Brown’s plant list for Petworth, for example, is extensive. Meanwhile, the necessary production of fruit and vegetables for the mansion continued in a series of ever more splendid walled gardens. Presiding over the Chelsea Physic Garden, the indefatigable plant collector Philip Miller published the first comprehensive garden dictionary in English in 1731. Asked to recommend a head gardener for Princess Augusta, he sent her William Aiton, who would become the first superintendent of Kew.
But it was in the nineteenth century that the head gardener reached his apogee. He (always he) became a man of substance, highly respected if not generously paid. The best known among them, Joseph Paxton, rose from humble gardener’s boy to rub shoulders with the greatest in the land, becoming a knight of the realm, MP, railway magnate and media mogul, and, famously, designer of the Crystal Palace. Others, such as Donald Beaton of Shrubland Hall, Suffolk, and John Caie, gardener to the Duke of Bedford at Bedford Lodge, Kensington, were the Monty Dons and Alan Titchmarshes of their day, penning best-selling books and forming gardening taste by their writings in the new gardening magazines. They were figures of power and inf luence at the estates where they worked – P. G. Wodehouse’s Mr McAllister, who rules the roost at Blandings Castle, is not so very far removed from the truth.
The head gardener’s new kudos was the result of profound social change. At the end of the eighteenth century, the landed aristocracy consisted of some three hundred families, whose wealth and very substantial inf luence derived from the land. Fifty years on, the picture had changed entirely. Propelled by the Industrial Revolution, it was industry and commerce that were now the principal engines of wealth; a new middle class was enjoying both aff luence and increasing political clout; and the expansion of the British Empire, along with a series of technological advances, had wrought dramatic changes in taste.
Paradoxically, the aim of the newly wealthy was overwhelmingly to establish themselves among the landed gentry, giving rise to a frenzy of country house building. But the houses to which they aspired were no longer Palladian mansions af loat on a sea of rolling greensward, but generally more eclectic and highly decorated affairs. Rather than parkland, these were surrounded by increasingly elaborate gardens with formal terraces and fountains and urns, with broad gravel walks where you might stroll without getting your feet wet and f lower beds brightly replanted two or three times a year. Beyond, in the pleasure ground, might be rockeries and rose gardens, dells of Himalayan rhododendrons and all manner of exciting new conifers, for this was the age
14 HEAD GARDENERS