As I am sure regular readers will have noticed I’m a great fan of John Claudius Loudon, the energetic Scotsman who tried to bring information about gardens, horticulture and agriculture [and indeed everything else!] to the widest possible audience in the first part of the 19thc. He wrote prolifically including many biblical-sized encyclopaedias as well as editing magazines, aiming his work squarely at the middle classes with their suburban villas and gardens.
Another of his admirers was Louisa Lawrence who lived in what Loudon described as “a second-rate suburban villa” at Drayton Green on the western outskirts of London. And the admiration was clearly mutual. In labelling it second-rate Loudon was not being dismissive of the fact that she managed to cram in almost every conceivable fashionable garden feature of the day into her few acres – exactly the opposite in fact. She won Loudon’s highest praise for doing so!
Louisa Lawrence was also “the lady who created the biggest upset among the bewhiskered gentlemen of the Horticultural Society” [Catherine Horwood, Gardening Women] so read on to find out more her and her second-rate villa and its garden…
She was the daughter of a wealthy Mayfair haberdasher who, in 1828, married William Lawrence a well-known surgeon some 20 years older than her who later became surgeon-general to Queen Victoria and was knighted, although she had died by then. He bought her the house at Drayton Green and allowed her to indulge in her passion for horticulture while he apparently spent most of his life at his London home.
Louisa began collecting and even hybridizing plants and in 1830 she was amongst the first women to be admitted as a fellow of the Horticultural Society. William was later to buy her a much larger property at Little Ealing where she went to achieve even greater feats including being the first gardener in Britain to succeed in getting Amhurstia nobilis to flower – beating Joseph Paxton and the Duke of Devonshire to it, much to their chagrin.
So why second-rate? It was simply that Loudon classified suburban houses and their grounds into four grades based on building legislation. Whilst the first grade had between 50 and 100 acres and had to include a park and a farm, the second did not aspire to such grandeur but it had to have at least a paddock and a dairy, and so probably required something between 5 and 50 acres. Third rate houses were smaller and had less features whilst those of the fourth rate were “built principally for the occupation of mechanics…in inferior situations.” There were of course, all sorts of further subdivisions but Loudon designed sample gardens for all of them.
Loudon wrote about Mrs Lawrence’s garden at Drayton Green at great length, first in his book The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion of 1838, and then he republished his description in The Gardeners Magazine of July that year for the benefit of “professional men” [ ie working nurserymen and gardeners who were unlikely to need an introductory book.] All the illustrations in the post are taken from the magazine unless otherwise noted.
“The young gardener may learn from this article… how little the real merit of a place depends on its extent, the outline of the ground, the character of the surface or even the disposition of the house and the domestic offices.” Instead it is ” skill, taste and money, and above all taste” which “will effect wonders in any situation.”
“The Lawrencian Villa at Drayton Green is unquestionably the most remarkable of its size in the neighbourhood of London, on account of the great variety and beauty which have been created in it, under the direction of Mrs Lawrence FHS.” Occupying a total of 28 acres, the house and associated offices and “decorated grounds” took up just 2 of them, with a further 2 acres dedicated to a kitchen garden and space for poultry and pigs. The rest was pasture. The two long sides of the ornamental gardens behind the house had high fences or walls, and the whole site was basically level with a slight rise away from the house to the end of the lawn, making the round there about 6ft higher than around the building. Loudon suggests that while such an arrangement was usually seen as a disadvantage Mrs Lawrence had turned it to good effect by using the lawn “as an arena for the display of plants, statues and other interesting objects which could be viewed comfortably from the drawing room window.”
Mrs Lawrence was clearly extremely organized. She compiled a catalogue of all her plants which listed “212 species and varieties of hardy and half-hardy ornamental trees and shrubs; 130 species and varieties of hardy fruit trees; 600 species and varieties of perennial plants; 30 species and varieties of British and American ferns planted into the rockwork; 140 species of alpines planted in the rockwork; 34 species of hardy aquatics planted in the basins; 200 varieties of heartease; 500 varieties of garden roses, creepers and standards;12 varieties of ivy; 40 species and varieties of American plants; 9 species and varieties of hardy ligneous climbers; 140 species and varieties of florist’s pelargoniums; 172 genera and 992 species and varieties of Botany Bay, China and Cape shrubs; 134 genera and 340 species and varieties of hot-house plants; and 57 genera and 227 species and varieties of stove Orchidaceae.” To which the only reaction must be “phew!”
Loudon was also struck by her management of the garden. It was clearly highly manicured and ruthlessly tidy “from the most obscure recesses of the offices to the most brilliant scenes on the lawn.” And he was impressed that this was all done “by a smaller number of gardeners than might be expected.” There were only 6 in the summer “with one or two women for collecting leaves and insects” and just 3 in winter.
Mrs Lawrence was also an eager competitor in Horticultural Society shows. Her first medal was a silver for a display at Chiswick in 1833 but the time Loudon’s article was published in July 1838 she had won a total of 53 medals, including a prestigious silver Knightian medal.
