Victorian Gardens

By Gail Falkingham, Record Assistant

Following on from our earlier blog on sources for researching garden history, this post looks at various aspects of Victorian gardens through a range of 19th century material from our archive collections.

Victorian Gardens

In contrast to the emphasis on the natural appearance of 18th century landscape gardens, Victorian gardens in the 19th century were seen more as works of art than of nature, and saw the return of more formal designs.

ZCM Watercolour of Moreby Hall flower garden, near Stillingfleet, from the sketchbook of Henrietta Matilda Crompton, c. 1870.

At larger properties and estates, as well as a pleasure ground and kitchen garden, the Victorian garden also had flower gardens and heated glasshouses. These glasshouses and hot houses were used not only to grow tender and exotic fruits, but also new species which were arriving in Britain as a result of the expeditions of Victorian plant hunters. These new plants enabled flower gardens to be filled with a mass of bright colours. Arcades, trellis work and arbours for climbing plants, such as roses and laburnum, were also a popular feature of these gardens.

Formal Flower Beds

In the 1840s, the Italianate style became popular. It was fashionable to have terraces and balustrades close to the house, with formal parterres containing geometrically-shaped flower beds, statues, fountains and steps. These flower beds were often laid out in a symmetrical pattern with gravel or grass paths along the sides and in between beds. Edges were defined by box hedging and incorporated evergreen trees and topiary. These designs were similar to the parterre de broderie, or ‘embroidery’ parterres of late 16th century France. They were made popular in the second half of the 19th century by designers such as William Andrews Nesfield (1793-1881), and his younger son Arthur Markham Nesfield (younger brother of William Eden Nesfield who worked on the gardens of Kiplin Hall).

ZDA MP 13  Plan for Flower Garden at Aldby Park, undated [mid 19th century].

This plan for a flower garden from the Darley of Aldby family archive [ZDA] is not signed or dated, but is likely to be from the late 1840s. The lettering is similar to that on other architectural plans within the archive made by Henry Wyatt, who altered and extended the house in the late 1840s. The flower garden plan shows the symmetrical design for a parterre de broderie, subdivided by paths into four quarters, on a terrace to the south of the main house. At the centre is a fountain, and the central path leading between the two sets of steps at either end of the parterre is lined with plinths upon which stand a mixture of statuettes and urns.

There are feint pencil annotations noting the measurements; the central path is 8 feet wide, but narrows to 7 feet as it curves around the fountain. Each rectangular quarter section is 30 feet wide and 38 feet long and contains a curvilinear, floriate design. The left hand side of the plan is multicoloured, whilst to the right it is grey and green. The green is likely to be the grass plats in between the shaped beds. It could be that the plan is offering alternative options, either for planting with different coloured varieties, or for the use of variously-coloured ornamental gravels, crushed tile, glass, quartz or sand. The latter materials could be used over winter, or as a more permanent feature, requiring less maintenance than grass or plants.

Bedding Planting

With the arrival of new varieties of plants, such as pelargoniums, petunias, salvias and verbenas, new approaches to seasonal planting were developed in the 19th century. Popular features of Victorian gardens were the elaborate and decorative schemes created with annual bedding plants which could be changed each season, every year. On the level ground of a terrace, or cut into the lawn of a suburban villa, geometric beds were laid out, and filled with the new, brightly coloured plant varieties. It became the fashion to create rather garish designs where bright colours clashed with one another.

An image of bedding planting along the south front of Hutton Hall, from a 1903 sale catalogue can be viewed through the Francis Frith website

By the 1860s, carpet bedding was all the rage. This utilised low-growing or dwarf foliage plants and succulents, tightly planted close together to create patterns contrasting their green or coloured leaves with brightly-coloured flowers, like a living carpet. Complex and highly colourful designs were drawn up. Careful measurements and calculations had to be made to work out how many plants of each colour and species were needed. This would often require thousands of plants, which could be bought in from a nursery or, on larger estates, grown by the head gardener from seed using glasshouses to raise the tender seedlings, before hardening off and planting out. Such an operation would involve considerable effort and labour.

ZT  Circular bedding design with pin prick holes, undated [c.1860s/70s].

This plan from the Turton of Upsall archive [ZT] shows a circular, symmetrical bedding pattern drawn up in pencil. We know that it was used as each line has been pricked out to transfer the design onto another piece of paper.

By the latter part of the 19th century, when the fashion was at its height, these bedding schemes were planted using not only geometric designs, but also ones in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. These could include monogram motifs, coats of arms, mottoes and other images, sometimes commemorating particular events or celebrations. They could also be made in three dimensions by the more adventurous gardener using a frame. They were to be found not only in private gardens, but also in public parks, which began to appear in urban areas after the 1840s.

ZT  Monogram carpet bedding design ‘EHT’, from the Upsall Castle archive, undated [c.1860s/70s].

