Watching the current Chelsea Flower Show TV footage and then coming across the piece Gardens: women vying for glory at Chelsea prompted some thought. I'm not in any way, shape or form a garden designer, nor do my efforts in our garden come any way near to those of a professional status; but I do love the garden. I relish being out in it, and love to plan and work it. However, trying to write and at present to complete a long manuscript about women writers from the south-west leaves little time for other hobbies. Often, sitting at the laptop in the middle of a plethora of words my eyes stray out the window to the garden. There is an inner tussle. Stay in. Finish the manuscript. No! Go out. Get amongst the lyrics of stems, flowers, twigs, branches, leaves ...
I've had to content myself with putting together the occasional blog-piece; see Musing on Gardening Writers and Gardening Women who Wrote; the Parker Circle of Saltram and Women who Wrote Gardens; Notes of Dorothy Elmhirst and Caroline's Garden; a Countess at Mount Edgecumbe
In one chapter of my book I'm also including sections about women writers who also gardened, or, about gardening women who also wrote.
What follows are extracts from these gardening-writing reflections apropos women from Devon and the Westcountry. Please note the piece may include a few repetitions of material already noted in the blog pieces listed above.
... If an aerial map of the long-foot of the straggling slipper of the south-western landscape could reveal the intricate secrets of its lost and hidden gardens, unkempt and buried beneath expanses of land now often distinguished by their tracts and swards of grasses - meadow fescue, or creeping-bent and flowers-gone-wild – cow-parsley, corn chamomile, yarrow, or by great rhododendron banks – then, what could be uncovered might parallel the forgotten texts by women, which still survive in chaotically ragged form in archives, and often now, online.
For, the lost vistas of what were frequently women-inspired gardens reflect and enhance the rich and wild tale of Devon’s (and by extension, the South-west’s) lost literary heritage. A little fruitful googling or library browsing soon conjures vividly textured scenes of once-upon-a-time intricately constructed gardens, many of which few will have heard of; even fewer will be aware of the feminine influence and impact on the creation and care of these once cultivated outdoor spaces.
Most gardening text books, as well as gardening history texts, commenting on estate garden planning and construction, tend to emphasise the influence and impact of male instigators, whilst the equal contributory share by women – wives, daughters, widows, mothers etc – is ignored, or devalued. Quite a few once lost gardens have been rediscovered in Devon and other South-western counties and several of these have been correctly attributed to the provenance of their female originators. Rosemoor and Knightshayes spring to mind. Other famed gardens, though still very much objects of public attention and acclaim, may not include the woman or (women) who was (or were) most instrumental in that garden’s history in their documentary brochures; or at least may not properly attribute her share in the garden's design/construction. For me, Saltram is an example of this phenomenon. And there are other once-gardens, probably many others, which will remain buried, hidden to view - where frequently the person most influential in their hey-day would have been a woman gardener.
She may also have written. Perhaps she kept journals; or was a prolific letter-writer; or a poet; or a dramatist; or even a novelist. There are examples of all of these. And more. It is not always easy to tease out or untangle the missing threads of information. Hunches are worth pursuing; they allow a quick link to that little slipped- stitch of a woman’s name and identify who is missing from the garden her-story canvas. The same happens with occasional textual fragments from letters and journals; often they reveal a fragment, which will eventually lead to a connection with a once-beloved, female-created garden.
‘Though I am planting, I write, which I look on as great merit especially as you have never wrote to me’, Elizabeth, the Countess of Ilchester wrote to her husband in the early 1760’s; the Countess’ words imply that writing and gardening may have been inter-related activities for her. Elizabeth’s subject was the garden at Melbury in Dorset, where she had recently supervised alterations and for which she was probably in the midst of creating new cascades. The Countess was possibly mutually passionate about both garden and writing; she ends her letter ‘So many irons in the fire – I wish I am not ruined’. As well as her gardening activities at Melbury, the Countess was also engaged in making alterations to her other garden, at Redlynch in Somerset; it was this garden in which her influence was most notable. Gardening-women often tend to prioritise the reading of texts about gardens as much as, or before doing gardening activities themselves. For instance, in gardening design manuals, written instructions for or about the creative scenario of the imagined garden are inherent to the completed garden artifact. In texts about a particular garden, the written description of the place may seem as vital to the writer as the garden itself. Elizabeth of Ilchester’s accounts of her gardening ventures suggest that it was as important for her to note down her achievements on paper as to accomplish the work itself.
