Month: February 2015

Surprises at the Garden Museum

IMG_6094A week later than planned I went to see Rachel Warne’ s exhibition Faded Glory at the Garden Museum. As so often, I got there just days before it closed. I frequently do this, thinking ‘Oh, it’s on for ages,’ and often regret my tardiness as it means I rarely have time to go back and see whatever it was again. In this case, although the exhibition is small, I would certainly have gone back. Chris’ post has entirely done it justice so I won’t write any more about it here.

As it was, I spent far longer at the museum than I intended and discovered far more than I expected to. Just as I was leaving I was told that there was a guided tour and, on impulse, I decided to join it. At first I was the only person, but in the end there were seven of us and the guide coped brilliantly with the fact that part of her audience spoke only French. It was utterly fascinating; I cannot recommend these tours highly enough. They take place at 2 o’clock and we learnt about the history of the church, the history of the museum and, along the way, about the potteries of Lambeth and the fact that for many years the only ferry across the Thames which could take horses and carriages was at Lambeth. This gave rise to Horseferry Road, leading to the river on the north side, and the now vanished Horseferry Street on the south side. We were then taken round the garden and were shown a lot of details that I had missed, even though, by that stage, I’d already been round the beds twice.  

Briefly, the Garden Museum is housed in St Mary-at-Lambeth, just south of Lambeth Bridge. There has been a church on this site since the 11th century, but in the late 20th century the congregation declined, the building fell into disrepair and was finally deconsecrated. The area at the front is more churchyard than garden, whereas the graveyard beyond has been transformed into a garden. There is a knot garden designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury in the centre, but the main focus of the garden is probably the tomb of the John Tradescants, father and son. They were gardeners to, amongst other people, Charles I and II and travelled extensively, collecting plants and curios wherever they went. Their story really deserves a post of its own but the important point here is that their grave was the reason the church was saved and the museum created. In honour of them the garden contains only plants which they discovered, or which they would have known, i.e. nothing later than the 17th century.

The garden is helped by having a beautiful stone church along one side and a splendidly tall brick wall on another (the boundary wall of Lambeth Palace). The roads leading to Lambeth Bridge are just beyond the two remaining sides, but it is surprisingly easy to ignore them. The stone of the church is pale grey and almost anything would look good against it; a little periwinkle nestling in the shadows looked especially pretty. The tall brick wall is covered with Virginia creeper. Autumn is clearly its high point, but the day I visited, the stems hung there in a forlorn and strangely attractive manner. Virginia creeper 1Perhaps the plant knows that it will only have one more season of glory on the wall, for next autumn the museum will close and begin a period of major work begins, which will see the garden partly built over.

My first reaction was one of horror, but, having looked at the model of what it will be like and read about the plans, I see why they are doing it. Much as I hate change (see my earlier post), I think it is a good idea and even though the edges of the garden will be lost, the knot garden will remain, surrounded by an enticing-sounding cloister. The entrance area will also be brought into the garden, so in fact the garden will grow in size and, designed by the Dan Pearson Studio, I have high hopes that it will be absolutely lovely. There will be three pavilion buildings housing classrooms, studios and, crucially for me, an enlarged café. This will apparently retain its unique character, but will have a better kitchen, access from the street and outdoor seating in both areas of the garden. The inside of the church will then have more display space and more of their amazing collection will be put on show in the newly opened Pelham chapel.

It is worth visiting the museum this year, before the changes, and it will be even more worth visiting after the work has been done.


Weekly tours take place on most Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2pm. There are also end-of-the-month tours on the last Tuesdays and Wednesdays of every month, also at 2pm. The tour I went on was the Tuesday one and gives the history of the church and the Museum.

Faded Glories at the Garden Museum

Kitchen garden , Pentille Castle Saltash in Devon, March 2009, UK

Kitchen garden , Pentille Castle Saltash in Devon, March 2009, UK

Rachel Warne is probably best known as a very able commercial photographer whose work appears in gardening and lifestyle magazines such as Country Living and The English Garden. However, her skills and portfolio extend substantially beyond this point, as a current exhibition, Faded Glory, at the Garden Museum in Lambeth Palace Road, on for just over another week until 27th February, demonstrates.

