Monday 20 June 2011

‘But the woods are fine, and there is a stream’: Chawton House Library, gardens, landscape and books.

Chawton House Library’s main mission is to promote early modern women’s writing as such there is a wealth of material that places women’s writing of the period in context. Garden history considers aesthetic expressions of beauty through art and nature but it can also express an individual’s status or national pride. I took as my title a quote from Austen’s Mansfield Park because Mr Rushworth can only see himself in relation to his material possessions; one of which is his garden. Rushworth refers to Repton and the collection contains an edition of Repton’s Landscape Gardening, as revised by Loudon.

The production of books relevant to gardens and gardening begins historically with herbals. Herbals are a collection of descriptions put together for medicinal purposes and by the late-seventeenth century had to some extent become reference manuals for plant identification, relying on direct observation. The herbals in the collection seem to be logical starting point historically and this article considers a few of those to be found in the Library’s holdings but many more can be identified by referring to the online catalogue, available through the website:

The striking herbal of Elizabeth Blackwell is one that is particularly poignant as part of the collection at Chawton House Library because of the convergence of Blackwell’s life and work: the need to make money and the use of her talents in doing so. She is an example of many women in the collection who wrote to survive financially and who managed to do so because of their intelligence and talent:

A curious herbal, containing five hundred cuts, of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physic. Engraved on folio copper plates, after drawings taken from the life. By Elizabeth Blackwell (1737).

Elizabeth Blackwell (bap. 1707, d. 1758) was a botanical author and artist and her husband Alexander Blackwell used her dowry to establish a printing business in London, near the Strand. The business foundered and by 1734 he was incarcerated in the debtors’ prison. Blackwell extricated her husband from his difficulties with her reproductions of medicinal plants. She took lodgings in Swan Walk, Chelsea, close to the botanical garden where she found the living models for her botanical drawings. This text is an early issue with over half the plates coloured by a nineteenth-century hand.

Alongside this are later books of botany produced by Frances Arabella Rowden, Mary Lawrance, Jane Marcet and Mary Roberts. These works are primarily educational and highlight how the natural sciences were both being taught and what was seen an acceptable branch of science for women.

1. A poetical introduction to the study of botany. By Frances Arabella Rowden (1801).

Frances Arabella Rowden (1774-1840?) was a schoolmistress and poet, born in London, and initially educated by her aunt in Henley-on-Thames. In 1792 she entered the same school Austen attended, the forerunner of today’s Abbey School in Reading. This text comprises an exhaustive botanical classification interspersed with lush poems resonant with the chaste yearnings of her own young pupils, which included Mary Russell Mitford and Lady Caroline Lamb, also authors included in the collections at Chawton House Library.

2. Sketches of flowers from nature. By Mary Lawrance, teacher of botanical drawing, No. 86, Queen Ann-Street East, Portland-Place (1801).

Mary Lawrance (1794-1830) was a flower painter who first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1795. The text Sketches of nature was first published in 1801. In 1804 she was known to be giving botanical drawing lessons at ½ a guinea a lesson and a guinea entrance.

3. Conversations on botany, Jane Marcet (Sarah Mary Fitton and Elizabeth Fitton) (1818).

Jane Marcet (1769-1858) was a writer on science and political economy. Her wealthy and comfortable parents respected her intellectual curiosity and encouraged her as an intelligent thinker. She married Alexander Marcet, a physiological chemist, in 1799 and together they entertained some of the most distinguished scientists and thinkers of their time. She was a friend of Maria Edgeworth, Sir Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. Marcet was depressive and she found relief in hard and useful work, which was encouraged by her husband, and her educational texts became the bulk of her literary output.

4. The wonders of the vegetable kingdom displayed. In a series of letters. By the author of ‘Select female biography,’ Mary Roberts (1822).

Mary Roberts (1788-1864) was raised a Quaker, and with her family later followed Joanna Southcott’s millenarianism. She wrote religious works as well as books about natural history. Wonders of the vegetal kingdom as an earlier example of her work had an observational freshness that was lacking in her later work which often sought to show the attributes of God through the natural world he created. I suggest, without the time for further research, that she was uncomfortable with the assessments emerging from contemporary scientific observation.

Current critical works examining the relationship of women to science in the collection are held in the post-1900 collection and they reveal the analysis that has been made of women’s writing in this field during the long eighteenth century:

1. Botany, sexuality and women’s writing 1760-1830: from modest shoot to forward plant, Sam George (2007).

2. The scientific lady: a social history of women’s scientific interests 1520-1918, Patricia Phillips (1990).

As well as herbals and botanical reference books the collections at Chawton House Library contain books about landscaping and gardening. Returning to Rushworth in Mansfield Park, the landscaping of a landowner’s property could indicate both his wealth and his place as a man of fashion, and Repton is the name bandied about by Rushworth.

The landscape gardening and landscape architecture of the late Humphry Repton, esq. being his entire works on these subjects. A new edition: with an historical and scientific introduction … by J. C. Loudon (1840).

Humphry Repton (1752-1818) was a landscape gardener who was originally apprenticed to an East Anglian textile manufacturer. After his parents’ deaths he became a gentleman amateur, taking a tenancy on Old Hall, Sustead, and spent his time reading, writing, drawing and improving his small farm. After he no longer had the money to support this life he used his abilities as a sketcher and writer to become a professional landscape gardener. He secured wealthy clients, presented himself as the ‘heir’ to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, although he never took on the same scale of work, but established his reputation through writing. In this respect he addressed the increasing alignment of landscape and architecture. Loudon did what Repton, the snob, did not wish to do and that was to publish a cheaper edition of his work, while double-handedly inviting criticism of Repton and at the same time utilising the popularity of his ideas.

Chawton House was not exempt from its owners’ requirements for the fashions of the times, as we can see from the gardens around us today: from Edward Knight’s walled garden to the later additions requisite for the Repton-esque landscaped grounds and the Lutyens-inspired Library Terrace. The Knight Collection at Chawton House Library contains a very different book to Repton’s:

Abercrombie’s practical gardener, or improved system of modern horticulture; adapted to either small or large gardens: designed to assist those gentleman who manage their own gardens. (1823).

John Abercrombie (1726-1806), the son of an Edinburgh market gardener, was a horticulturist and writer. After attending the Grammar School, he first worked for his father and about 1750 he was employed at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, then at Leicester House. He worked for nearly twenty years as a gardener for the wealthy and his clients included the botanist William Munro. He subsequently ran his own market gardens and published his first book on practical gardening in 1767.

The fashionable garden could be created at the right price for men like Mr Rushworth and this commodification of the elements of landscape and the natural world are discussed further in some of the Library’s acquisitions of recent research:

1. Luxury and pleasure in eighteenth-century Britain, Maxine Berg (2007).

2. Luxury in the eighteenth century: debates, desires and delectable goods, edited by Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger (2003).

3. The consumption of culture 1600-1800: image, object, text, edited by Ann Bermingham and John Brewer (1995).

A garden was one prized luxury good in the eighteenth century and many others: porcelain, lacquer-ware, and textiles, traded by merchant companies posted out in India and the Far East were adapted for the European market by including the landscapes, images and from the natural world – such as flowers – popular at that time. Again to illustrate some of the breadth of the collection there are books that consider these aspects of eighteenth-century life and create context for the main collection, the books, not exclusively by women, dating from 1600-1830:

1. Chintz: Indian textiles for the West, Rosemary Crill (2008).

2. Authentic d├ęcor: the domestic interior 1620-1920, Peter Thornton (1984).