A Trip Advisor’s Guide to London Gardens……… in the 1690s

In the United Kingdom, garden visiting is an extremely popular occupation. In 2021 Kew had 1.25 million visitors  and RHS Wisley  nearly a million, while Westonbirt, Attingham and Edinburgh Botanic Gardens all also featured in top 20 visitor attractions in Britain.  Thousands of gardens open for the National Gardens Scheme and it’s been clear for years that garden tourism is big business. These days its relatively easy to  find information about where to visit but it hasn’t always been so.

That’s why a certain J. Gibson, a Yorkshire landowner who visited London in  December 1691, decided he’d help his friends and acquaintances by writing a “trip advisor” review of the major gardens round London. It wasn’t printed but instead circulated in hand-written form. Then it was lost, except for one copy which about a hundred years later ended up in the hands the Reverend Dr James Hamilton…

And thank goodness it did…

Hamilton  just happened to be Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries in London and in 1794 after reading Gibson’s account to members  he had it published in Archaeologia the Society’s journal.      A short Account of Several Gardens near London, with remarks on some particulars wherein they excel or are deficient with a View on them”  has a list of 28 locations and their owners, unsurprisingly headed by Hampton Court, and Kensington Palace, the homes of William III & his wife Queen Mary.  With the exceptions of Chelsea Physic Garden and famous Brompton Park nursery, the rest are listed in groups according to the owner’s social rank. After the gardens of royalty come the  gardens of  the aristocracy, merchant princes, senior clergy, and assorted gentry, and then finally a group of commercial nurserymen, themselves socially stratified, with “Captain Foster” and “Monsieur Versprit” having precedence over mere “Clements” and “Darby”. His descriptions are particularly important because we have almost no images of what any of these gardens were actually like.

from Commelyn’s Nederlantze hesperides, 1676

There is a little uncertainty about the author, as there were three members of the Gibson family who it could be but research by my fellow Gardens Trust trustee Sally Jeffery, makes it fairly clear it’s Sir John Gibson [1630-1711] of Welburn Hall near Kirkdale, in the North Riding of Yorkshire.  [For more information see her article in The London Gardener]

Sir John came to London in the winter so he wasn’t able to say much about the normal things that visitors comment on, such as the flowers, colours, and scents. However  he was obviously able to see the underlying structure and the various garden buildings which included some early hot-houses and their collections of exotic plants.

 

Although William and Mary were both known to be keen gardeners the royal palaces get surprisingly little attention. This is probably because the royal pair had been on the throne for less than 3 years and although  work started at Hampton Court fairly quickly Gibson could not have seen the elaborate garden that we are familiar with from paintings like the one above which records the scene a decade or more after his visit.  Instead the latest developments he’d have noticed were the changes  made to the Old Orchard by Charles II or his mistress, Lady Castlemaine. Now renamed the New Plantation, the area was divided into small sections separated by gravel walks, each containing plots of woodland and interspersed with large clipped yews. Four of these sections contained mazes, the one survivor of which is the famous Hampton Court maze of today.

 

None of this is mentioned by Gibson.  Instead he only describes “a large plat, environed with an iron palisade, laid all in walks, grass plats and borders.”  There were “flat and broad beds set with narrow rows of dwarf box in lace-like patterns” near the house.

Nor was he impressed by the greenhouse, later Mary’s pride and joy, which was to house her huge collection of exotics. Although it had stoves underneath each of its sections there were  “no orange or, lemon trees, or myrtles or any greens” just “such tender foreign ones that need continual warmth.”

The new royal residence at Kensington was the Jacobean mansion then known as Nottingham House. It was acquired by the royal couple in 1the summer of 1689 and survived their extensive rebuilding and remodelling programme not finally being demolished until the 1720s.   Gibson was pretty blunt about the gardens: they  “are not great or abounding with fine plants.”

This was partly because the collection of citrus had been sent to the greenhouses at Brompton Nursery a mile or so away to be cared for over the winter.  That routine didn’t change until Hawksmoor’s orangery was built for Queen Anne in 1705.

However it was clear that changes were afoot and Gibson notes that “they digging up a flat of four or five acres to enlarge their gardens.”  Brompton, run by George London and Henry Wise, had only been open for 10 years but already it was flourishing. The royal plants only took up “little room in comparison” with nursery’s own stock. Indeed Brompton was “chiefly a nursery for all sorts of plants, of which they are very full.”

A View of Hammersmith,  with  Catherine’s house is on the left , 1752

 

 

The third royal garden to get a mention was at Hammersmith and belonged not to the crown itself but to Catherine of Braganza, the widow of Charles II. Catherine lived mainly at Somerset House but used the riverside house at Hammersmith intermittently as a retreat, especially when anti-Catholic feelings were high.