The exhibition, although quite small in scale, punches well above its weight because of the powerful mood and atmosphere it creates. Occupying three sides of a room at one end of the cafe, the display consists of about sixty apparently randomly framed photographs of gardens and garden buildings that have fallen into disrepair and decay. Nonetheless it is actually very carefully staged, like a performance piece and works its effects immersively and subtly. You almost feel you could be in the back corridors of some Victorian country house where photographs had been artlessly piled up on the walls and probably observed only in passing, but are then drawn in to the content.

Rachel’s images, (alongside some small framed and cased displays of much earlier Victorian or Edwardian ones of the gardens in their prime, including postcards and cartes de visites), are all in black and white, often with quite a loose focus and captured from a relatively low angle. The resulting romantic melancholy is charming and on occasion almost gothic.

Orangery in the walled garden at Heydon Hall, Norfolk

Orangery in the walled garden at Heydon Hall, Norfolk

In one sense the meaning of the photos lies in their skilful capture of textures, the contrasts of black and white and the local sense of decay. In this respect one thinks of US photographers such as Aaron Siskind or even artists like William de Kooning or Hugo Weber. Of course you don’t need to have any view on that sort of thing to enjoy them for what they are.

In another sense they appeal to our sense of transience, giving rise to sensations of melancholy in a rather Romantic way. By looking at these images of fading gardens long past their prime we participate in the process of celebrating them for what they are as much as mourning what is lost. As gardeners we are used to the natural cycle of the seasons and moved by the birth and decay of even the most majestic of trees over long periods that exceed our own life spans, so we find the idea of renewal implicit in cultivation.

But ruins are something else; to look on the works of man in a state of dereliction inevitably causes one to pause for thought. Gateways, conservatories, orangeries, hothouses and even pathways are depicted fallen into disrepair. They are embraced, overshadowed, and even overwhelmed by the trees, climbers and other plants that have grown up around them. Apparently an Indian maharaja, shown Lutyens’ New Delhi by the proud Viceroy, remarked “These will make the noblest ruins of them all.” Somehow, we struggle with that idea a bit and it’s that tension that makes these images particularly powerful.

Carefully selected, the chosen sites include Hapsden House, Pentillie Castle, and the walled garden at Luton Hoo, as well as Myddelton House and La Chaire in Jersey. Of course, the appearance of permanent decay and decline is sometimes deceptive and this is indeed pointed out on the information boards that form part of the display. In some cases either the part of the garden photographed has yet to be renovated but the rest is in good heart, or a programme of works is planned, or the area in question is being used for some worthwhile purpose such as supporting combat traumatised veterans to gain peace through gardening.

This is an exhibition well worth seeing. If you are in that part of London, just south of Lambeth Bridge, or in a position to get there one lunch time, it really is worth a visit and the food in the cafe is pretty good too.


Here are the links to Rachel’s website (, and to that of the Garden Museum ( ). Picture credits: Rachel Warne.

The Ever-Whirling Wheel of Change


I have just read a post on Sometimes Gardening by Lucy Masters where she writes about the theory that the way to keep ageing at bay is to constantly disrupt the patterns of your life; read different books, listen to different music and plant flowers you’ve never considered before, in her case Cannas.

As a general rule, I dislike change. Naturally I veer towards the same authors (Monty Don and Iris Murdoch), listen to the same music (Baroque and the Beatles) and embrace new technology very grudgingly, as Chris will affirm. Each summer I grow the same flowers based round a palette of pinks and purples; cosmos, gaura, verbena, sweet peas and trailing lobelia are the mainstays of the garden every year. I am trying to convince myself that these are the plants that are suitable for the conditions I have, but there are masses of yellow and orange flowers that would do just as well, or even red and white. The truth is that I grow these plants because I like them and I know they will create a gentle wafty atmosphere in my tiny London garden. I dislike cannas and I’m not sure growing them would make me any younger, probably just crosser for a season, before I reverted to my tried and tested favourites.

