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.