The blog provides a lot of information on garden history and critical insights which are in my view essential to a sound understanding of the challenges of conservation and creation of designed landscapes today.
Dr. David Marsh is a trustee of The Gardens Trust, ‘the only UK national charity dedicated to protecting and conserving our heritage of designed landscapes’1. He has written more than four hundred posts in The Gardens Trust Blog he has edited since its launch in 2013. A new post is published every Saturday morning.
The blog invites the audience to find out more about the ‘fascinating world of garden history in its broadest sense.’ The topics covered are diverse, ‘from mechanical elephants to roof gardens, and from slum clearance to the world’s oldest pot plant’2. We discover properties and their designed landscapes, and the owners, gardeners, garden designers, artists, writers and other protagonists who have made history in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, on the ground as well as in the arts, literature, horticultural science and politics.
The focus is on ornamental gardens, however fruit and kitchen gardens are also covered. The posts include many images: historic drawings, maps, book covers and extracts, past and present photos of the sites, portraits of the stakeholders, visual representations of horticultural techniques as well as artworks such as painted landscapes, botanical drawings and promotional material. Links to a wide range of references are provided for further reading and research.
Below are three posts which I have found of particular interest during my exploration, still in working process, of Dr. Marsh’s blog (click on the titles to access the full posts).
This post is about the history of figs in the UK and the conservation of fruit trees and cultural heritage. I hope it will inspire urbanists and conservationists in my hometown in France, Aurillac.
We learn about the conservation of a centuries-old fig tree in Central London and the fate of commercial fig orchards on the South coast of England, cast in the early 20th century in the context of the urban development of the city of Worthing, Sussex. It is the first Gardens Trust Blog’s post I have read, two or three years ago. I was searching for information on the age of fruit trees.
I noticed the photos of the Cardinal Pope’s fig tree in London’s Lambeth Palace Library. The tree looked beautiful, and the hard prune carried out every four years seemed to work perfectly.
Dr. Marsh argues that today’s fig tree is not the original one planted in 1556 as claimed, but a number of more or less distant descendants which grow in the same place and give the impression of a single tree. Anyway, I find this a great example of heritage conservation. I intend to visit the site to learn more in particular about the work of volunteers who contribute to maintaining it.
The case of Sussex’s fig orchards is also interesting, because although they disappeared due to urban development, a trace of this past has been preserved at the request of the city council. Neighbours can visit a private property called Bishop’s Garth on the last Saturday of June to see and enjoy the remains of the orchards. I also intend to visit this place, located less than three miles away from the place where I usually stay when I visit the UK.
It is a shame that the public authorities of my home town in France, Aurillac, didn’t have the same sort of attitude towards heritage conservation: a large pear tree, a living legacy of urban and monastic agriculture of the 19th century, was cut down in 2020 to build a private dwelling (see our post The 150-year old pear tree). However, these authorities could correct their mistake, as the house hasn’t been built yet. Beyond building legacy by preserving this cultural heritage through letting the tree regrow from its stomp, they would also safeguard a precious green space in a heavily built area of the town centre, as unanimously wished by the neighbourhood in a public enquiry this year.
This post tells us about country life and poverty up to the 19th century. It informed my reflection on the current development of urban agriculture.
Who knows that our bucolic perception of British cottages as cosy traditional little homes surrounded by a beautiful and well-maintained garden grew from an attempt by a group of philanthropes and property owners to address the issue of rural poverty in the United Kingdom, after misery and starvation led to the French Revolution?
David Marsh tells the story of the Cottage Garden between the 17th and the 19th centuries. He describes the development of the concept, which evolved into a romantic vision which didn’t mirror the reality of country life. He concludes that ‘These philanthropic schemes were merely scratching at the surface of the problem of rural poverty’, reminding us of the hardship of agricultural work and how little ‘had changed in the life of the labouring poor since mediaeval times’, who often lived in ‘still squalid’ houses.
He published a second post on 22/05/2021, Cottage Gardens – Cabbages and Chocolate boxes, in which he demonstrates that social reformers’ awareness of rural poverty was overshadowed by ‘idealised chocolate box versions’ of life in the country which progressively permeated public consciousness, through for instance works of art exhibited in venues like the Royal Academy. David Marsh explains that choosing to show paintings featuring playing children rather than more realistic representations of them at work, in the context of widespread child labour in the country, contributed to creating the myth of the ‘comfortable rural life’. Even Myles Birket Foster’s paintings, in spite of their more realistic depictions of derelict cottages, sustained the myth.
It seems that the public was prompt to buy into the romantic illusion of an idyllic country. Was it the consequence of a common longing among philanthropists, property owners, artists, exhibition curators and visitors, for a better world? Probably. However, if utopia brings us together, is a legitimate aspiration and makes progress possible, the myths it contributes to generating are nonetheless often disabling, as the failure to address the issue of rural poverty has showed.
Another myth is growing in contemporary society, which I think we should worry about. It is the myth of urban agriculture and its ability to meet food needs. I found the picture below, exhibited at the V&A in London in 2019, revealing of this myth. How much food is produced on this Hong Kong rooftop? Hardly enough to meet the food needs of two people over a year?
It seems to me that the same causes produce the same effects: the catchwords ‘farm’ and ‘created by a collective of artists, farmers and designers’ in the image caption have replaced the smiling children of the chocolate box paintings. As for poverty, it is still there: the derelict buildings of the rich city of Hong Kong have replaced the slums of the Victorian British countryside. Shouldn’t we be more realistic when discussing and designing how urban agriculture can contribute to meeting local and global food needs?
As for the countryside, David Marsh might tell us someday whether the myth of the comfortable rural life has finally become a reality. Who visits the British countryside today is often amazed, at least in my experience, by the beauty of its cottages and gardens. Nowadays, there is probably little connection between these cottages and the world of agriculture. However, how many of their gardens produce fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices? I would be pleased to read about it.
This post was of interest to me because I am due to visit Chambord Castle next year, located in France’s Loire valley. I will attend the conclusion of a European symposium on the conservation of historic fruit and vegetable gardens there on 23 June 2022.
In his article, David Marsh has expressed interesting reservations about Chambord’s 18th century ornamental garden, recreated in 2018. Is the presence of recent hybrid plants detrimental to the authenticity of the place? Is Chambord becoming too much of a tourist attraction?
I will make up my mind on this on site during the symposium. I will also visit the fruit and vegetable garden created in 2019, as well as a new area dedicated to permaculture, presented by the curators as spaces where history perpetuates itself and tradition meets modernity. This should inform my analysis.
It would be great to meet Dr. David Marsh in Chambord at this occasion. We could exchange views in situ. In the meantime, I would like to thank him and the Gardens Trust for the wealth of information, references and analyses they put together and make available to the public. The Gardens Trust Blog is worth exploring to anyone interested in gardens and their history. As David Marsh puts it, ‘just do a word search and see what crops up!’. You might be surprised by how imaginative humans can be when it comes to gardening innovation.
References: (accessed 24 October 2021)
- http://www.amisdupotagerduroi.org/qui-sommes-nous/ (in French)