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The ‘Curious and Noble’: Robert James, 8th Baron Petre of Thorndon Hall (1713-1742)

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

In the summer of 1741 as a lively dinner hosted by Lord Petre at his Essex estate, Thorndon Hall, neared its conclusion, the guests were treated to an astonishing sight. To the sound of spontaneous applause, a footman carried in a silver tray piled high with pineapples – direct from Thorndon's hothouses. That’s how one modern writer(1) imagines the impressive sight described by one of Petre’s guests, the Quaker merchant, Peter Collinson, who wrote “to be at his table, one would think South America were really there, to see a servant come in every day with ten or a dozen pine apples, as much as he can carry”.


‘Pineapple’ by Theodorus Netscher, 1720. An oil painting of a pineapple grown in the garden of Sir Matthew Decker in Richmond, Surrey


Today, it's difficult to appreciate how the sight of a pile of pineapples – now readily available in supermarkets to us all, marked out this young aristocrat as “an active and precocious plant collector, even by the intense collecting standards of the 18th century”.


Lord Petre (pronounced Peter), another of my horticultural heroes, remains a somewhat enigmatic figure - today more often mentioned in writings about his better known friends and collaborators, Philip Miller, Philip Southcote, John Bartram and Peter Collinson, than in his own right. Without doubt however, during his short lifetime Petre made a huge contribution to what one garden history writer asserts was a revolution in English landscape design during the first half of the 18th century. The availability of rich and varied botanical introductions at the time allowed what was termed “painting in gardening” – the use of trees and shrubs to make striking contrasts in form, colour and texture which began to transform the look of landscape gardens and parks, and which led Collinson to describe Petre's efforts in this regard as "painting with living pencils".


Petre is perhaps best remembered for being an early supporter of the trade in plant material between Collinson and the Pennsylvania farmer-cum-plant-hunter Bartram. Sadly, no portrait of Petre exists (due to a later fire which also destroyed Petre's personal papers), but Collinson wrote of him as tall, comely and handsome and having “a great ardour for every branch of Botanic Science ”. His house and gardens also no longer exist having met the fate of so many formal gardens of the early 18th century when fashions changed and they were swept away in favour of more naturalistic designs.(2)


However, by the time of this dinner, and just a year before Petre’s early death aged just 29, he was one of the richest and most well-connected men in the country, and an excellent example of an 18th century ‘enlightenment’ man. As the head of a staunch aristocratic Roman Catholic family, Petre did not involve himself in court life, instead spending most of this time at Thorndon devoting his energies to his passion for horticulture and botany. He quickly established himself as one of the leading figures in the world of gardening, although he was also considered “a naturalist” - interested in Linnaeus’ revolutionary new ideas on the classification of plants and animals, set in motion by another Essex worthy, John Ray.


During his life-time, Petre was also famous for his imposing Essex estate and the vast collections of plants and trees from North America – the horticultural status symbols of the day, most obtained from Bartram, via Collinson. And this was certainly an exciting time for a horticulturist such as Petre, as the 18th century yielded many new plant species from the continent and the territories of Britain’s embryonic empire. And, in the early part of the century in particular, the growing trade in seeds and plants with the British colonies in North America led to many such new introductions, much sought after by plant collectors and gardeners, being cultivated in their orangeries, gardens and landscape parks.

Lord Petre's Early Years

Even as a boy, Petre showed a passion for plants and gardens - and trees in particular. An early influence most likely being his grandmother who, according to the plant lists from the Petre family papers, grew the fashionable exotics of her day at the family home, Ingatestone Hall, just a few miles from Thorndon. In 1730, at just 17, Petre had completed his Grand Tour and built up an impressive botanical and gardening library with works by four famous Johns: Gerard, Parkinson, Ray and Evelyn. He also had books by the newer writers Stephen Switzer, Philip Miller, Hans Sloane and Batty Langley, and subscribed to the pioneering nurseryman's illustrated catalogue, Furber's Twelve Months of Flowers.

Lord Petre’s bookplate (British Museum).

