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A Christmas Present for 1909

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

For December, I’ve indulged myself somewhat by writing a blog containing some of my favourite garden history topics – the horticultural press, early garden photography, and my horticultural heroine, Ellen Willmott of Warley Place (1858-1934) (1) – all with a bit of Christmas thrown in!


‘Christmas in Paris’ by Mindy Sommers, 2017

Christmas was largely a day of feasting and religious observance until the 1820s, when publishers, ever on the lookout for sales opportunities in a time of increased literacy and the growing demand of middle-class buyers, helped pioneer the concept of giving mass-produced goods as presents by inventing an entire genre of books, called ‘Gift Books’.


The first known Christmas gift book to be published in the UK was an 'annual', Forget-Me-Not: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1823. By 1832 however, there were some 60 different annual gift books being published in England, although most were made between 1855 and 1875. Explicitly intended to be given as gifts, they were normally published in late November in time for Christmas, although seasonal content was not the main criteria. Rather, they were characterised by ornamental bindings and intricate illustrations – often bright and elaborately gilded.


First Edition of ‘Forget-Me-Not: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1823’, published in England by Rudolf Ackermann in November 1822

However, this was not to last and by the end of the 19th century these 'annuals' had largely disappeared, although gardening books remained popular. And by the early 1900’s, garden biographies were produced by many of the leading gardeners of the day - including horticultural friends of Willmott's, most notably Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson and E.A. Bowles. Many deluxe editions of such illustrated books being published for the Christmas market.


Advertisement for Gertrude Jekyll's 'Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden' first published in 1908


The forthcoming publication of the illustrated book that particularly interests me, was described as being “of exceptional interest to horticulturists” in The Athenaeum magazine in October 1909. Published in December of that year, just in time for Christmas, this was Warley Garden in Spring and Summer, Miss Ellen Willmott’s book of her own photographs taken in her famous Essex garden, Warley Place.


According to Willmott’s biography, Miss Willmott of Warley Place: Her Life and Her Gardens by Audrey Le Lievre (1980), Willmott's interest in photography probably began in the 1890’s, and she developed her own photographs and experimented with the differing photographic processes of the day in her dark room at Warley Place. Willmott's gardens no longer exist (see Note), so it's unfortunate that her book of photographs provides no layout of the garden. It simply contains just 41 black-and-white plates in a large format deluxe edition each measuring 11 inches by 9 inches interleaved, in the first edition, with tissue paper and with a simple title under each. These plates include images of Willmott's famous alpine garden, lilies, a rose arbour, ponds, a nut walk, orchard, and summer flower borders. The images in the book, once referred to as just "a grand photograph album", were described by The Athenaeum in its post-publication review as “handsome reproductions of various scenes in the Warley gardens – many beautiful in effect” (January 29,1910).


'Warley Garden in Spring and Summer', Ellen Willmott's own book of photographs

published in 1909


For anyone not familiar with Ellen Willmott, a review of her book in the popular paper The Saturday Review puts her importance as a horticulturist in context:Many of our readers are familiar with the name of Miss Ellen Willmott, VMH, whose enthusiasm for horticulture is only equalled by her great knowledge of gardening matters. But comparatively few have had the privilege of visiting Miss Willmott’s garden… so full of treasures, and so rich in interest”. Not generally open to the public, the publication of photographs of her garden was therefore an event.


The horticultural press also carried glowing reviews: William Robinson, who had visited Warley Place on several occasions and was well acquainted with Willmott’s style of naturalistic planting, wrote in The Garden (December 18, 1909) that it was “a sumptuous work… illustrating an intensely interesting and charming garden” and “worthy of a garden that is full of rare plants”. While Gertrude Jekyll, writing in Country Life a year later (November 12, 1910), described Warley Place as a garden of “beauty and interest”, and praised the book as a beautiful volume of “pictures only” as "each scene of border, rock and wild garden, pool and water margin, speaks for itself”.


'Flower Border in June' by Ellen Willmott. Plate 9 from 'Warley Garden in Spring and Summer',1909

Jekyll was right – the book contains no explanatory text or descriptions, just photographs mostly featuring plant portraits together with various aspects of Willmott’s famed spring-planting and alpine garden. Jekyll and Robinson, as friends of Willmott, were perhaps not unsurprising in their praise of her book, but other reviews were also complimentary, but picked up on this theme: The Gardeners’ Chronicle (December 25,1909) regretting the lack of a descriptive chapter or two to enable the reader to understand the garden layout, while the journal Nature (January 3,1912) also wished that “this series of beautiful pictures of a famous garden” had been accompanied by a plan and details of the plants in cultivation. The Saturday Review also considered Willmott a pioneer of “the modern school of gardeners, whose chief aim was to grow plants in the greatest abundance and perfection possible”. Her photographs being “truthful records of some of the results obtained” (5 March, 1910).


