Boyle Day and Hours in a Garden  first published in 1887,   Francis Cowley Burnand’s Round my Garden  1890 and Henry Arthur Bright’s A Year in a Lancashire Garden, which made a book out of his “collection of notes” that appeared monthly in Gardeners Chronicle.   It was Bright who seems to have inspired Mrs Earle.  She wrote that his book “charmed me, and I thought it simple, unaffected, and original.”8a157e30de73de15b4d0772a6f12cc36

None claimed to be definitive or even great sources of information but merely pleasant reading about gardens. They were often arranged in chapters based on what was happening month by month.  Bright even said they “pretend to little technical knowledge and…are of little horticultural value.” Instead they “contain only some slight record of a year’s work in a garden, and of those associations a garden is so certain to call up.”

National Portrait Gallery

Mrs C.W.Earle      National Portrait Gallery

Mrs Earle made no claims to being an authority either, and she added her thoughts on furnishing, cooking and child-rearing and anything else that she thought would be of use to her ‘foreign friend’ and other potential readers.  She based what she wrote on her “sort of gardening journal” which had kept for many years and in which she made notes three or four times a month,  including the  specialist horticultural works she read by authors like the Loudons, William Curtis, Joseph Paxton, and her favourite, William Robinson.

She also wanted the book to be “at a very low price” but she notes in her Memoirs that “I was overruled.” Nevertheless, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden  sold well, despite having no illustrations at all, and ran  through ten editions by the end of the century. The full text can found found at:

Times 26th November 1898

It was generally well reviewed, most famously by Dean Reynolds Hole [see above]. But looking at it now most readers will, I suspect, be more likely to agree with the Times comment that it “opens no avenues of deep criticism” despite being “full of a sympathetic knowledge of life.”   Pot-pourri was later translated into several other languages, and according to her obituary in The Times inspired other writers, notably Elizabeth von Arnim and her Elizabeth and her German Garden published in 1898.

Mrs Earle then used the same formula to write two sequels More Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden (1899) and A Third Pot-Pourri (1903). The full texts can be found at:

from The Times 20th October, 1899

from The Times 20th October, 1899

from The Times, 15th December 1900

from The Times, 15th December 1903

Mrs Earle on the terrace at Woodlands from Pot POurri mised by two

Mrs Earle on the terrace at Woodlands from Pot-Pourri Mixed By Two


But Aunt T must not be dismissed as merely a Daily Mail pleasing lightweight.

Hidden in the descriptions of her garden with its  terrace lined with  large pots, and the vegetables and herbs she grew in her kitchen garden are, for example, interesting comments on  her herbaceous and mixed  borders, which suggest that she was ahead of the game.


from her column in Illustrated London News, 1913-14



In his  reappraisal of her work in Garden History in 1980, Timothy Clark suggests that Mrs Earle had probably developed in her garden “the forerunner of those famed borders whose existence was so well documented by Miss Jekyll ten years later.”   Amongst other examples Earle argued for the preservation of old roses several years before Jekyll’s own plea in Roses for English Gardens.  Indeed Jekyll’s first book Wood and Garden picks up on the debt she owed, referring to “the many valuable suggestions in Mrs Earle’s delightful book Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden.”

Earle and Jekyll became good friends, when Aunt T’s niece Emily Lytton, the sister of Constance met and then married Jekyll’s protagee and business partner, Edwin Lutyens.  Clark argues that  the friendship allowed Jekyll to translate many of Mrs Earle’s ideas  into reality without any sense of rivalry, and that she actually owed much  more to her  than is generally understood. The consequence of this, however, is that Aunt T is very definitely overshadowed by Aunt Bumps. [Aunt Bumps was Lutyens nickname for Miss Jekyll]

That this was the case can also be seen in the case of the famous Lutyens and Jekyll partnership at Boismoutier in Normandy. Mrs Earle wrote a chapter in The Century Book of Gardening (1900) about the planting advice she gave to “a young architect friend” who was “building an English house for real French people in Normandy” dismissing the original suggestions of climbers and a purely herbaceous border and proposing a mixed shrub border instead with detailed and very knowledgeable comments on plants and planting combinations. The first section of this can be seen below…

From The Century Book of Gardens, edited by E.T.Cooke, 1900

From The Century Book of Gardens, edited by E.T.Cooke, 1900


Her lengthy and very detailed suggestions and comments  can be found in full at:



Crown Imperials in the garden of Woodlands, by Margaret Waterfield, from Garden Colour, 1905

In 1905 she contributed  to Garden Colour edited by Margaret Waterfield, with a section about Spring which is full of detailed comments based on her practical knowledge of the plants she grew at Woodlands.