There are deeply rooted and interrelated connections between textual creations and garden constructions, the activities involved in reading a text and the perception of a garden. Perhaps they are not so obvious as those between visual art and gardening, but those inter-relationships of written text and garden are just as intricate. A garden is a written text as much as a visual-scape and as such, is replete with meaning. Gardens are patterns - poems; tell stories; have psychological meaning; carry historical significance. Gardens are also frequently gendered. Metaphorical literature of the garden often conflates flowers, language and women: ‘a garden is said to be ‘full of the flowers of literature’; whilst ‘flowers’ are said to be equivalent to ‘women’. There is, at a deep almost kinetic level, a kind of symbiosis between the epistemology of gardening and women as sentient (and gendered) being. However, in contrast, at the ground level of the garden landscape itself and through the panoply of written texts about gardens, the garden was typically, for many centuries, assumed to be controlled by men. This was particularly so during the C19, a period when male prestige and importance could be made more potent according to the land and estate that he supervised.
Thus was set up a conundrum for the women who writes (or wants to write), who is also gardener. A garden as poem, as text, gendered as ‘female’ conveys the idea that ‘She’ is [in] the garden. Garden is also part of, or extension to, Her-self. ‘Garden’ is her language; it is also her text; As she writes, she writes herself into the garden; her writing belongs as part of [in] the garden. In other words, there is a complex inter-twining of woman/garden/text, which can impact on a woman’s experience of her own identity. There may be a conflict between the dual passions. Or, arrangements and floral patterns set up in the garden itself, understood as ‘cultural document’[i] become source of alternative texts, delineating that woman’s self as writer, as well as gardener. There may be subliminal links between garden, text, self, as well as between an individual and other women who helped her with a particular garden.
Scraps of information from various archival sources suggest the intricacies of complex bonds between women, writer and garden in Devon. The will of John Yonge from Puslinch, for example, left his wife, on trust ‘the use of Puslinch house, the garden, Langs Furlongs and the Wilderness, for life’. Women in the Yonge family occasionally reveal gardening interests and pursuits in their letters. F. Anderson Morshead, (who was probably the wife of Ernest Anderson Morshead), wrote to MaryYonge on April 14th 1903,‘My dear Aunt Mary, I hope that your garden blossoms, and flowers have not suffered since Easter Day.’ (Friday 1845). In another letter, Alethea Yonge writes to her sister Mary about the garden in which she is staying on Dartmoor and the Yonge’s famous writer cousin Charlotte Yonge - who loved Devon and as a child stayed at Puslinch with her cousins every Summer - sent letters to her family which touch on the garden, suggesting a common preoccupation. On May 3rd 1897, from her own home back in Hampshire, she commented, ‘I wish Gentianella would grow here as yours do! But I never saw the garden prettier, and the nightingales are singing with all their might Banksias are coming out and I brought in a Gloire de Dijon this morning ... ' Another example is that of Lady Gertrude Rolle of Stevenstone, who seems to have been proactive in that estate's garden; she gathered seeds in south Africa – large species of Paulonia – also a bed of bamboos and Acanthus,an avenue of fuchsias with climbing rose on arches and fan palms. Behind the library was a small garden with a rose covered pergola of 22 arches leading to the orangery.
Rarely, however, are there follow-up documents which might tell us in more detail how that reciprocity of garden-woman-identity may have unfolded. Because of the apparent sparsity of easily accessible information, to get an idea of the complex interactions between garden/writing/women you need to stray outside the county boundaries, where, often, archival material relating to estates and families feeds into Devon and is suggestive of similar resonances. However, I have found the following names and places associated with Devon's gardens, which in some cases lead to sources which appear to be replete with material indicative of gardening-writing – much of it still to be sifted from sources locked away in archival depths, or if you are lucky,lured up from some cyberspace crypt:
Anne Lady Pole re Shute Barton – where, in the C16, she had Dutch Box, Yew, & African and French Marigolds planted.
Letters by Rosalie Chichester re Arlington- she used the camera to give visual expression to all her other interests, photographing the various species of trees, shrubs and flowers in her garden, park and woods and listing their Latin names.' (see The Womans Domain, Trevor Lummis and Jan Marsh; National Trust).
Lady Lydia Acland re Killerton - see below.
Agatha Christie and Greenway - 'The garden looks wonderful – all bursting with plants. It really does look professional at last ... Christie took great pride in its achievements, entering the local flower and produce shows with gusto, and winning lots of prizes. One year Greenway carried off so many prizes that she instituted the Agatha Christie Cup for future years, a competition that her gardeners could not enter, in order to give others a chance.' (See Agatha Christie's Devon Home).Elizabeth Simcoe and Dunkeswell (or Walford).
