A Garden on Paper

on Tuesday, 21 March 2017. Posted in Archives

When you think of a garden the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t paper. But in our archive we hold various documents relating to gardens from ranging from plans, accounts, drawings etc of major estate gardens such as Wilton House, to diaries and papers of garden designer such as Harold Peto to interesting individual items like this 1911 inventory of garden tools and late 18th century instructions for growing truffles.


An inventory of garden tools from 1911, ref 1734/5

Late 18th century instructions for a method of growing truffles discovered by chance when a few rotten truffles were discarded.

Gardening by its nature is ephemeral and always changing. Sometimes the only trace of a garden is through archival material such as planting lists, sketches, accounts or correspondence. These documents can tell a story not only of a lost garden, but of the friendships and ideas which inspired it.

The first documented garden at Wilton (although there probably would have been earlier gardens associated with the Abbey which was dissolved in the mid-16th century) was created by Adrian Gilbert (half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh) for Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke 1561-1621. No drawings or plans of the garden survives but poet John Taylor recorded detailed descriptions of the garden following a visit in his ‘A New Discovery by Sea, with a Wherry from London to Salisbury’ in 1623. He praised the garden and described the:

‘intricate setting. Grafting, planting, inoculating, railing, hedging, plashing, turning, winding and returning circular, triangular, quadrangular, orbicular, oval, and every way curiously and chargeably conceited: there hath he made walks, hedges, and arbours, of all manner of the most delicate fruit trees, planting and placing them in such admirable artlike fashions… the hedges betwixt each walk are so thickly set, that one cannot see through from one walk who walks in the other: that in conclusion, “the work sees endless, and I think that in England it is not to be followed, or will in haste be followed”’.

In the 1630s a new garden designed by Isaac de Caus was created at Wilton (sweeping away the intricate design of Hilbert). The large rectangular space was divided into three, measuring well over half a mile long and quarter of a mile wide. The first section was arranged around four fountains with box parterres. At the end of the lower terrace was a grandiose grotto – these became very fashionable and were often very elaborate. This early stage of Wilton’s gardens is captured in an engraving:

 Engraving of an aerial view of the formal garden, almost exactly as in the design by Isaac de Caus (see 2057/H3/1) but looking away from the house, as was published in de Caus's Wilton Garden, c1654.

John Taylor visited Wilton again in 1649 and again recorded it in ‘Wandering to see the Wonders of the West’, 1649. It was the garden of Isaac de Caus that he saw and recorded:

“the garden, the walks, the rare artificial rocks and fountains, the ponds, with fish on the housetop, the strange figures and fashions of the waterworks, the numerous, innumerable varieties of fruits and flowers: yea all, and everything that may made an early paradise, is there to be seen, felt, heard or understood…”

Fruit trees seem to be a feature of both phases of the garden as recorded by Taylor. They were a popular aspect to many gardens and we hold a list of varieties of fruit trees (mostly peaches, nectarines and apricots) planted in the kitchen garden at Tottenham Park in 1782.

List of fruit trees planted at Tottenham Park (ref 1300/1547)

It’s not just plants and landscaping that the archives can shed light on. They can also give interesting insights into social history such as this gardeners' pay bill which includes wages for female workers in the gardens in Tottenham Park:

Wages for female garden staff at Tottenham Park (ref 1300/2837)

Gardens can often vanish when a creator dies or moves away but the memory of a garden can be preserved through books, photographs, plans and drawings. Gardens are a fundamental part of the British identity and history – losing the history of a garden is to lose a part of our identity. The archives can provide not only an academic resource, but a source of inspiration.

Lastly for anyone currently poring over their seed catalogues for this year’s garden inspiration, I wonder how many of your choices you would also have found in this seed catalogue from 1811?

Seed Catalogue from 1811 (Ref 1461/1398B)

Naomi Sackett, Community History Advisor

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