Opium Enriched Nineteenth Century Boston Merchant

Opium enriched nineteenth century Boston merchant –

Nineteenth century Boston merchant Thomas H. Perkins (1764-1854) cultivated a landscape at his country estate in Brookline, Massachusetts in the English landscape style.

This portrait of Perkins by Thomas Sully today hangs in the large first floor meeting room  of the downtown Boston Athenaeum. [below]

Boston Athenaeum’s portrait of Thomas Handasayd Perkins

Perkins became one of America’s first millionaires.

To increase his sale of goods to China Perkins found himself in the opium trade.

In 1815 he opened an office in Afghanistan in order to buy opium there to sell to China.

Stephen Harris wrote a great book called Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900, which covers the history of gardening.

Harris writes, “Ultimately, tea transformed English society, was a driver of the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century, maintained the opium trade with China and became a new crop for colonial India.”

He draws a link between the sale of tea and the sale of opium in the nineteenth century. Both made certain people quite wealthy.

Perkins’ Fortune

Perkins built his fortune by selling opium more than any other product.

At the same time he offered substantial financial assistance to local institutions like the Boston Athenaeum and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Today these institutions as well as Perkins School for the Blind, another of his charities,  have had to respond to this part of their history. People inquire how they could have accepted money made from selling opium.

In their book Merchant Prince of Boston: Colonel T. H. Perkins, 1764-1854 Carol Seaburg and Stanley Peterson write, “They cheerfully rationalized that the opium habit was not nearly so debilitating as the habit of drink.”

I don’t know what the word ‘cheerfully’ means here. I would say they saw opium as a business. It was, after all, legal in America at that time.

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Nineteenth Century Boston Merchant’s Country Estate

Nineteenth century Boston merchant’s country estate

Recently I attended a short talk at the Boston Athenaeum where a staff member discussed three Athenaeum portraits.

My intention in taking the train to participate in this session was to hear about the Athenaeum’s portrait of Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854).

Thomas Handasyd Perkins

Sending his ships primarily to China, Perkins became a wealthy merchant in nineteenth century Boston.

The speaker’s remarks at the Athenaeum centered on what a philanthropist Perkins had been for the city.

He founded the Perkins School for the Blind, which today is located in Watertown.

Perkins owned a downtown home, first on Pearl Street and later on Temple Place, but also escaped the summer heat to his country home in Brookline, a few miles from Boston.

Brookline Estate

Perkins purchased the land for his Brookline estate in 1799.

The Boston Athenaeum archives include a landscape plan for the Perkins’ Brookline property.

The plan illustrates the modern form of landscape gardening, begun in England in the eighteenth century.  This style, because it was the fashion, attracted wealthy Americans throughout the nineteenth century.

The landscape in his estate reflected the English style of rolling lawns, trees, and shrubs.

The extensive lawn, dotted with several greenhouses, takes up most of the space in the plan.  The plan shows a kitchen garden and orchards as well.

According to their book Merchant Prince of Boston, Carol Seaburg and Stanley Peterson write that the Perkins’ Brookline property, on the corner of Heath and Warren, became “one of the show places around Boston.”

There Perkins cultivated plants from around the world, including a grape-vine from England’s Sir Joseph Paxton, the head gardener at Chatsworth. Paxton became one  of the most important gardeners in England.  He also designed the Crystal Palace for the London Exhibition of 1851.

Like other prominent men of his time who owned such country estates, Perkins chose to design in the modern English landscape style.

Seaburg and Paterson note that at the Perkins’ garden, “Encouragement was given to ornamental gardening, with an eye to the art of landscaping.”

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Empress Josephine’s Dahlia Gift

Empress Josephine’s dahlia gift

I first came across the name Aime Bonpland, the nineteenth century French botanist, while I was researching the history of growing and selling dahlias.

Aime Bonpland (1773-1858) [Courtesy of Biografias y Vidas]

Bonpland (1773-1858) became the head gardener for Empress Josephine for ten years at her summer residence outside of Paris called Chateau Malmaison.

It is there Josephine insisted on the landscape style of the English garden of the eighteenth century. And so it was designed in that fashion [below]

View of the park at Malmaison [Gaverney]

Bonpland had been the travel companion in Latin America to Alexander Von Humboldt in their famous trip from 1799 to 1804. [below]

Humboldt and Bonpland in the Amazon rainforest (1850)

It is said that in the early 1800s Bonpland brought back from his trip dahlia seeds to present to Empress Josephine for her wonderful collection of plants.

