Landscapes Created by Women Gardeners

Margaret King, Maria Precedo and Jo Roll, from the LGT’s Research Group, select snapshots from five centuries of London landscapes created by women gardeners, illustrators and landscape architects

Entrance to Commonwealth Institute site from Kensington High Street with Sylvia Crowe flagpoles, August 2002 (Photo: Sally Williams)

1654 Lady Brooke’s garden in Hackney is deemed to be ‘one of the neatest and most celebrated in England’ by John Evelyn, and Samuel Pepys later praises its orange trees, exotic plants and labyrinths.
1699 Towards the end of the century, Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, starts to create one of the finest stocked gardens in London at Beaufort House in Chelsea. She receives seeds from all over the world, cultivates, identifies and catalogues more than a thousand rare and exotic plants, and compiles an important herbarium now housed at the Natural History Museum. The estate is portrayed in a 1699 engraving by Kip.
1739 Taking rooms in Swan Walk next to the Apothecaries’ Garden (now known as Chelsea Physic Garden), Elizabeth Blackwell draws, engraves and hand-colours five hundred medicinal plants. The illustrations are published in A Curious Herbal, raising enough money to pay for her husband’s release from a debtors’ prison.

The Voysey Garden in North Kensington
Emslie Horniman Pleasance Gardens
(Photo: Justina Burnett)

1840 Whilst living in Bayswater, Jane Loudon argues that women can dig, prune and design flower gardens just as well as men, in a series of illustrated books with titles such as Gardening for Ladies. A Blue Plaque in Porchester Terrace commemorates Jane and her husband John Claudius Loudon for their horticultural work, which ‘gave new beauty to London Squares’. The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden is dedicated to Jane’s friend Louisa Lawrence, whose garden in Drayton Green, Ealing, is declared by John to be ‘unquestionably the most remarkable of its size in the neighbourhood of London on account of the great variety and beauty which has been created’. Lawrence wins numerous medals for her garden and is one of the first women members of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
1878 Having won admission to the men-only Crystal Palace School of Landscape Gardening and Practical Horticulture, Fanny Rollo Wilkinson becomes the first female landscape gardener and lays out over seventy-five public gardens in London, including Meath Gardens in Bethnal Green and Myatt’s Fields in Camberwell for the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA).
1896 Kew Gardens becomes Britain’s first national garden to appoint women gardeners – Annie Gulvin and Alice Hutchins. Both are graduates from Swanley Horticultural College, the first college to offer science-based horticultural studies to women,
heralding ‘a triumph of brains over brute’ by opening up a male-dominated trade to women.

Myatt’s Fields Park, Café
(Photo: Colin Wing)

1905 Dr Lilian Clarke becomes one of the first women Fellows of the Linnean Society. Clarke created the Botany Gardens at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, which continue to be used by the school today for garden-based learning.
1914 The Voysey Garden in North Kensington opens, with an explosion of colour and form from more than a hundred flowering plants and shrubs in a central bed designed by Madeline Agar. Agar spends almost 25 years greening London’s streets, churchyards and garden squares for the MPGA. She also creates and teaches a Landscape Architecture course, where one of her pupils is Brenda Colvin; Colvin later works as Agar’s site assistant on the World War I memorial garden on Wimbledon Common, planting a grove of fifty oak trees in concentric rings around an austere stone cross.
1929 Colvin co-founds the Institute of Landscape Architects and later becomes its first woman President, closely followed by Sylvia Crowe. Agar, Colvin and Crowe are all celebrated as much for their writings on garden design as for their work.
1930 Selfridges’ roof garden opens in Oxford Street with a pergola, pools, lawn and sculptures designed by Marjorie Allen.
1962 Sylvia Crowe develops a landscaped entrance to the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington featuring a ‘modernist’ use of concrete, a water feature with a channel, fountains and jets crossed by a bridge, and a secluded shaded garden of lawns and shrubs with an avenue of limes. Along with the Selfridges roof garden, this was a ‘must-see’ sight in London; both are now lost.
1985 Arabella Lennox-Boyd designs
a roof garden at No 1 Poultry with far-reaching City views. She reinstates a Gertrude Jekyll flower border in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, described in her book Private Gardens of London, and later landscapes the space around the Serpentine North Gallery in Kensington Gardens with grasses threaded through a wave of tiered buxus and tumbling herbaceous plants at the rear.
2012 The gardens at the Olympic Park in Stratford open with planting
co-designed by Sarah Price, celebrating different habitats from across the world that have been a major source of plants for gardeners in Britain.

With thanks to the LGT research volunteers for their hard work and original research.

Further Reading:

  • Collens and Powell eds., Sylvia Crowe, Landscape Design Trust Monographs No 2 (1999)
  • E Crawford, Fanny Wilkinson: London’s Landscape Gardener The London Gardener Volume 23 (2019)
  • S Dumpelmann and J Beardsley eds., Women, Modernity and Landscape Architecture (Routledge 2015)
  • S Edwards, Interview with Dame Sylvia Crowe, Landscape Architecture Magazine vol 76 No2 (1986)
  • K Fitzsimon, Nine decades, nine inspiring women in landscape architecture, Landscape Journal Issue 3 (2019)
  • C Norwood, Gardening Women: their stories from 1600 to the present (Virago 2010)
  • A Meredith, Horticultural Education in England, 1900-1940: Middle-Class Women and Private Gardening Schools, Garden History Journal 31, 1 (2003)
  • L Newman, Madeline Agar (18741967): from lady gardener to landscape architect, Garden History Journal 48, 2 (2020)
  • M Precedo, Helen Colt, London Landscapes (Summer 2021)
  • J Roll, Searching for Sylvia in London: Sylvia Crowe DBE (1907-1997), garden designer and landscape architect, The London Gardener 25 (2021)
  • T Way, Virgins, Weeders and Queens (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2006)