City gardening Georgian style: new plants, parks and pop-ups

by Abigail Willis

Image courtesy of The British Library

 It’s not every exhibition that can boast its own specially commissioned pop-up garden, but Georgians Revealed, at the British Library until 11 March 2014, is an honourable exception. Installed on the usually rather austere forecourt of the BL, the Georgeobelisk, instigated by Cityscapes and designed by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, is a quirky overture to an exhibition that asks ‘never mind the Romans, what did the Georgians ever do for us’? 

Quite a lot as it turns out. Timed to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the accession of King George I in 2014, the exhibition shows how our 18th-century forebears paved the way for the modern age with their new-fangled terraced houses, expensive foreign wars, speedy transport networks, scandal-mongering popular press and their insatiable appetite for socialising, shopping and – yes – gardening. 

Curator Dr Moira Goff has gathered together a plethora of 18th- century printed material to good effect, marshalling everything from trade cards to fashion plates, political cartoons to cook books to show us the Georgians as they saw themselves.  Much will resonate with the modern visitor – with exhibits like fund-raising lottery tickets and lavishly illustrated furniture catalogues (the Georgian equivalent of the Habitat catalogue) underlining the similarities between us.

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The Gallery of Fashion , Country Dancing, Le Beau Monde copyright British Library Board

Botany too was big in the 18th century – this was after all the era that saw the foundation of Kew Gardens – and hefty botanic volumes on view include Mark Catesby’s magisterial The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (open on an engraving of a magnolia flower).  Another weighty publication, The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton also features, along with Humphrey Repton’s aspirational Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1794), complete with persuasive ‘before’ and ‘after’ views. 

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A view of the first Bridge at Paddington: copyright The British Library Board

But gardening wasn’t just for the aristos – the increasingly prosperous middle classes wanted a piece of the action and, with more time and cash at their disposal, they could get it too.  

Urban gardening really took off during this period – it was the birth of a national obsession.   Terraced houses with their standard issue back gardens provided the perfect arena for middle-class gardeners.  Londoners in particular were well placed to take advantage of freshly arriving plants coming in from the colonies, while a new breed of savvy nurserymen were poised to exploit a lucrative emerging market.

Thomas Fairchild’s The City Gardener was first published in 1722 and a copy of this diminutive but influential book is displayed alongside the more gargantuan horticultural volumes.  A Hoxton-based nurseryman, Fairchild offered plenty of no-nonsense practical advice to the would-be urban gardener, including plant lists for a variety of urban situations – from squares (where he favoured a wilderness style that would provide ‘harbour’ for birds) to balconies (for which he recommended apples trees, young orange trees and myrtle). 

Much of what Fairchild has to say still rings true today and his prescient belief that ‘the olive tree would grow well in London’ has come to pass (see London mews’ olive grove oasis

Gardening in Fairchild’s London however was considerably harder than it is today.  According to Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, (who is Gardens Advisor to the Historic Royal Palaces as well as the designer behind the Georgeobelisk) there were ‘endless obstacles’ for Georgian London gardeners to overcome: expensive plants, awful soil, an irregular water supply and air quality so bad you might not be able to see to the end of your garden.  The built-in obsolescence of plants in smoky London played straight into the nurserymen’s hands, and Fairchild shrewdly used his book to market himself and his wares.

Ephemeral creations at the best of times, none were more so than the gardens in the Georgian period.  But the innovative Georgians made a virtue out of this transience, hiring plants for a season, or having temporary lawns laid for special social occasions.  As Longstaffe-Gowan explained to me,  “It was all about impressing your neighbours.  Pop-up gardens really took off in the Regency period, when there was a lot of money sloshing around.   People hired plants in a modest way – you might take a house in town and want to kit it out with a few plants on a short-term basis.  Nurseries would be based in the suburbs, but have an office in town, where they had little books to show clients.’ 

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George Cruikshank, La Belle Assemblee London 1817 Image coyright British Library Board

To get a flavour of this horticultural one-upmanship, Longstaffe-Gowan recommends a highly enjoyable short story by Saki , ‘The Occasional Garden’, published in 1919, whose heroine, Elinor Rapsley, calls in the services of a specialist company to create a show-stopping garden that is the EON (envy of the neighbourhood). 

The BL’s own pop-up Georgeobelisk is certainly highly enviable – a complete one-off that revels in its own evanescence. Described by its creator as ‘a towering gimcrack confection set in a scrap of pastoral parkland’, the garden uses live plants alongside modern materials and methods such as Astroturf, plastic box hedging, plastic sheep and 3-D printing, to evoke a typically Georgian sense of fun and love of spectacle.  The central plinth features a plaster bust of George I, the other three obelisks signify his heirs.  A chubby flying putto suspended beneath makes playful reference to the latest Prince George (whose birth co-incided serendipitously with the garden’s development).

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Images courtesy of Cityscapes

Artificial materials were the obvious choice for a garden that was being installed at the start of the winter, and that lacked any budget for ongoing maintenance.  Plus, Longstaffe-Gowan notes,  “The Georgians would have done something very similar – knocked together a garden using what they had to hand.” Although drawing firmly on historical precedent (an unexecuted design by Vanbrugh), Georgeobelisk is nonetheless a pop-up that conforms to 21st century planning and health and safety regulations.  So while the Georgians would probably have made do with cut-out livestock, the sheep that graze the Georgeobelisk are robust enough to accommodate the odd tourist deciding to sit on them. 

A very welcome addition to London’s museumscape, the British Library’s miniature ‘gentleman’s park’ will soon be further embellished with the addition of a grove of little Christmas trees (as opposed to the traditional single large tree usually installed by the BL at this time).  Both it and the exhibition it accompanies are well worth a visit. 

© Abigail Willis, November 2013

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain

British Library, until 11 March 2014

 The City Gardener by Thomas Fairchild

The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers by Saki

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan





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