Garden Museum

Repton’s Red Books

This year marks the bicentenary of Humphry  (notably always spelt without an ‘e’) Repton’s death in 1818. Amongst the series of events, talks, walks and celebrations taking place (many organised by, or in conjunction with, The Gardens Trust) is the exhibition Repton Revealed at the Garden Museum. This runs until the 3rd of February and has been sponsored by City and Country, a developer of heritage properties, who currently own the Mansion at Sundridge Park where they are restoring part of the Repton Garden.  They have lent the original Red Book, which they own, for the property as part of their contribution.

The exhibition is a must for garden historians, Repton specialists and the Friends of the Museum. The more the viewer already knows the more valuable it is. It is built up around a core of 24 of Repton’s ‘Red Books’, those beautifully produced, and usually red leather bound, marketing presentations with which he wooed potential clients. Since only around 200 are estimated to survive the presence there of so many is a tribute to the powers of persuasion of Christopher Woodward, the Museum’s Director, his Trustees and staff and the exhibition curator, Professor Stephen Daniels. The books are supplemented by some of Repton’s watercolours, drawings and informative text panels as well as, crucially, by a digital presentation of the Red Book for Armley, a Repton garden near Leeds.

Repton’s marketing technique was as simple as it was effective. After a visit to the potential client’s property, where the socially affable and sophisticated Repton unleashed all his charm, a Red Book would be produced in the same way as a consultancy client would now receive a follow up Power Point presentation. Here a structured series of past and proposed views of the client’s property would be revealed as the owner turned the pages and lifted the flaps on each page of beautiful watercolour. As the Museums’s own publicity states Clients would open the book to see Repton’s delicate watercolours of their garden as it currently appeared, and then would then lift a flap, revealing Repton’s new design for their garden as it could be (provided they paid Repton handsomely to make the design a reality!). As pages are turned, trees rise or are felled, a stream becomes a lake, an untidy farm becomes a genteel park, or, as is the case in the Sundridge Park Red Book, a house is suddenly replaced with another, grander manor.  The accompanying text, now somewhat flowery and verbose to modern eyes, would recall the pleasure of Repton’s visit, the natural beauty and potential of the site and the poise and standing of the owner, that could only be enhanced by implementing the proposed improvements.

On account of the fragility of the main exhibits it is a given that low light levels are essential and there is obviously no possibility of actually turning the pages of any Red Book. Herein lies the only problem with this exhibition. For all its strengths it can offer only limited engagement with the essentially dynamic process of viewing a Red Book as a client once might.

Christopher Woodward has pointed out that Repton was a man obsessed with change and speed, whose ideal viewpoint would have been taken from a fast moving travelling phaeton, as frame gave way to frame. He would, he claims with justification have become a filmmaker if born in the last century. It’s equally possible that he would have been a high powered salesman, perhaps of some exotic commodity, supporting his pitches to Ultra High Net Worth Individuals with sophisticated Power Point presentations and embedded video!

The organisers are well aware of this problem and to overcome it have commissioned an 8 minute video and voice over based on Repton’s designs for Armley, a villa then on the outskirts of Leeds. The text of the original has had to be adapted for modern ears but the process of seeing the illustrations appear successively on screen is highly effective and no-one should leave the exhibition without sitting down and watching it. Had more funds been available perhaps the other books could have received the same treatment and been made available to visitors by a link to their phones.This should not detract from the success of the exhibition or deter visitors from seeing it, but it is only right to point out that the problem exists.

An interesting and surprisingly modern sidelight of Repton’s life is his very personal concern for overcoming disability. After a carriage accident which severely damaged his back and left him suffering continual pain,he focused much of his energy on the design of suitable vehicles to get about with limited mobility and planned routes for his clients’ estates that would suit disabled and able bodied visitors alike. The exhibition is a worthy tribute to a man in many ways ahead of his time as well as being a significant input into garden history and a great credit to the Museum. See it if you can.


A Works Outing

Last Saturday we decided to have a treat and call it our works outing. Jane and I visited the Garden Museum Plant Fair, which this year was held in the gardens of Lambeth Palace since the Museum itself is being redeveloped. The day was a resounding success.

The Fair in ProgressThe fair had an awful lot going for it. For a start the trade stands were of the highest quality, full of fine and original plants at very fair prices. The exhibitors were those one hoped and indeed expected to see, people who knew and cared about plants and had brought along their best stock for a knowledgeable and often passionate group of gardeners. Just three of the many names give you an indication of the standard: Derry Watkins’ Special Plants, Rose Cottage Plants and Crug Farm Plants.