Although Catherine is dismissed as “not being for curious plants or flowers” Gibson praises her Flemish gardener, Hermon Van Guine, as “a man of great skill and industry” for his skills in grafting citrus of all kinds as well his topiary work with  “myrtles, Roman bayes and other greens”  which he had for sale.

There was also “a good greenhouse, with a high erected front to the south, once the roof falls backwards. The house is well stored with greens of common kinds.”  Catherine  returned to Portugal a few months after Gibson’s visit and never came back, although the garden continued to be tended in her name, and at her expense, until her death in 1705.

From there we drop one notch down the social scale to  Beddington, belonging to the Carew family. It had “the best orangery in England” – 200 ft in length with trees up to 13ft high that had been growing in open ground for the best part of a century.

In the early days the trees were protected in winter by  a wooden structure  built around them but the year before Gibson visited a new red brick building had been completed.  Although the gardener claimed he had picked 10,000 oranges in 1690,  “the rest of the garden is all out of order”.

 

For more information see John Phillips booklet or Virginia Black, “Beddington — ‘the best orangery in England”in The Journal of Garden History , Vol 3, 1983[no.2]  

Next comes Chelsea Physic Garden, founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries, which “has great variety of plants both in and out of greenhouses…but not in so good an order as might be expected.” Gibson discovered the reason later: “Mr Watts, the keeper of it, was blamed for his neglect…and would be removed.”  This happened a few months later. Interestingly Gibson went on to visit Watts’s own garden  at Enfield.

Round the corner from the Physic Garden was Chelsea Hospital.  Its treasurer, Lord Ranelagh,  had recently built a house and garden next door. This later became the commercial pleasure grounds known as Ranelagh Gardens. His lordship’s garden was  “curiously kept and elegantly designed” although “the plants are but small,”  and  it had a large kitchen garden which must also have been ornamental with walks and seats.

detail from William Morgan’s London etc Actually Surveyed, 1682.                                                        Image from A-Z of Charles II’s London

 

Further into the capital, the Duke of Devonshire had Arlington House at the western end of  St James Park,  that was later to become Buckingham Palace. It had good walks and “six of the greatest earthenware pots that are anywhere else, being at least two feet over within the edge”  But Gibson is scathing that they have nothing interesting in them.

The Duke  had recently had a greenhouse built but, in one of the problems that affected London’s urban gardeners the “greens were not so bright and clean as farther off in the country, as if they suffered from the smutty air of the town.” This was another sign of the appalling air pollution around London caused partly by noxious industries but mainly by the switch to coal as the principal fuel for domestic and industrial use.  It had already led to John Evelyn’s famous diatribe  Fumifugium of 1661 and was soon followed by the  horticultural zoning of London in Thomas Fairchild’s The City Gardener of 1727.

Sir Stephen Fox’s house from an extra-illustrated copy of Lysons  Environs of London, vol. 2, part 2, 1795.   in Guildhall Library,

 

So far though Gibson has not done much more than describe the gardens briefly. He goes one stage further for Lord Fauconbergh’s garden at Sutton Court in Chiswick and is much more detailed analytical…or perhaps critical might be a better term.  Although there were “several pleasant walks…the upper garden is too irregular and the bowling green too little to be commended.”  While the greenhouse was “well made” it was “ill set…and so placed that the sunshines not on the plants in winter, where they most need its beams, the dwelling house betwixt the sun and it.” There was a maze, growing a bit leggy, with a cypress arbour in the middle, and an aviary, decorated with pots of bay, which housed white pheasants and partridges,. Elsewhere there were vines, “blew pots on pedestals” and a fish pond.

Sutton Court was later incorporated into Lord Burlington’s Chiswick estate, as was Sir Stephen Fox’s garden. Fox was an extremely wealthy financier, and became William III’s banker as well as Paymaster of His Majesties Forces – so its not surprising he could afford an “extraordinarily fine garden.” It had been bought “to great perfection” despite being only four or five years old when Gibson visited.

There were topiary “rounds and spires” in yew “all under smooth tonsure,” [which can just be glimpsed in the image], while the  large elegant greenhouse was  “well built, well-set and well furnished.”

from Ferrari’s Hesperides, 1646

Further out in to the western suburbs was Sir William Temple’s house and garden at West Sheen, although he had recently moved to Moor Park in Farnham, so “it was no so well kept.” Temple had tried, we are told, unsuccessfully to copy Beddington and grow orange trees in open ground.