Martin Kral writes in his well-researched paper “Of Dahlia Myths and Aztec Mythology: The Dahlia in History” that Bonpland and Humboldt saw dahlias growing all around them as they traveled in Latin America.

When he returned to Europe, Humboldt focused on writing his treatise on nature called Cosmos.

Andrea Wulf in her  book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World writes, “Humboldt’s botanical publications in Paris were delayed because Bonpland was now the head gardener to Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, at Malmaison, her country estate just outside Paris.”

Bonpland was a botanist, interested in plants, and slow to respond to Humboldt’s request he help with writing about what they had experienced on their trip.

It was Humboldt who would record their five years in Latin America, leaving a lasting legacy in his writing. He saw in the trip a new way to look at nature, a forerunner to what we now call ‘ecology’.

Humboldt and Bonpland were, however, a good pair for traveling together since they complemented one another with their individual skills.

Bonpland returned to Latin America after Josephine’s death in 1814.

 

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Reading Plants Like Late Nineteenth Century Climbing Rose

Reading plants like late nineteenth century climbing rose.

I am still filled with awe at the life and career of the nineteenth century plant hunter Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859).

He brought both science and imagination to his understanding of nature.

Andrea Wulf in her  book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World points out that Humboldt read plants.

She writes, “Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books — and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movement of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.”

Humboldt’s view of nature as one, and not divisions by various sciences, took the world of understanding plants in a new direction.

Now that I think of it, his idea of reading plants makes perfect sense.

A plant you have in your garden right now had a journey to that spot, a journey that may have been decades or centuries. It is not simply a sunflower or a lily of the valley.

They both express a time and a culture from which they originate.

I know they are beautiful in their own right, but they also reflect the history of gardening.

Take the rose as an example and one rose in particular.

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ became a popular rose with gardeners in the late nineteenth century.

Tradecard for the ‘Crimson Rambler’ Rose

It was introduced to the garden market in England in the early 1890s.

It had come from Japan to a nursery, first in Scotland, then in England.

Queen Victoria traveled to the nursery to see this special rose.

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ became a popular climbing rose for the next thirty years both in Europe and America.

Eventually it was replaced by other climbing roses, less inclined to problems of disease and insects.

Thus I see more than simply a rose. It represents to me the nineteenth cenutry nursery industry. Its origin tells us it was an exotic in gardens at that time.

The Peter Henderson Seed Company from New York used this rose in its catalog of 1896 [below].

The new ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose appeared here in this 1896 Henderson seed catalog.

‘Crimson Rambler’ was not just a rose. It represented as well the influence of the Victorian garden industry on homeowners everywhere.

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Nineteenth Century Botanical Art Book Illustrated Social Status

Nineteenth century botanical art book illustrated social status.

Botanical art reveals wondrous details about plants through the eyes of the artist.

Ronald King, former Secretary at the Botanic Gardens in Kew, in his book Botanical Illustration says, “It was not until 1530 that attention was turned fully upon the plant and an effort to draw it as it actually appeared.”

Once interest in the study of botany took off in the eighteenth century, especially with Linnaeus’ triumph in coming up with a system to categorize plants, botanical art also grew.

The English physician Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) became interested in botany and made botanical writing his career.

In 1807 Thornton published a book of botanical art with the title New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus. He wanted to promote the work of Linnaeus who distinguished plants by their method of reproduction.

The subtitle was Temple of Flora. The book became an important nineteenth century example of botanical art as well social status.

In his book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives Stephen Buchman writes, “The most famous work of botanical scientific illustration of all time is the unique Temple of Flora by Englishman Robert John Thornton.”

Thornton enlisted artists Peter Henderson and Philip Reinagle for most of the twenty-eight paintings in the book called a florilegium but did this painting of the cabbage rose himself. [below]

Cabbage Rose by Robert John Thornton from Temple of Flora published in 1807

King defines ‘florilegium’ as a book with portraits of flowers included for their ornamental value.

Buchman writes “The Temple of Flora is properly known as a florilegium, and such books were popular with the wealthy and privileged from the second half of the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century.”

Access to works of botanical art during Thornton’s time was restricted to the more educated and wealthy.

Eventually by the early twentieth century when printing became cheaper and mass education was the norm, books of botanical art were available to everyone.

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Nineteenth Century Formal American Landscape

Nineteenth century formal American landscape

Last week I drove to the Hunnewell estate in Wellesley, near Boston. Both Wellesley College, which is adjacent, and the Hunnewell garden overlook beautiful Lake Waban.

