The Aviary at Waddesdon Manor
Victorian influences will converge at the Chelsea Flower Show later this month. The Royal Horticultural Society was given its charter by Prince Albert in 1861. The forerunner of Chelsea, the Great Spring Show, was held that year in Kensington Gardens. Shows and exhibitions were massively popular and the public flocked to gaze at the latest wonder brought in by the Victorian plant hunters. They would have been very at home in the press and hubbub of today's Chelsea with its vast marquee and floral exotica from far-flung lands.
One of this year's show gardens, “The Victorian Aviary Garden”, with its commanding peacock pavement and an airy aviary as theatre set and backdrop, will be an eye-catcher. Maggy Howarth, famous for her pebble mosaic-work, has created a 12 metre square peacock tableau with washed limestone pebbles from Anglesey (collected under licence), blue slate borders and the use of lapis lazuli for detail. It sets off the large aviary to perfection.
The whole feel to this garden is one of restrained elegance; it has an evergreen hedge enclosing two sides of the stand. It is a big space for an exhibit; the dimensions are in the region of 10 by 15 metres. This could be my entire garden. Grass laps up to the peacock's tail which in turn doubles up as the pathway leading up two steps to the aviary. There are two big square flowerbeds, boxed-edged and showing off topiary. Of the planting — more later.
Detail of peacock's tail.
A mosaic by Maggy Howarth @Philippa
The co-designer of The Victorian Aviary garden, Jonathan Denby, is a true Victorian connoisseur. Research for the aviary took him in and out of two books — the first, Rustic Adornment for Homes of Taste by James Shirley Hibberd (1825-1890). He was the original popular garden writer, a Victorian and clearly a landmark type (self taught, confident and ubiquitous: he was a man who got things done). The second, slyly Edwardian, but an excellent reference, was Garden Ornament by Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932). Certainly she came a little later but her childhood influences were steeped in Victoria's reign.
Portrait Sketch of Charles Darwin, 1869, oil on canvas by Laura
Russell @Private collection displayed by Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge at exhbition "Endless
Forms, Charles Darwin: Natural Science and the Visual Arts June-Oct
Darwin's double centenary has been a catalyst for all things Victorian. Stuffed animals and visits to the zoo had been nudged over by wide-screens and exotic travel. Captivity, even with breeding against extinction, has had a frisson of cruelty. And why bother? What need have we to go and gawp at feathers atop withered legs when we can hop on a plane to the Serengeti?
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge mounted an exhibition of the life of Charles Darwin. It made me throw those preconceptions out with the bathwater. The display was so wide-ranging and colourful that I came away mind spinning. Above all, plaster reconstructions of cliffs with seagull colonies and bits of recreated forest for lurking moose to skulk in, were real and engrossing.
We exhibition goers breathed heavily on the plate glass and marveled. We glimpsed the excitement of living in an era of discovery, returning with the new and exotic. Darwin was back from his voyage of four years on The Beagle one year before Victoria came to the throne. If we set the scene with her coronation, the date is 1837 and a galloping affair with natural history is in full spate. The Beagle returned groaning with cages of exotica, glass cases stuffed with birds and innumerable plants and seeds. In America, Audubon was still painting his meticulous bird pictures and in London the Royal Zoological Society was beefing up its big cat collection. The world rolled before a floodgate of the wonders of the planet and, hand-in-hand, within a decade the publication of The Origin of Species.
Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds, 1871, oil on panel by
Martin Johnson Heade
@ National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Morris
and Gwedolyn Cafritz Foundation displayed by Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge at exhibition
"Endless Forms, Charles Darwin: Natural Science and the Visual Arts.
New birds and specimens from the plant hunters were being passed round the globe. The times were heady and daredevil — from the glass ark of the Crystal Palace down to the small dome containing finches in the village parlour, society was out to have a slice of nature.
Taxidermists had their hands full with stuffed fish, mammals, and birds all in vogue. But for true snobbismo and boasting, an aviary became the outdoor object that was most desired. We are talking of a large flight cage here, so that the guest and garden stroller could happen upon the structure and see the exotic bird showing its iridescent plumage with some space to grace the display of stretched wing and arched tail. It was all part of the excitement of a shrinking world.
The Aviary at Waddesdon Manor
The large aviaries that remain from those times tend to be wonderfully complicated structures, playing arabesques and flights of fancy with the building materials — there is a garden within a garden designed round them at Champ de Bataille in Normandy and in the gardens of the Villa Borghese in Rome you will see the most elaborate bird cage constructions on high above the stucco buildings, resembling dressmakers dummies. Waddesdon Manor, seat of the Rothschilds in Buckinghamshire and now a
National Trust property, has an aviary installed as a commemorative piece for a visit by the Shah of Persia in 1885. Built of cast iron and massive, it was the inspiration for the aviary in the “Victorian Aviary Garden.”
The Aviary at Waddesdon, aerial view.
@National Trust, John Bigelow
And so to the construction details — the Waddesdon one is of massy cast iron. The modern Chelsea aviary is altogether a lighter affair, made from galvanized steel and timber. Jonathan is clearly also a man who does. He did his research and for building this complicated bird cage cast round for experts in Victorian construction. The final partnership ended up with him and the local blacksmith designing, tinkering, altering and re-jigging to meet the spec.
The garden will be reconstructed in the grounds of one of Jonathan Denby’s hotels, the Newby Bridge Hotel, near Windermere, in the Lake District. Hard-landscaping materials are all indigenous to that part of England: stone walling from defunct dry-stone walls and the lovely Brathay blue slate, subtly veined, from the Lake District. Detailing has come from Garden Ornament — Jekyll is a stickler for minute and correct detail: an example - the risers of steps must have a certain overlap to create shadow.
Traditional Iris Jane Philliips in flower at Brocket Hall
Undoubtedly we have a proper Victorian garden on the man-made front. What about the appropriate plants though? Step forward Philippa Pearson, the other designer for the Chelsea project. She sent me the plant list yesterday. There is a definite muzzle of restraint here on the sensible grounds of more is less. Research on Victorian plants has been the guiding inspiration. And it is inspiration rather than slavish copying. It's an interesting point with historic gardens that cultivars or improved forms of plants have been bred. The debate is whether to use them or not.
Philippa's plant choice looks so delectable that I want to tuck in and eat some. Start in with an appetiser of various ferns. Ferns were loved by the Victorians. Amongst those chosen for this garden are: Asplenium scolopendrium, Dryopteris crassirhizoma and the wonderfully titled Leptinella squalida ‘Platts Black'. Then I shall head on for the graceful perennials starting with Astrantia major Claret, Aquilegia Nora Barlow and
the incomparably lovely Iris Jane Phillips, Queens all of the cottage garden and old favourites.
About the author:
Catharine Howard is a garden designer and writer - read her blog at www.catharinehoward.co.uk and follow her on Twitter@CatharineHoward The Chelsea Flower Show is held in the grounds of the Chelsea Royal Hospital in the last week of May.