It’s almost certain that anyone who has the slightest interest in gardening coupled with any sense of history will have heard of character such as Capability Brown, Humphry Repton and more recently Gertrude Jekyll and even Percy Thrower. All names that have helped shape the horticultural landscape of Britain.
Sadly one name that is not likely to spring to mind from the annals of great achievement, but is actually one that did most to bring real gardening to the general public, is that of John Claudius Loudon. Without doubt my own personal hero of horticultural history, Loudon helped transform the urban landscape of his time, leaving a legacy that still thrives to this day. Despite being crippled by rheumatic fever from the age of 23 until his death in 1843 his obsession for work and thirst for knowledge never ceased.
As a landscape architect and practical gardener Loudon was always looking to initiate new ideas and trends. With a myriad of plants entering the country he developed a brand new style of gardening called `Gardenesque’. His own words to describe this new form of showing plants would equally define the aims of many of our most famous gardens of today. `Gardenesque…the production of that kind of scenery which is best calculated to display the individual beauty of trees, shrubs and plants in a state of nature… it is calculated for displaying the art of the gardener.’ This concept would certainly be taken on later during Victorian times and henceforth.
It’s certain that all keen gardeners enjoy one or more of the many gardening magazines that are now available and even non gardeners will have at some time come across one or two. It was in fact Loudon, who in January 1826 produced the very first periodical for horticulturists `The Gardening Magazine’. With no illustrations like those, which dominate modern magazines, his was a quarterly edition, which had specific aims and purposes.
`We had two grave objects in view’ he wrote in the first issue, `to disseminate new and important information on all topics connected with horticulture, and to raise the intellect and character of those engaged in the art’. I suppose that this sounds rather pompous today but believe it or not it is a purpose, which we are still trying to achieve in the horticultural industry.
John Loudon’s other great achievement, or should that be on other amongst many, was to instigate and bring to fruition the idea of public parks for use by the masses. These were already well established in other parts of Europe. France for instance had public parks as a result of the revolution and Germany also had extra delights within their beautifully kept parks such as the strolling oompah bands.
Here in Britain it had been a different story with any urban open spaces strictly held for the gentry and kept under lock and key or with a particular dress code as a pre-requisite of entry. Housing sprawl and the effects of industrial pollution was also making life intolerable for the general public and Loudon argued, successfully in the end, for green lungs to be created within this relentless grime.
His dream finally came true not far away at Derby, in fact, when in 1839-cotton mill owner and philanthropist Joseph Strutt donated 11 acres of land to the town for this very purpose. Loudon immediately set about planting over 1000 different trees and shrubs, labelling them all with great detail. He even had vases and pedestals erected so that local nurseries and societies could exhibit flowers. Gardenesque had finally been offered to the general public in the form of Derby Arboretum even though it was only open on a Sunday.
This was to be the for runner of all the public parks to follow and it also coincided with a massive influx of plants being brought back to Britain by the famous plant hunters of the time. As you may be aware our gardens would be extremely spars if we had to rely on native species in our beds and borders.
Unfortunately this now historic site is now a hazy reflection of its former glory although a great deal of restoration has taken place in recent years due to its historical significance and as a memorial to the peoples gardener. John Loudon deserves much more recognition for his many achievements, not just in horticulture but architecture, farming and through his tireless efforts on behalf of the public in general, despite being in constant pain for almost half of his life.
Amazingly, a man who achieved so much out of life died deeply in debt although this scenario would very often be the case in pre Victorian times. I leave it to world-renowned garden writer Dr.D.G.Hessayon to sum up the achievements of John Claudius Loudon ‘ he is one of gardenings immortals.’