Anarchist by nature

Stars of the gardening world gathered this month to open and celebrate their stunning new museum. Pattie Barron meets its unconventional director
Essex gardens, created by Beth Chatto
© GAP Photos/Rob Whitworth
The spectacular Essex gardens that plantswoman Beth Chatto created from wasteland is the subject of the museum's first retrospective show (www.gardenmuseum.org.uk)
At last, gardening has its own museum: an exciting space in the centre of London that will not only showcase our horticultural past but also the present, providing retrospectives of leading garden designers and a platform for lively debate.

The new Garden Museum, launched on Tuesday 18 November, replaces the former Museum of Garden History; significantly the “History” has been dropped, along with the three decades of make-do partitions inside the 14th century church of St Mary-at-Lambeth.

Until last August, when the museum closed for renovation, you could go inside and inspect heritage tools alongside the stained-glass windows.

Outside, in the graveyard, you could admire the tomb of the Tradescants, the 17th century father-and-son plant hunters, and the knot garden of antique plants, created by the Marchioness of Salisbury.

'Gardening is described as Britain’s most popular leisure activity; I see it as our most popular creative activity'



The museum, firmly locked in the past, had atmosphere by the spadeful. “It was charming. But few people came,” says director Christopher Woodward, who was brought in two years ago to blow off the cobwebs and, quite simply, change the museum’s direction from backward to forward.

The new interior of the Garden Museum
© David Grandorge
The new interior was assembled in Switzerland, brought over and slotted into the ancient church
Now the museum is worth visiting for its innovative new interior alone, not to mention the programme Woodward has planned. His brief to the architects, Dow Jones, was that there was little money - the museum has no government cash - and the construction needed to be quick.

“We couldn’t afford to stay closed for more than three months,” says Woodward. “And it had to be built so that not one nail touched the original walls.”

Dow Jones came up with a pre-fab system that was assembled in Switzerland, carted over in two big lorries and assembled in weeks. The juxtaposition between old and new architecture is stunning. “Essentially we’ve slotted a modern museum into a medieval church,” says Woodward.

The wide-open space downstairs will be kept for events. The new mezzanine gallery will house the museum’s permanent collection and an extraordinary collection of vintage seed packets, postcards and photographs which include, says Woodward, the best views of London gardens over the last century.

They were gathered for 30 years by volunteer curator Philip Norman, who lives in the church’s 14th century belfry and is considered one of the museum’s chief assets.

“Gardening is described as Britain’s most popular leisure activity; I see it as our most popular creative activity,” says Woodward. His past is in museums and he is aware of the different challenges presented by a museum for gardeners.

Christopher Woodward
© RHS Neil Hepworth
The Garden Museum's director, Christopher Woodward
“Only a tiny percentage of the crowds at the National Gallery will have painted a picture,” he points out. “Here, though, the great majority of visitors will have gardened. That completely changes the relationship to what is on display: the audience is participatory, not passive.”

Woodward might not be a horticulturalist - at 39 he’s at the age when gardening is supposed to kick in, and is a recent convert - but he doesn’t need to be.

The new programming committee comprises garden-world greats such as designers Penelope Hobhouse, Tom Stuart-Smith and Dan Pearson.

For the first retrospective, they have chosen wisely: Beth Chatto, our greatest living plantswoman. Visitors will be able to feel the soil - mud and gravel - she struggled with to create her spectacular Essex gardens; they will be able to open up her diaries, see her ideas, influences and planting plans, even sniff the same air, because Chatto has also contributed her own heady, home-grown potpourri.

Although the Chatto exhibition continues until April, Woodward is already thinking of the next several, including one on the Dutch influence in garden design, notably Piet Oudolf’s looser style of prairie planting.

“We need to realise we can no longer just be exporters of ideas, we need to be importers, too,” he says. “When the Americans visit the museum they say, ‘You guys have gotta wake up. You’re no longer leading the world in garden design.”

Beth Chatto
© GAP Photos/Jerry Harpur
Beth Chatto's ideas and influences will be on show
Woodward’s office is behind a fabulous carved wooden door that has been there since Tudor times. Creative meetings, however, will be held in a garden shed in the grounds, covered with a living green roof and walls.

Woodward has cajoled Lambeth council to give them a little land across the road, and is proud that this will be the first staff allotment. “So if any of us feel grumpy, or stuck, we can go and dig up potatoes. You can see people’s mood changing when they garden.”

Woodward, an anarchist by nature, is a keen member of London’s guerrilla gardening group, and recently celebrated Apple Day by planting an apple tree in the illicit lavender field on Westminster Bridge Road.

The harvested lavender is sold in sackcloth bags stamped with www.guerrillagardening.org in the museum’s shop: a far cry from the old versions of sprigged cotton. The Garden Museum’s future is in safe hands.

Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Road, SE1 (www.gardenmuseum.org.uk).

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