London Museum Challenge #14-#15: Garden Museum/Red House
July 15, 2013 § 2 Comments
With two hot, sunny weekends in a row, I’d have been a fool not to take advantage – so last Sunday I hopped off the bus just before it crossed Lambeth Bridge and entered the gates of the Garden Museum.
The Garden Museum (my A-Z is old enough to have it marked as ‘Museum of Gardening History’) is the first (and maybe still only) of its kind in the world, and it seems fitting that not only is it located in London, the capital of a nation of gardens and gardeners, but particularly that its quarters are the (now deconsecrated) church where the Tradescants – gardeners and plant collectors extraordinaire – are buried. (The grandiose tomb of John the Elder and John the Younger sits at the edge of an enchanting Elizabethan knot garden, of which more below.)
So what’s in the museum? Paintings, prints and photographs, gardening tools from the late 16th century to the present, old seed packets… and yes, a collection of garden gnomes. (I was slightly disappointed not to see any reference to the travelling garden gnome in Amélie or the group of pranksters who inspired it, the Front pour la Libération des Nains de Jardin, but I suppose you can’t cram every bit of garden gnome history into a smallish text panel.) If you thought looking at a bunch of old trowels, secateurs and gardening clogs was boring, think again. It’s a fascinating slice of social history that you’d never get in a more general historical museum.
The museum’s quarters are a double-edged sword. The shell of the church is strikingly beautiful, and I especially admired a modern stained-glass window dedicated to gardening that sits quite harmoniously with the others, but at the same time, I had the sense that the fairly limited display spaces only allow the exhibition of a tiny fraction of the collection. They’re currently raising funds for expansion and renovation, and I hope they’re successful.
The only disappointing part of my visit was the special exhibition – this one devoted to the garden designer Dan Pearson. I hadn’t heard of him before I got to the museum (which is perhaps more a comment on my ignorance than on his abilities, as he’s apparently one of the most eminent designers working today) and didn’t come out very much the wiser about his work. I’d have liked to see plans and sketches, get an idea of how he thinks and works. What I got was a case full of memorabilia all jumbled together, a couple of videos showing a few of his gardens, and another filmed interview with the man himself. That said, I couldn’t help but wonder if the exhibition just underscores some of the limitations of a museum of gardens (i.e. nothing that can be shown in it will ever take the place of the gardens themselves).
Obviously the best way of pondering the problem was to get some tea and cake and take it into the garden, so that’s exactly what I did. The garden was fragrant and drowsing in the sunshine. The plants are all species either discovered by the Tradescants or grown by them in their nearby garden. It was such an oasis of peace it was hard to believe busy Lambeth Road was less than twenty yards away.
The Red House is another oasis in unlikely surroundings. When William Morris commissioned it in 1859, the land it sits on was in the Kentish countryside, far enough from London that five years later the distance from home to workshop was one of several factors that caused him to reluctantly say goodbye to the place. Now Bexleyheath has been swallowed up by Greater London and although that means the Red House is now easily reached by train, it also means that you alight from the train and are immediately surrounded by drab, anonymous suburbia that probably has Morris spinning in his grave.* The dispiriting walk from the station was made worse by a general lack of trees (it isn’t even green and leafy suburbia) which would be bad any time of year but which the baking heat yesterday made me really resent.
This makes the sensation of walking through the gates even more uncanny: cliché as it sounds, visiting the Red House really does feel like stepping back into the past. I’ve seen plenty of photos of the big redbrick edifice over the years but walking through the orchard and gardens – planted with the flowers and plants that inspired so many of Morris’s designs – and through the door into a shady, cool, medieval space (well, medieval design married to all the mod cons of the mid-19th century)… there’s no substitute. Even if the interior isn’t exactly as it was in Morris’s time, there’s enough of his work – stained glass, painted tiles, wallpaper, furniture – to give a real sense of the man and his work.
The Red House has been a National Trust property for only ten years and as such, it’s a work in progress – only about half the rooms are currently open, and extensive conservation work is underway. (I couldn’t help being slightly annoyed at the anachronistic wallpaper in several of the rooms – designs that Morris created well after he moved out!) Some of the recent (re)discoveries include wall paintings by Burne-Jones, part of an unfinished embroidered wall hanging made by Jane Morris, and the original decorative pattern on the drawing room ceiling.
There also lurks a surprise in the painted ceiling over the staircase… a smiley face.
It was painted during Morris’s time (paint analysis by conservators has proved that), artist unknown – was it Morris? Rossetti? Swinburne? Someone else? The volunteer I asked said she was sure it was Swinburne, a great practical joker. Whoever did it, it’s a salutary reminder that Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites weren’t quite as serious as most of their work would lead one to believe.
Tally: 15 down, 8 to go
*Am I now going to be getting irate comments from the residents of Bexleyheath? I hope not…