History explorer: Victorian gardens

Richard Smyth and Twigs Way explore one of the most remarkable gardens of the Victorian age, Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire...

High Victorian style garden designed by James Bateman. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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They came from China, from Nepal and Bhutan, from Ecuador and Chile, from California and the Rocky Mountains, from Japan and New Zealand, from Siberia and the Pacific Northwest – exotic plants that eventually wound up at Biddulph in Staffordshire, where in the 1840s and 1850s James Bateman created one of the most remarkable gardens of the Victorian era.

Bateman and his wife, Maria, took over the 15 windswept acres of Biddulph Grange in 1842. The garden Bateman built there was, and still is, quite unique.

The garden, now a National Trust property, is particularly spectacular on a sunny day. The smell of new-cut grass and the presence everywhere of gardeners toting heavy mowers and strimmers is a reminder of how much backbreaking work goes into maintaining the elegant beauty of a place like this. Chiffchaffs sing their trademark two-step song from the deeps of a lime tree; koi carp stir lazily in the lily pond.

Here at Biddulph a visitor can travel the world in a single afternoon. Bateman took inspiration from far and wide. Fine Italianate gardens lead on to Versailles-style parterres, bright with bedding plants. Turn a corner and you might find yourself in China – temple and all – or in Egypt, overlooked by sphinx-like statuary. An avenue of North American redwoods stretches to the west and there’s even a Scottish glen. There are rhododendrons from the Himalayas and Chile pines (‘monkey puzzle’ trees) from the Andes. All these different areas are cleverly hidden from each other by heaps of rocks and thickly planted shrubberies.

Leopard orchid, Oncidium lanceanum
Lithograph of a leopard orchid by an unknown artist, from James Anderson’s ‘The New Practical Gardener’, Glasgow, 1872. (Photo by Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images)

Gardening on a global scale

This was a truly international enterprise, but Bateman, heir to a vast coal fortune, had little need to travel far in order to add to his collection of botanical exotica.

“During the Victorian era, plants were flooding in to England from all over the world,” says Dr Twigs Way, a researcher in historic gardens and designed landscapes. The 19th century was, she believes, the golden age of the plant hunter.

Plant hunters and botanists such as David Douglas and Robert Fortune – intrepid, eagle-eyed and indefatigable – travelled far and wide in pursuit of new plants to delight wealthy plant collectors back home. Fortune brought the golden larch and Japanese maple, among others, from the far east; Douglas is best remembered for the conifers he found in North America, including the tree – the Douglas fir – that bears his name.

It was orchids, the subject of a wild craze among plant-fanciers in the mid-19th century, that gave Bateman his start in botany. While still living at the family home at Knypersley, Staffordshire, he made a name for himself as a collector of, and authority on, orchids. Between 1837 and 1843 he published a 10-volume work on orchids from Central America, a 38lb-tome that was as notable for its vast bulk as for its scholarship.

Bateman soon expanded the scope of his collections. Botanically, Biddulph is a splendid mishmash, a grab-bag of global flora. In this respect, Bateman’s garden shows a disregard for consistency that Way suggests is characteristically Victorian.

“That eclecticism that you see at Biddulph – taking things from different styles and putting them next to each other – is typical of this period,” she says. “The idea of different colours, different designs, eclectic groupings of things, carries through into interior design. Anybody who has walked into a restored or original Victorian building will know that you can have gold and green wallpaper on one side, a red patterned sofa, heavy velvet purple curtains… Life was an extraordinary whirl of patterns and this spilled over into the garden.”

Bedding down

But plant collectors’ greed for new foreign plant specimens wasn’t just about a taste for the exotic for its own sake. More than perhaps anything else, the Victorian gardener craved colour.

“The colours of these gardens are often quite blinding to modern eyes,” says Way. And she’s right. At Biddulph, colour is everywhere – in orchids among the pondside rushes, in the orderly ranks of the Dahlia Walk, and most of all in the rich, multi-hued swathes of bedding annuals.

“Carpet bedding [low growing plants arranged into patterns], which we mostly associate now with public parks, was promoted in terms of garden style for individual private gardens,” explains Way. “Patterns of carpet bedding were available to copy – a sort of painting-by-numbers.

“The other way ideas trickled down was through garden periodicals,” she continues. “These publications had lots of drawings and engravings, all in black and white, of course, although by the end of the Victorian period you get postcards that have been coloured in, so there were lovely images of carpet bedding. Goodness knows whether the illustrators used the right colours, though.”

Annual plants (those with a life cycle that lasts only one year) were a popular inclusion in carpet bedding in gardens across the country. The reason places us squarely amid the realities of life in Victorian Britain: smog. “In urban areas, by the mid-19th century, trying to grow perennial plants (those that should last several years) meant you were on a hiding to nothing,” says Way. As pollution increased, only the hardiest plants could survive. “Better to plant annuals and then just re-plant. In the big places you find that, where there were a lot of glasshouses, the furnace chimney is positioned a long way from the garden itself. Chatsworth is an obvious example. Kew is the same – it has a massive great chimney disguised as an Italian campanile. The Victorians knew they had to take soot away from the gardens.”