Petre used an engraved heraldic bookplate for his own library


Just a year later, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society sponsored as he was still under age by (yet another John), John Martyne, a future botany professor at Cambridge. Petre was also a member of the Society of Antiquaries.


Whilst still in his teens, Petre developed a friendship with Philip Miller, then Keeper of the Chelsea Physic Garden, a pioneer in germinating seeds in hot beds and 'stoves' (hothouses with heated flues), and Petre bought Miller's Complete System of Husbandry that explained the principles of this new technology. And Petre seems to have followed Miller's advice as, in 1731, Martyne reported Petre growing exotic plant species unknown to him in Thorndon's huge hothouses.



The stoves at Thorndon would have resembled those shown in Richard Bradley's 'New Improvements to Gardening' of 1717 - as shown left




The biggest stove at Thorndon was reportedly 30ft high and said to be the largest in the world (probably outside of Kew) and contained trees some 25ft tall; Collinson later writing that he had "...never seen the like before" calling it "that noble stove". A smaller stove, 60ft long and 20ft wide was full of tender exotics and more temperate plants, while a third contained the famed pineapples as well as banana plants. Petre also became famous for growing other exotic fruits such as papayas, passion fruit, limes and guavas.


As Petre's father, the 7th Baron, died when Petre was just a baby he lived at Ingatestone Hall. In 1732 however, he came of age and inherited his father's title so he could then marry and move to Thorndon Hall - a large, somewhat rambling, red brick Elizabethan pile which had been owned by the Petre family since 1573. The new Baron then embarked on plans to rebuild it and lay-out an elaborate landscape park and garden.


'Old Thorndon Hall' c.1669. Artist unknown

Once installed at Thorndon Hall, Petre hired a Venetian architect, known as Leoni, to redesign the house, and French surveyor Bourgignon d'Anville (later famous as the engraver, Gravelot) drew up Petre's plans for a landscape garden. This plan centred on the enlarged Old Hall Lake and reflects the transition from 17th century formality to the more natural landscaping of the later 18th and the designs of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown.


'Plan for Formal Park and Gardens at Thorndon Hall', by Bourgignon, 1733. This huge plan is stored at the Essex Records Office


In the design, the planting of the grand avenue was a major task; Collinson writing of "a Herculean undertaking" involving the transplantation of two dozen fully-grown 40-60ft high Elms which were soon reported to be indistinguishable from existing ones, indicating a very high standard of technical expertise. It's thought Petre's inspiration came from an earlier visit to France where he may have seen tree transplanting on this scale carried out by the famous Andre Le Notre.


Although the grand design was not fully completed due to Petre's early death, his letters to Collinson and Collinson's own writings show that the park and gardens were laid out very much as shown in Bourgignon's plan.


Plant Collecting


Before meeting Collinson in the early 1730s and becoming one of the earliest supporters of Collinson's scheme of importing seeds and plants through Bartram in Philadelphia, Petre was already subscribing to Mark Catesby and William Houston’s plant-collecting trips in the Caribbean, Carolinas and Georgia (as well as supporting a fund for the improvement of botany in Georgia). Houston even named a Caribbean genus of the verbena family - Petrea, in Petre’s honour.


'Petrea volubilis' from vol.3 of Recueil de planches de botanique de l'encyclopedia by J.E. de Seve, 1823

'Petrea volubilis', a genus of evergreen flowering vines, native to the tropical Americas. Photograph by Mokkie


Between 1731-33, Petre subscribed £30 a year to Bartram’s own expeditions to Georgia to collect semi-tropical plants subsequently growing new species in his stoves. Just a few years later, an affectionate friendship between Petre, Bartram and Collinson had developed driven by their mutual passion for the new North American plants - as evidenced by their exchange of letters. Between 1736-39 seeds were sent annually by Bartram from his Pennsylvania nurseries to Petre at Thorndon and, in turn, Petre often sent Bartram a list of trees and shrubs that he wanted which he would grow-on and plant out in The Octagon – his tree nursery plantation at Thorndon.


'The Octagon', taken from the 1733 garden

plan for Thorndon


During this period, Petre effectively financially supported this trade single-handedly until Bartram’s plant collecting became a settled business.


Initially, Bartram just sent unlabelled jumbles of seeds to Collinson, which he would have to grow-on before being able to identify them. But, as the arrangement became a more settled business, Bartram included corresponding herbarium sheets (with paper initially supplied by Collinson) to identify the plants, and built sturdy rectangular shipping boxes, 3ft long and 2ft high, nailed together from rough boards.


Peter Collinson, 1694-1768 by J.S. Miller John Bartram (in later life), 1699-1777

These became known as Bartram’s Boxes, packed full of botanical marvels: one five-guinea box containing more than a 100 species of trees, shrubs, and vines, some with padded leather collars to hold young plants upright, and compartments and drawers for seeds, roots and bulbs. One modern writer also says that Collinson suggested shipping live plant roots wrapped in watertight ox bladders - the 18th century version of a plastic bag!(3)

A modern imagining of John Bartram


Every autumn Bartram shipped dozens of boxes across the Atlantic to arrive in time for spring planting in the UK, although these crossings were fraught with danger. Before the advent of the Wardian case(4), the contents were often destroyed by salt water, bad weather, eaten by rats or, even lost, due to skirmishes at sea when Britain was periodically at war. But, despite such problems the trade flourished, and by the early 1740’s other aristocratic plant collectors were also subscribing to one or two boxes a year - either one five guinea box, or ten guineas for two.


And the list of these subscribers is certainly a who's who of the elite of the early 18th century horticultural world: the Dukes of Richmond, Norfolk, Bedford, and Argyll; Lords Bute, Lincoln and Lyttelton; Sir Francis Dashwood, and many others. These aristocratic amateurs used the new plants to beautify or add interest to their own estates; while two other subscribers, Sir Hans Sloane, owner of the Chelsea Physic Garden and his head gardener, Philip Miller, also introduced a large amount of these new plants to their botanic garden on a more scientific basis.


To my knowledge, no original Bartram’s Boxes still exist, but I recently came across a report from the Bartram botanic garden in Philadelphia detailing an exhibition with mock-ups of the boxes. After a storm in 2010 destroyed more than 50 trees (from 13 different species) in the garden, Bartram's garden invited artists from the nearby Center for Art in Wood to create reinterpretations of the boxes as a meaningful way to use the fallen trees. A subsequent 2014 exhibition, Bartram’s Boxes Remix, gives us a good idea of what they may have looked like.


'Bartram's Boxes' from the Center for Art in Wood exhibition, 2014


The boxes, together with an authentically historic display of seeds, was subsequently shown at the Philadelphia Flower Show as can be seen below.




Back at Thorndon, the scale of Petre's planting was vast: by 1740 it's said that 4,970 trees were planted, including Cedars of Lebanon, Pennsylvania cherries, flowering maples, acacias, tulip trees, Carolina oaks and Red Virginia Cedars. During the early years of the 1740's, some 40,000 more trees were planted which, according to Collinson, included 10,000 American trees and shrubs, mixed with 20,000 from Europe and Asia, all "planted in thickets and clumps... perfectly picturesque." Collinson's phrase in praise of Petre's planting - "painting with living pencils", beautifully described his talent for mixing and blending the various colours of the trees, bark, and even the white, or silver, undersides of leaves.


As well as written evidence from Collinson about Petre's horticultural activities, in 1736 Petre commissioned his friend Philip Miller to catalogue everything in the Thorndon gardens, park, and stoves - even including native trees and wild flowers. These comprised some 1,745 species, revealing a collection only equalled in Britain by the Chelsea and Oxford Physic Gardens. Petre's botanical importations from America were also recorded in a Hortus Siccus compiled in 1740. This herbarium of dried plant specimens, comprising 16 volumes of over 1,500 pages, shows the enormous quantity of new botanical material collected and is now held at the Sutro Library in California.


