The Riverside Gardens of Thomas More’s London

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

C. Paul Christianson, The Riverside Gardens of Thomas More’s London (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2005), 160 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £25.00 (hbk), ISBN 0300109059

C. Paul Christianson’s special field of interest is the early book trade, which presumably drew him to the first maps of London with their abbreviated snapshots of long-lost, early Tudor gardens, eight of which the author links to one of the greatest men of the period, Sir Thomas More. Five of the gardens were ecclesiastical, created either for or by bishops, still the most powerful men in the first quarter of the sixteenth century: Lambeth Palace, Winchester Palace, Fulham Palace, York Place and Hampton Court (the last two for Cardinal Wolsey). The other gardens include the Tower of London, Bridge House on London Bridge and More’s own garden at Chelsea. Christianson discusses these gardens by location, beginning with the Tower, then travelling west along the Thames to Hampton Court; followed by chapters on the profession of gardening, tools, design, the uses of gardens and, finally, the uses of garden history. There are appendices with lists (‘memorials’) of gardeners and plant suppliers to Wolsey and Henry VIII.

Much of the garden history in this book is based on the work of others, particularly at the royal palaces. Still, it is good to see published the drawings that Warwick Rodwell did after his archaeological work at Fulham Palace (perhaps the most interesting survival of any of these gardens). Where the author comes into his own is the fascinating information he has gathered on Bridge House, whose accounts survive from 1461, providing detailed lists of plants, wages and responsibilities of the labour force, and ornamental features in the garden. Unfortunately, it is Christianson’s discussion of More’s own house and garden in Chelsea that is the weakest part of the book, largely because the author did not examine carefully enough the surviving visual records of that house, which was subjected to numerous alterations by subsequent owners. Johannes Kip’s view of c.1700, for example, shows a house far too sophisticated to have been built in the early Tudor period and a garden (and forecourt) of an even later date. The late sixteenth-century plan of a house and garden in the collection of the Marquess of Salisbury, illustrated twice, is not ‘anonymous’, but for some time has been attributed to the mason William Spicer, Surveyor of the Queen’s Works. It was probably not executed for Robert Cecil, but for his father, Lord Burghley, whose annotations are still visible on the plan and whose own ideas Spicer surely recorded. Thus, the innovations that Christianson attributes to More were far more likely to have been introduced well after his death.

Nonetheless, The Riverside Gardens of Thomas More’s London is a pleasant read and successfully evokes the bucolic and agricultural atmosphere of the Thames in the early Tudor period. The author’s discussion of garden tools, using illustrations from contemporary garden books and artefacts in the Museum of London, is engaging, as is his analysis of the ‘profession’ of gardening, well before the creation of the Guild of Gardeners in 1606. Especially noteworthy is the new evidence that women did more than just weed gardens and were recorded ‘making’ gardens and providing seeds and plants. There is no bibliography, although references can be found in the notes. Typical of Yale publications, the book is well-designed and generously illustrated, but the lack of original visual material has resulted in the duplication of images, as well as the inclusion of some rather dodgy Victorian ‘history’ paintings that really have no place in an academic book. But perhaps that was not what this was meant to be. Although the book has some information that will be of interest to garden historians, it is really aimed more at students of the life and times of Sir Thomas More, who the author clearly feels should give more thought to the importance and functions of gardens as a way to understand better the cultural, social and economic upheavals of the early Tudor period.

Paula Henderson

33:2 (Winter 2005)

Order this book through Amazon and earn some money for the Society

Search amazon.co.uk:

Search:
Keywords:
Amazon Logo

Search amazon.com:

Search:
Keywords:
Amazon Logo

Leave a comment