I don’t think that total change is the answer, but perhaps a few additions which will shake up the garden a bit is what is called for. Plants that I haven’t grown before in a new range of colours. Parker’s catalogue has arrived and I went through it deliberately concentrating on the oranges and reds. The result is that, along with my usual cosmos, scabious and lobelia I have also ordered the following:

Crocosmia ‘Emily McKenzie’: this is daintier than the brash red ‘Lucifer’ which somehow got into my garden a few years ago and clashes with everything. I love Lucifer’s arching stems and the red and yellow buds so I hope this second crocosmia will act as a good companion.

Alstroemeria aurea ‘Orange King’: According to the description this cultivar has ‘marigold orange flowers, blotched buttercup yellow and striped purple-violet’. That should shake up my pastel colour scheme.  

Bidens ‘Hawaiian Flare Orange Drop’: This forms a compact bush with flowers which have red petals with orange tips. I hope these will form good bright clumps.

Thunbergia alata ‘Orange Beauty’: I have never grown black-eyed Susan (T. alata) as I felt the yellow flowers wouldn’t show up against the white walls that surround my garden. This cultivar has deep orange flowers which would show up against anything.

Of course this will all depend on the plants behaving as they are described in the catalogue, but I have high hopes for a brightly-coloured summer.




Seed Heads: To Tidy or Not to Tidy: That is the Question.

Eryngium giganteum 'Silver Ghost' 1

Every autumn I aim to give my, admittedly tiny, garden a good tidy. Often this doesn’t happen till after Christmas, but by the New Year I have always cut back most of the straggling growth from the previous summer. Seed heads always seem to look sad and soggy in my garden, rather than stately and statuesque. I know one should leave a certain amount of cover for wildlife, but with a surrounding wall of ivy and unkempt jasmine I feel there is enough wildness left. Looking round the garden this week made me wonder whether it would look better if I had left the stems, rather than imposed a rather fierce order on the now slightly flat-looking beds. A recent visit to Wisley and a walk past the Piet Oudolf borders had almost convinced me I’d done the right thing as there were one or two interesting patches there, but most of the plants looked dismal, damp and in need of a good chop. Possibly these borders might look good at this time of year on a bright, frosty morning but I doubt it.

I decided to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden, where they make a point of not cutting stems down. The garden covers a relatively small area of space, but they have an impressive collection of plants and I should be able to see a good selection of stems and seed heads. It was a reasonably sunny day, I can get in free on certain days with my RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) card and the cafe is open this week (an important consideration) as there is a snowdrop festival, not actually what I was after, but an added bonus nonetheless. All seemed well.

Horror of horrors; RHS membership no longer gets one into the garden. I may take out membership again, but I didn’t feel like doing it then and I certainly didn’t feel like paying nearly £10 to see a collection of potentially soggy seed heads.

Instead I went to Fulham Palace, which has a delightful Walled Garden, and is free. The cafe there is charming and, even though the main room may sometimes seem like a meeting place for mothers and toddlers, the cafe spreads into a side room and happily accommodates everyone. It is always possible to find a quiet corner to enjoy one’s coffee and cake.    

First though, I went to the Walled Garden where I thought I would find a reasonable selection of seed heads in the knot garden. Here there are tall grasses, silvery skeletons of perovskia and a lot of plants left over from last summer. The clumps of Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii resembled a swarm of fat, black bees and the individual heads of Agapanthus ‘Torbay’ looked pretty enough when closely inspected. Overall these beds do look good but, mostly I think, because they had tall, upright grasses and neat box surrounds to give structure. The seed heads and summer stems worked because they were supported by other plants.

The conclusion I came to is that seed heads can look good throughout winter, but only if they are surrounded by strongly-structured or upright plants. They are also best viewed either very close-up, or at a distance where they can form part of a wider picture. My garden is too small for this sort of view and the flower beds insufficiently spacious for enough plants to provide the necessary structure. On balance, I think I’m right to tidy.


Palace Walld Garden Feb 2015 2