Lord Petre's 'Hortus Siccus', vol.3, held at the Sutro Library in the US

A page from Lord Petre's 'Hortus Siccus' herbarium collected by John Bartram before 1742. From the Sutro Library's 'The Sutronian' blog, September 9, 2021


Petre's Gardening Collaborations


Petre's gardening projects were not just confined to Thorndon; he knew Philip Southcote, the owner of the famed garden at Wooburn (or Woburn), through family connections and, according to one Southcote researcher, the success of its design was in no small part due to Petre's influence. Another of Petre's collaborations was in 1738, when he created a landscape garden design for the large estate of his relative, the 8th Duke of Norfolk in Worksop, Nottinghamshire - the plan again executed by Bourgignon. The planting was, however, thought to have been more conservative than Petre used at Thorndon, most likely due to the more limited number of exotic trees the Duke had available.


At Worksop, Petre also designed an evergreen 'amphitheatre', using a belt of 14 evergreen trees of differing shades, shapes and sizes (very much reflecting the description of "painting with living pencils") , approximately 30ft deep. His planting of tiered shrubs and trees, from Scotch pines at the back to box hedges at the front, is considered to be the first instance of Batty Langley's ideas of 'graduated' planting being put into practice - as described in his 1728 book, New Principles of Gardening. It also reflected the advice of Philip Miller (writing in his famous book, The Gardener's Dictionary) of an "evergreen wilderness" using varying shades of green, and the "evergreen groves" described by Dezallier d'Argenville in La Theorie et la Practique de Jardinage,1709. And it's perhaps a testament to Petre's skill that when a modern reconstruction of the tiered shrubbery in the Amphitheatre at Painshill Park was undertaken (with no original planting plan in existence), a plan was drawn up based upon Petre's 1737 layout at Worksop.


While Petre's planting around the house at Worksop was rather symmetrical and formal, his designed clumps and drifts for the landscape beyond were more free flowing as can be seen in his own drawing below. During this period, it's known that Collinson was procuring trees specifically for Petre to plant at Worksop and, although his designs were never fully executed, six years later writer Richard Pococke described "all the plantations are made on Lord Petre's Plan, who had the greatest genius for these improvements...".


Plan of Clumps for Worksop c.1738 - drawing by Lord Petre


Lord Petre's Flowers

A Chinese Rose in Lord Petre's Stove-House from 'A Natural History of Birds', Edwards 1745


Although Petre would seem to have favoured trees above flowers, he was also well known for the exotics grown in his huge stoves, and is credited with having grown the first camellia (Camellia japonica) to successfully flower in England. This plant, featuring in a book of birds published in 1745, was the first coloured engraving of a camellia (called a Chinese Rose in the book) drawn from a living specimen in the stoves at Thorndon - camellias having been treated as 'exotics' and grown in hothouses as their hardiness was not appreciated at the time.


In his book, Edwards wrote: “the flower here figured…is called the Chinese Rose: I drew it from Nature; it is what we see mostly frequently painted in Chinese Pictures…and is of a red Rose Colour, with the Stems in the middle of a Yellow or Gold colour…This beautiful flowering tree was raised by the late curious and noble Lord Petre in his Stoves at Thorndon Hall in Essex.”


When I first researched Lord Petre for a garden history essay some years ago, there was little information available online regarding plants he is thought to have grown at Thorndon. Fortunately, since that time, much more information has been digitalised (I'm very much a 'desktop' researcher these days!). For example, Kew's Hortus Kewensis journal of 1810 (2nd edition, vol. IV) does indeed record the earliest cultivation of camellias in European gardens as being at Thorndon in, or before, 1739 - apparently on the evidence of one of Collinson’s letters. Although back in 1810 it didn't seem to be clear where Petre had obtained it, an article in the International Camellia Journal of October 1981 (no.13) says that, some hundred years after the event [so sometime in the 1840's], it was written that a Jesuit priest who visited Japan as a missionary in 1739 “contrived to procure two plants of the single red camellia which he brought to Europe and sold to Lord Petre for a considerable sum.” The writer adding that “his lordship had them sent to his gardens at Thorndon Hall in Essex, where, being kept in a hothouse temperature, they were killed.” However, an article in The National Horticultural Magazine of October 1941 – the journal of The American Horticultural Society, points out that, although the plant did indeed die after a few seasons from “the mistaken kindness of being grown in an extremely warm greenhouse,” in 1746, some four years after Petre's death, Collinson wrote of a visit to Petre’s widow where, among other plants in the vast collection of tender species still doing well at Thorndon, was Rosa chinensis – by which he meant the camellia.


