As we move into Spring with the promise of sunshine and fresh breezes, our thoughts turn away from the dark days of Winter. Our gardens begin to burst into life, as Spring bulbs break through to bring colour and joy, affirming our faith in the future.
Successful horticulture is a matter of careful planning, the gardener’s skill and Mother Nature.The creation and maintenance of an exquisite garden was part of the portfolio of interests that enabled the Rothschilds to take their place as country squires. It was expected of them as responsible estate managers, and was a means to display wealth, fashionable taste and attention to detail; a finely planted garden could be used to entertain both friends and business contacts, and a good kitchen garden ensured a generous table.
The gardens of the Rothschilds blossomed as their social status grew; Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839–1898) grew rare orchids at Waddesdon Manor, whilst his sister Miss Alice (1847–1922) planned the elegant parterre. At Halton, Alfred de Rothschild (1842–1918) grew exotic roses that were made to bloom out of season. At Aston Clinton, Sir Anthony (1810-1876) and Lady Louise (1821-1910) sowed the seeds of kindness through their philanthropy and at Tring Park, the careful management of the estate by the first Lord Rothschild (1840-1915) was to last two generations.
Today, the London suburb of Gunnersbury is firmly in suburban London, between Turnham Green and Kew Gardens. In 1835, the estate of Gunnersbury Park was purchased by Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) as his country residence, and a prime location to entertain both guests and clients. The original sales particulars which survive in the Archive describe the property as “a freehold estate, an elegant & magnificent mansion and a beautiful park comprising 75 acres.” Advertised with household furniture such as "a fine toned Finger Organ, billiard tables and exotics and rare Greenhouse plants", the estate clearly caught the eye of Nathan, whose offer of £17,000 (equivalent to £1.5 million today), was accepted. Although not as grand as many of the later Rothschild houses, Gunnersbury Park became much loved by the family, and it was to remain in Rothschild ownership for nearly a hundred years.
In 1850, Nathan’s son Lionel (1808-1879) took over the estate, enlarging the park in 1861 and adding a pleasure lake and boat house. Here, Lionel and his wife Charlotte (1819-1884) entertained on grand scale. Upon Charlotte’s death, the estate passed to their youngest son, Leopold (1845-1917) who enlarged the estate by purchasing the adjacent property in 1889 to provide extra bedrooms for guests. He transformed the gardens, creating a heath garden, an ivy garden and an Italian garden. In 1900, he created a Japanese garden, prepared with enormous care and expense, his especial pride. On one occasion he had been entertaining the Japanese Ambassador to lunch and was conducting his guest round his gardens. The Ambassador admired greenhouses and gardens and at last, after careful preparation, the Japanese garden was "burst open before him". He held up his hands in enthusiasm. "Ah!” he said, "wonderful! wonderful - we have nothing like this in Japan!"
A passion for horticultural excellence
An extraordinary number of innovations in the study, cultivation and display of plants were made during the Victorian period. At the same time there was an explosion of interest in gardening, which became a national obsession. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the Arts & Crafts style of Jekyll, Lutyens, Sissinghurst and Hidcote became popular. The ideas of ‘wild’ gardening and the creation of the ‘cottage garden’, both influenced the development of the mixed herbaceous borders that were advocated by Gertrude Jekyll from the 1890s. Her plantings, which mixed shrubs with perennial and annual plants and bulbs in deep beds within more formal structures of terraces and stairs, set the model for high-style, high-maintenance gardening until the Second World War.
The Rothschilds too, followed the fashions of the day, and gardens were a huge investment; in horticultural circles it used to be said that one could tell a man’s status by the size of his bedding list; 10,000 plants for a squire; 20,000 for a baronet, 30,000 for an earl and 50,000 for a duke. In the collection of the Archive can be found a small tan leather pocket-book, belonging to Thomas Hobbs, one of Leopold’s gardeners at Gunnersbury Park. Mr Hobbs would appear to have been a senior member of the garden staff; in 1900, Head Gardeners could receive a salary of £100 per annum (£12,000 today) and a young gardener at nearby Halton House earned 16 shillings a week (£93 today). The gardeners would have been responsible for ensuring a continuous supply of fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers from the estate throughout the year, regardless of the weather, and there was often an unspoken rivalry between Rothschild estates as to which could produce the finest specimens, orchids being a particular favourite. Often hybrids and new varieties were created and named after members of the family. Constance de Rothschild (1843-1931) recalled how the family valued the work of the garden staff at Aston Clinton: “My dear mother found much happiness in bestowing gifts of fruit and flowers on friends and neighbours… but fruit and flowers and luxuriant gardens are not evolved by the waving of a magician’s wand; they all need long and careful preparation, and to the gardeners who have produced these happy results, both in Bucks and Norfolk, my thanks are due.”
The entry in Mr Hobbs’ pocket- book for April 1895 gives an indication of the daily tasks a Gardener would have undertaken:
1st Potted Coelogyne (i)
3rd Potted 500 Carnations ‘Miss L de R’ (ii)
16th 12 Cattelyas Labiata bought in. (iii)
Macarthur had 110 Carnations ‘Miss L de R’
18th Pulled out Roses from back of Rose House
20th Potted 100 bulbs of Yellow Amaryllis and put in Cattelya House.
Poinsettia put in heat.
3 Passiflora Kermesina potted off – rooted in a fortnight (iv)
23rd Planted Roses in back wall of Rose House
29th Started potting young Carnations into 32
Mr Hobbs had to plan ahead, and in the following month, an impressive variety of Carnations, carefully chosen for their colour, were planted for later in the season:
2nd Finished potting Autumn flowering Carnations in 32; Euphorbia cuttings put in.
List of Carnations
Miss L de Rothschild (early batch) 416
Miss Jolliffe 48
Countess of Erne 18
Uriah Pike 26
Sir Henry Calcraft 50
Baron de Rothschild 9
Winter Cheer 80
Lizzie MacGowan 17
La Niege 21
Duke of Fife 12
President Carnot 24
Empress of Germany 15
Mrs Moore 4
Mrs Lewellyn 6
Miss L de Rothschild (late batch) 266
(i) a large-flowered variety of orchid
(ii) a variety of carnation possibly named after Leonora, Leopold’s sister
(iii) a variety of crimson orchid
(iv) a species of climbing plant thought lost for many years, until re-discovered in 2001
Rothschild gardens today
In 1917, Gunnersbury Park was inherited by Leopold’s son Lionel (1882-1942); Lionel purchased the Exbury estate in Hampshire in 1919 and from then on devoted his energies to creating his famous rhododendron gardens there. In 1925, Gunnersbury Park was sold to the Boroughs of Ealing and Acton for use as a public park and museum, both of which remain open to the public; further information about Gunnersbury Park and Museum can be found here
Exbury Gardens continues the tradition of the great Rothschild gardens. Read the Head Gardener’s blog for Spring here to find out how the gardeners of today create magical displays, and maybe pick up some top tips for your own garden!
RAL 000/296 Pocket-book of Thomas Hobbs.