Book Reviews, Gardens, Landscape History, London

Kew Gardens by the Book

December 22, 2017

Reading books about famous gardens and landscapes often has a domino effect. One leads to another about the same topic and when reading about a place as famous and memorable as the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, personal recollections can provide compelling experiential narratives to augment historical accounts. Thus a review of The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew, led me to explore just how untold the story of Kew is, a journey which is shared in this review.

Named a World Heritage Site in 2003, Kew is a world-class scientific institution containing botanical collections of global significance. It is also a cultural and major historic garden landscape with design features shaped over three centuries by notable architects, landscape gardeners, horticulturalists and political figures.

In The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew (Amberely Publishing, 2017) Vanessa Berridge explores the personal and political background of Kew’s origins.

At its center is Princess Augusta, widow of Frederick Prince of Wales and mother of King George III. It is she, with the advice and support of Lord Bute, who is credited with Kew’s founding and evolution as a landscape of ideological and horticultural significance.

Written to appeal to both garden lovers and people who enjoy history, The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew amplifies the role that 18th century gardens played within the national context, where political aspirations and influence were embodied through their design. According to Berridge, “gardens were turned into allegorical battlefields” whose layout and ornamentation were used to display political ambition and affiliation.

Plans, Elevations, Sections and Perspective Views of the Gardens and Buildings of Kew in Surrey, the Seat of Her Royal Highness, the Princess Dowager of Wales (London, 1763) by William Chambers.

The book contains three sections divided between historical background, the evolution of Augusta and Frederick’s marriage and relationship with Lord Bute and Augusta’s ascendancy as both a political figure and the force behind Kew’s development and building program.

By contrast, Edward Bawden’s Kew Gardens (V & A Publishing in association with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2014) is a light-hearted social history. Combining colorful period illustrations, posters and linocuts, it celebrates Bawden’s 60-year fascination with Kew and provides an intimate view of its importance to his creative life.

By independent fine-art consultant and writer Peyton Skipwith and designer Brian Webb, the book is beguiling with each page more beautiful than the next. It is divided into four distinct sections; a facsimile edition of Bawden’s first book, the previously unpublished ‘1923 General Guide to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’; Bawden’s captioned illustrations of ‘Adam and Eve at Kew’; a succinct and occasionally irreverent history of Kew; and a concluding chapter telling the story of Bawden and his relationship to the garden.

“The Queen’s Garden” by Edward Bawden, linocut 1983

Bawden (1905 – 1989) a painter, illustrator and graphic artist, chose Kew as his muse, returning frequently to record its plants, setting and the distinct personalities who drawn to the garden’s sense of place, were frequent visitors. Viewing Kew as a stage on which to explore his artistic endeavors, Bawden’s love affair with the garden permeated his work, connecting him to the artistic and horticultural vision of Princess Augusta, its founder.

Virginia Woolf’s short story Kew Gardens, published privately in 1919, provides fleeting glimpses of four groups of people as they pass by a singular flowerbed in the garden on a hot July day. My copy, number 438 of 500, was illustrated by Vanessa Bell, published by the Hogarth Press and printed in 1927.

The brief story is set totally within Kew Gardens. Beginning with a description of an oval-shaped flowerbed, Woolf integrates the colors of the flower petals, stirred by the breeze, with the seemingly random movements of the visitors, which she likens to butterflies.

Lost in the moment, each individual recollection brings forth distant memories, which according to Woolf one always thinks about in a garden with men and women lying under the trees, ghosts from the past representing “one’s happiness, one’s reality.”

“The Flagstaff, Pagoda and Temperate House” from Edward Bawden’s Kew Gardens

For those who want to delve deeper into Kew Garden’s rich history The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (Kew Publishing, 2007) by Ray Desmond is the definitive guide. 

Its 475 pages contain 22 chapters, 17 appendices (including one devoted to significant/interesting facts) a selected bibliography and a 27 page index. Extensive full-color plans, historical and contemporary photographs and paintings accompany the text.

Illuminating multiple facets of Kew’s past and present stories including its “royal associations, plant collecting, horticulture, science, conservation, architecture and education” the book is both a richly detailed historical narrative and repository of data.

A chapter titled Princess Augusta’s ‘Earthly Paradise’ describes her dedication to the improvement of the garden at Kew. Her ambitious nine-acre garden around Kew Palace, established in 1759, grew to become the Earth’s largest and most diverse botanical collection, beloved as a place of beauty which is charting a sustainable future for plants and people.

The Queen’s Garden opened in 1969


This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, December, 2017

Copyright © 2017 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved















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