The journal’s article also points out that it was Petre’s gardener, James Gordon, who, “aware of the value of a plant so ornamental as the Camellia, managed soon to produce another plant which he put out into the open conservatory [i.e. unheated] where it continued to grow for 94 years.” It’s thought that many thousands of young plants were raised from this one original plant – Gordon later being the first to introduce camellias to commerce from his famed Mile End nurseries which he established after Petre’s death.


Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary also lists some plants known to have been cultivated by Petre at Thorndon but, as the details were already lost in time, it became an acceptable shorthand to list them as “Cultivated before 1742, by Robert James Lord Petre”. Or, as the article in Kew's Hortus Kewenis of 1810 put it: “some plants are by tradition known to have been introduced by Robert James Lord Petre, but the times when are utterly forgot: to remedy, as much as possible, this inconvenience, they are always stated as having been introduced before 1742, the time of his lordship’s death.”


Two plants listed in this way in the Gardener's Dictionary are Witheringia solancea and the Cape Coast Lily or Crinum macowanii, a flowering plant in the Amaryllis family.


Speciman of 'Crinum macowanii' photographed at the University of California Botanical Garden

'Cape Coast Lily'. Extract from Miller's 'Gardener's and Botanists Dictionary', 9th edition, Vol 1, Part 1, A-CIV, 1807


We are also lucky that the famed botanical illustrator, Georg Ehret (1708-1770) painted some of the plants growing at Thorndon, and I've found two online: Carica papaya, which it's said Petre was the first to bring to fruit in England, and Byttneria, a flowering tropical plant from Ecuador.


Drawing of the pawpaw, 'Carica papaya', by Georg Dionysius Ehret from a plant from Thorndon Hall. From Ehret's 'Plantae et papiliones rarires', published 1748-1759


There is another Ehret drawing which depicts a plant grown at Thorndon, from 1740 – Byttneria, the specimen produced from seed from the US (and therefore probably obtained from Bartram) and which flowered, as drawn, in its first year.


Study of Byttneria' by Georg Dionysius Ehret, 1740, watercolour on vellum, British Museum


Conclusion


Not only supporting and financing the early plant hunting trips of Catesby, Houston and Bartram, Petre was also a key player in the naturalising of imported specimens, especially those from North America. Before the nursery trade became the main outlet for developing and growing new species later in the century, plant introducers such as Bartram relied on wealthy patrons like Petre to grow-on plants on a large scale. Petre did indeed grow huge numbers of both European and American trees at his Thorndon estate, and Collinson paid frequent tribute to Petre’s work in this regard. In 1741 he wrote to Bartram that “the trees and shrubs raised from thy first seeds are grown to great maturity [at Thorndon]. The whole is planted in thickets and clumps, and with these mixtures are perfectly picturesque, and have a delightful effect. This will give thee a faint idea of the method Lord Petre plants in, which has not been so happily executed by any”.


When it came to “painting in gardening”, Petre was a master. One writer of the time saying that Petre “understood the colours of every tree, and always considered how he placed them by one another”. He was also known to plant deciduous trees in blocks to exploit the contrasts in leaf and bark. Petre was also one of the first to put into practice many of the new garden design ideas of d’Argenville, Langley and Switzer, and well understood the use of receding spaces to entice visitors out into the landscape beyond. Some garden historians also think that his use of clumps at Worksop, and moving of large mature trees at Thorndon, anticipated the later work of 'Capability' Brown.


On 25 June, 1742 aged just 29, Lord Petre died from small-pox. The contents of his nurseries, estimated at 219,925 plants mostly exotics, were then auctioned and many were bought by other aristocratic plant collectors. Collinson wrote to Linnaeus, who had included Petre’s name as a promoter of botanical studies in his Critica Botanica of 1737, that Petre’s death was “the greatest loss that botany or gardening has felt in this island”.


