Friday, May 24, 2019

An Unlikely Power Couple in British Gardening

By Judith Taylor

He only had one arm and she was a penniless orphan when they married but what he lacked in limbs he made up for in intelligence, sheer bloody-mindedness and perseverance.

John Claudius Loudon, 1783 – 1843, was born in Scotland, where else. British horticulture depended very largely on the skill of these well trained Scottish men and their capacity to live on oatmeal for six months at a time. There is talk of re-naming the British Empire to be the Scottish Empire but that is for another time.

John Claudius Loudon

Loudon’s father was a “respectable farmer” in Lanarkshire, a southern county of Scotland. “Respectability” meant that his father was sufficiently prosperous to educate his very promising son at Edinburgh University and even to send him abroad on a grand tour. Being educated meant that the crippling arthritis he developed as a very young man was less of an impediment than it would have been to a man having to live from hard physical labour.

Loudon grew up on a farm in the depths of the countryside. He learned about plants and their qualities in a way no city -bred man could. That knowledge, combined with the modern science he learned at Edinburgh, led him into landscape ”planning” (his term) and horticulture as a profession. He moved to London. After working on the design of a farm for George Stratton at Tew Cottage he began to write. Before long he opened his own practice.

He was frequently in pain and used laudanum in excessively large quantities. The first synthetic drug not directly from a botanical source, acetyl-salicylic acid, “Aspirin”, was not released until 1899. Unlike Thomas De Quincy, he was later able to overcome his addiction. The joint pain was attributed to rheumatic fever. He lost his right arm in 1826 after a botched attempt to repair a fracture. It had to be amputated at the shoulder.

With that remarkable persistence of his and massive will power Loudon trained himself to use his left hand to write. He could no longer draw the plans needed for his work but retained the services of a professional draughtsman

Gardening has long slow cycles of fashion and the first quarter of the nineteenth century was a transitional period. Just as in so many other aspects of life new ideas arose in reaction to the old ones and lasted until even newer, often better, ideas emerged. Creating a great garden or park was mostly done by wealthy aristocrats with a view toward posterity. They planted trees and shrubs which would not reach maturity until long after their death.

The results were staggering. One man managed to capture almost everyone’s imagination for the middle years of the eighteenth century, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, 1716 – 17163.
A slyly designed landscape gave the impression that the park was open countryside, completely changing the ancient view of British gardens as fussy art. Brown was succeeded by Humphrey Repton, 1752-1818, who offered a slight variation in his plans. With Repton’s death there was a vacuum and Loudon was ideally placed to fill it. Commission after commission rolled in for gardens, parks and interestingly, cemeteries.

At the same time Loudon wrote copiously about his ideas and about the professions of gardening, horticulture and landscape planning. He was not alone in doing this. Many of   these masters spent much of their time writing, presumably as a form of advertising. It was also a source of income. The accumulation of contemporary botanical and horticultural information in the magazines they founded and edited gives a vivid cross section of what went on for the modern scholar.

Their industriousness commands enormous respect. There was no artificial light other than candles, paper was very expensive, rooms were cold if one moved a few feet away from the open fire and it was almost impossible to find a quiet and private place without constant interruption and distraction.

He wrote several seminal books on city planning, the design of hothouses, cemeteries and an encyclopedia of gardening. Loudon created the word “arboretum” to describe a garden in which trees were collected systematically for scientific study, “Arboretem et Fruticetum Britannicum” (1838).

A page from "Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum 1838
by Loudon via Internet Book Archives (Wikipedia)

The design of cemeteries was being completely revised in the United States at that period. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the first one to reflect the new ideas. Before anyone understood how infection was caused and transmitted, diseases like malaria were believed to rise from swampy land or “miasmas”. The air surrounding a cemetery was to be considered to be a prime suspect for causing disease, emanating from the corpses buried under the ground.

Dr Jacob Bigelow, noted medical practitioner in the community, thought that if cemeteries were turned into parks with many trees and plants and wide-open paths the miasma could be dissipated. Families liked to gather at cemeteries to remember those they had lost. Making the places more attractive and healthier had many benefits. It took him five years to persuade the authorities and find suitable property. The cemetery opened in 1831.

