Any idea who or what EVB might be?
I’ll save you the trouble of googling it – and tell you its not a German rail and bus company, nor an electric vehicle battery or an empirical valence bond whatever that might be. Instead it’s the name used by an aristocratic woman who wrote and illustrated books but used her initials rather than her own name as she was afraid such work would be considered beneath her status. Although most of her early work was for children, the last thirty or so years of her life she turned her attention to gardens and gardening books.
So read on to find out more about EVB : Eleanor Vere Boyle.
Eleanor was born in 1825, the youngest of nine children of Alexander Gordon an army officer who fought in the Peninsular War, and who was the illegitimate, but recognised, son of the Earl of Aberdeen. Her mother was the granddaughter of the Earl of Buckinghamshire, and an accomplished painter of flowers. The family lived initially at Ellon Castle which the earl had bought for his mistress and which Alexander was to inherit in 1840. But they soon moved to Edinburgh and then in 1833 to Hampton Wick, then just a small village on the Thames just to the west of London.
In 1845 Eleanor married Revd Richard Cavendish Boyle, in the society church of St George’s Hanover Square. He was the youngest son of the 8th Earl of Cork who gave him the living of Marston Biggott near Frome in Somerset, the parish which contained the family seat, Marston House. The Earl’s gardener was William Iggulden, author of a book on Tomatoes which featured in a recent post.
Two years later Richard also become a chaplain to Queen Victoria. Over the next ten years the couple had 5 children. Eleanor and Richard were well off and well connected and as well as going regularly back to Ellon, they spent long holidays in Switzerland, the south of France, and Italy where she painted and sketched.
She was lucky enough to get artistic help and advice from family friends, including Charles Eastlake, the President of the Royal Academy and first director of the National Gallery, the artist William Boxall, who was the next director of the gallery, and Thomas Landseer, brother of the more famous Edwin and one of the best etchers of his day. Her work was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, even calling her work “great in design”. Landseer compared her etchings [rather exaggeratedly I suspect!] to Raphael’s cartoons while others preferred a link to Durer!This probably helped her get her first illustrating commissions and in the twenty years or so after the birth of her last child she worked on fourteen books, the majority fairy tales or nursery rhymes. As her biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says these are full of “idealised children, often in mysterious natural surroundings with meticulously rendered plants and animals”. Her work became popular, and she had exhibitions at the Grosvenor and Dudley Galleries in London and at the Society of Female Artists.
First in 1852 came Child’s Play a collection of 17 of her etchings illustrating nursery rhymes, which was followed just a few months later by another collection under the title of A Children’s Summer. The Westminster Review wrote “we shall not be satisfied unless the possessor of such a rare gift as this power and understanding and representing children’s’ beauty enriches us with more books as this…”
She was also friends with Tennyson and illustrated his rather mawkish poem The May Queen in 1861. Woodland Gossip followed in 1864, A Dream Book in 1870, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales in 1872 and perhaps most well-known Beauty and the Beast in 1877 which was described by a critic as “the thread of the old, wondrous romance strung with new and brilliant fancies of her own. The book is a gem.”
These early books gained her a place in English Female Artists published in 1876 by Ellen Clayton, and she won praise from many other critics including John Ruskin.
She used the money she raised to support her husband’s charitable work in his parish and nearby Frome, where she became a patron of the School of Art where she had papers read [as a woman she wasn’t allowed to give them herself!] and gave prizes.
When Richard Boyle retired from the ministry in 1871 the couple decided to leave Somerset and she organised a leaving gift for Frome. This was the red granite Boyle Cross, designed by her and chosen because she felt the town lacked both a market cross and a drinking fountain.
They moved to Berkshire, buying Huntercombe Manor, set in the countryside between Eton and Windsor, where they must have lived a comfortable life with, according to the 1881 census, 13 live-in servants .
Later she tells how “The ancient dame who lives in the cottage at the gate” described Huntercombe as “An old house full of echoes.” And it certainly was old, being formed around a 14thc timber-framed hall which over the centuries had been continually modified and extended. Once owned by a branch of the Evelyn family, John the diarist, described it in 1679 as ‘. . . a very pretty seat in the forest . . . on a flat, with gardens exquisitely kept, though large, and the house a staunch, good old building”.
By the time she arrived ‘a comfortable eighteenth-century cottage was added to it, and all its walls and windows are now embedded in the “leafy vine” (or rather honeysuckle).’ That’s the part the Boyles moved into while “the untouched oldest part, with decaying wooden frame-work, out of which the narrow old bricks are loosening, is as picturesquely crooked as heart can wish, is dwelt in by the gardener who made the garden.”
