I am a big fan of the Victorian and Edwardian horticultural press and, for garden historians, it’s a fantastic resource for research – and pleasure, with much of it now available on-line via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
For anyone not familiar with the BHL, it’s a fabulous treasure trove of literature on the natural world from early herbals to long-standing periodicals such as William Robinson’s The Garden, and The Gardeners’ Chronicle (both on-line through to the early 1920’s). (Robinson’s magazine not to be confused with the later journal of the RHS, The Garden.) Even Gertrude Jekyll was involved: not only writing hundreds of articles for the horticultural press and Country Life during her lifetime but acting as co-editor of The Garden for a couple of years (1900-1902) after Robinson sold-up.
It’s easy to lose yourself for hours in the pages of these journals, reading anything from details of the latest new plant creating a sensation amongst gardeners and the best way to grow it, to details of a famous garden, or reports of the latest exploits of daring-do plant-hunters such as George Forrest or Ernest “Chinese” Wilson. Articles and letters from their readers are also published, and these contributions came from a mix of people - professional gardeners, their employers, and the rising number of amateur horticulturists.
The advertisements can also be quite illuminating an advert from 1878 for example shows a variety of lawn-mowing machines for use by ‘a man’, ‘a lady’, or even larger machines for use together with ‘a donkey, pony or a horse’!
The first horticultural journal was The Gardeners Magazine started by John Loudon in 1826. Established to address the concerns of amateur gardeners and horticulturists it was, according to one of Loudon’s many admirers, the first periodical devoted exclusively to horticultural subjects. But it was not until the 1840s that horticultural journalism in Britain grew substantially with journals such as The Gardeners’ Chronicle, The Garden, Amateur Gardening, and Gardening Illustrated (not to be confused with the modern, glossy mag Gardens Illustrated) which provided, as Brent Elliot has written, reams of advice on horticulture together with detailed descriptions of particular gardens.
I have found The Gardeners’ Chronicle and The Garden particularly useful, as they carry full reports on the doings of the various RHS Committees and the awards given at their fortnightly meetings. They also published special Supplements from time-to-time reporting on garden shows and exhibitions – for example, the International Horticultural Exhibition of 1912, the forerunner of the Chelsea Flower Show.
The journals available via the BHL are fully searchable, so if you are looking for information on a particular garden, garden-owner or head gardener – or plant, it’s worth having a look. For example, during the 1890s The Garden carried regular articles (under the banner ‘Notes from…’) written by head gardeners of various large estates, reporting on the status of their gardens and particular plants at the time of writing. There may also be a letter or a brief article from someone you are interested in, or details of the prize they received at an RHS show for an exhibit of a newly introduced plant. These journals also reported on events and shows outside of London; for instance, local shows or county shows further afield.
Illustrations in the early horticultural press were from woodcuts, often of poor quality; however, over the years the illustrations improved and by 1883 The Gardeners’ Chronicle became the first gardening magazine to use photographs; albeit in black and white. Coloured images did not appear until the beginning of the 20th century, with The Garden using a few coloured images by 1909, and The Gardeners’ Chronicle following suit a year later.
Country Life – although not strictly a ‘gardening magazine’, began life in 1897 and has been described by garden-historian Jane Brown as having acquired an almost ‘biblical status amongst garden historians’. It quickly established itself as a quality journal that, according to Brent Elliott, contained ‘a far greater number of photographs of the garden than could be found anywhere else in the literature’.
Issues of Country Life are not available on-line, but it does have its own picture library of photographs specially commissioned for the magazine from its inception. This can be found here and there are a plethora of books based on the photographs in the Country Life archive including:
Country Life 1897-1987: The English Arcadia by Sir Roy Strong;
English Gardens in the Twentieth Century from the Archives of Country Life by Tim Richardson;
and The Country House Garden: From the Archives of Country Life 1897-1939 by Brent Elliott.
While Country Life remains the ‘go-to’ publication for evocative images of country house gardens at the beginning of the twentieth century, I’d encourage anyone interested in Victorian and Edwardian gardens, plants or gardeners, to have a look at these other journals as they are a wonderful source of the minutiae of horticultural life during this period.