The recent death of gardener and plant collector, Beth Chatto OBE, and her mention on Monty Don’s gardening programme on Friday reminded me of the retrospective to her work at the Garden Museum at Lambeth in London (formerly the Museum of Garden History) which I visited a few years ago. I was actually visiting the Tate at the time, just across the river from the Garden Museum, but on the spur of the moment decided to pop in to see what it had to offer.
This national resource for plants and garden history is situated on the South Bank of the Thames and sits right next door to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence, Lambeth Palace and, as mentioned, is just across the river from Tate Britain.
It owes its existence to John and Rosemary Nicholson who, in 1976, discovered the neglected and forgotten tomb of the John Tradescants (1570-1638), father and son gardeners to Charles I and the first gardeners and plant hunters in British history. They introduced many of the flowers, shrubs and trees we grow today.
The centrepiece of the tranquil Sackler Garden designed to reflect Tradescant’s life and spirit is John Tradescant’s magnificent tomb, erected in 1662 and sculpted with images of the gardeners’ travels and collecting. Before the founding of the Garden Museum in 1977, the church was earmarked for demolition and this masterpiece of funeral art had lain neglected for many decades, the sculpted images unrecognisable beneath the soot that covered it.
On its rescue from demolition over 40 years ago, the church was deconsecrated and subsequently converted into the world’s first museum dedicated to gardens and gardening. The neglected graveyard which adjoined the church is now part of the museum and contains not only the tomb of the Tradescants but the tomb of one whose name most schoolboys will recognise, Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, himself a native of Lambeth.
The garden has as its centrepiece, a 17th-century style knot garden designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury of Hatfield House in the traditional geometric style enclosed in a square. Knot gardens had been popular in Britain since the Tudor period, usually formed of woody herbs clipped in geometric designs but in this case dwarf box (Buxus sempervirens) was used rather than herbs.
Exhibitions of various kinds take place in The Garden Museum, but a Permanent Exhibition runs throughout the year. Among the permanent exhibits is one that charts the development of gardening from pre-historic times to modern day. The on-site library has a fine collection containing information from the Landscape Movement from Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton in the 18th century, to the 19th-century innovations that changed gardening thanks to travel (heated glasshouses and the lawnmower to name just two) and the gardens influenced by the Arts & Crafts Movement pioneered by William Morris.
We tend to forget sometimes how much we owe to the adventurous plant hunters who brought back to these shores the azaleas, jasmine, rhododendrons, clematis, camellias, magnolias and lilies, but here the plant hunters are given due credit for their determination and zeal in seeking these out. Planters like the John Tradescants, Ernest Wilson, William Dampier, Frank Kingdon Ward, Joseph Banks, David Douglas, George Forrest and Francis Masson are names only the dedicated gardeners are familiar with but they are responsible for much of what we love about English gardens today.
Unlike most museums, the Garden Museum is a quiet, tranquil place, the restaurant/cafeteria a delightfully cool and pleasant place in which to have some light refreshments. Take time after a visit to sit contemplatively in the garden for a few moments listening to the birds, or the drone of the bees, as they burrow into the vivid blue agapanthus and the sweet smelling lavender. The hustle and bustle of London seem far away.
I am planning a return visit sometime in late summer as I understand the gardens have had a makeover and there is an added attraction in that they have now opened the on-site medieval tower from which there is an amazing vista over Lambeth Palace and the River Thames.
This magical place is located right in the heart of the capital, just a ten-minute walk from the London Eye, Houses of Parliament, Tate Britain, and Waterloo and Victoria stations.
Nearest Underground: Lambeth North or Westminster.
Lambeth Palace Road, London, SE1 7LB. Tel: 020 7401 8865
Open Sunday–Friday 10.30am–5.00pm
Adult: £10: Senior citizen: £8.50: Student/Unemployed/Art Pass: £5
Family (1 adult, 1 child): £12.50: Family (2 adults, 2 children): £25
Children under 6 years: Free