It was here that her love of gardens really began to show. She began by recording the story of the making of Huntercombe’s gardens as a series of 12 unsigned monthly columns in Gardeners Chronicle beginning in November 1882 under the title “A Buckinghamshire Garden”. These were then collated with small illustrations added before being published in 1884 as Days and Hours in a Garden, dedicated to her husband who had suffered a stroke in 1878.
The format was common in gardening manuals but not as far as I can see in descriptive writing about gardens. This was EVB’s first work in prose. and her most popular work, with ten editions appearing between 1884 and 1898.
Her description begins with an account of what little that they found. The main features were “two symmetrically planted groups of magnificent Elms in the park field, in which every season we hope the rooks will build.” But that was it.
“There was everything to be done in the garden, to which these Elms form a background. We found hardly any flowers; a large square lawn laid out in beds, with unsatisfactory turf and shrubberies beyond, a long, broad terrace walk, old brick walls, with stone balls on the corners, two or three old wrought iron gates in the wrong places, dabs of kitchen garden and potato plots, stable-yard and carriage entrance occupying the whole south front” with just “a few pleasant trees”.
Recognising their own ignorance they “brought a skilful Gardener, possessed of common sense and uncommon good taste —can one say much more in a few words ? —and aided by our own most unscientific but exceeding love for flowers and gardening, we set to work at once”.
“About twenty-five years ago, one dark November evening, pacing round and round the dull lawn in the cheerless melancholy dusk, I pondered what could be done to give character and interest to such a dreary flat. And then it flashed, “If there could be trim yew hedges” so they planted yew with its “thousand years of gloom!” not just in hedges but pyramids and buttress against the walls too.
Elsewhere it must have colourful as she talks about a parterre of scarlet pelargoniums and “the only foliage plant we tolerate—a deep crimson velvet-leaved Coleus”. Other places were “gay with yellow Zinnias and blue Salvia in rich luxuriance, with a host of smaller, less showy things—with bunches of crimson Roses, and pink La France, blooming out from a perfect mist of white and pinkish Japan Anemones, white Sweet Peas, and a few broad Sunflowers just large enough towering at the back—their great stems coruscating all over with stars of gold…
…Even last week the borders throughout the garden looked filled and cheerful—brilliant with scarlet Lobelia and tall deep red Phloxes, and bushes of blue-leaved starry Marguerites, and the three varieties of Japan Anemone, with strange orange Tigridias and auratum Lilies and Ladies’ Pincushion … and every kind of late as well as summer Roses, the evening Primrose making sunshine in each shady spot, with here and there the burning flame of a Tritoma.” What a pity she didn’t leave any images as colourful as her illustrations for children’s books.
There were areas designated “Bocage” [a French term appropriated into English too meaning a mix of woodland and pasture but here perhaps more akin to the the idea of woodland wilderness], and “The Fantaisie” which harks back to her love of the imaginary worlds of childhood. In that first Gardeners Chronicle article she says “I am afraid I never can be quite serious about a garden; I always am inclined to find delight in fancies, and reminiscences of a child’s garden, and the desire to get everything into it if I could. This “Fantaisie” was a dream of delight during the past summer… through all the fairy days and months, up to quite lately.” It was clearly one of her favourite places and it crops up in the articles for most months.
Her writing is a joy to read as she recollects such simple things as “The symmetrically banked-up Celery — crested with the richest green, in the kitchen garden—rather takes my fancy”. And who doesn’t share her view that “When a plant has lived with us for a time under the same roof, or even in the green-house, giving out for us its whole self of sweetness or of beauty, it seems so cruel that it should at last be thrown away as if worthless and forgotten.” Especially so when in later years there is “the unexpected advent of some stray pyramid of small odorous bells, pink, blue, or creamy-white, in out-of-the way places as a once-forced hyacinth reappears…”
And who cares about the accepted lore of garden design? Tulips for example are supposed to be planted in blocks but not by EVB: “There is a kind of dulness in Tulips and Hyacinths, sorted, and coming up all one size and colour.” Instead she has “beds now, ablaze of scarlet and yellow splendour. There are tall tulips and short tulips rose and crimson, scarlet and orange tulips, striped and dashed and brown and white, and every shade of tulip colour. … I am aware that as a matter of the highest principle, Tulips are seldom mixed, the colours are usually arranged separately. Long experience has taught me, however, to have nothing to do with principles—in the garden. Little else than a feeling of entire sympathy with the diverse characters of your plants and flowers is needed for ‘art in the garden’. If sympathy be there all the rest comes naturally enough.”
