Books about women gardeners and landscape designers, once very rare, have become a serious topic of scholarship in recent years. The success of Jane Brown’s 1982 study of Gertrude Jekyll, Gardens of a Golden Afternoon: The Story of a Partnership: Edward Lutyens & Gertrude Jekyll began a trend that continues today. Now, Catherine Horwood, a social historian and keen gardener, has provided an approachable and well-written survey, Women and Their Gardens: A History from the Elizabethan Era to Today, which celebrates the collective legacy of women gardeners in Great Britain.
Women have always gardened and gardens have always played an important role in the interior lives of women. From “collectors of once rare plants …. to the pioneers of design whose individual genius can be traced in landed estates, city parks and suburban patios,” Horwood introduces the reader to over 200 gardeners, plant collectors, artists, naturalists, educators and landscape architects whose efforts paved the way for today’s generation of women.
And what an amazing, dedicated, under-appreciated group of women they are.
The obstacles to their success were overwhelming and challenges abounded at every turn. Horwood includes many examples of the difficulties these women endured while providing insight into the delicate balance between their professional and personal lives, which were often complicated by intrigue, drama and the occasional scandal.
While the story of Beatrix Potter being denied review of her work on fungi by the Linnaean Society, who later honored her as a mycologist, is well known, Horwood provides other examples of just how challenging it was. I was amazed to learn that the public reaction to the first women being employed at Kew Gardens was “as though a new species of animal were on display at the zoo” and that they were labeled “London’s Kewriosities.” The photograph below, of the first women to work at Kew, is from the blog, The history of working women at Kew, written by Michele Losse and available at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens web site: http://www.kew.org/news/kew-blogs/library-art-archives/working-women-at-kew.htm .
Another anecdote involves Rev. William Wilkes, secretary to the Royal Horticultural Society. When asked to recommend a female head gardener, Wilkes was unable to do so and replied that no woman gardener had the all-around knowledge and skill to direct the foremen of the departments proclaiming, “I do not believe such a person exists. Miss Jekyll herself would not be able to take such a post – she could not direct melon growing or early grape forcing, & so on.” Horwood acknowledges the tension between supervisory and manual labor and includes Wilkes’ concluding sentence, which he underlined in red, “to put women to [such work] is to go back a big step in the emancipation of your sex.”
The book is organized thematically and includes sections on plant collecting and exploration, shaping the landscape, the floral arts (including embroidery and collage), literature, and horticultural education. At four hundred pages, Women and Their Gardens: A History from the Elizabethan Era to Today is a book to be savored in multiple installments. It is thoroughly researched and includes an appendix of gardens by women, list of Royal Horticultural Society Medal winners and an extensive bibliography.
I do wish that more attention had been lavished on the book’s layout and design, which is quite basic with mostly black and white illustrations. While this would have increased the cost, for me, the expense would be justifiable. The talented women profiled by Horwood discovered and created beautiful plants, gardens, landscapes, botanical art and textiles and I wished for more compelling illustrations of their handiwork.
Women and Their Gardens: A History from the Elizabethan Era to Today was published in the United Kingdom in 2010 as Gardening Women and made available in the United States this past spring.
The author maintains a site, http://www.gardeningwomen.com/2012/05/women-and-their-gardens-us-edition.html, that includes information about her research as well as links to additional information about women gardeners, horticulturalists and landscape designers.
This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, November, 2012.
Copyright © 2012 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved