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March 2011

Cross with the RHS? You bet I am

Rumour has it that the RHS are desperate to find ways of encouraging women, particularly younger women, to attend the RHS shows held at the London headquarters in Vincent Square. So it's a brilliant idea for the RHS to stage an exhibition from their archives of women's achievements in horticulture. But what do they do? Run it for just two days this weekend, 19-20 March, at the less well attended RHS London Orchid and Botanical Art Show. What a missed opportunity! Other exhibitions in the Lindley Library run for considerably longer - why stage this important show for just 48 hours?

Here is the RHS's press release to tempt you if you are able to go, or show you what you'll be missing from the RHS's rich archive if you can't. And if you feel like complaining to the RHS, please do! You can, of course, always read about these women in Gardening Women.


For the first time in the Royal Horticultural Society’s history, two women, Elizabeth Banks and Sue Biggs, hold the most senior positions in the Society - President and Director General.

But women have played an important part in horticulture for many years. At the RHS London Orchid and Botanical Art Show over 19-20 March, the RHS Lindley Library will host a display to highlight the life and works of a number of women who have been extremely influential in horticulture over the last century.

On display will be photographs, books, archives and artworks to celebrate the lives of:

Gertrude Jekyll was a garden designer and one of only two women among the first recipients of the Victoria Medal of Honour in 1897.

Ellen Willmott, a horticulturist, was the other woman among the first recipients of the Victoria Medal of Honour in 1897.

Marion Cran was the first gardening radio broadcaster.

Dorothy Martin, a botanical artist. Her 300 original watercolours are housed in the RHS Lindley Library. Two of these will be on display.

Constance Spry, society flower arranger and social reformer.

Lilian Snelling, botanical artist. The RHS holds an extensive collection of her works. Three of her watercolours will be on display.

Margery Fish was a horticultural journalist famous for popularising gardening for the masses after the war.

Vera Higgins was another botanical artist.

Beatrix Havergal, a horticulturist who was a member of the RHS Examinations Board for over 20 years. She started the Waterperry School of Horticulture for Women.

Margaret Mee, a conservationist and botanical artist famous for her trips to the Amazon rainforest.

Valerie Finnis, a plantswoman, alpine gardener and photographer.

Joyce Stewart who worked as a botanist in Africa, she was the first Sainsbury Orchid Fellow at Kew and went on to be Director of Horticulture at the RHS.

RHS Art Librarian, Charlotte Brooks, says: ‘These women are represented within the library collections by books, archives, original photographs and artworks, many received as valuable donations. We will be exhibiting 13 original items, including a wall paper design by Gertrude Jekyll and an unfinished field sketch from the Amazon by Margaret Mee.’

The garden history writer who published under four names

Full marks to Sue Minter for finally giving the Hon. Alicia Amherst her rightfully place in horticultural history. Or should that be the Hon. Mrs Evelyn Cecil? Or the Lady Rockley of Lytchett Heath? Or the Dowager Baroness Rockley? Confused? You wouldn't be the first. These are all the names that aristocratic author Alicia Amherst, author of The History of Gardening in England (1895) published under. No wonder Sue Minter entitled her biography, The Well-Connected Gardener.


Alicia Amherst painted by her daughter, Maud, holding a stem of the yellow form of the Gloriosa lily she had collected on her visit to South Africa in 1899-1900

Minter hails Amherst as the 'founder of Garden History' but also questions why she isn't better known. Her titles came from family and marriage but she was given many high horticultural honours including being the only woman to be given the Freedom of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners at a time when her contemporaries were Gertrude Jekyll and Ellen Willmott (a friend).

Amherst was never a 'public' gardener in the sense that Jekyll and Willmott were and although I've always thought that many great female gardeners have disappeared from notice because they did not write about their garden work (Norah Lindsay being the most obvious example), she is one of my 'Gardening Women' for her astounding contribution to garden history writing.  Amherst achieved great fame through her major works on garden history and I did enjoy the story of her tussle with her publisher, Bernard Quartich.

My 'History of Gardening in England' came out in the autumn of 1895, and no one could have been more astonished that I was at its huge success. Quartich, the publisher, made an offer for a 2nd edition, three weeks from the day it first came out. His offer was double to what he had given for the 1st - £50, instead of £25. I was advised to refuse and, within a few days, he offered me £250.

  Sue Minter has impeccable credentials for tackling this biography.  She was the first female Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden for ten years from 1991 to 2001 when she left to become Director of Horticulture at the Eden Project. Amherst herself was on the Management Committee of the Chelsea Physic Garden which now holds her uncatalogued archive. It is good to finally have the full background to the woman who wrote the book that should still be the starting point for anyone interested in garden history. Sadly it is no longer in print but thanks to fellow blogger, VegPlotting, for sourcing an online version of The History of Gardening in England at the Open Library site.

Just a reminder, I'll be speaking about 'Gardening Women' at the Chelsea Physic Garden on May 5. Full details also on the link under Events in the left-hand column.


Five Stars for sheer readability

Thanks so much to top author Lesley Pearse for this lovely review of Gardening Women on the prize-winning website ThinkinGardens edited by Anne Wareham who has created an astounding garden at Veddw House near Monmouth.

Gardening Women by Catherine Horwood

March 7, 2011

in Book Reviews,Reviews

Gardening Women by Catherine Horwood

A book review by the best selling novelist Lesley Pearse. ThinkinGardens gets around!

Anne Wareham, editor.

Reviewed by Lesley Pearse.

For anyone who has a passion for history along with gardening, this is the  book. It charts women gardeners from 1600 to the present. Gertrude Jekyll, and Beth Chatto were the only ones I could name, and so it was enthralling to read about less famous, but equally well-deserving other women, especially those back in the old days when the RHS wouldn’t allow women membership.

Catherine Horwood has clearly researched her book thoroughly, and she sets out the stories of these gardening pioneers in such a way that you feel you have a real ‘look over the garden wall’ at them. I was astounded by how many plants I which I had considered to be native to this country were discovered overseas, brought here, and nurtured by these women, beginning the plant nurseries so beloved of us gardeners now.

It struck me too, that as so many of these lady gardeners lived to a ripe old age, gardening really does keep you young and fit. I was particularly amused that the first women to be employed as gardeners at Kew Gardens were considered a great curiosity, especially as they wore knickerbockers to work in. But that is part of the attraction of this book, because it isn’t just dry facts. Instead it is a glimpse back into a more restricted, genteel world, yet one where the passion for growing flowers and plants helped to break down class and gender barriers.

Five Stars for sheer readability.

Lesley Pearse.