The plant stock was obviously rather spring-centred with lots of bulbs. One of nicest things was the proliferation of twists on old favourites. Thus I bought a wallflower from Special Plants as a present for a neighbour but it was Erysimum ‘Red Jep’ rather than some random bit of a Persian Carpet mixture. Described as ‘Deep velvety red with a touch of orange’ its best quality is the way it actually enhances the plants next to which it is put. It’s ended up in a border at the Old Vicarage surrounded by forget-me-nots and what I call Sarah Raven tulips such as ‘Cairo’, ‘Abu Hassan’, and ‘Queen of the Night’. Frankly it looks great whereas even good plants of that trusty favourite Bowles Mauve merely look good. And at £3.50 it could hardly have been cheaper.

Something else interesting and very fair value was a pot of Fritillaria acmopetala for £6 from Rose Cottage plants (see the picture).  Nearby, Crown Imperials have always been old favourites but ‘William III’ with its bronzy flush is a distinctive and distinct improvement on the ordinary red specimens.Fritilleria acmopetala

There were fine offerings of garden furniture in steel and splendid old garden equipment including a proper, large, half moon edger in good and useable condition for £32. A couple of the obligatory cucumber straighteners looked fascinating (if the price of these goes on rising as it has they’ll soon be worth a forger’s attention!).

Mari’s excellent pop up cafe not only served very good food but by a miracle did so very quickly; even keeping pace with swelling queues of the visitors sent scurrying by occasional showers into the catering marquee.

Perhaps the thing that made the Fair special though was the setting and atmosphere with loads of room to spread out in Lambeth Palace’s eleven acres without the usual crush you get at these events. It’s London’s oldest continually cultivated garden, dating right back to 1197 and is infinitely grander and more pleasing than anyone who hadn’t visited it before would imagine. Until recently it was remarkably difficult to visit. However the present Archbishop, Justin Welbey, has moved to open it not only for special events and groups, but to the general public. It’s open on the first Friday afternoon of each month between March and October this year.

Like anything that’s been around a long time it’s had its ups and downs and seen many changes. Archbishop Tillotson (in office from 1691 until his death in 1694) for example, was responsible for many improvements to the garden which had become somewhat neglected, as well as producing such memorable sayings as “A good word is an easy obligation; but not to speak ill requires only our silence, which costs us nothing.”  

You enter the garden, once you have passed through the ancient gatehouse and an enclosed courtyard which contains an ancient white fig on its left hand side propagated from an original planted in 1564. Such reminders of the place’s age and history are everywhere while the atmosphere, despite some noise from outside the high enclosing walls, is tranquil and relaxed, completely contrasted to the bustle and roar of traffic from the encircling roads.

By turning through a narrow passageway between ranks of buildings you come suddenly into a huge expanse of green composed of lawns, trees and borders and bisected by a broad stone walkway raised a few steps above the general  level and ornamented with pergolas, benches and planting. In the large lawned area beyond this walkway the plant fair had spread out its stands. Beyond this again there are many surprises, including a secret grove, lake, beehives and a gravel garden along with other delights. A Chinese garden for example contains rarities including a plant we were quite unable to identify initially. It turned out (thank you helpful label!) to be Dipelta yunnanensis, one of George Forrest’s introductions from Western China in 1910. It looks a bit like a weigela with corymbs of fried eggs for flowers and is nowadays scarce, although apparently hardy and is obtainable from two or three specialists such as Burncoose Nurseries.

Dipelta yunnanensis

All in all it was a delightful day and we voted the outing a great success. If you get an opportunity to visit the gardens do take it and there can be few better value plant fairs than this. A fiver covered both and it provided an opportunity to buy plants of distinction at prices rather less than you would pay for the most ordinary competitors in many garden centres.  It would be really excellent if it was held there again next year.





Russell Page Exhibition at the Garden Museum

The Garden Museum in London ( is on a roll. About ten years ago it was generally felt to be a very good idea that had somehow slightly lost its way. Since the arrival of a new Director, Christopher Woodward, in 2006 it has gone from strength to strength and will be undertaking a major redevelopment of the Museum, starting in the autumn of this year. This, for which nearly all of the necessary £6.6 million of funding has already been raised, will double the gallery space, recreate part of John Tradescant’s famous Cabinet of Curiosities (his “Ark”) and establish the UK’s first archive of garden design. The Museum is becoming an important as well as an interesting place to visit.

To comprehend this new status, gardeners everywhere should visit the Russell Page exhibition which opened on the 25th March and for which there was a very splendid opening party last Tuesday evening. Russell Page was probably the most important garden designer of the 20th century, but has almost disappeared from our collective gardening memory as he was, in his own words “the most famous garden designer no one has ever heard of”. Long before I took gardening in general seriously I bought, in 1976, a second hand copy of his “The Education of a Gardener” at a church jumble sale. I read it in one fascinated session, and immediately realised that this was someone special.

His present lack of recognition in the UK (in Italy however they treat him with proper respect) is a completely undeserved state of affairs, for no-one else in the last century so well understood the big things in gardening: movement and stillness, mass and void, light and dark, and the achievement of harmony. He was trained as an artist at the Slade, and subsequently sufficiently impressed Kokoschka to be asked to share a studio with him. These skills were put to good use when he would make an initial drawing relating the house, potential garden layout and the wider landscape, tying them together in a completely harmonious, but seemingly unstudied fashion. Despite this apparent facility it often took him two years or more, as at Villa Silvio Pellico outside Turin (www. to move from initial concept to detailed final plans.