Both Loudon and his wife were welcome guests among London’s literary groups. They enjoyed considerable social success that way and were among the leaders together with figures like Charles Dickens.

From: Jane Loudon "Ladies Flower Garden
of Ornamental Annuals"

Loudon moved away from the openness and spatial qualities of Capability Brown’s gardens and offered a new concept of “gardenesque”. It was a way to show off the exotic plants which were flooding into England as countries like China and Japan grumpily permitted Westerners to explore their plants. Instead of placing these trees and shrubs in graceful groups they were planted singly at intervals.

Loudon was a very important figure but gardenesque is not an attractive style. The best that can be said for it was that it allowed a middle-class family with modest means to decorate their small gardens with at least one fancy plant. From such things is democracy achieved.

Jane Webb Loudon, 1807 – 1858, was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, to a wealthy businessman and his wife and had a very genteel upbringing before misfortune struck. Her mother died when she was twelve and her father lost all his money and died when she was seventeen. The genteel upbringing and 19th century attitudes toward women working did her no good at all when it came to earning a living. If such a woman did not marry, her choices were stark but there was steel under the prim and proper surface. Jane became a writer.  There are several examples of women doing this in similar circumstances.

Jane Webb Loudon

One of the best known was Fanny Trollope, Anthony Trollope’s mother. Her husband, also Anthony, was a very belligerent barrister who managed to alienate the few clients he had. Fanny was obliged to write novels at a furious pace to try and pay the bills but her masterpiece is  “Domestic Manners of the Americans”, a hilarious account of taking her family to live at a commune in Ohio when that was still the “Western Reserve” and not yet tamed for white people.

Jane had only travelled on the Continent a little with her father when times were good but she was fascinated by the discoveries coming out of Egypt in the early 19th century. Napoleon had conquered Egypt and his soldiers were finding things like the Rosetta Stone. Jane wrote “The Mummy,” : Or a Tale of the Twenty Second Century” and it was published anonymously in 1827. Nowadays such a novel would be called science fiction but there was no term to apply to Jane Webb’s book at the time. Lacking a better descriptor some critics labelled it “Gothic” but no one had seen anything quite on this order before.  At the time scholars were developing the basic sciences, using logic and not supernatural powers to explain everyday phenomena.  Perhaps galvanic action could revive the Egyptian mummies or be used to do all sorts of helpful things.

She set her novel in the England of 2126 when the monarch had become a tyrant. Jane imagined that it could be possible to cool the hot summer air, that machines would make the coffee and even that people could connect via invisible means, an early foretelling of the internet.

John Loudon had a rather surprising feeling for the fantastic under his sober surface and enjoyed the book. He reviewed it favourably in his Gardeners Magazine. A friend had told him who the author was and shortly after he was introduced to her, they married in 1830. John was 47, Jane was 23. They had one daughter, Agnes. Even she became a writer though she was not driven by need. She had married a solicitor, Mark Spofforth.  Agnes died giving birth to her third child at the age of 33. They were all at the mercy of the disastrous medical care of the epoch.

In spite of Loudon’s renown and significant accomplishments he never made very much money. By the time he embarked on his last project, another cemetery, he was dying from lung cancer. He returned to London and died in his wife’s arms. He was penniless but he left an extraordinary legacy.

Jane lived until 1858, editing his work, writing her own manual of gardening for ladies and fulfilling many of his plans. One can safely say they were a power couple.


Elliott, Brent 1990     Victorian Gardens   London,  Batsford & Co

Hadfield, Miles 1960       Gardening in Britain        London,  Hutchinson & Co

Images sourced from Wikipedia


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s  books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and “An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past” (Ohio University Press  2018).
         In 2019 she published “A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989”.
        Dr Taylor’s web site is:

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating and informative. Since my great-grandfather created a garden with 'exotic plants' from India and China - - I have been fascinated by the early horticulturalists.


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