What do the following museums have in common: Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, The Queen’s House in Greenwich, and the Garden Museum in Lambeth? The answer is a good news/bad news one: all three are about to undergo refurbishment, extension or improvements, but as a result all three are having to close down for a time.
Kettle’s Yard Gallery (though not the house) is being extended, and is now closed for about two years; the Queen’s House is being refurbished to celebrate its 400th anniversary, closing on 27 July and re-opening on 4 July 2016; while the Garden Museum will close to the public on 31 October and re-open in 2017.
I would urge you to visit the Garden Museum before the end of October, especially if you haven’t been before.
The attractions are numerous: first, its setting, in the church of St Mary at Lambeth, next to the gatehouse of Lambeth Palace, surrounded by the garden/graveyard in which you can see the grave of William Bligh of the Bounty as well that of John Tradescants senior (c.1570–1638) and junior (1608–62), gardeners and plant collectors.
The Tradescants lived in Lambeth,
where the father established, and the son continued, a museum based on the European model of the aristocratic cabinet of curiosities, but which was open to the public in return for an entrance fee, and subsidised the family income from gardening and plant collecting.
Contemporary descriptions such as that by the traveller Peter Mundy in 1634 were admiring: the family’s contacts among seamen and explorers, as well as their own plant-finding expeditions, had led to the accumulation of antiquarian and anthropological items, such as the cloak of the Native American chief Powhatan, as well as botanical ones.
After John junior’s son (another John) had predeceased him, he bequeathed the collection to his friend (and financial backer) Elias Ashmole, but there was a legal wrangle over a second will providing for his second wife, and rumours of skulduggery by Ashmole, who of course left the collection in his turn to the University of Oxford, where it remains.
John junior was a friend of John Aubrey, who may have written the epitaph on the top of the family tomb:
‘Know, stranger, ere thou pass, beneath this stone / Lie John Tradescant, grandsire, father, son / The last dy’d in his spring, the other two, / Liv’d till they had travelled Art and Nature through, / As by their choice Collections may appear, / Of what is rare in land, in sea, in air, / Whilst they (as Homer‘s Iliad in a nut) / A world of wonders in one closet shut, / These famous Antiquarians that had been / Both Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen, / Transplanted now themselves, sleep here & when / Angels shall with their trumpets waken men, / And fire shall purge the world, these three shall rise / And change this Garden then for Paradise.’
St Mary’s church (which had been ‘restored’ in the nineteenth century) was deconsecrated and scheduled for demolition in 1972, but the realisation by John and Rosemary Nicholson in 1976 that the church of the Tradescants might be lost led to the inspired idea for a museum of garden history. Their enthusiasm and energy led to the restoration of the church and its garden to provide a research and exhibition centre for all aspects of gardening (oh, and a good café and shop for plant-related books and other items).
At present the church displays a small collection of gardening tools and other ephemera through the ages, and holds exhibitions (usually excellent) on various aspects of garden history. The final one before the temporary closure is ‘Gnome & Away: Secrets of the Collection’. We are enticingly offered ‘Over a hundred views of domestic back gardens …, providing a personal record of British garden history over the last century. From a hanging installation of tools, to a costume display, to a wall showcasing the Museum’s growing collection of works of art this exhibition celebrates the assembling of a collection over the last three decades which has become a unique record of a nation’s relationship with its gardens.’
This is the reason for the new building works: only a very small proportion of the museum’s permanent collection, acquired by purchases and generous donations over the last 35 years, can be displayed in the current space. When the work is completed, there will be five new galleries, with room for such delights as a specimen of the legendary vegetable lamb of Tartary,
the microscope slides of the Veitch family, a cat-shaped bird-scarer from the first quarter of the 20th century (rather more realistic-looking than some of its modern equivalents),
a season ticket for Vauxhall Gardens designed by William Hogarth,
William Robinson’s cloak,
and the most expensive watering can in the world.
You can become a Friend of the Garden Museum (a real bargain if you are (a) interested in gardens and (b) within striking distance of London; or you may just want to support the work of the museum). You receive free entry to the museum, a beautifully produced and fascinating journal, the possibility of excursions, and reduced entry to talks by luminaries such as Dan Pearson, whose miraculous Chatsworth garden was the highlight of this year’s Chelsea, and who will be designing the new garden. There is also a scheme to ‘adopt’ (in the sense of funding the restoration of) an object in the museum (details here).
So, as I said, the bad news is that the museum will close at the end of October, but the very good news is that within two years this wonderful institution will be back, bigger and better than ever.