The Well Connected Gardener by Sue Minter

December 27, 2010

in Book Reviews, Reviews

ThinkinGardens is occasionally fortunate enough to be given books for review (hint to publishers) and this is one we received recently. Michelle Chapman generously offered to write the review. It should be of interest to garden historians and anyone curious about the place women have had in the garden world. Anne Wareham

By Michelle Chapman

Today it’s hard to believe that garden history hasn’t always been here. After all we know our garden heritage goes back many centuries, even if a lot of it has been swept away by subsequent fashions or ideas. That’s why it came as a surprise to me when I first picked up The Well-Connected Gardener to find its study is only a century or so old.

Another surprise is that the distinguished career of Alicia Amsherst (aka The Well-Connected Gardener) seems to have been almost forgotten. She was a contemporary of Gertrude Jekyll and a friend of Ellen Willmott (of Miss Willmott’s Ghost fame), and for many years was a member of the management committee of Chelsea Physic Garden. She was the author of several seminal works and was active in ensuring that horticultural training was opened up for women. This was quite controversial at the time because women started to take on the role of head gardeners on major estates, although her main motivation was ensuring people with the right skills went abroad to help colonise the empire.

This book gives a fascinating glimpse of a time and a world long since gone. Alicia Amsherst may have been a well educated member of the aristocracy who then became heavily involved in political matters, but it’s clear she used her privileged background to help others. During the First World War she was heavily involved in ensuring the security of the nation’s food supplies: pioneering work which paved the way for the Dig for Victory campaign during the Second World War. I expected her to be a suffragette, but actually she openly opposed the movement, preferring instead to find more pragmatic ways (mainly through education) to elevate the role of women in society.

Alicia Amsherst was born in 1865 into an extremely wealthy family, whose country estate was a mere 1,500 acres in Didlington, Norfolk. Perhaps more importantly for us, her father collected antiquarian manuscripts and books and was acknowledged as having one of the finest libraries in the country. It was noted for its works on the history of printing and Egyptology, but also contained early manuscripts on gardening.

As well as the library, Alicia was also introduced to gardening at an early age, so perhaps it’s no great surprise she combined both loves by writing A History of Gardening in England, published in 1895 when she was 30. It’s an objective, scholarly work which set gardening history alongside social, political and technological changes. It’s also said to be very readable. It seems her objectivity lead to some criticism concerning her own lack of critique e.g for not raising the issue of how the landscape movement swept away many earlier gardens. She was also scorned by some for not focusing on the architectural aspects of garden design, whilst others took her to task for not doing the same with plants. Some things never change!

Alicia’s other pioneering works were: London Parks and Gardens (1907 and perhaps one of the earliest looks at public planting); Historic Gardens of England (1938); and Wild Flowers of the Dominions of the British Empire (1935 and where she demonstrated knowledge not only of the economic value of plants but also aspects of ecology and ethno botany). She was also honoured for her charitable and horticultural work (both CBE and DBE), but perhaps the honour she valued most highly was being given the freedom of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners in 1896, the first woman to be honoured in such a way.

Sue Minter has used Chelsea Physic Garden’s and other archive sources well: she allows her subject to tell her own story wherever possible though her letters, papers and artistic endeavours in such a way that I often forgot I was reading a biography. Personally I would have liked more details on the contents of each of Alicia’s books – and there is room in this relatively slim volume and scholarly work for her to have done so – but there’s sufficient there for me to hope I find them on one of my regular second hand bookshop forays. However, her life was much more than gardening or garden history and I prefer to be introduced to the whole person rather than just one aspect.

Michelle Chapman

This piece reproduced, with her kind permission, from Michelle’s blog Michelle Chapman’s blog

Book Guild Publishing (25 Nov 2010)

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