Although undated, the monogram initials ‘E H T’ in this plan from the Turton of Upsall archive [ZT], are most likely associated with Edmund Henry Turton, who was building a new Upsall Castle between 1872-5 and laying out his gardens prior to this in the 1860s. Annotations around the edges of the plan indicate that the “Parts coloured green to be planted with box, clipped to resemble the national emblems rose, thistle and shamrock and letters E H T in bedding plants”. The design was to be situated on a terrace adjacent to the house, c. 40 feet wide and 120 feet long, surrounded by a gravel walk and the ‘Old Ruin’ (the remains of the medieval Upsall Castle) on one side, and an old wall and rockeries on two other sides. The paler green areas are labelled as grass, and the pale pink as gravel (surrounding the letters), “The letters planted in Geraniums or other Bedding Plants”.

The numbers 1 to 4 are written on this design within the areas of grass at each of the four corners of the parterre and noted on the plan as “Juniperus Chinensis or Rhododrons or low evergreen shrubs”. Either side, at the foot of the steps down from the house, numbers 5 and 6 are “Yuccas planted in American aloes in vases”.

Also within the Turton archive, in the same box as the two bedding planting designs, is an undated letter to Edmund H Turton from Mary Miles of Bingham Rectory in Nottinghamshire, who was a cousin of his mother. It appears that Edmund had sent her a copy of a proposed planting plan for comment, which might have been the monogram carpet bedding design shown above. An extract from her letter reads as follows:

My Dear Edmund, I am the worst person to advise you on bedded-out gardens having long eschewed the whole system in favour of perennial gardening, of which Frank is an exponent. I dare say, however, the effect of the design you sent will be very good and I think I should advise the bedding-out plants being arranged like enamel and jewels in the letters, the enamel formed by coloured leaves such as ‘Sophia Dumaresqe’ and ‘Bronze Queen’ &c and the jewels by brilliant bits of colour in dwarf geranium, mauve pansy &c …..”.

Mary refers to her preference for perennials rather than bedding schemes; perennials were popularised from the early 1870s following the ideas of William Robinson. Her son Frank, to whom she refers, was George Francis Miles, a London-based artist, architect and plantsman, who contributed both articles and illustrations to the weekly journal The Garden, published in London by William Robinson.

In her listing of Golden Bronze Geraniums on page 94 of Every Woman Her Own Flower Gardener: A Handy Manual of Flower Gardening for Ladies, (4th Edition published in 1874, New York) Mrs S.O. Johnson describes the plants listed by Mary. Sophie Dumaresque has a “dark crimson zone, with broad yellow margin”. Bronze Queen is “yellowish bronze, with a dark chocolate zone which contrasts perfectly with the silver-edged varieties”.

New Inventions of the 19th Century

The 19th century was a period of great change, experimentation and innovation, which saw the introduction of new materials, gardening tools and equipment. Popular gardening magazines appeared, as did botanic gardens, horticultural competitions, exhibitions and commercial plant nurseries. New plants were introduced, brought back from overseas collecting expeditions, such as orchids and the monkey puzzle tree. The growing of colourful flowers in cutting gardens for display in the house led to the new art of floristry.

Technical developments of the 19th century included more efficient glasshouses and conservatories with water-heated radiators to house a range of tender and exotic plants. Larger panes of sheet glass produced by James Hartley from 1847, and prefabricated cast iron, enabled the middle classes, as well as the wealthier, to have their own glasshouses and conservatories. The study, cultivation and display of plants became a popular pastime, as did experimentation in creating hybrids.

EF 451/1 & EF 451/14 External and internal views of the conservatory at Wood End, Thornton le Street (now demolished), showing cast iron roof supports, from an undated photograph album.

New materials, such as concrete, were introduced which could be used for lining ponds, and asphalt for paths and roads. James Pulham’s artificial stone was used for rockeries, which became popular at this time, influenced by the Victorian explorers who brought back alpine plants from their travels.

Developments also included the invention of labour-saving devices, such as the lawnmower. This piece of garden equipment, which we take for granted today, was first patented in 1830 by Edwin Beard Budding, an engineer from Stroud, Gloucestershire. Prior to this, grass was cut by hand with a scythe, in rain or heavy dew.

EF467 ‘Bobbie’ with lawnmower by Ransomes Sims & Jefferies Ltd of Ipswich c.1917.

Two items from the Cholmeley of Brandsby archive [ZQG] illustrate Budding’s new patent machine, which was manufactured by J Ferrabee of Stroud. He was granted a British patent on 31 August 1830. The advertisement lists five advantages offered by this machine: it may be adjusted; the grass cut off may be collected in the box to avoid sweeping; it leaves a more even surface than the scythe, it can be used best in dry weather and it is very durable and easily sharpened. Well worth the extra ten shillings for the £8 model with the 22 inch cutting width (as opposed to £7, 10s for the 16 inch)!

Future blogs will look in further detail at walled gardens and glasshouses, and orchards and fruit trees.


Further Reading

Victorian Gardens, Brent Elliott, 1986, BT Batsford Ltd

The Victorian Gardener, Caroline Ikin, 2014, Shire Publications

Victorian Gardens, Anne Jennings, 2005, English Heritage/Museum of Garden History

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