To the casual observer, Biddulph Grange – leafy, secluded, shady and serene – might have seemed like a refuge from the smoke and stink of Britain’s heavy industry. Yet the reality is that Biddulph and its like owed their existence to the industrial revolution: to the railways that enabled the transport of plants and equipment; to steam technology, which allowed collectors to heat their precious tropical collections; and to advances in the use of glass, which made possible ever-grander glasshouses (think, for example, of the spectacular palm house at Kew).

These were, in short, industrial-scale operations. Plant-hunting was only one part of the process. “As well as exotic plants there were the gardeners, the heating, glasshouses – it was all part of a package,” Way says. “Innovation is what was driving places like Chatsworth and Kew in the 19th century.”

Clash of ideas

In August 1862 Bateman opened his Geological Gallery to the public. His aim was clear: to demonstrate through a chronological display of fossils of various ages that God’s Creation was indeed the work of six days, as described in the Book of Genesis, and that there was no truth in the newfangled theory of evolution by natural selection so recently set out by the misguided (as he saw it) Charles Darwin. Since the display first opened, many of the original items subsequently went missing, but the collection is gradually being restored and reassembled.

Biddulph was an intriguing battleground in the culture war of Darwinism versus Creationism. Bateman, like many of his Christian contemporaries, believed that God had created each species of plant and animal individually – though not, he allowed, all at the same time. He explained the early origins of fern-like plants by arguing that they had needed the extra time in order to transform into coal, which was needed “for the future comfort and civilisation of our race” – a convenient ideology for the son of a coal baron.

James Bateman’s career as a breeder of orchids and dahlias seems not to have shaken his convictions, despite the fact that the work brought him into daily contact with the confounding principle of

hybridisation – the mating or crossing of two plants. “The Victorians eventually got to the stage – which I’m sure Bateman did – of hybridising things like orchids or dahlias. But this meant deliberately creating a unique plant that God never made. It brought men like Bateman face-to-face with the role of plants in evolution and natural selection.”

It’s this kind of historical and cultural backdrop – trade and exploration, industry and fashion, religion and science – that makes a garden like Biddulph Grange such a precious resource. It’s important, comments Way, to consider gardens in context, and on their own terms.

“A lot of people still don’t really love Victorian gardens”, she says. “During the interwar period people tended to favour the Edwardian Gertrude Jekyll style instead. Even the National Trust didn’t buy Victorian houses in the great postwar buy-up.

“But now we’ve become interested in different styles, interested in their historical contexts – whether or not we’d have them in our own homes,” she continues. “And I think that’s excellent. Up until recently we only restored the things we liked. We need to bring in more of the background context that creates sites such as Biddulph.”

Biddulph is especially important to garden history because – appropriately enough – it hasn’t evolved. It was, Way says, mothballed in the late 1860s, and after careful restoration remains a garden frozen in time, a magnificent survival from the great age of Victorian gardening. It might not have evolved, but it has certainly grown.

“Some of it, particularly the trees, James Bateman didn’t live to see,” Way reflects.

“He never saw the maturity of the magnificent 250-metre-long Wellingtonia avenue. It’s quite sad, really. We’re seeing it better than he ever did”.

Dr Twigs Way (left) is a freelance consultant on heritage landscapes and gardens. She has written extensively on garden history. Her website is twigsway.com. Words: Richard Smyth.

Victorian Gardens: five more places to explore

1) Brodsworth Hall, Near Doncaster, South Yorkshire

Where gardens have been restored

The fine Italianate lawns and terraces of Brodsworth embody the Victorian garden aesthetic. Its pleasure gardens are six hectares in size and the entire site has undergone extensive restoration by English Heritage. Expect shaded ferns, bright flower beds and splendid topiary.

Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk

2) Witley Court, Great Witley, Worcestershire

Where a fire wreaked havoc

Once one of Worcestershire’s grandest country houses, Witley Court was gutted by fire in 1937. It survives as a ruin; its intricate and beautiful Victorian garden – complete with a renowned Perseus and Andromeda fountain – is a reminder of the estate’s former glory.

Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk

3) Waddesdon Manor, Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire

Where thousands of plants flourish

The grand neo-Renaissance manor at Waddesdon was built between 1874 and 1885 for the Rothschild family. Its ambitiously landscaped gardens were the work of the French architect Elie Lainé and its parterre, the highlight of the formal garden, is still planted with a new design twice a year, using around 110,000 plants.

Visit waddesdon.org.uk

4) Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland

Where the tallest Scots pine stands

The Northumberland home of industrialist Lord Armstrong (1810–1900), with its rich flower beds, a pinetum, a glasshouse, an Italianate terrace and a dramatic rock garden, marks a high-point in Victorian garden design. It’s also home to Britain’s tallest Scots pine, which stands at 131ft.

Visit nationaltrust.org.uk/cragside

5) Osborne, Isle of Wight

Where Queen Victoria holidayed

Country houses don’t get much more Victorian than Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, which was built in the 1840s as a holiday residence for Queen Victoria and her family. The glorious gardens offer seasonal displays of orchids, fruit trees and evergreens.

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Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk