1928 Diaries of Loyal Johnson

Thomas Rutter, a horticultural trainee at the Garden Museum and LGT Research Volunteer, views some of London’s historical green spaces through a different lens with a reading of the 1928 diaries of Loyal Johnson (1904-1999).

Over the coming year the RHS, in partnership with many County Garden Trusts across the country, will be telling the story of the American landscape architect Loyal Johnson, who toured England, Scotland and Wales in the summer of 1928.

Loyal, in the company of his friend Sam Brewster, visited many gardens including Great Dixter, Munstead Wood, Gravetye Manor, Chatsworth and many more, covering almost 1,500 miles by bicycle. Luckily for us, his diary is not only a gardening chronicle, but also a social and cultural history of inter-war Britain, full of amusing observations and astute reflections.

In mid-August 1928, Loyal and Sam arrived in London. Inevitably they visited the attractions – just as popular today as they were back then; they ambled inside the National Gallery, observed the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and toured Westminster Abbey. They also made their way to a branch of Woolworths – no longer to be found on the high street – to pick up ‘grub and utensils’; I only wish that this had been the brand’s slogan!

But Loyal, for the most part, seems to have been rather disappointed by London’s horticultural offerings. Their first stop was the Royal Botanic Society’s garden in Regent’s Park, described by Loyal as having very few visitors and a ‘poor collection of plants… scarcely any of them labelled’. Labelling, to Loyal, was essential! The Society and its garden – then found in the Inner Circle – existed until 1932, employing the gardener William Robinson from 1861 to 1866. Robinson was responsible for the garden’s herbaceous borders and specialised in British wild flowers; he would go on to publish his Wild Garden in 1870. By the time of Loyal’s visit the garden had fallen into a state of disrepair it was described as a site of ‘public embarrassment’. We can assume that by 1928, the Society knew the game was up; no lease had been secured, and closure was inevitable.

Fortunately, Loyal and Sam enjoyed their visit to Kew Gardens the following day, noting Kew as a ‘real park and botanic garden’. Loyal is foremost pleased that the materials are ‘well labelled’ – phew! He notes the vistas of the pagoda and the glasshouse canopy walkway.

The Rockery at Kew Gardens, around the time of Johnson’s visit

Hampton Court also pleased the American visitors, although they opted to travel by bus from King’s Cross, with Loyal observing that the buses in London seem ‘governed to 12mph’. Loyal was wowed by the vast vine, planted as a cutting in 1768 during the tenure of Capability Brown as Chief Gardener at Hampton Court; in 1928 the girth at the base was estimated at 6-8ft, fruiting prolifically, with bunches of grapes sold to the public for around 6 shillings per pound. The girth of the vine is now around 13ft at the base, although sadly no bunches of grapes are available to purchase.

Loyal and Sam went on to visit Crystal Palace Park, which it seems they found wanting, believing the park had been left to ‘dwindle’ and being ‘far from ship shape’. Joseph Paxton, the Victorian architect, had designed both the park and the Crystal Palace; the Palace was the main venue for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was then moved to Sydenham in 1852. By the time of Loyal’s visit, he found the paths were ‘grown full of weeds… and everything just seems neglected’. The Palace had fallen into disrepair in the early 19th century and was declared bankrupt in 1911, and many gardeners were conscripted into the Great War of 1914, never to return. The structure itself sadly burnt down in 1932, a few years after Loyal’s visit.
Loyal sadly didn’t visit – or at least didn’t record – any of Humphry Repton’s squares, dotted across London. He did find the ‘fine little garden’ at Staple Inn, which Dickens cites in Bleak House – perhaps this was the reason for Loyal’s visit. This little pocket of green can still be seen today, although only through a gate, as it is closed to the public.

References to the bad weather and heavy traffic make it clear that Loyal was not having the best of times in the capital; when he eventually leaves London at the start of September, he remarks that it ‘feels so good to get gone’. Loyal’s search for the quintessentially English – or British – country garden, was not, I hope, in vain, and I am sure he found what he was looking for elsewhere in the country. Certainly he found inspiration in his tour, returning to America to a successful career in landscape design and city planning.

Check the website for your local County Garden Trust over the coming year to find out more about planned events and exhibitions commemorating Loyal’s journey.