Nine more books were to follow. The first of these was Ros Rosarum ex Horto Poetarum, Dew of the Ever-Living Rose. Gathered from the Poets Gardens of Many Lands. It was an anthology of verse dedicated to roses, and she contributed 11 full-page illustrations as well as lots of pictorial head and tail pieces, small floral text decorations and decorative initials.
It begins with a lengthy epistle to the reader and is followed by sections on roses from round the world including Armenia, Syria and Persia and more on English roses arranged by centuries. The book was dedicated to her friend Lady Eastlake, the writer and art critic who was married to Charles Eastlake the first director of the National gallery, and included poems by two more friends, Edward Bulwer Lytton and Lord Tennyson.
Next came A Garden of Pleasure (1895), which was also written in monthly chapters largely about her garden at Huntercombe. It doesn’t flow with the same ease as Days and Hours but it does describe the changes, successes and failures she’d encountered in creating and then in places remodelling the garden. These are sometimes recounted by references to previous years entries in her diary and I wonder if that has survived anywhere?
For example on 30th November 1887 she recalls she was “going out with all the soft warmth of a summer month” when she had roses still in bloom with more “large firm swelling buds which look as if come what might, they were resolved to open.” Yet 4 years later the same day was “damp and shrouded in a thick white fog. There have been troublous times of wet and wind with alternating frosts. The earth is saturated with moisture: so much so that the very worms are made uncomfortable in it.”
These later books were often illustrated with small sketches of her own particularly flowers and what she called “the day of small things, of Nature’s delicate masterpieces”.
Seven Gardens and a Palace was a 1900 collection of her essays reprinted from the Anglo-Saxon Review, Blackwood’s Magazine, Country Life, the National Review, and the Pall Mall Magazine—describing gardens she had known since her childhood. The eight included Ellon Castle, together with Dropmore and Hampton Court as well as her own Huntercombe. Surprisingly the illustrations, including were not by her but by FLB Griggs and Arthur Gordon. It begins however with a long rhapsodic piece about gardens generally, looking at their history and meanings but again taking the reader back to her fascination with make-believe: “A GARDEN! The word is in itself a picture, and what pictures it reveals! All through the days of childhood the garden is our fairy-ground of sweet enchantment and innocent wonder.”
Her last two books are both a little odd. Sylvana’s Letters to an Unknown Friend, which also came out in 1900 was written in letter form by “Sylvana” to her friend “Amaryllis”, who I think was Alice Morse Earle. It describes her own garden, although it isn’t named and it doesn’t seem to be Huntercombe but the house below, and it was illustrated with photographs. In it E. V. B., says, “The very ideal of a garden, and the only one I know, is found in Shelley’s Sensitive Plant.” This is a 300+ line poem published in 1820 following the death of his son, Will, and the subsequent depression of his wife, Mary. It describes a garden of flowers which represent a paradisal form of the world, which is tended by an unnamed Lady, representing the force of nature that takes care of the world and serves as the garden’s soul. Follow the link for a detailed commentary.
Her last book was stranger still. The Peacock’s Pleasaunce in 1908 which is partly about peacocks and partly about plants and gardens, but written in a rather verbose and at times surreal style and illustrated with photos of peacocks.
All the time she was writing EVB was also continuing to exhibit her work including a show at Leighton House, Kensington in 1902 entitled “Sketches, dreams, and drawings.” Sadly very few of her her non-book artworks seem to come up at auction or been have been digitised anywhere.
She continued working in her older age because much of her wealth was lost in unwise investments organised by her banker son-in-law, and when she died in 1916 Huntercomne had been sold and she was living in comparative poverty in Brighton. She was buried with Richard at Marston Bigot churchyard. Huntercombe is now a specialist mental health hospital.
Let’s leave the last word to a contemporary, Mrs Francis King in The Well Considered Garden, in 1917 the year after EVB died: “Under luxuries in garden books falls a group whose contents are an addition to letters as well as to gardening. How rare and choice these are, and what a pity that all books on so beautiful a topic cannot be beautiful in themselves, I mean in their manner of writing! When such do fall in our way we have very real reason for thanksgiving, and first in my own affections always stand the writings of the Honourable Mrs. Boyle, “E. V. B.”