There were then two more Pot-pourri style books co-written with Ethel Case, again  with a chapter for each month.  Gardening for the Ignorant was dismissed by Gardeners Chronicle  [June 29th 1912] as “an unpretentious book, produced to meet the disabilities of those who, with earthy tastes, are yet so ignorant that NO book with which the authors have made acquaintance is of use…anything of value in the book has often been published before, and what is novel … would have been better omitted.”     Pot-Pourri Mixed by Two of 1914 additionally had a section of seasonal vegetarian recipes at the end of each chapter.

screenshotIn 1913, at the age of 77, Aunt T began writing a monthly gardening page for Illustrated London News‘s Women’s Supplement, but this was discontinued with the outbreak of war the following year.  She also wrote memoirs, family history and letters to her grandchildren. Her youngest son Lionel later became permanent secretary to the Ministry of Works, and shared his mother’s interest in gardens becoming one of the leading figures behind the establishment of the Royal Parks in their current form. [He deserves a post of his own one day soon!]

Mrs Earle was “widely known for espousing many causes, however unpopular…despite this everyone respected her for her outspoken utterances and her real charm and human sympathy.” [Times, 28th  February 1925] She was a supporter of  the National Food Reform Association formed in 1908, and worked with the NSPCC as a board member for their orphanage settlement project in Letchworth.  She appears to have been convinced about women’s suffrage by Constance Lytton  who bcame a prominent suffragette and also perhaps by Gertrude Jekyll who famously designed and sewed a banner for the cause.

The Times Saturday, May 02, 1925

The Times Saturday, May 02, 1925



Aunt T continued to live at Woodlands developing the garden, and where, despite being seen as as “mid-Victorian”,  “until the infirmities of old age overcame her she loved to collect at Woodlands, from Saturday to Monday, parties which were wholly delightful” [Times 28th February 1925]  She died  there in  1925.

from her column in Illustrated London News, 1913-14

from her column in Illustrated London News, 1913-14

All her books were, according to her obituarist in the Times,  “eminently characteristically of herself. They are the jottings, not always consecutive, a keen observer, and a generous and warm-hearted partaker of life’s feasts. They will some day be of historic interest, for  they vividly portray a type which will not be found in the New Age.    Aunt T had nothing of the professional woman about her…she had leisure to cultivate her tastes, love her friends, and eternally amuse, exasperate and charm them. She was not always discrete, but nevertheless hearts were bared to her. She was not always accurate, but she was always genuine and free from pose…” [Times 3rd March 1925]

from her column in Illustrated London News, 1913-14

from her column in Illustrated London News, 1913-14

As is so often the way of things, she was soon forgotten.  There was the reappraisal of her work in Garden History in 1980, and a radio programme about her in 1982, but her books went out of print for a few years.  More recently she made appearances in several books on women gardeners, notably Catherine Horwood’s eminently readable Women and Their Gardens [2012] and perhaps as a result  several more of her books have been, or are being, republished.  This would doubtless please her family and friends and one can imagine them saying cheerfully “What fun to tell Aunt T!”

Helianthemum 'Mrs C.w. Earle',

Helianthemum ‘Mrs C.W. Earle’,

For more information about Mrs Earle see

Mrs Earle’s pot-pourri, ed. A. Jones (1982); D. MacLeod, Down-to-earth Women (1982) ; T. Clark, ‘Mrs C. W. Earle (1836–1925), a reappraisal of her work’, Garden History, 8/2 (1980), 75–83; S. Festing, ‘A patient gleaner’, The Garden, 103 (1978), 412–14 · B. Massingham, A Century of Gardeners (1982); C.Horwood, Women and Their Gardens [2012].

The author in her Surrey garden from Illustrated Lopndon News, 24th May 1913

The author in her Surrey garden from Illustrated London News, 24th May 1913

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