December 29, 2017
The nineteen brown leather-bound volumes of The Gardeners Magazine are my winter resort. They carry me to a world where everything is different yet familiar; the gardeners’ world of Britain a hundred and eighty years ago. We were lucky enough to have the most diligent and productive of all editors slaving away in Bayswater on monumental encyclopaedias – and on the magazine he created and ‘conducted’, in his word, for nineteen years. There should be a statue to John Claudius Loudon, in … which garden or square is most prominent, and most visited by gardeners? St James’s Square? Kensington Gardens? Perhaps at Hyde Park Corner.
There should be two on the plinth: John Claudius and Jane, Mrs Loudon, herself a novelist (science fiction was her line) and editor, who kept John Claudius going through a series of accidents and misfortunes that would have floored most people. He lost his right arm to rheumatic fever, had a gammy leg, contracted tuberculosis and finally cancer, without ever giving up. Jane must have been largely responsible for his prodigious output.
Compared with his encyclopaedias, his Arboretum et Fructicetum Britanicum, his design work – in Derby he created the first arboretum to use the term – his books on suburban villas (a genre he more or less invented) and the style he created, the Gardenesque, The Gardener’s Magazine may seem a lighter matter. I have edited a gardening magazine, in the age of telephones and typewriters (if not of the internet) and I bear witness that keeping correspondence going, and not just in this country, is patient and laborious work: he provoked and published articles from round the world.
He had contacts in Australia, Russia, India.… everywhere he could communicate with gardeners. He toured the continent, collecting ideas, inspecting gardens everywhere he went. He developed the glazing of greenhouses (and inspired Joseph Paxton). He had strong ideas on every subject – which he was always ready to change. He was severe in criticism: if he didn’t like a garden or plant, he said so without fear or favour. The Gardener’s Magazine, its pages tight with information in tiny print, is endlessly worth reading.
The year 1838, the twelfth year of the magazine, begins with reports of a destructive winter from gardeners in Birmingham (where Loudon had designed the new Botanic Garden), at Dropmore, Highlands Park at Chelmsford, in Windsor, at Bicton in Devon, in Ireland, on Jersey and as far away as Berlin. It was after Christmas that the frost set in; the temperature fell to 0’F. ‘In all valleys and confined spaces, where the air was charged with moisture, the effect was most marked’. The casualty list contains few surprises; it only emphasises how close we are in experience as well as spirit with our forerunners. I have Loudon for company during these grey afternoons; may we be spared an 1838 winter.