In 1990 the Museum of London held an exhibition entitled London’s Pride: Glorious History of the Capital’s Gardens and I recently acquired a copy of the book associated with the exhibition. It was an interesting read (with an introduction by Sir Roy Strong), covering some of the same ground that we have done in the past, but with, of course, an emphasis on the gardens of London down through the ages.

There are a number of essays on various periods and subjects and quite a few interesting reproductions in the book that are valuable to understanding the evolution of London gardens as well as beautiful artworks – a few of which I have introduced here. I’ve also excerpted a chapter entitled Gardening And The Middle Classes 1700-1830 (written by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan ) that covers the period that probably saw the introduction of gardening to members of the middle classes, such as ourselves. One thing that surprised me was the custom, early on, of leasing plants for their gardens; that’s one that I haven’t thought of; leasing cars, yes – leasing a garden, no!

These archetypal back-to-back gardens are so common in London that this scene could be almost anywhere in the inner city

For the Victorians, a well-stocked conservatory offered both an extension to the house and hints of the exoticism of the furthest parts of the British Empire

Jim Thorleifson

St Helen’s churchyard, off Bishopsgate, was a green and pleasant place, planted with trees and shrubs, in the sixteenth century, and it preserved some of this character into the twentieth

The garden of the house at Kew was a great delight to me – from which I painted carefully a background to … the conservatory in The Pet’ (exhibited in 1853 by W.H. Deverell). From the artist’s journal

London’s Pride

Anaya Pub.; The Museum of London, 1990

Gardening And The Middle Classes 1700-1830

During the eighteenth century the ownership or use of a small private town garden became, for the first time, a common expectation and a popular recreational amenity of London’s urban middle classes. Daniel Defoe described the material aspirations of both the country squire and the London merchant when he wrote, ‘Every man now, be his fortune what it will, is to be doing something at his place, as the fashionable phrase is, and you hardly meet with anybody who, after first compliments, does not inform you that he is in mortar, and having of earth, the modest terms of rebuilding and gardening.’

The emergence of town gardening as a commercialized leisure activity was one of the manifold products of the consumer revolution of eighteenth-century England. Many Londoners who found themselves benefiting from the rising tide of national wealth converted their capital into material belongings which improved their household surroundings. The small urban garden figured pre-eminently among the elements which elevated the average household from a level of subsistence to one of comfort and style, and an increasingly commercialized garden industry promoted the activity of gardening as an affordable and viable urban recreation.

During the eighteenth century more Londoners than ever before enjoyed the experience of acquiring material possessions – many of which had previously been denied to them. Growing purchasing power was being laid out on a greater range of consumer goods, beyond mere necessities. What were once luxuries became ‘decencies’, and what were once ‘decencies’ became necessities. The desire to consume was not unique to eighteenth-century English society; but the ability to do so, however modestly, by most classes of people was new. As the century unfolded the prices of many staple commodities dropped and real wages for skilled labourers increased, making the consumption of material comforts attractive. These factors, combined with easy credit, low interest rates and lack of legal security for bank and friendly society savings, encouraged spending rather than saving.

Nowhere in England was the full force of the consumer revolution more pervasive than in London. The eighteenth-century capital developed into a prodigious cosmopolitan hub, where citizens mixed comfortably in their new surroundings, readily adapting to a geography that was once worldly and diverse. By 1750 over 11 per cent of England’s population was resident in London – and it has been estimated that given the seasonal migrations in and out of the metropolis, one in six of the total adult population of England had the experience of living in the capital for some stage of their lives. With such a high proportion of people acquainted with London’s fashions, markets and lifestyles, the city exercised a considerable influence over national taste and consumer behaviour.

Among the most significant contributions London made to the provinces was the sophisticated exploitation of leisure; this was made possible through the development and commercial organization of the press. Through the instrument of the press consumer taste and material aspirations became truly national – or more frequently emulative of the latest fashions of the capital. From the early eighteenth century, newspapers carried extensive quantities of increasingly diversified advertisements and information which promoted nearly all forms of recreation. Thomas Fairchild’s City Gardener (1722) was largely responsible for the town gardening mania which swept across eighteenth-century London. His efforts were not unique, but they were pioneering. Fairchild galvanized seedsmen, nurserymen and horticulturists to cater to the wants of the urban bourgeoisie, recommending town gardening as an affordable and seductive leisure activity.

A number of other factors abetted the expansion of urban gardening in the eighteenth century; among them were the availability of cheap urban garden labour, a widening variety of cheap plants, abundant accessible garden and horticultural literature, and a highly sophisticated nursery trade.