Louisa Caroline Graves and Hembury Fort - daughter of Sir John Colleton of Fairlawn in the States; she recollected her childhood garden later in life and in her book of poems includes flower poems (see Desultory Thoughts).
Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford re Endsleigh - she provided the inspiration behind the famous gardens, (see Landmark Trust).
Marion Stuckley re Hartland Abbey (which draws in Gertrude Jekyll who aided Stuckley in her work there) - see Jekyll in Devon.
Rosamond Christie re Tapeley - and see Tapeley Park and Gardens.
Lady Gertrude Rolle re Stevenstone House - see Devon Gardens; an Historical Survey.
Parker women re Saltram - see Gardening Women who Wrote.
Straying just beyond county margins, recent studies apropos Elizabeth Countess of Ilchester and her family (whose family networks extend widely from Dorset, westwards through Somerset and into Devon) provide real and historical examples of some of these garden-textual inter-relationships. Archives reveal a deep involvement on the part of women in the Countess' family with their gardens.There are many documents which richly illustrate how the women’s lives skilfully intertwined their interests in the gardens themselves and as well, incorporated a plethora of writing, which set down for posterity the complex layouts, structures and planting plans of their gardens. A map of the Redlynch estate during the mid years of the C18 year suggests that requirements of the women of the household were equally as instrumental in the garden’s preparation and development as that of men. And that connection goes right back to at least the C16. In 1757, Elizabeth said of the family’s other garden, at Melbury, in neighbouring Dorset, that ‘Mama is going to put shrubs on the lawn, which we think will improve it immensely’. Elizabeth’s gardening pursuits probably followed on from those begun by own mother Susannah; she endeavoured to preserve the garden as well as instigate changes. And then, after her, women descendants took on and added to the features Elizabeth had initiated in her gardens.
At that period Redlynch had been altered from its earlier more rigidly delineated formal constructions, which had been characterised by a layout of straight paths and an absence of flowers. By the 1760’s, the garden was adorned with many Rococo elements: curved paths and flower-beds; a rounded pond; serpentine path; a ‘cluster of kidney-shaped clumps’, which may have contained exotic shrubs. The so-called 'Rococo' period, a light-hearted cultural movement which displayed tendencies towards cultivating the fantastic, was traditionally supposed to be associated with the feminine and labels attached to Redlynch garden’s new features conjure that impression: there was a ‘Lady’s Garden’ beside the serpentine path and in 1750 Elizabeth wrote her husband that ‘I am glad my garden looks so pretty with so many flowers’.
Elizabeth’s involvement in her gardens was as designer and manager, as well as the physical aspects of gardening per se; all activities which she also put into her writing. One letter sent to her husband asked him to make sure the grass near the house and ‘in my garden’ was mown and in another she asked him to tell ‘Miss Cheeke ... that the pot should be broke ... that it must thrive and be as pretty sweet dears ... and would have one of the round spots in my garden where the ugylest things are planted cleared and filled with mertel cuttings as this is the season.'
Younger women of Lady Elizabeth Ilchester’s family who lived at Redlynch and other family houses in Dorset, Somerset and Devon, also actively concerned themselves both with their own gardens and with writing about others’ gardens. Elizabeth’s granddaughter, Mary Strangeways, was keen on Redlynch's garden from as early as the age of fourteen. She also enjoyed writing; her father sent her a letter when she was away from home, in which he mentioned not only details of ‘how everything looks delightful, the grass coming on. The birds singing, and the bushes coming out very fast’, but also teasingly scolded her, for ‘notwithstanding your love of scrawling, I have not had one scratch from you’.
The eventual fate of Elizabeth Ilchester’s Melbury garden is reminiscent of that of many texts written by women. As already noted, within the conventions of societal gendering of the garden, the consensus of public expectation assumes a garden landscape to be authorised by male, rather than female authority, just as gardens as written about are more likely to be the work of a male author. According to one source, after his mother's death, Lady Ilchester’s son took it in his head to destroy much of the garden at Melbury, which she and her own mother before her, had created and endeavoured to preserve. In 1792, he was found ‘cutting down trees without mercy and making great alterations’, so that many of the features on the eastern side of the garden, such as terraces, paths and walls, so well looked after by his mother and grandmother, were destroyed for ever.