A more successful attempt at having citrus outdoors was said by Gibson, to be found at Sir Henry Capel’s house at Kew. They “stand out in summer in two walks about 14ft wide, enclosed with a timber frame about 7ft high, and set with silver firs hedge-wise… this to secure them from the wind and tempest, and sometimes from the scorching sun.”  Capel’s garden was full of rare trees including variegated hollies, laurustinus, and 2 pistachios which cost him £20 a piece from Versprit, one of the nurserymen whose garden is also on the list.  Overall the garden “is as well kept as any about London.” Capel’s house stood facing the Dutch House/Kew Palace and was later remodelled entirely  by Frederick Prince of Wales and renamed the White House.  Capel’s gardens thus became part of the royal gardens at Kew.

Moving one step down the social hierarchy but not the wealth table, we reach the commercial elite. Gibson visited the Hackney home of Sir Thomas Cooke, a merchant goldsmith and director of the East India Company. It was he said large but “not so fine at present”.  It had two greenhouses, although the collection was not particularly interesting as the water tank on the roof of one of them “fell down last year upon the greens and made a great destruction among the trees and pots.” Cooke’s estate also contained a 2 acre rabbit warren and a large fish pond with “water bought in from far in pipes.” However the gardener assured him it was going to improve rapidly as Sir Thomas planned to spend about £3,000 on it the coming year.

Gibson also went to see Cooke’s son-in-law Sir Josiah Child, another EIC governor, whose “plantations of walnuts and other trees at Wanstead are much more worth seeing than his gardens, which are but indifferent.”  The scale of the estate clearly impressed Gibson who reported on the two large fish ponds in the forest each of which had a large island complete with a house: ‘they are said to be well stocked with fish, and so they had need to be if they cost him five thousand pounds, as it said they did” before adding that the plantations were said to have cost twice as much. Sadly although the house wasn’t replaced until 1715 most of Sir Josiah’s garden layout was altered by George London a decade earlier and there are no known images of  the earlier garden.

Another wealthy city magnate Sir Robert Clayton, had an estate at Marden in Surrey. The soil was poor but “with great charge he forces Nature to obey him.” Despite this Gibson is not convinced: the “garden are big enough but strangely irregular.” Clayton “built a good greenhouse but set it so the hills in winter keep the sun from it.”  Yet John Evelyn who also visited was impressed with what Clayton had achieved [Diary v pp425]

Lambeth Palace from Morgan’S London etc Actually Surveyed, 1682

Evelyn also knew the next garden on Gibson’s list: the one at Lambeth Palace, the London seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury.   Previous archbishops had not been terribly interested in the grounds but John Tillotson who was appointed earlier in 1691, the year of Gibson’s visit, began to change all that.  Gibson reported that it had ‘little but walks’ but that the new archbishop  had already had a greenhouse built: “one of the finest and costliest about town.”  It had a glass front, although like all others of the time, a solid roof covered in lead. It was at the forefront of technology because it was heated with a stove designed by Evelyn and only described in print the same year in his Kalendarium Hortense.

Gibson also went to see Tillotson’s private garden at Enfield which had “pleasurable walks” and two greenhouses, although by the time he visited the best plants had already been taken to Lambeth.

Enfield was clearly a gardening Mecca and Gibson visited several more in the area. First was the home of Robert Uvedale, clergyman schoolmaster and botanist who  clearly made an impression on Gibson as “master of the greatest and choicest collection of exotic greens that is perhaps anywhere in this land.” It filled 6 or 7 greenhouses, several of them heated. “His flowers are choice, his stock numerous and his culture of the very methodical and curious.”

Next  was  the private garden of Mr Watts of Chelsea physic garden, which was new in 1691 but “fine and large and regularly laid out” with  “a fair fish-pond in the middle.” It also had an advanced heated greenhouse like the one at Lambeth, with a skylight in one section and shutters on the windows, although like most of the other greenhouses Gibson described it was not sited to take advantage of winter sunlight.

Finally in Enfield he  visited Forty Hall, home of Nicholas Raynton, although this was “observable for nothing but his greenhouse, which he has had for many years” Gibson also noted the topiary chair which stood over six feet high, although “the lower part is thin of leaves”, and a rabbit warren from which “sometimes the coney work under the wall into the garden.” Unfortunately “the rest of garden is very ordinary.” It suggests that nothing was left of the great Elizabethan Elsyng palace and garden that stood nearby in the grounds until its demolition in 1657.

And not far away was the village of East Barnet where John Richardson lived. He had “a pretty garden with fine walks and good flowers; but the garden not being Walde about they have less summer fruit… There is a good fish pond in the middle of it from which abroad gravel walk leads to the highway… They have orange and lemon trees; but the wife and son being the managers of the garden (the husband being gentry and not minding it), they cannot prevail for a house for them other than a barn end.”

Finally Sir John went to visit the commercial nurseries around London. But I’m already well past my self-imposed word limit so apologies you’ll have to wait for another post soon!

 

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