Jobbing gardeners

Although many Londoners were happy to pursue gardening as a recreational or leisure activity, they were seldom prepared to do all the work involved in gardening. The urban middle classes more frequently employed the services of jobbing gardeners for cheap, practical and quick gardening services. Self-employed, itinerant garden operatives, or tradesmen gardeners (those freed from professional indenture) were the champions of free enterprise in the sphere of town gardening; they solicited their own custom (door to door, or at times through advertisements in local papers), used their own tools, and occasionally supplied their own plants or seeds (frequently from their own small gardens) to make, mend and manage small to medium-sized town gardens and garden squares. Their common contractual agreements were negotiated on one-off commissions, or on hourly, daily, monthly, quarterly or annual contracts. Jobbers catered to an urban clientele that wanted gardens, needed occasional ‘professional’ gardening services and advice, but had neither the quarters nor the inclination to keep a full-time gardener.

There was well-founded scepticism in the abilities of many jobbers, who were branded by the true professionals as ‘rude people, Northern lads and higglers’ or ‘audacious Empiricks’ who were eager to exploit the expanding market for urban gardening services. The so-called ‘Empiricks’ were claimed to debase the business of town gardening by opting out of professional apprenticeship and dodging the code of ethics upheld by tradesmen and serving gardeners who subscribed to the Worshipful Company of Gardeners of London. Stephen Switzer (1718) especially decried the scores of ‘ignorant pretenders’ who called at houses where they knew there was a slip of ground, ‘let it be in season or out, and tell the owner it is a good time to dress and make-up their gardens; and often impose on them that they employ them, by telling them their everything will do … this is a great discouragement, which makes those Persons, who delight a little in a garden, neglect doing anything at all; thinking that their Labour and Cost thrown away’. Despite such imputations, most Londoners at some time found themselves employing itinerant operatives for perfunctory chores of watering, mowing, turning gravel walks, or the laborious tasks of initially setting out a garden, shifting rocks, topsoil or waste.

By the late eighteenth century, jobbers who had previously found their commissions lucrative and plentiful felt the squeeze of the commercialized services provided by large, organized contracting firms and their retinues of professional garden operatives. The business of commercial gardening trade and services had by the 1790s swollen to such an extent that Middleton described the environs of Middlesex as follows: ‘From Kensington, through Hammersmith, Chiswick, Brentford, Isleworth and Twickenham, the land both sides of the road, for seven miles in length, or a distance to ten miles from the market, may be dominated the great fruit garden, north of the Thames, for the supply of London. In this manner, much of the ground in these parishes is cultivated.’ He went on to note: ‘at Chelsea, Brompton, Kensington, Hackney, Bow, and Mile End much ground is occupied by nurserymen, who spare no expense in collecting the choicest sort, and the greatest variety, of fruit trees, and ornamental shrubs and flowers, from every corner of the globe, and which they cultivate in a high degree of perfection; the latter to a very great extent, and to almost endless variety … ‘

The nurserymen

Virtually every corner of the capital could boast celebrated nursery grounds, many of which had long been in existence and were carried on by descendants of the original owners, or by successors; among them Thomas Fairchild’s (c. 1691-1734) was at Hoxton; Robert Furber’s (1700-1846) in Kensington Gore; Davey’s (1791-1833) in Camberwell; Christopher Gray’s (c. 1720-1881) in Fulham; James Gordon’s (c. 1740-1837) at Mile End; Kennedy and Lee’s (1745-1894) at Hammersmith; and Loddiges’ (1760–1860) at Hackney. Each establishment had its own particular distinction, and list of horticultural triumphs which were publicly promoted through sophisticated advertising campaigns. Some nurserymen took advantage of the press, while others advertised through catalogues and pamphlets, flysheets, cheap pocket manuals and gardeners’ calendars. More ambitious and successful nurserymen launched advertisements in the form of periodicals: Robert Furber’s Twelve Months of Flowers (1730), The London Society of Gardeners’ Catalogus Plantarum (1731), and Loddiges’ The Botanical Cabinet (1817-33).

The combined efforts of London’s botanists and commercial gardeners ensured that the city maintained its centuries-old distinction as the cynosure of all garden improvements. Nothing serves better to reinforce this claim than the publication of John Claudius Loudon’s first volume of the Gardeners’ Magazine in 1826. Compiled in Bayswater and launched in London, it was England’s first popular gardening journal. The object of the magazine was ‘the dissemination of useful knowledge, its subjects inexhaustible as the vegetable kingdom, and among the most interesting that concern domestic life; its plan calculated to procure information from every possible source at home and abroad; its contributors belonging to every department of gardening and botany’. It was proclaimed by its author to be a vehicle which ‘will put Gardeners in distant parts of the country on a footing with those about the metropolis’.

