My history hero: John Loudon (1783–1843)

Chosen by Mark Easton, BBC News home editor

Landscape gardener, architect and writer John Loudon.

This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Landscape gardener, architect and writer John Loudon was born in Lanarkshire and developed an interest in horticulture at a young age. In 1803 he moved to London where he became a successful garden designer. He also wrote several books on various aspects of gardening, as well as founding the Gardener’s Magazine. Loudon’s ideas about gardens and green spaces were highly influential and were enthusiastically adopted throughout the Victorian era.

When did you first hear about John Loudon?

It was not until I was researching my book Britain etc. that I took a close interest in John Loudon. I was interested in the relationship between the British and grass: we occupy a land still adorned with countless garden lawns, cricket squares, bowling greens, football pitches and public parks.

From the days of the village green, and despite, or because of, centuries of enclosure and development, we Brits retain a special place for immaculate turf. Loudon was a key figure in helping develop that profound love affair.

What kind of person was he?

A farmer’s son, Loudon had an extraordinary understanding of the relationship between man and land. His knowledge of plants and agriculture, combined with an instinctive grasp of the psychological and emotional effect of natural scenery, produced one of the most visionary landscape planners and designers of all time.

But it was not his development of agricultural methods in the Scottish lowlands or the layout of grand estates such as Tew Park in Oxfordshire that makes him such a hero in my eyes.

What made him a hero?

As Loudon was marking out the lawns and drives of the Tew Park estate, his thoughts were of soot and smoke. He looked beyond the rural Cotswolds to the industrial age, which lay just beyond the horizon. Loudon was among the first to realise the importance of what we would now call ‘green space’ in urban Britain. His pamphlet Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis proposed that rapidly expanding London should be constructed around concentric rings of turf and gravel so that “there could never be an inhabitant who would be farther than half a mile from an open airy situation”. This was more than a century before the capital was given its much-beloved green belt.

What was his finest hour?

Loudon was one of the principal architects of what we now think of as the public park. Indeed, his finest hour must have been on 16 September 1840 when the gates of England’s first municipal park, the Derby Arboretum, swung open. Based on Loudon’s original design, the park’s completion was marked by the biggest party in the town’s history. Loudon believed passionately that such facilities should be open to all classes and his egalitarian principles were influential throughout the 19th century.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I fear I am a complete sucker for Mr Loudon. A man crippled by rheumatism and arthritis, he controlled the pain with opium and later weaned himself off his addiction. His right arm was amputated after a botched operation in 1826 but self-pity never entered his thoughts. Instead, he taught himself to write and draw with his left hand and that same year founded the first horticultural periodical, the Gardener’s Magazine. His ‘Gardenesque’ style of planting, in which specimens are located where they are most likely to thrive, inspired a generation of horticulturalists and designers.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Very few! My garden recoils when I walk out of the back door and I just wish I had a fraction of his vision and grand ambition.

If you could meet Loudon what would you ask him?

Loudon understood the critical importance of shared public space for the welfare of communities. Contemporary Britain has, I fear, forgotten what shared public space means. Much of it has either been privatised or allowed to fall into unloved disrepair. Loudon, I am sure, would have something important to say about how we might reoccupy and expand the public domain, recognise it as a communal resource and the space where social glue is manufactured.

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Mark Easton is an experienced journalist who currently works as home editor for BBC News on radio and television. He is also the author of Britain etc. The Way We Live and How We Got There, which has recently been published by Simon & Schuster. You can read Mark’s blogs at www.bbc.co.uk/markeaston