Jane Loudon: The Ladies’ Gardener

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Horticulturalist, novelist and journalist Jane Loudon Webb (1807-1858) faced financial difficulty for much of her life and turned to writing to make a living.  Her father died when she was seventeen, leaving her without financial security but a few years later she enjoyed literary success with her novel “The Mummy! Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century”, published anonymously in 1827.  The tale explored ideas of future technological and scientific developments and among the many who admired the book was writer and horticultural expert John Claudius Loudon.  They met following his review of her book and were married within the year.

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Once she had entered her husband’s horticultural world she wanted to immerse herself in the subject and learn more, so she attended lectures by John Lindley and reviewed books for “Gardener’s Magazine”, a publication edited by her husband. She wanted to assist him in his work but recognized she had a great deal to learn about gardening in order to do so. This experience of being a complete beginner was invaluable in her later writings on horticulture. She went on to write nineteen books on natural history and botany, many of them instructional and aimed at the female amateur. The volumes also demonstrate that she was a talented botanical artist. Her work was of a serious nature, offering sound and practical advice to the aspiring Victorian lady who may not have been used to wielding a spade!

Guildhall Library holds two of her works; both are in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners. The first is a small volume entitled “Mrs Loudon’s Instructions in Gardening for Ladies” (reference GC 3.3) published in 1840 and partly written because the family were in financial difficulty and extra income was needed. The book was popular, with over 1300 copies sold on the day it was published. In her introduction she explained why she felt she was particularly qualified to publish this kind of instruction manual:

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“I think books intended for professional gardeners, are seldom suitable to the wants of amateurs. It is so very difficult for a person who has been acquainted with a subject all his life, to imagine the state of ignorance in which a person is who knows nothing of it…Thus, though it might at first sight appear presumptuous in me to attempt to teach an art of which for three fourths of my life I was perfectly ignorant, it is in fact that very circumstance which is one of my chief qualifications for the task.” (vi)
The second book by Mrs [Jane] Loudon at Guildhall Library is a lavishly illustrated volume called “The Ladies’ Flower Garden of Ornamental Annuals” (1842) (reference GC 1.6).

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In her Preface she explains that this volume is to be the first in a series…

“which, when completed, should contain coloured groups of all the most ornamental flowers in British gardens, as well as those grown under glass, as in the open air. The present work, which is the first of this series, comprises the hardy and half-hardy annuals…”

Each of the series was designed to be complete in itself but the whole series was to form the most “comprehensive illustration of the kind of plants belonging to the different orders, than any other work which has yet been published”.

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Although some of the phrases she uses would not be welcomed by present day male or female gardeners, she was countering contemporary arguments that the Victorian woman lacked the strength for gardening, or that it might be improper for her to engage in the pastime:-

“…a lady, with the assistance of a common labourer to level and prepare the ground, may turn a barren waste into a flower garden with her own hands.” (i)

Seed sowing, transplanting, training and tying in plants, deadheading and gathering seed for next year’s crop are “all suitable for feminine occupations; and they have the additional advantage on inducing gentle exercise in the open air.” (i)

From the introduction to “The Ladies’ Flower Garden”

In the introduction she makes the case for planting annuals; it is a worthwhile activity, it is cheaper and can be enjoyed over several months. Planning your garden in this way also suits people who rent their property for just a year as they see and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

She goes on to explain the arrangement of the work…

“I shall first give the botanic and English names, next the synonymes [sic], if any, and then the names of the modern English books in which the flower has been figured. To this, I shall subjoin a short botanical character, which will be followed by a popular description, with the geography, history, properties and uses, culture, and in short, everything worth knowing of the plant.” (iii)

She may have celebrated the sowing of annuals but she had strong words for those tempted to overdo things…

“An important feature of this work will be the directions for the culture of each flower…It is a common error, to suppose that all that is necessary to make a showy flower-garden is to sow the ground with a great many different kinds of flower-seeds…. “(iii)

and

“On looking into most flower-gardens, it will be found that most of the annuals are crowded together, each tuft having been left unthinned; and that the plants having been neither trained nor pruned, present, as they grow up, the most tawdry appearance, without either the grace and elegance of wild nature, or the trimness and neatness of art.” (iii)

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Her achievements were celebrated in a very practical way during the 2015 Hampton Court Flower Show with a garden designed by Jean Wardrop and Alexandra Stevenson called “A Growing Obsession – the Yardley London Perennial Garden” which was inspired by Loudon’s work.

Most of the images in “The Ladies Flower Garden” are annotated “Day & Haghe, Lithographers to the Queen”. Jane Loudon was the artist but her name does not appear on the illustrations. After her husband’s death she was again left in debt but continued to write and edited the weekly magazine “The Ladies’ Companion at Home and Abroad”. She was saddened when she was replaced as editor in 1851 following a slump in sales of the periodical. She died in 1858.

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian

All images from “The Ladies’ Flower Garden of Ornamental Annuals” of 1842.
Guildhall Library reference GC 1.6 (Please bring proof of your name and address with you).

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