By Dr David Marsh
John Claudius Loudon and the rise of the amateur gardener
"The love of gardening is natural to man" wrote John Claudius Loudon in the introduction to the first volume of his Gardener’s Magazine which appeared in 1826. Loudon was the early 19thc equivalent of Wikipedia. He researched, investigated, explored, learned, wrote, plagiarized, published and pontificated on every subject under the sun that interested him but particularly architecture, agriculture, natural history, social reform and gardening. His works and those of his wife, Jane, put them amongst the most significant figures in 19th-century horticultural history, indeed probably all horticultural history. They made a major contribution not only to the development of Victorian gardening but the longer-term spread of interest in gardening across a much wider sector of society.
Loudon was, like so many other eminent gardeners of his day, a Scotsman. Born in 1783, by the age of 11 he was working as a garden boy, before being apprenticed to Dickson & Shade, a firm of Edinburgh nurserymen. In his spare time he also attended classes in botany and agriculture at Edinburgh University. In 1803, at the age of 20 he set off south for London, taking letters of introduction to several important connections who were to have a big influence on his life.
One was Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society and the brains behind the development of the royal gardens at Kew. Another was James Sowerby, a naturalist and illustrator, who was to encourage Loudon’s artistic as well as scientific interests. But the most important was Jeremy Bentham, the reforming philosopher and founder of the utilitarian movement. It was through Bentham that Loudon began to codify his thoughts into progressive social theories and systems, helping him to understand the powerful and expanding middle class and their personal and professional aspirations. That insight was to be a huge influence on his ideas about gardens and garden styles.
You gain some idea of what sort of man Loudon was even at an early age, from a journal entry quoted later by his wife in her biography of him.: "I am now 20 years of age, and perhaps a third of my life has passed away, and yet what of I done to benefit my fellow men?" He spent the rest of his life making up for it!
From the time he arrived in London Louden wrote almost continuously. The British library catalogue lists dozens of titles, many in several editions and which continued to be reprinted after his death.
His first work was a letter to The Literary Journal "hints respecting the manner of laying out the grounds of public squares in London" in 1804 which advocated ‘breathing zones’ in the city to promote public health. The same year saw the publication of Observations on the Formation and Management of Useful and Ornamental Plantations some of which was based on his early experience designing for “distinguished persons in England and on the continent.” It included a separate section on land reclamation, on the title page of which was a quote from Francis Bacon, the 17thc natural scientist and philosopher which is a key to understanding what Loudon was all about: “knowledge is power”. To Loudon, as to Jeremy Bentham the spread of knowledge as far as possible throughout society, especially the middle ranks, was absolutely crucial. His whole life seems to have been an attempt to put that into practice.
In 1805 Loudoun produced his first work concerned with hothouses. It was euphemistically called A Short Treatise on Several Improvements recently made in Hot Houses, even though it extends to 288 pages. Below his name on the title page he claimed he was, at 22, already quite active , as a designer of rural improvements, and author as well as a member of the Society of Arts. What he neglects to say there is that he was also exhibiting his paintings at the Royal Academy.
More extraordinary still is his assertion in the introduction that “the hothouse upon which these alterations were made was built about three years ago, from a plan given by the author" [ie when he was about 18 or 19]. He adds he could “have made the alterations upon many gentlemen's hothouses, with much greater effect; but he judged it better for the public to execute them in some nursery (a nursery being kind of public place) where they might be seen and examined by gentlemen with greater freedom.”
Of course there were downsides and while he was obviously a very clever and inquisitive young man with the ability to look at other people’s work, experiment and improve it, he was equally capable of claiming the results for himself and so developing a sense of his own importance and self-worth, and the rightness of his opinions.
The following year, 1806, saw another treatise this time on Forming Improving and Managing Country Residences. Its 600 pages cover many aspects of the building and maintenance of houses and grounds. It highlights his belief that 2 things are necessary to improve any area of life … convenience and ornament. But it also highlights his belief in a very structured social hierarchy. While wanting to spread knowledge as widely as possible, there clearly were limits. Loudon classified houses – and usually their occupants - into 4 main classes, based on wealth, leisure and social status, and designed houses and gardens for them accordingly. There isn’t time or space to go into this further now but there is a link to the full text where you can his ideas and designs outlined at length.
