Among the highlights of Henry VIII’s library was a book called “Ruralia Commonia,” which is generally considered the world’s first “how to” gardening manual. Written in Latin around 1304 by a Bolognese lawyer, Petrus de Crescentiis, it contains practical advice on agriculture, husbandry and horticulture. Henry obtained his copy in 1543 from Richard Rawson, who had been royal chaplain and adviser during the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and it’s intriguing to think that the British monarch might have thumbed through it as a diversion from weightier affairs of state.
As well as giving quirky tips on all aspects of gardening lore, “Ruralia Commodia” includes a section on how to set up the ideal royal garden, which may have inspired Henry’s one at Whitehall Palace. De Crescentiis recommends a walled garden with trees radiating from the palace, together with trellises entwined with vines, where the king and queen can linger without interference from sun or rain. He also suggests diverting pure spring water into gardens, and a huge, tiered fountain is known to have been a centerpiece of Henry’s Whitehall garden. The original garden has long since gone, but it can be glimpsed in the background of a painting, “The Family of Henry VIII,” from about 1545.
Both Henry’s book and his painting are among 150 exhibits — all from the royal collection — in this new show on royal gardens at the Queen’s Gallery, conveniently situated right next to Buckingham Palace. As the exhibition reveals, gardens had multiple functions for the British monarchy. To Henry VIII they were a symbol of power and prestige, but they could also be used as a retreat, a focus for scientific research, or just a place for relaxation and recreation.
Power politics remained paramount in the 16th and 17th centuries. Rivalry between France and Britain was played out not just on the battlefields but also in the formal Baroque garden. The classic British version appears in the “View of Hampton Court” (c. 1702-14) by Leonard Knyff, which has two imposing sundials from the original garden displayed alongside. Knyff’s painting helped with the recent reconstruction of William III’s formal gardens at this particular royal palace.
The 18th century saw a “return to nature” and gardens became less formal. A typical example was the garden designed at Kew by Sir William Chambers for Frederick, Prince of Wales, revealed here in a painting of 1759. Another watercolor shows the hermitage designed at Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park by George III’s daughter Prince Elizabeth in 1797. This reflects an odd practice of the time: apparently you could hire a resident hermit to sit in your garden. I’m told that the modern garden gnome is a relic of this bizarre custom.
As always with exhibitions at the Queen’s Gallery, the real interest comes from the opportunity to glimpse behind the curtain — or, in this case, over the garden wall — at the royal family “off-duty.” By the reign of Queen Victoria, royal gardens were primarily a setting for family life. A previously unseen watercolor shows the lake at Buckingham Palace in about 1845, with Victoria and her husband Prince Albert on an island in the center, nurses and a footman on the bank to the right. Another charming view shows the little garden plots at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where Albert, ever the pedagogue, instructed his children in the cultivation of flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Elsewhere in this eclectic show there are paintings by Gainsborough and Rembrandt, and two superb botanical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. Highlights among the decorative arts include a colorful 18th-century porcelain sunflower clock and an imposing Victorian glass chandelier entwined with lilies. The most stunning exhibit of all, though, is probably the fabulous Fabergé jewel, “Bleeding Heart” (c. 1900), which has blooms made of nephrite, rhodonite and quartzite, suspended from gold stems. “Say it with flowers” indeed.
The exhibition ends rather abruptly at the end of the Edwardian period, and whether the 20th-century royal family had green fingers we don’t discover. This minor criticism aside, I can highly recommend this show, which will appeal to all garden enthusiasts. If you can’t get to the exhibition, the catalog is a must. Illustrated in color throughout, with a foreword by Sir Roy Strong, the well-known expert on historic gardens, it is well up to the Royal Collection’s attractively high standard of production.