Warley Garden in Spring and Summer was the culmination of Wilmott’s published photographic activities. From the early 1890’s, many of her plant portraits appeared in the horticultural press although after 1909 her photographs mostly disappear from their pages. Robinson and Jekyll also featured Willmott’s photographs in their own books – one of my favourites being ‘The Garden House’, from Jekyll’s book Roses for English Gardens (1902), which illustrates the use of climbing roses to soften the hard outlines of garden buildings.


'The Garden House', Plate 37 from 'Warley Garden in Spring and Summer' by Ellen Willmott 1909. This also appears in Gertrude Jekyll's book, 'Roses for English Gardens' 1902


Front page of 'The Garden' magazine featuring Willmott's photograph of 'Nankeen Lilies (Lilium Testaceum)'. In the early years of the 20th century, publication date was not always an indicator of when a photograph had actually been taken. For example, this particular photograph of Miss Willmott's - here published in 1920, had appeared in several publications over the previous 20 years


And now to the Christmas present...


An exchange of letters (2) show that one person who bought Warley Garden in Spring and Summer as a Christmas gift was Marian Coffin (1876-1957), one of America’s first female landscape architects, to give to her lifelong friend and horticultural collaborator, Henry F. du Pont (1880-1969), who gardened at his family estate Winterthur in Delaware. In the years before the first world war, du Pont visited the great gardens of Europe on several occasions, often accompanied by Coffin.


Du Pont is known to have attended the International Horticultural Exhibition of 1912 in London (see my blog The First Chelsea Flower Show: the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition of May 1912) and after the Exhibition took the opportunity to visit some of England’s foremost gardens such as William Robinson’s Gravetye Manor, Wakehurst Place (still a private garden before Kew took it on), as well as a second visit to Gertrude Jekyll’s Munstead Wood. The high point for du Pont however was a visit to Willmott’s Warley Place although, Willmott being absent, he was guided around by the Head Gardener.


Effect of native Ferns in foreground. From a photograph by Miss Willmott'. Published in William Robinson's 'The English Flower Garden', 8th Edition,1900.

One expression of the friendship between du Pont and Coffin was “the gift-giving of horticultural books at Christmas and birthdays”, although Coffin’s gift also marked their unsuccessful attempt to visit Warley Place on their earlier summer tour of England in 1909. Coffin, like some reviewers, was slightly disappointed with the lack of text in the book, but wrote that she hoped du Pont would still be interested in “its sumptuous garden photographs”. Du Pont replied that “the pictures are most beautiful, and I am more disappointed than ever to think we could not have seen it last summer.” Du Pont finally visited Warley Place in 1912 and again in 1913, although Willmott was absent on both occasions. However, he managed to meet her on yet another visit in 1914, but had to leave earlier than anticipated due to the outbreak of war. This time, du Pont managed to return to the US with various bulbs and plants purchased from Willmott, including crocus and pink Verbascum which, according to their exchange of letters, were rushed up to London by one of Willmott’s maids just before his scheduled departure.


During this period, printed photographs were still a relatively new tool available to garden writers and, to modern eyes, the inadequacy of the printing techniques of the time make the images somewhat disappointing. However, Willmott’s published photographs do give us an idea of the beauty that once existed at Warley Place, and record how gardeners such as Willmott used a wide variety of hardy, herbaceous and perennial plants and flowers. As evidenced by various contemporary reviews, Willmott’s book was well received by her peers - and by the horticultural press, albeit with some reservations.


Today, books for Christmas remain a mainstay of modern publishing, and adverts for best-sellers or presentation ‘coffee-table’ books are the norm, while newspapers and magazines carry lists of ‘books for gardeners’. For example, most gardening magazines in December carry articles about their best gardening books of the year.


Miss Willmott’s gardens at Warley Place may no longer exist, but her photographs of the magnificent features and wonderful plants will ensure that memories of it are retained for years to come. And I'm sure that, although Henry du Pont received Miss Willmott's book as a Christmas present years before he finally visited, it will have served him as a wonderful reminder of Warley Place.


When it was published in 1909, Warley Garden in Spring and Summer retailed for one guinea, with a second edition published in 1924 at 10s.6d. But if anyone fancies Willmott’s book as a late Christmas present, both editions can be found for sale on-line, retailing for between £150-£200.



References:

1. In an in-depth article on Ellen Willmott (The Plantsman, vol. 17, Part 1, March 2018), Charles Quest-Ritson described her as “the greatest plants woman ever”. For more detail on Willmott’s photographic activities see my article in Garden History, 42:1 (Summer 2014), Miss Ellen Willmott of Warley Place, Essex: Eminent Gardener, Horticulturist and Garden Photographer.


2. Exchange of letters between du Pont and Coffin from Valencia Libby’s 1984 MSc in Ornamental Horticulture thesis dissertation – Henry Francis du Pont and the Early Development of Winterthur Gardens 1880-1927.


Note:


The remains of Miss Willmott's estate at Warley Place are now managed as a nature reserve by the Essex Wildlife Trust and, although the house has long gone and little of her plant material survives, some of the outlines of the garden are still there. See Warley Place Nature Reserve | Essex Wildlife Trust (essexwt.org.uk)






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