Unfortunately Loudon’s career as a surveyor and landscaper were cut short when he developed by severe health problems, in particular rheumatic fever which lasted all his life and partially disabled him. But being Loudon he did not sink into depression. Instead he changed tack and bought Wood Farm at Pinner in Middlesex, and also founded a small Agricultural College at Great Tew in Oxfordshire to try out agricultural improvements. This, of course, led to several books. Designs for laying out farms and farm buildings in the Scottish style" appeared in 1811, followed by Hints on the Formation of Gardens and Pleasure Ground. This included designs the gardens of many sizes from a perch up to 100 acres with and even a botanic garden layout for those who are wealthy enough to indulge.
By 1812 he sold the college profitably and had £15,000 in the bank which made him a comparatively wealthy man but instead of sitting back idly and letting others work for him he decided to travel. His choice of destination was somewhat surprising. Given that Napoleon had just been driven out of Russia after a ferocious and destructive campaign Loudon decided to go to St Petersburg and Moscow, travelling by way of war-torn central Europe and the Baltic states. According to his wife's biography of him "he proceeded through a country covered with the remains of the French army, horses and men lying dead by the roadside and bands of wild looking Cossacks scouring the country". Ever practical he kept a journal for the entire trip which he filled with sketches of the various places he saw, most of which he was later to have engraved for a section of his famous Encyclopaedia of Gardening.
On his return to England he found that his banker with whom he had left his money had invested badly and he was almost penniless again. In order to make some money he once turned his attention back to hothouses. In 1815 Sir George Mackenzie had presented a paper to the Horticultural Society of London suggesting that the most effective shape for a greenhouse was spherical, in order to maximise and equalize the amount of light admitted during the day. At the time such a design was not thought to be technically feasible but Loudon decided to experiment. He built a range of greenhouses in his own garden, perhaps with the help of Baileys of Holborn, to test a range of designs, using thirteen different kinds of beams and 7 different types of glazing. He eventually settled on a lightweight, flexible but strong wrought iron glazing bar. That it was possible to make this in curvilinear sections allowed curved and even domed glazed roofs. He published his findings in Remarks on the Construction of Hothouses” in 1817 and Sketches of Curvilinear Hothouses the following year.
Loudon later recorded that he sold his designs to Bailey’s of Holborn in 1818, although his name does not appear on the patent they took out, and he then collaborated with them on designing and building a number of glasshouses including Bicton at Exmouth. He later published plans for a magnificent glass building for Birmingham Botanic Gardens but his scheme was rejected as too costly. His great hothouse legacy is an indirect and posthumous one, since his curvilinear glazing bar was adapted and modified by Richard Turner an engineer who worked with Decimus Burton on the Palm house at Kew which was finished in xxxx.
As an aside, and to show that Loudon was nothing if not inventive and capable of multi-tasking, in 1818 he also published designs for a suspension bridge across the Mersey. The bridge at Runcorn was to be made of cast iron, 1000 ft long and 70 ft suspended directly between two giant piers. This was very similar in principle to the design of Thomas Telford for the same site but in the end neither was built. [For more information see Loudon’s letter in The Annals of Philosophy, Vol.11, 1818, p.11]
After greenhouses it was back to books. Loudon now turned the notes and sketches he had made on his journey to Russia into something more substantial: a universal Encyclopaedia of gardening. But being a perfectionist and to make it truly comprehensive he obtained letters of introduction from Sir Joseph Banks and set off on a second European tour to France, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands which he had not visited in 1813, to gather material.
The Encyclopaedia of Gardening came out in 1822. It was a massive undertaking of nearly 1500 pages comprising as its secondary titles indicated “the theory and practice of Horticulture, Floriculture, Arboriculture and Landscape-Gardening including all the latest improvements; A General History of Gardening in all countries; and a statistical view of its present state; with suggestions for its future progress in the British Isles. The British Library catalogue notes 4 editions during his lifetime and a posthumous one in 1850. It still serves as the essential reference book for all matters relating to gardens and gardening in the early 19th century.
The Encyclopaedia was quickly followed by The different modes of cultivating the pine-apple , and then two years later in 1824, The Green House Companion. The frontispiece has a picture of two camellias, one red the other white, reminiscent of those at Felton. A second edition of the Companion came out the following year, along with the 1250 page An Encyclopedia of Agriculture, which took a similar all-encompassing approach to the one on gardening.
It was an incredibly busy time for Loudon, He was writing incessantly but also managed to design and oversee the building of a new villa in Bayswater where he was to live for the rest of his life. It was made difficult by the pain caused by his rheumatic fever, and then to make matters worse, by an operation on his right arm which was botched and eventually led to its amputation in 1825.