Loudon admitted that not all gardening improvements were forged in London, ‘but more are made there than anywhere else, and most of those made elsewhere are soon heard of in the metropolitan district’. He alleged that almost all new importations and introductions of plants were made through the capital’s nurseries and market gardens; and these were the most numerous and advanced in the entire kingdom. Only they could reasonably advertise the latest in garden and vegetable culture, production and technology, and the management of the foremost and most accomplished of the country’s ‘first-rate’ gardeners. London was also the undisputed source of the largest outpourings of garden and horticultural literature, and the scene of the country’s most celebrated emporium of garden ‘intercourse and novelties’ – the London Horticultural Society, and its extensive gardens.

The initiatives of London’s eighteenth-century nurserymen were timely in as much as during that period there evolved an avid secular curiosity in the natural sciences. The fascination was not, however, exclusively theoretical; plants, planting and gardening became popular urban recreations for people of moderate affluence who had time for leisure activities. Urban gardening flourished due to the ferociously energetic commercialization of the leisure industry which was developed for all classes of consumers, from the botanist to the amateur and even children. For instance, in the third quarter of the eighteenth century there occurred a revival of herbaceous gardening, which made available a wide range of cheaper medium and small hardy flowering plants. The new produce was well within the reach of middle-class consumers who owned and occupied small gardens in town; and fast maturing, easily managed flowering herbaceous plants promised immediate and abundant results encouraging gardening as a recreational pastime for women and children.

The garden, like most household accoutrements, was improved, created anew and designed to delight, amuse or exhibit one’s taste, status or wealth, with the avowed intention of proclaiming one’s ability constantly to improve on the old and the inherited, and to swell the demand for what is new and exciting and modern. The rise of specialized plant contracting and gardening from the second quarter of the eighteenth century did much to promote the evolving consumer ethic.

James Cochran (1763-1825?) has the distinction of being one of London’s more successful commercial nurserymen about whom we know a great deal due to the survival of perhaps the earliest thoroughly documented accounts of a florist and plant contractor operating in the metropolis. The documents are invaluable for their records of plant and garden accessory leasing inventories, which give us insights into the creation, costs, constituents and display of imaginative temporary indoor and outdoor London town-house gardens.

Cochran went into business in 1800 as a nurseryman, seedsman and land-surveyor operating from Paddington. His business, although successful, might have gone undistinguished had he not bought out a flourishing plant contracting partnership around 1815. He immediately set up a retail shop in Duke Street, Grosvenor Square – the hub of fashionable London – where in the span of four years he saw the fruits of his enterprise increase his profits seventeen-fold. Cochran’s astonishing success was due to a combination of his location, and more importantly his business of supplying flowers and shrubs for hire to the beau monde.

Plant contracting and leasing services developed to relieve the town gardener of trouble and uncertainty. ‘The difficulties which beset the amateur florist in London are great, and almost irremediable; day and night he has to contend incessantly with a poisonous atmosphere – no skill or art – no assiduity or care – will protect his plants from the destructive infection of the pernicious blacks, their withering influence will baffle all his precautions.’ It was commonly agreed that ‘all plants, after flowering in London, will inevitably die, unless taken the very greatest care of by a practised gardener; they therefore, if purchased, become very expensive.’ The only way to counter such discouraging pronouncements was to ensure a perpetual supply of vigorous and robust plants through a gardening contract. Contracts entailed weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual inspection by professional and jobbing gardeners who through pruning, syringing, and replacing wilted specimens, brought renewed freshness to clients’ plant displays.

Cochran engaged in short and extended contract plant hire for both the indoors and the outdoors, specializing in the leasing of ‘plants for the night’. He had at his disposal a variable number of gardeners whom he in turn subcontracted for the building of new gardens, alteration or maintenance services at his clients’ premises. If people had the means and the enthusiasm they delighted in the greatest benefit of contract gardening – large seasonal contingents of flowers, shrubs and small trees were plunged into gardens, balconies, sitting rooms and parlours in order to heighten and exaggerate the ‘vitality’ of the current season. Spring was above all the most celebrated and popular garden season, as lawns were pulled up and returfed, gravel paths were turned or replaced, and hundreds of spring-blossoming shrubs and flowers were planted out for instant effect. Few concessions were made to natural sequential blossom – almost everything was forced. Since spring was celebrated as ‘perpetual’, nothing was displayed to portend the subsequent seasons. A small and somewhat limited variety of favourites were displayed and sustained through constant replacement to keep the garden in a state of suspended climax (and this was kept up for weeks, and even months). If customers wanted perpetual spring then nurserymen were happy to oblige; nothing was easier and cheaper for commercial nurserymen than growing enormous quantities of a limited assortment of blooms.