Boston financier and horticulturist Horatio Hollis Hunnewell (1810-1902) designed his landscape in the emerging English formal look of the mid-nineteenth century.

In his great garden history book Victorian Gardens Brent Elliott says  “By the 1840s England was entering what has been called ‘the heroic age of gardening.’ England was leaving the natural look of the landscape.”

Writing also about that period Alan Emmet says in her book So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens “Nature, no longer particularly revered [as in the 18th century], was now considered as merely the canvas upon which human genius could work wonders of artifice.”

In 1865 Hunnewell gave $2000 to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to encourage the art of landscape gardening. He knew and appreciated landscape design.

Hunnewell improved the landscape of his own property in Wellesley with a formal garden of evergreens.

The Hunnewell Pinetum, as his collection of evergreens was called, still stands today as a symbol of mid-nineteenth century garden design. It reflects the formal English garden of the same time which was expressed in the work of landscape gardener William Andrews Nesfield (1793-1881) and architect Sir Charles Barry.

Hunnewell once said “The laying out and planting of our country places are often the result of chance rather than any well-dedicated plan.” He had a plan, a formal design.

The nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs embraced the natural English garden style, later the gardenesque, and then the more formal design.

The seed company and nursery owners convinced us of the importance of both the natural and the formal landscape style, especially in parks.  Philadelphia garden writer and nursery owner Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine of 1865: “We all wish to see the public grounds of this country equal to those of Europe.”

America followed the English style of landscape both in private homes and in public parks.

Hunnewell contributed to the evolution of  America’s landscape gardening through his emphasis on a formal look in the garden.

Below you can see his garden of pines across the lake. [below]

The Hunnewell Pinetum with blooming azaleas in the background

A close-up view of the Pinetum shows the pruning that continues to this day. [below]

Well-trimmed evergreens still appear in the landscape of the Hunnewell Estate, adjacent to Wellesley College

Emmet says in her book “Hunnewell may have been the first American to follow English prototypes in reviving the formal garden.”

 

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When Cottage Gardens Became Fashion

When cottage gardens became fashion, thanks to Gertrude Jekyll.

In the early nineteenth century English garden writer John Claudius Loudon first recognized the cottage garden as an important form of gardening.

He was attempting to reach gardeners wherever they were.

It was not until English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) appeared on the scene however that we had people replicating the cottage garden in what was then called the ‘stylized’ cottage garden.

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens, “From the old cottage garden Gertrude Jekyll borrowed the charm of natural simplicity and from it she produced a garden style. The deliberate practice of ‘natural’ simplicity in gardening, including rock gardening, at last made the cottage garden self-conscious.”

What is important here is that Jekyll became the artist who gave form to a garden she called the cottage garden.

it was her interpretation of the cottage garden for the middle class.

Thus the cottage garden became a ‘style’ of gardening, or as Hyams writes, a stylized garden.

Welford on Avon, Warwickshire

Hyams writes, “The designer of a stylized cottage garden in the old manner must begin by putting aside curvilinear layout – derived at many removes from the serpentine designs of Capability Brown – in the shaping of paths, lawn-edges and the edges of borders, and go back to straight-line geometry and hard edges.”

The style was anything but the long flowing lawns of Brown that had distinguished the English garden in the later part of the eighteenth century.

This much smaller garden included climbers like clematis and roses, perennials like lily of the valley and phlox, lavender as hedges, annuals, peonies, and roses like ‘York and Lancaster.’

We witness here the birth of a garden fashion.

It has lasted to this day.

We still think of the cottage garden as an old familiar relative.

We know it well. It seems to have been around forever.

It is in reality the interpretation of Gertrude Jekyll that we share in its ‘stylized’ form.

Hyams writes, “The great gardener, borrowing sweet disorder from the cottager’s garden, returned it to him enriched with new plants, but stylized.”

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Cottage Gardens Finally Recognized

Cottage gardens finally recognized.

Everybody loves the cottage garden. It holds a mystique of a garden, limited in space, but with plants galore, mostly flowers.

There were cottage gardens in England for centuries.  If you define the term as the garden of the worker, at the time of the monastery garden in the Middle Ages, for example, the townspeople who knew the monks probably received plants from them for their own gardens. That was a cottage garden.

During the time of the landscape revolution in eighteenth century England, it was only the garden of the aristocrat, or wealthy landowner, that was discussed in poetry, articles, and books.

The term ‘English garden’ meant at that time the landscape of the gentry.

It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that the cottage garden began to be seen as an essential form of garden.