This might have been enough for most people, but not Loudon. Aged 43 one-armed, having written a shelf-full of books, designed bridges greenhouses, houses and landscapes, run a farm and a college, he now embarked on a new career in journalism. In many ways this was to be his greatest contribution to horticultural knowledge. In 1826 he began publishing The Gardeners Magazine aimed at "the practical gardener “with the expressed purpose of circulating developments connected with horticulture and "to raise the intellect and character of those engaged in this art."
It started life as a quarterly at five shillings and sold 4000 copies the first issue, with Loudon hoping it would be "an acceptable addition to the periodical works already before the public." It soon became bi-monthly and by 1831 appeared every month, with the price declining to one shilling and tuppence as circulation rose.
It is important to note that the term ‘gardener’ in the context of the magazine’s title did not mean what it does today. [i.e. an amateur gardener - someone with a garden of their own which they enjoy cultivating themselves usually without much assistance] instead it invariably meant. a professional gardener, usually somebody trained, who might also be termed a ‘practical gardener’ rather than anyone doing it merely for pleasure. His magazine was aimed at, and in part written by such people., and with its publication Loudon can be seen to be the first real professional horticulture journalist.
The Gardener’s Magazine ceased publication on Loudon’s death at the end of 1843 but long before then had been imitated by several rival journals including ones edited by Joseph Paxton and George Glenny. This led to fierce rivalry, both personal and professional. Plagiarism was rife on all sides, with Loudon himself not exempt, since he often re-used material from his books or ‘borrowed’ from the Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London.
The Gardener’s Magazine gave Loudon a regular platform to sound off not only about matters horticultural, but also to promote his views on a whole range of social issues. He reported on local horticultural societies and the proliferation of new imported plants which were being offered for cultivation by commercial nurseries. He developed an international interest in garden design and reported on foreign and domestic affairs relating to agriculture and horticulture. He travelled round the country giving accounts of landed estates, gardens and nurseries he visited and, never ashamed of expressing his opinions, commenting, often very trenchantly, on how they could be improved. All this was mixed with articles advocating decent housing for the labouring class, a national system of education, and even a prototype green belt around London. Underlying it all was an enthusiasm for scientific experiment, innovation and the sharing of knowledge. The Gardener’s Magazine became a real forum for debate and the exchange of horticultural ideas and practice on a national scale.
The success of The Gardener’s Magazine led Loudon to widen his field of work still further, although not as successfully. He began publishing the Magazine of Natural History in 1828 , Illustrations of Landscape-Gardening and Garden Architecture in 1830, and the Architectural Magazine in 1834. They ran until 1836, 1833 and 1839 respectively.
Not content with all this, he undertook a third continental tour round France and Germany in 1828, and in 1829 published his first botanical publication An Encyclopaedia of plants. This was another massive undertaking. 1200 pages long with “the figures of nearly ten thousand species” and including “all the plants indigenous, cultivated in or introduced to Britain.” The dense text, with its detailed cross-referencing was compiled by John Linley, the secretary of the Horticultural Society, and many of the illustrations were done by the son of James Sowerby, his early mentor. This was quickly followed in 1830 by Hortus Britannicus which was an even denser taxonomical catalogue of all British plants.
Loudon also reviewed books on all subjects and in March 1828 this included an anonymous novel called The Mummy , ‘a tale of the twenty second century’, which had been published the previous year. The author had bought together political commentary, Egyptomania and an interest in futuristic technology. Clearly intrigued Loudon finally met the author, who to his surprise, since he had assumed it was a man, turned out to be a 23-year-old woman, Jane Webb, and seven months later in September 1830 he married her.
Unfortunately this article is not the place to talk about the immense contribution of Jane Loudon to the history of horticulture, particularly in the promotion and encouragement of women as writers, researchers, botanists and gardeners. She is still better known for promotion of her husband’s extraordinary legacy. She worked very closely with him on The Gardeners Magazine and served as his amanuensis for the rest of his life whilst also branching out into a writing career of her own.