Just as it was fashionable to hire long-term boxed displays, or to lease almost entire seasonal gardens, so it was – perhaps more so – to hire plants for the night. Floral caprice reached its heady climax with the creation of ephemeral Elysiums: vast living landscapes which straddled the indoors of the townhouse and its small garden; fantastical scenes which surpassed the alleged excesses of Elagabalus; ‘fairy wildernesses’ which were pulled down almost five times as fast as they were erected. These creations were perhaps the greatest inventive accomplishments of London’s talented nurserymen, and undoubtedly the most potent advertisement of conspicuous consumption in the art of urban gardening.

Of course the fruits of Pomona and Vertumnus were but one ingredient in the theatrically staged spectacles which took place in Regency London’s townhouses. At ‘the Fashionable World’s’ fetes, masquerades, balls and ridotti, few expenses were spared, as everything – chandeliers to geraniums, console tables to jardinières – was hired so as to convey the utmost refinement of taste, and a familiarity with the latest and the best. Everywhere indoor rooms were transformed into garden caricatures where walls were decked with hundredweights of cut ivy and laurel interwoven with flowers, hundreds of potted plants formed allées, hedges and wildernesses, and fishponds, grottos, springs and temporary pavilions were thrown up to make guests believe that they were rollicking en pleine campagne, if not acting on the stage of Louis XIV’s Theatre de Verdure.

These fanciful scenes which began as the indulgence of the rich had by the early 1810s percolated to the middle classes, who delighted in creating equally effective but less costly indoor garden spectacles. There was, however, by this time a noticeable withering in taste for such exuberant displays of floral caprice. The tide of consumerism which had kindled and nurtured these fanciful expressions of urban gardening also quashed them. Material motivations overwhelmed, and ultimately irrevocably dulled the novelty of the scenes.

The private garden

There were, of course, many other instances of the widespread repercussions of consumerism and evolving material motivations. One significant change was the decline of the importance attached to prospect. By the early nineteenth century Londoners were increasingly insensible to the psychic gratification of the urban ‘prospect’ – specifically, the visual appropriation of nature. There was no longer a place for Addison’s citizen of ‘Polite Imagination’ who often felt a greater satisfaction in prospect than another did in possession. People no longer saw a kind of ‘property’ in everything they saw – they demanded the satisfaction of appropriation and ownership. Urban tenants, and especially the rich, were by the mid-eighteenth century obsessively acquisitive. For instance, where the wealthy had previously condescended to share the amenity of a key-holders’ garden (i.e. a garden square, or a subscription garden), they now often found the notion unattractive. People preferred small private garden enclosures for ‘flower gardens’ to shared open spaces; they wanted secure and defensible private garden retreats to insulate themselves from their neighbours, and from the inconveniences of the public realm.

The material motivations of late eighteenth century Londoners might suggest that objects such as houses and gardens were increasingly invested with properties which in themselves gratified their possessors’ psyche – that they achieved this through being purveyors of privacy and social distancing, and through rupturing the work setting from the scene of domesticity and family-nurtured morality. One popular misconception is that the evolving cult of privacy and domesticity did not blossom until the appearance of the semi-detached and detached house, each with its own garden. The terrace house – as a single family house – was by no means inimical to the germination of the suburban ethos; it was, in fact, the terrace house and garden which nurtured the evolving suburban spirit to the point where it could develop independently in the suburb.

The town garden was in many ways a precursor to the suburban plot. The eighteenth-century garden introduced the possibilities of privacy and seclusion in a very straightforward manner: the garden was tangible evidence, however small, that the dream of being a townsman living in the country was not just an illusion. A well-kept garden was a measure of economic comfort and success. The garden was the essential ingredient of the single family house: the front garden displayed to the outside world a picture of neatness, propriety and pride of ownership; and the back garden served as the exclusive and unadvertised domain of the private family.

The increasingly ubiquitous development of city houses, each with its own garden, emerged in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. This trend coincided with the promise of a respectable, virtuous and natural lifestyle within easy reach of the metropolis. The proposition became all the more appealing to the middle classes as the well-off found the notion of rus in urbe attractive. It is, however, not enough to claim that the aristocratic lead in Nash’s Regent’s Park terraces, or the upper-middle class’s colonization of the Park Villages triggered a latent middle-class nostalgia for the near countryside. In London’s developing suburbs the immigrants from the countryside or small rural towns and villages were likely to outnumber the immigrants who fled from London and Westminster. Additionally, the notion of rus in urbe had long been incubating in London culture awaiting the appropriate stimulus to awaken; this stimulus arrived in the form of the commercial revolution and its consequences. What is undeniable is that by the early nineteenth century the small garden was integral to both the urban and the new suburban ethos and lifestyle. The garden was just as much an attribute of the city as it was of the country; it was the medium which bridged country and city, public and private, culture and nature.