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens  that the two garden writers “John Claudius Loudon and his wife Jane can fairly be said to have created the nineteenth century suburban garden which, in the long run, influenced the shape and planting of the country cottage garden too.”

When the Loudons recognized in their writing the importance of gardens other than those owned by the wealthy, the cottage garden became an important topic in garden literature.

The Loudons opened the door to an appreciation for gardening by social classes other than the aristocracy.

Hyams says, “The Loudons, the horticultural press, and the horticultural societies brought the cottager gardener into the modern age of gardening.”

It was no surprise then that the magazine Cottage Garden began in 1848.

It was when the Loudons wrote for suburban gardeners and cottage gardeners that gardening changed forever.

Garden writers learned from all styles of gardening including the middle class and the worker.

They wrote for anybody who gardened.

Cottage gardens finally became an important topic.

 

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Walled Garden Origin Spands Centuries

Walled garden origin spands centuries.

Recently I have been reading about the connection between culture and flowers.

What I have discovered is that flowers have played a different role in cultures around the world over the centuries.

Some countires, like Africa, once had little little interest in flowers, probably because their main concern about plants centered on agriculture for such a long time.

In the process I also discovered a history of the walled garden, which developed over centuries and contact with various cultures.

My source has been Jack Goody’s book simply called The Culture of Flowers.

 

Goody writes, “The enclosed garden or hortus conclusus of twelfth-century Europe looked back to Biblical sources but was modeled in part upon Eastern, and ultimately Persian, examples revealed to the West during the Crusades as well as travelers in Sicily, North Africa, and Spain.”

When I visited the historic gardens of England, like Rousham from the 18th century, I saw an enclosed garden. [below]

 

Rousham’s Walled Garden

When I was in the walled garden, I felt like I was in another age and time.  The enclosed feeling meant relief and escape, as well as privacy.

Goody writes, “While the walled garden of Europe had other roots, Islamic models in southern Spain, Sicily and the Mediterranean were important for the revival of the culture of flowers in its form, its contents and in its attitudes towards their use.”

Many classical English gardens built such a walled garden, often to grow vegetables and herbs.  Flowers were eventually added to this garden as well.

Even George Washington’s home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, included a walled garden.

Washington admired the modern English garden, often featuring a walled garden, long a tradition by then.

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Goddess Flora Protects Flowers

Goddess Flora protects flowers.

Recently I saw the film Wonder Woman.  The superhero’s name was Diana Prince, or rather Princess Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.

I loved this fantasy movie built on a comic book heroine.

I saw some connection in the film to our fascination with gods and goddesses, even iin the garden.

In Roman mythology Diana was the goddess of the hunt, the moon, and nature. She was associated with wild animals and woodland.

In eighteenth century England there was a love of classical Greek and Roman writing about horticulture and agriculture. In the landscape Temples and statues appeared that shared in that classical tradition.

Henry Hoare’s Temple of Flora (1744-1746) at his grand garden Stourhead still stands today as one shining example.

In his book New Principles of Gardening (1728) English landscape gardener Batty Langley listed the names of gods and goddesses that would be a fit subject for a statue in the garden.

He wrote, “There is nothing adds so much to the Beauty and Grandeur of Gardens, as fine Statues; and nothing more disagreeable than wrongly plac’d”.

Then he named the statues that would be appropriate for areas of the landscape like open lawns, woods, fruit-gardens, and orchards

For the flower garden he recommended a statue of  Flora or Cloris, goddesses of Flowers.

Here is an early image of Flora, goddess of flowers. [below]

Flora, goddess of flowers, by  Sandro Botticelli (Florence, 1445-1510)

Flora, in Roman religion, was the goddess of flowering plants. Titus Tatius who ruled with Romulus is said to have introduced her cult to Rome.

Romans considered Flora the one who would provide the blooms to flowering plants so they would thrive, grow, and reproduce.

Flowers were so important to the Romans that they inspired a goddess to provide for them and stand as their champion against draught and other plant disasters.

Flora’s temple in Rome stood near the Circus Maximus. Her festival, called Floralia, was instituted in 238 B.C. The celebration included floral wreaths worn in the hair much like modern participants in May Day celebrations.

A representation of Flora’s head, distinguished only by a floral crown, appeared on coins of the republic.

Paintings of Flora since that time make such a crown an essential element in depicting her.

In 1731 Sir John Clerk of Penicuik wrote a poem called “The Country Seat” about the gardens and estates of England.

In the poem he writes, “”Where Flora with a Knot of gaudy Flowrs may dress her lovely head.”

 

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