After his marriage, and especially the birth of his only child Agnes in 1832, Loudon turned his attention to more domestic matters, particularly the interaction between housing and gardening where he advocated the suburban villa as the ideal domestic form. It was a continuation of his thoughts on social improvement, and he provided advice and instruction about the acquisition of the ideal home, and the pleasures of family life. Gardening was portrayed as something that could be undertaken by all the family, although of course different branches and kinds of work were more suitable for men or women or children or hired help. So first there was A Manual of Cottage Gardening in 1830, then a Supplement to that in 1833. Later that year he published An Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture and Furniture which ran to 1500 pages with thousands of engravings , and in 1838 The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion, which included a lot of material ‘recycled’ from The Gardener’s Magazine.
It did not stop him writing botanical books as well. Indeed 1838 saw the publication first of Hortus Lignosus Londinensis; or, a catalogue of all the ligneous plants ... cultivated in ... the neighbourhood of London, and then his largest-ever project, the 8 volume Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, a survey of all the trees grown in Britain whether native or exotic. This was to remain the standard, indeed the only, comprehensive work of its kind until William Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles in 1914. The Arboretum was a real achievement, but even with Jane acting as amanuensis, the expenses of employing seven artists and self-publishing left Loudon £10,000 in debt, from which he never recovered.
Despite all that writing Loudon still found time to design gardens. In 1835 he designed a small public garden in Gravesend and then in 1839 he was commissioned by Joseph Strutt, a Derbyshire industrialist and philanthropist, to create "a pleasure ground or recreation ground for the town, "to offer the inhabitants an opportunity of enjoying with their families, exercise, and recreation in the fresh air, in public walks and grounds devoted to that purpose." This was to become Derby Arboretum.
There was, as one might imagine dealing with someone of Loudon's determined temperament, a certain amount of tension between Strutt who wanted a pleasure ground with trees in it, and Loudon who wanted an organised scientific collection of trees and shrubs for the purpose of scientific and educational study -as defined by himself of course! The compromise that was reached resulted in Loudon getting his organised collection of trees but only on condition that two open spaces, completely devoid of them, were left "where a band might stand and people might dance." Derby Arboretum opened in 1840 and it will be no surprise to know that by the end of the year Loudon had published a book about it. In 1841 he designed the gardens at Castle Kennedy near Stranraer in Galloway.
All the time, however, the debt loomed over the Loudons and so to pay them off, they continued to write for what, luckily for them, a seemingly insatiable market of garden-loving readers. Jane proved more than a match for her husband’s prolific writing skills, producing a string of books on botany and gardening specifically aimed at children and more importantly the emerging women’s market. She also started The Ladies Gardening Magazine. Meanwhile John Claudius produced an edition of Humphry Repton’s complete works on Landscape Gardening “with ... introduction, ... analysis, biographical notice, notes and index.” Needless to say this contained Loudon’s very pronounced opinions on Repton’s ideas – not always that favourable to the great designer and he set out very clearly his own theory of garden making, which included the ‘invention’ of what he termed the ‘gardenesque’ style. And as if editing The Gardener’s Magazine was not enough journalism, in 1840 he also took over editing the horticultural section of his rival paper The Gardeners Gazette for several months.
All this work reduced their debts to £2600, although Longmans, their publishers assumed the rights to all titles as a security pledge against the costs of publication. In the end it was Jane who was to pay off all the debts after John Claudius had died.
Loudon had long been fascinated by the rituals around death and burial. He had designed the bizarre tomb/monument for his parents that still stands in the churchyard at Pinner. He now began work on what was to be his last great project: the design and creation of that great Victorian invention the ornamental cemetery.
The horrific state of city churchyards particularly in London had led to their widescale closure in the early decades of the 19thc and the creation of a huge wave of new privately-run cemeteries outside urban boundaries. Most of these new burial grounds were being laid out in the style of parks but Loudon was highly critical of this. He argued that cemeteries should combine moods of quiet repose, solemnity and grandeur and have a mixture of architecture and landscape that was instantly recognisable, and never be mistaken for a public park or a country residence. Cemeteries should also be considered to have a moral and educational purpose, where "architecture, beauty, scale, and style were not only connected with aesthetics , but with fitness for function” so when he was offered the chance to design a cemetery in Cambridge in 1842 he jumped at it.
His design for Histon Road cemetery had a strict grid plan to economize on space, with the graves laid out to reflect the hierarchy of Victorian society: larger border plots to accommodate the more substantial and decorative monuments near the paths and smaller plots for the poor buried on the outskirts, as was actually the way traditionally inmost churchyards. The cemetery was to be planted with specimen trees, mainly evergreens, laid out much more geometrically than would be the case in a park.