Collinson also wrote to Bartram giving news of Petre’s untimely death, describing him as “a fine, Tall, comely personage, Handsome, had the Presence of a Prince... The Affability & Sweetness of his Temper were beyond Expression, without the least mixture of pride or haughtiness. With an Engaging Smile He always met his Friends… For his Virtues & his Excellencies and His Endowments I Loved Him & He Mee, more Like a Brother than a Friend.” (Collinson to Bartram, July 3 1742 in Forget not Mee and My Garden.)


However, even after the abandonment of Petre’s schemes, the trees left at Thorndon matured and became increasingly spectacular – in 1754 Horace Walpole went to see “the famous plantations … of the last Lord Petre”, and in 1794 the writer William Dalton said Thorndon Woods could boast the finest trees in England and greatest variety of exotics which had “attained a perfection never before known in this country”. Lord Petre achieved all this in just ten years at Thorndon.


Lord Petre’s legacy


After Petre’s death, the trade in North American species continued to increase with Collinson commenting that England was being “turned upside down and America transplanted heither” through the huge influx of plants. In fact, the abundant colours and forms of shrubs and trees native to North America progressively enriched the plantations and parks of grand landscape gardens and today gives us some of the wonderful autumn colours that we take so for granted, even in our own back-gardens.


Fortunately, not all of Petre’s botanical skills were lost. As mentioned, James Gordon, head gardener at Thorndon and introduced to Petre’s successful techniques for growing unusual and rare plants, opened a nursery in East London and quickly became renowned for his ability to get the most difficult seeds to grow. Collinson and Philip Miller often visited him at his seed shop in the City of London to discuss the latest introductions.


Sadly, much of Lord Petre’s work was destroyed when his son, the 9th Baron Petre, had Thorndon landscaped by 'Capability' Brown. The 9th Baron also abandoned Thorndon Hall and had a new Palladian-style house built about a mile away from the original. The Petre family eventually abandoned Thorndon after the First World War and by the 1960s the hall was derelict. After many years in this sad state it was redeveloped into rather expensive private apartments, while 'Capability' Brown’s work met the fate of many 18th century landscape gardens and became a golf course, not accessible to the public. The present Lord Petre still resides at Ingatestone Hall.


Today, only traces of the 8th Baron's famous park and gardens remain – mostly remembered in the names on the Essex Council Visitors Map (below). The foundations of The Old Hall are now lost in woodland – the appropriately named Ruin Wood, while the Octagon Plantation, originally Petre’s octagonal-shaped nursery used for planting out the young trees and shrubs grown from Bartram’s seeds, is now a small wood. Old Hall Pond, which visitors can stroll around and feed the ducks, was once a central feature of the landscape garden, and it's thought that the stoves were located close to this, it being the estate’s main water supply.


Little else of Lord Petre's Thorndon is left. Part of the remaining estate is today jointly run by Essex County Council and the local Wildlife Trust as a countryside park, with much of it designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. However, there are still occasional finds; in the 1990’s a medieval pond was rediscovered from which it's thought Petre irrigated his vast nurseries.


Thorndon Country Park map


My own connection to Thorndon goes back to childhood when it was a favourite dog-walking venue for my family for many years, especially in the autumn, so I still have a particular fondness for it. Today, you can still venture off the main routes and discover twisting paths through large stands of ancient laurels, as well as wooded areas of bracken and bluebells. Or stroll across the large grassed expanse in front of Ruin Wood with its lovely views across the valley, where once Lord Petre’s gardeners used huge rollers drawn by horses to flatten the lawn.


There may be nothing left today of the once magnificent formal gardens and parkland to interest garden historians, but Thorndon is a much loved local resource visited by hundreds of people for the woods and wildlife – most of them knowing nothing at all about the 8th Baron and his North American trees.



Notes:


(1) The Pineapple: King of Fruits by Fran Beauman, 2005

(2) The current Thorndon Hall, located a mile away in the estate's remaining park land, was built many years later by the 9th Baron, who employed 'Capability' Brown to design a more fashionable 'landscape' garden for Thorndon.

(3) Anita Sanchez, In Praise of Poison Ivy, 2016

(4) For more on this, see my blog The Wardian Case - preventing damage to plants by 'monkeys and parakeets'

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