In this he was helped by having a very rich, very discerning and probably very patient client base, who were prepared to put him up in their houses, or on their yachts, for as long as it took to get to the desired end result. Some of these clients are still very much alive and remember him fondly. Very tall and with an apparently imposing presence, he seems to have created an atmosphere of awe (even if not shock) around himself and probably wasn’t entirely easy. But then geniuses aren’t and it is fair to say he was a genius. His favourite method of intercontinental travel was Concorde, and in a deft touch, the Museum’s curators and caterers served us up vodka martinis and trays of canapés that recalled those amazingly luxurious flights.

He worked all over the world, including in the UK (at Badminton, Longleat and Leeds Castle amongst others), France, Italy (not only the famous gardens around Turin and Lady Walton’s La Mortella at Ischia but also La Landriana near Anzio) and in the USA. His garden at the Frick Museum in New York is threatened by overbuilding from a proposed extension. If you feel, like I do, this is not a good idea you can visit to register your protest there .

The exhibition is very important in itself, and has a good range of photographs, reminiscences, and Page’s drawings and plans. What makes it even more important though is that, through the generosity of the de Belder family of Belgium, Page’s entire archive has been donated to the Museum. Page had originally wanted, as he faced his own mortality, to donate this to the V and A. Incredibly, they were not interested in 1985 when he died and the de Belders have since preserved it lovingly. Robert and Jelena de Belder were some of his best and most intimate clients, planting Kalmthout Arboretum and employing Page over a long period. Their son, Daniel, was responsible for the donation and I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with him at the end of the party (the entire happy occasion was much marked by the kindness of strangers). He remarked that it was only recently that gardening had been returned to its position amongst the fine arts: at least in France it had been treated as a form of trade or horticulture since the Revolution. Page’s archive should play a major role in enabling us to understand the process whereby he achieved the harmony and perfection to which he aspired, and in conjunction with the other important deposits at the Garden Museum, to giving the institution a pre-eminent role in garden history.

This is an exhibition anyone interested in garden history really must see, and in doing so they will understand how the role of the Museum is growing and how important the archive, as well as Page’s memory, will become. It’s on until June 21st and you really must go.


Winter in the Garden at the Garden Museum

The garden at the Garden Museum

The garden at the Garden Museum

When I recently visited the Garden Museum to see Rachel Warne’s exhibition, I had a further reason for going there; I wanted to see how much colour there was in the garden.

My garden is just beginning to wake up. The witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Rubin’) is finally flowering. This cultivar isn’t scented but for my purpose that doesn’t matter; its role is to be seen from the kitchen window. It lives in a large pot and has grown naturally (with only a little help) into a very pretty fan. I bought it nine years ago and everyone said ‘Your garden is far too small; you can’t possibly have a witch hazel.’ It proves that one shouldn’t listen to other people too much; it is still a manageable size and fulfils its task of announcing the approach of the end of winter perfectly. Dotted around the garden are little irises, crocuses, puschkinia and the beginnings of the daffs, but not much else. I was interested to see what 17th century gardens would have had.

The day started crisp and clear, with a promising blue sky but, as I cycled along the Embankment, the sky got greyer and greyer and by the time I arrived it looked as if it might rain, not a very auspicious start for a wander round the garden looking for colour. Everything always looks better after a visit to the café and, sure enough, a Gnocchi alla Romana and butternut squash cake later, the sun had come out again.

What actually struck me most about the garden were the textures, rather than the colours. There was colour; amongst other things there were vivid purple Iris germanica, flowering completely out of season, head-hanging hellebores, blue anemones and a single daffodil flower, which was clearly going to wait a little longer to open fully. What I noticed more though, were the patterns and shapes of the leaves and plants. Even the dry, brown leaves providing protection for the banana plants were interesting to look at.

There is great attention to detail in this garden and it is worth taking time to look at each area carefully. There are tiny pink squills hiding beneath the trellis, blue and pink pulmonaria, and periwinkles sheltering against the wall of the church. There are pots of Narcissus thalia and irises and the tips of the shoots just appearing above the gravel hold promise of colour to come. More sinister looking are the shoots of the dragon arum or voodoo lily (Dracunculus vulgaris).

I read that this garden is the poor cousin to the Chelsea Physic Garden; I am not so sure. The café and shop alone make a visit here in winter more pleasurable as both are closed at the Chelsea garden until April. The Chelsea garden has a wider selection of plants, and much more space, but I rather like the restrictions here. I have long fancied making a garden using only plants known to the Romans who settled in Britain, but have always baulked at the limitations. Looking at the garden at the Garden Museum a 17th century garden would be a much more realistic proposition. Jane.

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.