Elizabeth Ilchester’s female circle’s gardening pursuits illustrate ways in which other West country women of the same period may have similarly engaged with their own gardens and as an extension, or alternatively, with writing. Quite a few gardens remain encapsulated in a woman’s name, either on a map, or kept in folk-memory. As examples, near Widdicombe on Dartmoor, Lady Elizabeth Ashburton - whose main estate was at Sandridge Park - is commemorated by the so-called ‘Lady Ashburton’s Bath’, which has an open tank near its entrance. At Saltram, the diarist Fanny Burney, a friend of the Parker family, left a personal mark on the garden, as well as descriptive writing about the estate: ‘Fanny’s Bower’ is said to be named after her. Several Acland women’s names have become the very stuff of the ground which immortalises them. Agnes’ Fountain, named after one of the daughter’s of Thomas and Lydia Acland, is on the Holnicote estate; Lady Acland’s Hut, which she used to picnic in, is near Selworthy; Lady Acland’s Shrubbery is at Killerton; Lady Acland also has her orchid, Cattleya aclandiae, (‘Lady Acland’s Cattleya’ or ‘Lady Acland’s orchid’). It is possible that the provenance of some of these names came from a male relation, who was initiating his patriarchal authority over both garden and woman, but some of the names can be directly linked back to a particular woman, who it turns out was as instrumental as any man in her involvement in that particular garden. ‘Lady Acland’s orchid’ was named after Lady Lydia Acland, who married Sir Thomas Dyke Acland the 10th Baronet, and whose main home estate became Killerton, now one of Devon’s most famed gardens. Lady Lydia does not feature in any prominent garden brochures about Killerton, but the Botanical Register explains:
Of this very distinct and pretty species of the handsomest of all the genera of Orchidacese I have only seen a single flower, which I owe to the kindness of Lady Acland of Killerton, by whom the drawing, from which the annexed figure was prepared, was also supplied. It was received from Brazil in October, 18S9 having been discovered by Lieut. James of H. M. ship Spey, and flowered in the stove at Killerton in the month of July, 1840, under the able management of Mr. Craggs, Sir Thomas Acland's gardener.
This information does not elaborate on Lady Lydia’s love for her garden, but other sources, though apparently rare, do. Lydia's significance in the development of Killerton’s garden can begin to be reassessed. In a book about John Veitch and Killerton, Lydia Hoare, wife of the 10th Baronet, (and daughter of the Hoare banking family who owned Stourhead) is said to have been a ‘keen gardener’. Killerton had been neglected for many years when the couple returned to Killerton in the first decade of the C19, to rejuvenate Acland’s estate. Lydia’s input was evidently as important as that of her husband’s in the restoration and redevelopment of the garden. Perhaps more so. At that time, the ‘only real garden was a small unexciting area on one side of the entrance’. It was Lydia who wanted ‘something grander with lawns, wide gravel paths, a shrubbery and fine ornamental trees’. Presumably, ‘Lady Acland’s Shrubbery’ was so named because of her. John Veitch created the hermitage style ‘Lady Cot’, now named the ‘Bear Hut’ at Killerton, for Lydia. Perhaps this was a homage to her, as gardener. Lady Lydia Acland kept journals, for ‘she kept a diary of all the special events in her husband’s political career, including speeches, meetings and elections’ and Devon Record Office holds a ‘rough diary’ which she kept between 1808-53. Interestingly, going back a step to a previous generation of Aclands, Lydia Acland’s husband’s Aunt was Lady Christian Harriet Caroline Fox-Strangways, (Harriet Acland), who was a younger daughter of Lady Elizabeth Ilchester. Because of the actions and journals written in support of her husband during the American Civil War, after her marriage to John Dyke Acland Harriet became a C19 celebrity. Harriet’s life in England was spent in several Acland family houses in Devon and Somerset and she returned to her childhood home at Redlynch quite often. Given the extent of her sisters’, nieces’ and great-nieces’ love and involvement in gardening and writing about gardening, Harriet’s own engagement with her family gardens may be assumed; however, as yet I have found no evidence of this.
Garden as a female orientated communal garden space as illustrated by the Redlynch women and their Acland female relations above is not unusual. Reading between (garden) – lines it soon becomes evident that many such C18 and 19 estates existed in the south-west. Just like Elizabeth of Ilchester and her female descendants, other contemporary C18/19 women who gardened seemed to have similar dual interests.
There is much research yet to do; but it will need to wait, because, for a minute or two I'm shutting down the computer, putting down the pencil, folding the notebook and going outside, to weed/read the sunny garden.
[i] Tim Stuart-Smith, So, my thought is that by making subliminal reference to something half-familiar, a designed planting can tap into some desire to relive those interludes of innocence, to wander again in the woodlands and meadows of our subconscious. The flower bed is transformed from being a mere assortment of flowers into a cultural document an a repository of partly forgotten landscapes.
Please note, I have not stated sources for all the information in this piece, but do contact me if you would like to know details about a specific source.
Please note, I have not stated sources for all the information in this piece, but do contact me if you would like to know details about a specific source.