On London's South Bank, the site of the medieval church St Mary’s serves as the final resting place of notorious 17th century gardeners and collectors John Tradescant the elder and younger, responsible for the introduction of the pineapple and the magnolia to Great Britain, and more recently, of their apt memorial: the Garden Museum. The re-discovery of the two gardener’s elaborate tombs in the 1970s initiated a drive to document and celebrate the history of garden design. Now in possession of a huge collection of horticultural artefacts, this museum is a unique celebration of two hugely important gardening figures and of the English garden.
The interior of the church makes for a novel lofty space to house the museum’s collection, with the graves of renowned antiquarian Elias Ashmole and soprano Nancy Storace keeping the permanent exhibition company. Located on a new elevated pinewood gallery, the collection of objects on display, including tools and paintings, offers an overview of 400 years of gardening history. And though brief, the exhibition sheds light on the essential and intriguing facts of horticulture, as an activity that has engaged all classes and genders throughout the centuries. This point is clearly illustrated by the inclusion of gentlemen's gardening tools, amongst other more familiar antique equipment on display, with one walking stick shown to double up as a nifty pruning knife, for an afternoon stroll amongst the shrubbery. Various scare-tactics for birds are also on show, including a Victorian model of a black cat complete with green glass eyes, serving as evidence of the universal problems that have always concerned gardeners.
But the collection becomes most interesting when it branches out from conventional documentation of gardening equipment to show more unusual items that show the different ways in which horticulture has been viewed through the centuries. A pretty impressive 1930s miniature lead garden set, featuring tiny beehives and rows of red-hot pokers, is very twee and seriously nostalgic for the play-gardens that children can construct and design.
It is a shame that only a small part of the collections are on display - something that the museum is seeking to rectify with more renovations - as there are apparently over 10,000 objects that the museum has acquired since its creation. There is the sense that, with a practice that has such an extensive history of design and cultivation, there are many more really unusual and intriguing artefacts that could be shown, and that could offer some interesting insights. The small selection is tantalising.
With this in mind, the garden in the old church yard is perhaps the museum’s strong point, as it works as a completely appropriate memorial to the Tradescants. Designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury, the graveyard has been made into a 17th century garden, much like those that the father and son would have created themselves. Alongside their notable decorative tombs the impressive central feature is an elaborate commemorative box bush knot, employing only plants that were available 400 years ago. This garden is a testament to the enthusiasm that saw the salvaging of the grave site in the 1970s, as the recreation of the antique garden draws attention a desire to document an often overlooked area of design. Already a unique and interesting site, this museum will be something really special once its collections are more fully displayed.