Cottage Gardens – Cabbages and Chocolate boxes

I wrote a couple of weeks back about the origin of the cottage garden,  and today I want to take the story forward and look at how by the middle of Queen Victoria’s  reign  rural cottages and their gardens had become both a cause for social reformers and at the same time  a rich subject for  artists.  But while one group saw only the poverty, squalor and daily grind,  the other managed to romanticise what they saw and create idealised chocolate box versions of reality.

Guess which side won in the public perception both then and, I suspect,  even today?

It begins well for the cause of reform, with their complaints being summed up in 1862 by  Tom Taylor in his poem on “Old cottages.”  As you can see from the image below it’s a page long and I don’t intend to quote all of it but some lines are worth highlighting, which I’ve done later by adding them to images of paintings.

Taylor’s poem was one written to accompany a series of engravings published in 1863 as Pictures of English Landscape by Myles Birket Foster who was on his way to becoming the most celebrated Victorian watercolour painter of rural life, particularly of agricultural labourers and cottagers.  Incidentally despite the way we usually see his name written and read, he never used Myles but only  his second name  Birket, signing his work BF.






Image from Victorian Flower Gardens by Andrew Clayton-Payne

Foster was born in 1825 into a Quaker family in North Shields and his artistic aptitude must have been evident from an early age.  He was apprenticed to Ebenezer Landells, who had been a pupil of Thomas Bewick, the celebrated Newcastle engraver, but rather than engraving itself he prepared drawings for others to cut. He drew book illustrations including for major poets like Longfellow and Walter Scott as well as designs for magazines such as Illustrated London News. Examples of his work were chosen for display at the 1851 Great Exhibition. At the same time he was teaching himself to paint in watercolour and developed what he himself called a “very peculiar” style of dry, fine stippling  rather than traditional watercolour.  Once he started exhibiting his success was instant.

Although he painted scenes from all round the country and indeed travelled around Europe too, he’s most famous for his work done in West Surrey.   For several years while he was making his reputation he spent his summers at Tigbourne Cottage  in the village of Witley, near Godalming before in 1863 deciding to build his own house there called The Hill.  Set in about 20 acres   it was  decorated with the help of the Pre-Raphaelites William Morris and Edward Burne Jones. [There are photographs of it in the V&A but unfortunately they’re not yet digitised].

The Hill soon became established as a regular visiting place for other artists such as Helen Allingham who lived nearby.  Apart from her, West Surrey was  home of several other artists including George Watts at Compton and other leading figures connected with the Arts & Crafts Movement, notably Gertrude Jekyll, Edwin Lutyens and Sir Henry Cole, the founding father of the V&A.

Foster is frequently allied with the course of reform, yet it’s ironic because he also  helped perpetuate the picturesque image of the cottage through his work. He was once asked by Alfred Lord Tennyson why he always chose to paint tumbledown cottages and he replied that “no one likes an unbroken line.”

Feeding the Cat by Birket Foster                                                                                                                         image from Victorian Flower Gardens by Andrew Clayton-Payne


Pretty children in country lanes, fields and gardens continued to be Birket Foster’s most popular subjects, yet despite painting seemingly sentimental pictures like   Feeding the Cat you can still notice a few signs of the harsher life underneath.

Foster was, however,  the most realistic and least  sentimental portrayer of rural life of his age, and even his images of children show them more engaged and active than most of his contemporaries. However the charming scenes he portrays still appear rather  idyllic   and are not intended as a documentary account of the realities of everyday life.

Although children are usually seen playing they can also be seen  be working themselves, even if only at domestic tasks as in Fetching Water or The Malt House or perhaps merely watching their parents or older siblings.




We have to remember that this is an age of child labour.  In the first half of the 19thc there were a whole string of Factory Acts which sought to regulate the working hours and morals of children in the textile mills of industrial towns but they were effectively unenforceable until the 1833 set up a small factory inspectorate. 

These acts laid down, amongst other things,  that children under 9 were not to be employed at all, those between  9-12 were limited to 48 hours while  no under 18’s were allowed to work night shifts. Further reforms were introduced through the rest of the mid-century and the reach was extended to other industries, but it did not affect agriculture.



Indeed there was a lot of discussion at the time as to whether the Factory Acts were actually nothing to do with the welfare of children but rather the subjugation of industry to agriculture. Lord Shaftesbury who was behind the Reform Act certainly did not abolish child labour on his farms.  So children were expected to work.

The agricultural recession and the partial collapse of British agriculture in the 1870s resulted in a slowdown in  rural improvements so the use of  child labour continued largely unchecked into the Edwardian period.  Some  artists like John Robertson Reid and George Clausen  picked up this in much more realistic images,  but such unromantic scenes  were often rejected for exhibition at venues like the Royal Academy which instead preferred the mythical   comfortable rural life portrayed in most later cottage garden paintings.

So instead we have plenty of paintings of  “happy children” playing in fields, lanes and gardens in a rather passive way, and these idealised versions became  the  stock images of  rural life.  Now I could easily have  finished the post at this point or maybe padded it out with some more “chocolate box” scenes but at the same time as the cottage garden is becoming sentimentalised something else is happening.

Cottage in Devon by Robert Walker Macbeth.                                                                                                Image from Victorian Flower Gardens by Andrew Clayton-Payne



I mentioned in the previous post that by 1849 we have the first magazine to devote its pages to the subject of “cottage gardening”and that  then throughout the second half of the century a string of books  begin too appear on the subject too.   Of course  these were not just  aimed at rural labourers and cottagers. George Johnson the editor of The Cottage Gardener  aimed at a wider audience saying  ” we shall trim our lamp for the amateur of moderate income and the cottager.” So it was to provide basic information “for everyone who has space sufficient for a bed of cabbages, a row of currant bushes  and a flower border” rather than have columns  “devoted to the Pine Stove and Orchidaceous House.”

