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The UK Horticultural Press:1840s - 1920s

Updated: Aug 22, 2022


Mastheads for The Gardeners' Chronicle (1889), The Gardener's Magazine (1867), Country Life (1900) and The Garden (1880)


I am a big fan of the Victorian and Edwardian horticultural press and, for garden historians, it’s a fantastic resource for research – and pleasure, with much of it now available on-line via the Biodiversity Heritage Library (https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/). The above image shows just a few of the titles.


For anyone not familiar with the BHL, it’s a treasure trove of literature on the natural world from early herbals to long-standing periodicals such as William Robinson’s The Garden, and The Gardeners’ Chronicle (both on-line through to the early 1920s). Dr David Marsh of the Gardens Trust describes The Gardeners' Chronicle as "probably the most famous horticultural magazine ever published..." and "the best source for everyday life in the gardening world in the 19th and early 20th centuries" (see Note).


Even Gertrude Jekyll was involved: not only writing hundreds of articles for the horticultural press and Country Life during her lifetime, but acting as co-editor of The Garden for a couple of years (1900-1902) after Robinson sold-up. (Robinson’s magazine not to be confused with the later journal of the Royal Horticultural Society of the same name.)


It’s easy to lose yourself for hours in the pages of these journals, reading anything from details of the latest new plant creating a sensation amongst gardeners and the best way to grow it, to details of a famous garden, or reports of the latest exploits of daring-do plant-hunters such as George Forrest or Ernest 'Chinese' Wilson. Articles and letters from their readers are also published, and these contributions came from a mix of people - professional gardeners, their employers, and the rising number of amateur horticulturists.


'Advertisement from The Gardeners’ Chronicle', May 18, 1878


The advertisements can also be quite illuminating – the image left showing an advert from 1878 for a variety of lawn-mowing machines for use by ‘a man’, ‘a lady’, or even larger machines for use together with ‘a donkey, pony or a horse’!


The first horticultural journal was The Gardeners Magazine started by John Loudon in 1826. Established to address the concerns of amateur gardeners and horticulturists it was, according to one of Loudon’s many admirers, the first periodical devoted exclusively to horticultural subjects. But it was not until the 1840s that horticultural journalism in Britain grew substantially with journals such as The Gardeners’ Chronicle, The Garden, Amateur Gardening, and Gardening Illustrated (another of Robinson's publications - not to be confused with the modern, glossy mag Gardens Illustrated) which provided, as Dr Brent Elliot (the RHS's historian) has written, reams of advice on horticulture together with detailed descriptions of particular gardens.




'Amateur Gardening' magazine - established by James Shirley Hibberd in 1844. Unfortunately, this is not available on-line

I've found The Gardeners’ Chronicle and The Garden particularly useful for the period I'm interested in (the late Victorian and Edwardian era). They both carry reports on the doings of the various RHS Committees; the awards given at their fortnightly meetings for both established and new plants; and the activities of the great and good of the horticultural world of the time. They also published special Supplements from time-to-time reporting on garden shows and exhibitions – for example the forerunner of the Chelsea Flower Show (see my blog entitled The 'first' Chelsea Flower Show: the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition of May 1912).


The journals available via the BHL are fully searchable, so if you are looking for information on a particular garden, garden-owner or head gardener – or plant, it’s worth having a look. For example, during the 1890s The Garden carried regular articles (under the banner ‘Notes from…’) written by head gardeners of various large estates, reporting on the status of their gardens and particular plants at the time of writing. For example, Notes from Warley Place, written by Miss Ellen Willmott's Head Gardener, reported regularly on what was in flower in her famous rock garden.


There may also be a letter or a brief article from someone you are interested in, or details of the prize they received at an RHS show for an exhibit of a newly introduced plant. These journals also reported on events and shows outside of London; for instance, local shows or county shows further afield.


Illustrations in the early horticultural press were from woodcuts, often of poor quality; however, over the years the illustrations improved and by 1883 The Gardeners’ Chronicle became the first gardening magazine to use photographs; albeit in black and white. To begin with the images produced were captioned as 'from a photograph' - the process used producing an image still akin to a woodcut, as can be seen in the picture of 'Yucca Gloriosa from a photograph by Dr. Bornet' published in ‘The Gardeners’ Chronicle’, June 30 1883 (as below).


However, as printing technologies continued to advance, only a few years later The Gardeners' Chronicle began to publish occasional better quality photographs, usually as a Supplement to the magazine alongside the simpler images.


Although, often, the early ones were somewhat 'muddy' as can be seen in the photograph of 'Dahlia Imperialis from the Garden of Consul Crawford, Oporto’, from the Supplement to The Gardeners’ Chronicle, August 11th,1888 - left. However, by the turn of the 20th century, photographs published in the gardening press had greatly improved - as can be seen in plant-hunter George Forrest's own photograph below published in The Gardeners' Chronicle in 1912.

‘Primula secundiflora in its Chinese Habitat’, photograph by George Forrest published in a Supplement to the The Gardeners’ Chronicle, 27 April 1912


However, coloured images did not appear until the beginning of the 20th century, with The Garden using a few coloured images by 1909, and The Gardeners’ Chronicle following suit a year later. It would be sometime before colour photographs were used, but that's another story!


'Four Good Darwin Tulips', published in the Supplement to The Garden, September 11, 1909

Another great resource is Country Life, described by garden historian Jane Brown as having acquired an almost "biblical status amongst garden historians". Although not strictly a gardening magazine, it began life in 1897 and quickly established itself as a quality journal that, according to Dr Elliott, contained "a far greater number of photographs of the garden than could be found anywhere else in the literature".


'Country Life' logo, 1900

Issues of Country Life are not currently available on-line, but it does have its own picture library of photographs specially commissioned for the magazine from its inception. This can be found at www.countrylifeimages.co.uk


The gardening magazines and papers I've mentioned are just a few, and this blog is intended as just a brief introduction to the subject of the horticultural press. For an in-depth article on Victorian gardening periodicals, see Ray Desmond's article: Victorian Gardening Magazines on JSTOR. Although written in 1977, it's still a worthwhile read. (JSTOR is also a great resource for garden historians giving, for example, access to The Garden Trust's own journal, Garden History. You can register at JSTOR and now access a certain amount of articles for free.) While Country Life remains the ‘go-to’ publication for evocative images of country house gardens at the beginning of the twentieth century, I’d encourage anyone interested in Victorian and Edwardian gardens, plants or gardeners, to have a look at these other journals as they are a wonderful resource on the minutiae of horticultural life during this period.





Note:

For detailed information on The Gardeners' Chronicle, see Dr Marsh's blog for the Gardens Trust: Gardeners’ Chronicle 150 years ago … | The Gardens Trust.





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