Ellen Willmott

The re-birth of Ellen Willmott's Italian garden


The pavilion at Villa Boccanegra © Felice Piacenza

Fascinating article by Robin Lane Fox in the Financial Times this week - Italy's Villa Boccanegra and the ghost of Miss Willmott. Lots of stories about Ellen Willmott's extravagances - she filled it with plants and flowers but only spent a month a year there. We also hear about the saviour of the garden - Miss Willmott's third - Ursula Piacenza. On the Italian/French border just near Ventimiglia, it sounds as though Miss Willmott's ghost must be very happy.


East terrace with Agathis robusta © Felice Piacenza

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.


The gardening women of Chenies Manor

My first visit to Chenies Manor, sandwiched between Amersham in Buckinghamshire and the M25, and renown for its displays of tulips in the spring. In the summer, dahlias take over in the formal beds edged with beautiful old specimens of box and yew.

What I hadn't realised was just how many connections this venerable building and its gardens have with 'gardening women'.  In the late sixteenth century, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, nee Har[r]ington, knew Chenies through her marriage to the third Earl and frequently entertained leading poets of the day such as Ben Johnson at the house. There is even a rumour that A Midsummer's Night's Dream was written for her marriage. The Countess was known as a passionate gardener as well and influenced the layout of the gardens at Chenies.


Lady Anne Clifford also lived in part of the house during the late sixteenth century. Lady Anne later was to have great wealth and gardened on her various estates across Yorkshire and Westmoreland, making a large garden at Brougham Castle.


Since the late 1950s, Elizabeth MacLeod Matthew has devoted herself to recreating the grounds around this magnificent house, including introducing a grass labyrinth, a maze and a Physic Garden. She is quite correct of course that every house of this standing would have had a garden devoted to herbs for use by the apothecary who in many cases, was the wife.

On my way out I popped into the modest little shop selling the usual tea towels, local honey and mugs, and bought some small packets of seeds collected from the garden and carefully packaged in brown paper envelopes. It's lovely to take something away from one garden for your own. So I was delighted to be able to buy some seed of  Eryngium giganteum, or 'Miss Willmott's Ghost' which grows happily in the Victorian vegetable garden at Chenies (see its silvery spikes below).

I've written a great deal about Ellen Willmott in Gardening Women. She was an amazing woman and astounding gardener but perhaps everyone's favourite story about her is that she used to scatter the seeds of E. giganteum surreptitiously as she visited other gardens which is how it got its name. Did she ever visit Chenies Manor? It would be lovely to think that she did.


If this has given you a taste for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gardens, pop over to my other blog, A Gardening Woman to find out about one of my favourites, Wyken Hall, near Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk.