Camellias at Chiswick House
To step into the elegant camellia filled glasshouse at Chiswick House during the next couple of weeks is to be transported to the rarefied world of early 19th-century aristocrats who revelled in exotic plants. In an age when it is possible to buy tropical plants from any old garden centre any day of the week it is salutary to reflect on how extraordinarily thrilling it must have been for those Regency plant collectors to gaze with wonder on the glossy thick leaves and the luscious flowers. ‘A two foot high camellia cost about £2,000’ says Clare O’Brien, Director of Chiswick House. It is not surprising that camellias were initially grown under glass as it was not known if they could survive outside as they were discovered in hot humid countries.
The three hundred foot long conservatory was designed for the ’Bachelor’ 6th Duke of Devonshire, by Samuel Ware (who later designed the Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly) and was completed in 1813 and was originally used for growing fruit trees, vines, peaches, figs with possibly a pinery at either end (for growing pineapples). In 1828 the Duke installed camellias, newly arrived in England from China, probably in pots. In 1855 he extensively updated the conservatory and it is believed that the present camellia beds date from that period. The ‘Bachelor’ Duke sounds an intriguing man with wide ranging interests including keeping a menagerie at Chiswick which included kangaroos, monkeys, emus, a Peruvian Ilama and even an Indian elephant.
There the camellias slumbered for the next 160 odd years but by the early 1990s the conservatory was in a parlous state (it suffered bomb damage during WWII) and alas the camellias had fallen prey to a virulent new strain of mealy bug. These nasty little creatures excrete a sticky substance on the foliage which leads to the growth of sooty mould resulting in lots of dead leaves.
What is probably the oldest large collection in Britain and possibly outside China and Japan was very nearly lost for ever. Happily three local members of the International Camellia Society (ICS) rescued the plants and the conservatory was painstakingly restored in 2009/10. Herb Short of the ICS scoured the ships’ logs of the East India Company and discovered that many of the plants were the oldest and rarest to be found ‘a library of first editions’.
The thirty two camellias are very different and it is thrilling to think of the link with the past that many of them have. Among my favourites were ‘Pompone’ brought from China to Kew in 1820, sometimes also known as ‘Kew Blush’; ‘Elegans’ probably planted in the conservatory in the 1830s and originated in 1823 by the Vauxhall nursery of Chandler and Son, as a seedling of ‘Anemoniflora (brought from China in 1806); and ‘Gray’s Invincible’ raised in 1824 by Mr. Press, gardener for Edward Gray, a London linen draper.
Until the 13th March entrance to the glasshouse is free so rush along and feast your eyes on these glorious ducal camellias. And if you fancy growing one yourself the little ‘pop-up’ shop is selling heritage camellia plants propagated from the Chiswick collection. This enterprising initiative is part of a conservation programme suported by the HLF, in collaboration with the ICS, camellia expert, John Price of the renowned Cornish garden, Tregothnan, and the noted specialist camellia nursery Trehane. I sadly could only manage one to carry one home on the tube and train: – ‘Incarnata’ originally brought from China in 1806 by Captain James Pendergrass of the East Indiaman Hope for the ship’s principal owner, Sir Abraham Hume as a present for his wife.
I was also struck by the friendly ambience created by the delightful volunteers who clearly take great pride in the glasshouse and its remarkable plants.
Watch out for forthcoming events at Chiswick House which include the first ever London season of the acclaimed Giffords Circus from June 30th– July 18th.