Loudon then describes the garden for his readers. “The decorated ground…is remarkable for the great variety which it contains in a very limited space; and the secret of producing this variety consists in introducing numerous small groups of trees and shrubs, sometimes combined with flowers or climbers, at other times with rockwork and with statues, fountains, basketwork and so on.”
“Turning to the right…we observe the foliated vase, [fig 44] the base of which is concealed by a plant of tree ivy…. we pass the pedestals and vases [figs 45 and 46]. We are now at a sufficient distance from the house to see it to advantage.”
Ranged in the view in front were the vase and “a basket containing a pyramid of roses and an elevated rustic basket of pelargoniums.” Looking elsewhere across the lawn “the eye observes an intricate maze of agreeable and beautiful objects, but sufficiently distant not to create the idea of being crowded or confused.”
The planting on the right hand side of the lawn was a mixture of evergreen and deciduous flowering shrubs and trees, whilst on the left there are “more rare sorts” including “a great many fine hybrid rhododendrons and azaleas.” All were “treated in the picturesque manner.” In the far right hand corner were more “splendid vases on elevated pedestals” forming “an interesting termination.”
A straight raised terrace formed the far boundary of the pleasure grounds. This gave a view over a paddock which “affords an agreeable relief from the excess of beauty and variety on the lawn, as it consists of a plain grass field, grazed by some fine Alderney cows and planted with two or three scattered elms, oaks and aspens.”
Loudon’s “next scene of interest” was the statue-lined Italian walk [point 8 on the plan] which had another vase this time framed by a rustic arch at the boundary and led back towards the house and a view of “a span-roofed” greenhouse.
To one side was a fountain and at point 10 on the plan “a rustic arch of rockwork” which offered views back to the lawn through a gap in the shrubbery. The planting in the border was “most choice herbaceous flowers interspersed with standard roses at regular intervals” whilst the wall behind was “devoted on part to the finer fruits but principally to climbing roses.”
Further down the Italian walk was a view back across the lawn to a statue of Mercury, and in the other direction a path to a gate in the wall which led through to a complex of buildings outside the garden. Here was a bathhouse, and a camellia house [point 12 on the plan] containing 67 of “the finest species and varieties that can be procured.”
Beyond it was a series of other outhouses: tool and pot stores, a large potting shed and beyond them “a court of offices” which included not only dung and rubbish pits but several pits for plants, including cape heaths. There was greenhouse and “a dry stove” and a place for “plants in pots that have done flowering.” Stables coach houses, harness rooms and living quarters for the coachman completed the complex.
Returning to the Italian walk… next came a fountain “supplied from a cistern on top of the tool house and beyond that walk to the stone cistern  which supplies water for watering the garden” and which was raised by a pump in the stable yard behind the wall. And finally the visitor arrives at the greenhouse.
The rockwork had “concealed springs which drop from rock to rock and from stone to stone, and form curious little mist places for aquatic plants.”
In the summer the central section of the lawn frequently played host to the tent which can be glimpsed behind the fountain. Beyond this, towards the centre of the lawn stood Mercury, and beyond him were the Italian walk and the camellia house. There were also views of the various other features already encountered on the walk.
The kitchen garden, gardeners house, poultry shed, piggery and cowshed were situated about 100 yards away on the other side of the lane to the house, and Loudon gives a fully detailed plan of them as well.
Having completed his description Loudon declares that “this villa may be considered as a model of its particular kind; and though it may not be in the power of many to imitate it in every thing, yet the humblest and most economical possessor of a villa residence may take a lesson from Mrs Lawrence’s taste.”
Anyone and everyone could display plants on a lawn as she did, and while not everyone can have “so many fountains, or form rockworks of pars, fossil organic remains and other geological specimens brought from distant parts of the country… everyone may sink in the ground a few small wooden cisterns lined with lead, and supply them with water by hand… some of these may serve as brilliant spots to attract the eye, and others as habitats for aquatic plants. The margins of basins of this sort can be effectually disguised with rockwork, and this can be procured from the nearest brick-field, stone-quarry or perhaps from old houses which are taking down, chalk-pits, ferruginous gravel-pits etc.” And if you can’t even manage that then “common bricks may be joined together in masses of any size and shape by cement” and artificially weathered.
Loudon took a similar approach to the planting. Although not everyone can “procure American ferns and other plants of such rarity and beauty … yet there are hundreds of alpines and many British ferns which may easily be procured from botanic gardens, or by one botanist from another; and even if no perennials could be obtained suitable for rockwork, there are Californian annuals which alone are sufficient to clothe erections of this kind with great beauty and a variety of colouring.”Even the statuary and ornaments could be done on the cheap but “equal in point of taste.” It was not necessary to have Drayton green’s marble, bronze or stone because it was possible to procure “at moderate cost…Austin’s artifical stone” or to use terracotta.
Loudon concludes by saying that although he was aware “there are many persons of a simple and severe taste who will think the Lawrencian Villa is too highly ornamented with statues and sculptures; but allowance must be made for individual taste, for devotion to the subject and the limited extent of the place. Were Mrs Lawrence in possession of a villa of 100 acres there can be no doubt that she would display on her lawn a taste as appropriate to as residence of that extent as the taste she has displayed at Drayton Green is suitable for that place.”