Fox Talbot’s Botanic Garden

Date posted: 1 December 2008  -  Permalink / Shortlink

Report by Sue Carter, Head Gardener, from PlantNetwork Newsletter No. 37, December 2008

Lacock Abbey was founded in 1232 as a nunnery for Augustinian Canonesses. It was deconsecrated in the reign of Henry VIII and transformed into a family home in the 1530s. In the nineteenth century, William Henry Fox Talbot lived in the Abbey and explored his passions for photography and botany. He combined these two interests in a series of early photographs of botanical specimens collected during his European travels. The Abbey grounds today derive much of their character from Talbot’s planting of native and exotic trees in the woodland garden, with naturalised spring bulbs and wild flowers.

When Fox Talbot came to live at Lacock in 1827, he converted the old stableyard into what he called his botanic garden. After Talbot’s death in 1877, the garden gradually declined and in 1944, the estate passed to the National Trust, by which time the botanic and kitchen gardens had been converted into allotments and the greenhouses pulled down. Since 2000, the National Trust has been working on a project to re-instate Talbot’s botanic garden, including building a range of greenhouses on the foundations of those used by Talbot. An archaeological survey and an old estate map has enabled the positions of flowerbeds and borders to be plotted. Unfortunately, despite Talbot’s pioneering work in photography, we have been unable to find any photographs of the botanic garden taken during his lifetime. But we do have a great deal of contemporary evidence for the plants he grew there, including correspondence from members of the family and garden staff, bills from seed merchants and nurseries, and letters from fellow botanists, including his uncle, Fox Strangways, who lived at Abbotsbury, and Hooker at Kew. We know that the botanic garden contained a stove, a zinc greenhouse, and another greenhouse; presumably these were the three sections of the lean-to glasshouse, as well as the free-standing ‘Great Conservatory’. We also know that the family enjoyed peaches and grapes from the greenhouses, so presumably Talbot’s collections had to fight for space!

The botanic garden is continually being developed, and the borders show a range of plants that represent some of Talbot’s interests. He collected many Mediterranean plants, including bulbs such as alliums. He also had an interest in grasses, which we like to grow for their late-season display. Since Lacock lacks formal ornamental gardens, the botanic garden is an important source of colour and interest for visitors. Beds are not all arranged strictly by botanical family, but we try to show closely related plants together. To this end, we have collections of geraniums, euphorbias, eryngiums, and verbascums. We aim to grow the unusual representatives of a genus as well as the more commonly grown ones.

We try to grow as many annuals as possible, which allows us to change displays all the time. We tend to grow species rather than cultivars, although some outstanding cultivars are grown. Vegetables are grown among the flowers: salsify, scorzonera and lettuce appear in the daisies, and leeks among the ornamental alliums. We like to try new things; as Talbot did, we ask people who are going abroad to bring us back seeds, and we’ll have a go at growing them!

We are also trying to tell the story of horticultural developments in the nineteenth century. To take one example, the flowering currant, Ribes sanguinea, caused a sensation when it was first brought from North America by David Douglas in the early nineteenth century, and Talbot’s family were thrilled by the new shrub with its deep pink flowers. It is now often despised as commonplace, but we think it deserves a second look, and grow it alongside other introductions by Douglas, discovered at the time when Talbot was creating his botanic garden.

Talbot believed that photography was a key instrument in helping us to appreciate plants and gardens. In 2009, more than 100 photographs from the International Garden Photographer of the Year 2008 competition are to be exhibited in the garden – a fitting celebration of both botany and photography.