From Chaucer’s Eden to Eliot’s shattered idyll — 800 years of literate gardening.
A month ago the pavements around King’s Cross and St Pancras were whirling with dust and buzzing to the sound of drills. The sun was still warm and in the courtyard of the British Library readers headed for the shade of the café with its swaying bamboos — a token garden. But inside the library gardens were much on people’s minds: a team of curators was in the throes of planning an exhibition, The Writer in the Garden, due to open in early November. In the bicentenary year of the Royal Horticultural Society even the courtyard would be transformed into a Winter Garden.
Gardens have always been linked in our Western tradition to the lost innocence of Eden and the promise of Paradise, but also, more simply, to a dream of private space, nature tamed, a refuge against dark forests, ploughed fields or city streets. All our great writers, it seems, have opinions on the subject. Chaucer longed to be home at the end of the day to lounge on his turf-covered bench. Shakespeare’s gardeners in Richard II, inveighing against caterpillars, parasites and unruly growth, speak pungently of a state gone to seed. Dr Johnson exclaimed at the cliffs of Hawkesworth, which inspired ideas “of the sublime, the dreadful and the vast”, but scoffed at fashionable grottos: “Would it not be a pretty cool habitation in summer, Mr Johnson?” “I think it would, Madam,” replied he, “for a toad.” Wordsworth wrote detailed garden plans for his friend Lady Beaumont, with a central bower and an “ivied cottage”; Dickens was vice-president of the Rochester, Chatham and Strood Horticultural Society. And so it goes on.
But how can an exhibition that focuses on writers actually display our gardening past? One of the organisers, Dr Chris Fletcher, curator of literary manuscripts, took me on a mystery tour of the library. At the back of its grand first floor is a locked door. Inside, stacks of shelves stretch the length of the building and the air is fragrant with old paper and leather bindings. Flicking his finger along the spines, Fletcher extracted a large leather-bound volume and laid it on a table. There before me were the Vauxhall Gardens in their late glory days, in a watercolour by Sydney Barton, with crowds in tight waistcoats and plump crinolines, and musicians on the bandstand. From this starting point, the library can draw on its treasures to show the great age of the pleasure garden, bringing out an early plan of spring gardens from 1622, cartoons by Rowlandson, descriptions by Fielding and Thackeray, newspaper reports and even a rare admissions ticket.
Another corner of the stacks, another table. We pored over Humphry Repton’s 1797 plan for the landscaping of Stoke Park, incorporating the “Tomb of the Poet Gray”, perhaps Britain’s first memorial garden. Alongside this will go the manuscript of Gray’s Elegy, and a gazetteer of the British Isles with Gray’s handwritten lists of notable parks and houses. The gazetteer illustrates the vogue for garden-planning at the end of the 18th century, when Repton prepared his famous “Red Books” for clients, including a watercolour showing the state of their park with an overlay that could be turned down and — hey presto! — there was a new lake, a clump of trees, a curving drive, a little seat. Irresistible. But not to all: Jane Austen, for one, was scathing about “improvements”, as her comments in Mansfield Park make acidly clear.
The clever constellations of plans, poetry and novels move the mind from individual gardens towards wider considerations of taste and sensibility and changing notions of beauty and nature. Gray’s tomb reminds us, too, of the garden as a place of rest. In the exhibition, this is displayed in the work of Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll for the War Graves Commission in France after the First World War, accompanied by the manuscript of Kipling’s Gethsemane.
In the century before, factories and cities had sprawled across Britain. The middle classes moved into new villas, the workers into terraces with small back yards. To cater for new gardeners, magazines sprang up, books were published, advice poured from the press. One expert was John Claudius Loudon, helped by his wife, Jane, author of a futuristic novel, The Mummy (with coffee machines and prophetic views of Regent’s Park), and of the pioneering Gardening for Women, 1838. Among the manuscripts is her poignant application for a grant from the Royal Literary Fund to pay the debts after her husband’s death, with a priceless annotated list of publications and earnings.
Individual voices still speak to us. But the exhibition takes us further back, starting with a 12th-century copy of a world-map originally drawn by the Spanish monk Beatus in AD778, firmly incorporating a neatly fenced Garden of Eden. From the inner strongroom, housing the library treasures selected for evacuation during the Second World War, Fletcher brings out a small brown volume, the early 14th-century manuscript of the Gawain poet. This includes not only Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but Patience, Pearl and The Dreamer, poems that show an intimate knowledge of plants and herbs. There are other medieval gems, such as the Garden of Pleasure from a Flemish manuscript of the Roman de la Rose and The Priests Discourse, where a stout wheelbarrow represents fortitude. As we move through time the great herbals appear, culminating in Gerard’s Herbal of 1596 and John Parkinson’s glorious, punningly titled Paradisi in Sole of 1629. Hard decisions must be made. Is there space, for example, for another hand-painted herbal, its pages alive with fruit and curling leaves?
Some works select themselves: the papers of John Evelyn with his drawings of garden tools; the meticulously written nature journal of Gilbert White of Selborne and his student copy of Pope’s Iliad, with a possible portrait of him, the only one known. And the manuscript of Pope’s Iliad itself. An odd choice? Pope was famous for his small garden at Twickenham, with its grotto and vistas, and as he worked on his translation, written on the backs of letters, criss-crossing round stubs of sealing wax, he often sketched little plans — a gate, a colonnade, a garden door — fiddling with garden schemes.
Once the selection is made and the impassioned pleas for favourites are over, the curators arrange their show. In a great library this is complicated by the need to preserve the material, and the conservators are already at work. Declan Buckley’s designs have to impose order on the mass. Downstairs, plans are unfolded, drawings examined. There are five areas, each distinguished by an artificial tree, 4m (13ft) tall.
The first area, “Where is Paradise?”, takes us through a medieval world of allegory and symbol, convent cloisters and castle bowers, while “Paradise Remade” is a backdrop for the intricate patterns of the Tudors and Stuarts, the first great botanists, the text of Shakespeare’s Tempest, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Increasingly, however, Nature replaces God, and the section named “All Nature is a Garden” leads us to the secular beauty of landscape in the 18th century.
Now comes “Public Place/Private Space”, where Edenic visions rush back in different shape, in the manuscript of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan or John Martin’s 1827 engraving of Milton’s Adam and Eve Leaving Paradise. Undercutting confident works on Victorian parks and Pickwickian arbours are the oddities of Alice through the Looking Glass and the underwater gardens of The Water Babies, while the writings of Swinburne and Tennyson pulse with a sinister sap, like the lines from Maud (“Come into the garden”), replete with weeping passion-flowers and deathly laurels. The tone is ominous, and the next century greets us with war and the shattered idylls of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. But nostalgic revival, as well as Digging for Victory, also finds a place here, in the work of Vita Sackville-West brooding over her white roses at Sissinghurst. And the suburban garden is ambiguously evoked by Philip Larkin’s The Mower, mechanical slayer of hedgehogs among the long grass. (Larkin’s wry spirit is summoned not only by his poems but also by tongue-in-cheek plans to hang an actual lawnmower on a wall of Astroturf.)
Finally, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia pushes us towards today. But at certain points time stands still. At the heart of the British Library’s display is the “Secret Garden”, a haven of children’s books and dreams. As I write, these stage sets are still being built. It is a moment for nerves as well as anticipation, since we all know how horticultural plans can go astray — but I can’t wait to weave my way through the maze, in the sunlit company of all these writers in the garden.
The Writer in the Garden will run at the British Library from Nov 5 until April 10. Jenny Uglow is the author of A Little History of British Gardening