The Museum of Garden History

IAN COLLINS Gardening was not a relaxing hobby for the John Tradescants – father and son who left East Anglian roots to travel the known world of the 1600s in search of precious plants. Their legacy is everywhere, but Ian Collins savours their London memorial.


Over the past hectic year the few fruits of my green-fingered passion have stuck out like sore thumbs. While plants still edge my City of London balcony, my tiny Suffolk plot has largely gone from sight beneath a building site and my allotment is all but blighted.

Gardening is an abiding joy to which I will return when time, space and energy allow. In the meantime, I'm reading up on some of the great masters and mistresses of the field and revisiting their beds and borders.

A perennial pleasure of London is the Museum of Garden History in and around the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth - that ancient little architectural gem beside the main gateway to Lambeth Palace which, despite its location at the heart of Anglicanism, was in peril of religious redundancy and abandonment only a few decades ago.

Well, even an atheist like me believes we are most likely to encounter whatever it is we call the life-force - God may be a good word - in a garden. So this museum to natural creation, and painstaking cultivation, is perfectly placed.

Looming above the book and gift shop there's a memorial window to two green giants from an old East Anglian family - the father-and-son John Tradescants whose namesake trust (the origin for the museum) was founded 30 years ago.

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Four stained-glass roundels show Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Trads themselves, an Oriental garden and the garden at St Mary-at-Lambeth.

Depicted plants are some of the many the two Johns introduced after dare-devil explorations abroad - scarlet runner bean, aquilegia, Virginia creeper and, of course, tradescantia.

The design also features the sundial of Hatfield House - whose garden the elder John created for Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury - and it all flows and flourishes above a quotation by Capt John Smith, governor of Virginia and friend of the younger John, from 1608: “Adam and Eve did first begin this innocent work, to plant the earth to remain to posteritie. But not without trouble and industrie.”

Trouble and 'industrie' indeed. Born at Corton, near Lowestoft, in 1570, the elder John became gardener to statesmen and ultimately to kings. He was a Renaissance man whose services to botany and monarchy involved perilous voyages to Russia's Archangel, the Barbary Coast of North Africa (where he plucked the Algiers apricot from pirate lairs) and the battlefields of France.

The younger John added journeys to the colony of Virginia to boost the stock of plants and knowledge and weird and wonderful souvenirs taking the London of his age by storm. His official role as collector and emissary ended only in 1649, the year Charles I lost his head.

The stirring story of these two men has been told most recently by Jennifer Potter in the book Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants (Atlantic, £19.99). Never again let anyone say that gardening is dull.

In the entourage of the Duke of Buckingham, the elder John's duties included taking charge of the dandy's wardrobe during a continental mission to bring home the bride of Charles I.

He also served the wildly-ambitious duke - who was to be assassinated in the first waves of unrest finally culminating in civil war - by collecting a “Cabinet of Rarities” alongside the precious plants in his gardens in Hertfordshire, Dorset and The Strand.

Tradescant was allowed to keep duplicates of the stuffed birds and animals, seeds, shells and fossils, which helped to start the Musaeum Tradescantianum at his house in Lambeth. His son then added to the treasure trove and turned it into a leading attraction.

Popularly known as Tradescant's Ark, this cabinet of curiosities brought visitors flocking at the handsome sum of sixpence a time - the cost of the best seat in the Globe Theatre (before the puritans closed that rival south bank entertainment down).

The Trads thus set the pattern for future museums - in which marvellous objects were piled high and allowed largely to speak for themselves. It's only in very recent years that trendy designers have come on board to thin displays down to narrow themes and consign masses of marvels to basements and cupboards.

Certainly, the British Museum was founded and continues to be run along Trad(itional) lines. There's also the little matter of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford - great stuff gathered around a grotesque name.

Picture the scene of the crime. John Tradescant the younger and his wife, Hester, are weathering the puritan era, which has deprived them of royal and aristocratic patrons, thanks to thousands of sixpences and sales of prize plants from their Lambeth garden.

But they are fearful for the future - anxious to ensure that their 'industrie' survives for 'posteritie'. So they decide that Oxford University will be the best beneficiary and custodian of all their precious curios.

Then they invite for dinner one John Ashmole, a lawyer and fellow antiquarian who has taken great care to win their confidence. When food, conversation and wine have all flowed freely, the guest caps the jolly atmosphere by producing a document which he says will lay their worries to rest.

So, in front of witnesses and without troubling to read the small print, the couple sign what they believe is a pledge to the university. It is in fact a deed of gift to John Ashmole.

Dear reader, this is one of those inheritance sagas - like Bleak House - in which the lawyer gets the lot.

But the dodgy Mr Ashmole does at least make good the wish of the now distraught John and Hester and finally surrenders the collection to form what is now the Ashmolean Museum.

It should of course be called the Tradescant Museum. But there are many similar stories. Even America was named after the wrong man.

After touring the Museum of Gardening History - with its celebration of every green thing from aristocratic estates to allotment plots - I save the best bit until last: a wander in the blissful little garden

Here, between the seats, paths and box in knot patterning are many of the plants the Tradescants found and grew for us (and eerily unseasonal flowerings - like an agapanthus in full bloom in January).

And here, beneath a strange and splendid tomb commissioned by Hester to startle Restoration London, the two men are at rest. Rather beautifully eroded by acid rain, relief scenes on their monument show empires crumbling in tempests and earthquakes but trees holding firm - as if flora should and shall inherit the earth.

A nice idea. After all, plants please us and do not deceive us. Unlike people…

Next to the great John Tradescants there stands the tomb of Capt Bligh “who died beloved, respected and lamented”.

Tell that to the mutineers on the Bounty.

t The Museum of Garden History, Lambeth Palace Road, London, SE1 7LB, is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10.30am to 5pm (excluding Christmas week). Voluntary admission charge £3, concessions £2.50. Telephone 020 7401 8865, e-mail, website

t Tube station: Lambeth North or Westminster.

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