Unfortunately, by this time Loudon was quite ill and he was unable to supervise the implementation of the design although he did go on to write a series of articles in The Gardener’s Magazine on cemetery design criticising various aspects of the layout and management of many of the other cemeteries that had opened in preceding decades. These were of course then converted into a book in 1843 "On the Planting, Managing, and Laying out of Cemeteries. He then had two further cemetery commissions in 1843 one for Southampton 1843 and another for Bath Abbey, but again he was unable to oversee the construction of either. His book was to have a great impact on later Victorian cemetery design but was not to live to see that.
Taken ill at the end of 1842, Loudon continued to decline in health through 1843, although he continued working as best he could. He finally returned to his house in Porchester Terrace in December 1843 where he died of chronic bronchitis on the 14th. He was buried a week later in Kensal Green, a park-like cemetery laid out with large sweeping named avenues rather like Pere Lachaise in Paris, with clumps of deciduous and evergreen trees many large monuments, not laid out on a grid pattern but placed where they will have the most visual impact the following week. I am sure he would not have approved!
Loudon's death left Jane still in debt, but a public meeting two months later raised funds to clear it for her, whilst the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, also offered an annuity of £100 a year. Nevertheless ,Jane remained in financial hardship and had to work editing and writing the rest of her life.
To sum up: John Claudius Loudon was a headstrong, opinionated, difficult, determined and one has to suspect probably rather deficient in humour too, but he was also an extraordinarily inventive man, a talented journalist and writer, and hard-working to the point of making the proverbial Trojans look lazy. He gave a real voice to professional gardeners and reached out to the vast and growing middle class becoming the the key figure in the rise of the ‘amateur gardener. He was all things considered a truly extraordinary man.
FURTHER READING - THE LOUDONS
Works by the Loudons
Almost all of John Claudius Loudon & Jane Webb Loudon's works are available as free downloads online:
Other works about the Loudons [not in any particular order]
I have written several pieces about various aspects of Loudon’s work:
Mr Loudon & a second-rate suburban villa https://parkandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/mr-loudon-a-second-rate-suburban-villa/
John Claudius Loudon…and cemeteries
John Claudius Loudon…and cemeteries continued
John Claudius Loudon…. and Greenhouse Technology
The Diffusion of Useful Knowledge: John Claudius Loudon and His Influence in the Australian Colonies, Colleen Morris, Garden History, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 2004), pp. 101-123
Sites of Knowledge and Instruction: Arboretums and the "Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum", Beryl Hartley, Garden History, Vol. 35, Supplement: Cultural and Historical Geographies of the Arboretum (2007), pp. 28-52
Melanie L. Simo, Garden History, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Autumn, 1981), pp. 184-201
John Claudius Loudon and the Birmingham Botanical and Horticultural Society's Gardens at Edgbaston: 1831-1845, Phillada Ballard, Garden History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer, 1980), pp. 66-74
'Combining Science with Recreation and Pleasure': Cultural Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Arboretums, Paul Elliott, Charles Watkins, Stephen Daniels, Garden History, Vol. 35, Supplement: Cultural and Historical Geographies of the Arboretum (2007), pp. 6-27
The Commercial Garden Necropolis of the Early Nineteenth Century and Its Critics, N. B. Penny, Garden History, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Summer, 1974), pp. 61-76
'The Gardeners Gazette' 1837-1847 and Its Rivals: Will Tjaden, Garden History, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1983), pp. 70-78
JS Curl, 'John Claudius Loudon and the Garden Cemetery Movement', Garden History, No 2, 1983
Gardening Women: Their Stories From 1600 to the Present, Catherine Horwood (2010)
Judith Page, “Learning How to See: Maria Elizabeth Jacson’s Botanical Dialogues (1797) and the Tradition of Women’s Botanical Writing.” The Female Spectator 12 (Spring 2008).
John Claudius Loudon and the Early Nineteenth Century in Great Britain, Elisabeth B. MacDougall, editor, Dumbarton Oaks Colloquia on the History of Landscape Architecture, 1980
Mr. Loudon's England: The life and work of John Claudius Loudon, and his influence on architecture and furniture design, John Gloag, (1970)
In Search of English Gardens: Travels of John Claudius Loudon and His Wife Jane, John Claudius Loudon and Priscilla Boniface (1987)
Houses of Glass: A Nineteenth-century Building Type, G Kohlmaier (1991)
The Loudons and the Gardening Press: A Victorian Cultural Industry, Sarah Dewis, (2014)