Johnson is definitely not talking down to his readers, and  there are also clear signs that “cottagers” [by which I think we can assume those of moderate means more generally] were growing rapidly in number from the 1830s onwards.   Donald Beaton the horticultural journalist, writing in The Cottager Gardener 1852. promised to write a chapter [although I can’t see any sign of it] about this “rise and progress of the cottage gardens or villa gardens as they used to call them around London.”  That refers back to John Claudius Loudon’s classification and terminology and might imply a real shift in the meaning of the term.   But whatever he meant there’s no doubt about their growing numbers:   “in a circle of no more than 2 miles in diameter, round my house [in Surbiton], there are as many cottage gardens, if not more, of the best class, then are to be met with in the same space in any other part of the country, and they were all made and planted within the last 20 years.”

Both the growing number and changing nature of cottage gardens is backed-up by evidence from Thomas Hardy whose first poem Domicilium written as a teenager in c1857 was about his family home – now Hardy’s Cottage – at Higher Bockhampton. It tells us that

Wild honeysucks
Climb on the walls, and seem to sprout a wish…
To overtop the apple-trees hard by.

Red roses, lilacs, variegated box
Are there in plenty, and such hardy flowers
As flourish best untrained. Adjoining these
Are herbs and esculents

Hardy also includes a recollection of his grandmother telling him as a child

‘Fifty years
Have passed since then, my child, and change has marked
The face of all things. Yonder garden-plots
And orchards were uncultivated slopes
O’ergrown with bramble bushes, furze and thorn:

Cutting Cabbages by Myles Birket Foster, from Victorian Flower Gardens by Andrew Clayton-Payne

The poem could almost be a verse form of a cottage garden painting. In fact Hardy didn’t publish it until 1916 when its imagery  of honeysuckle and roses would have appealed, like the paintings, to a nostalgic streak in a largely urbanised population  living in appalling environmental  conditions.  Not for nothing was there talk of ‘day darkness’  for the industrial pall that hung over all our major conurbation so it’s easy to see why  idealised visions of  rural life would have been popular.

These new cottage gardeners were also beginning to take notice of what those with grander gardens were doing.  Evidence of this can be seen in the practical manuals and  books aimed at them.  One thing in particular is noticeable:  the  increasing number of ornamental plants being grown. Robert Adamson in The Cottage Garden of 1851, for example,   recommended hollyhocks, asters, carnations, pinks, sweet Williams,  wallflowers, primroses, sweet rocket, stocks, sweet peas,  pansies,  phlox, delphiniums, spirea potentilla and aquilegias  for the cottage garden.

By the next generation all of those plants were thought of as archetypal cottage garden plants,  so the mid-century can be seen as the start of what became a burgeoning interest in “old-fashioned” plants. Certainly by the 1880s  the cottage garden was being  thought of   as a little enclave of tradition growing those traditional  flowers which were not subject to gardening trends and fashions more generally.

The Potato Gatherers, Gy Rose, 1891

Painters seem ahead of the game and usually show more flowers than  vegetables. Yet even in their flower-filled scenes there are usually fruit trees. There are few signs of potatoes, which had become the staple food of the poor, but plenty of  and cabbages – perhaps because they are more interesting to paint than other vegetable crops.

Apple Tree by Birket Foster

Few signs too of the wider range of vegetables and fruits that  we  know from the gardening publications aimed at those of moderate means were being recommended to cottage gardeners even though its pretty clear that  these encouragements had begun to take  effect by the end of the century.

A Cottage garden by Lillian Standard [undated] – note the pelargoniums in the window.                      from Victorian Flower Gardens by Andrew Clayton-Payne.

There was a backlash to  cottage gardeners taking an interest in ornamentals.  Blackwood’s Magazine for February 1853, for example, carried an article bemoaning the disappearance of traditional plants such as white rocket because   “the poor man’s little plot is oftentimes now adorned with showy dahlias and the walls of his cottage beautified with the pendulous panicles of the hardier varieties of fuchsia.”   Others commented about a trend for having pelargoniums as pot plants in cottage windows or even using  bedding plants arguing that cottagers  should restrict themselves to annuals and perennials that did not need protective cultivation.


It gets taken one stage further with Jeannie Loftie writing in her “Social Twitters” column in the Saturday Review in 1879 commented that “it is often amusing to trace of fashion as it percolate downwards…, cottages now tried to fill the little plots with geraniums and Calceolarias, which they are obliged to keep indoors at great inconvenience to themselves and loss of light in their rooms. Meanwhile my lady at the court is hunting the nursery grounds for London pride and Gentianella to make edgings to her wilderness and for the fair tall rocket, the cabbage roses and the nodding columbines which her pensioners have discarded and thrown away.”

This romanticised view of  life in the country took hold quickly although the West Surrey writer on rural life, George Sturt,  tried to dispel the myth, partly at least derived from paintings, that the life of the cottage housewife was “an idyll of samplers and geraniums in cottage windows.”     As we’ll see in another post soon he was fighting an uphill battle.










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1 Response to Cottage Gardens – Cabbages and Chocolate boxes

  1. Pingback: The Gardens Trust Blog | Les Jardins d'ici

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