Great British garden-makers: John Claudius Loudon

J. C. Loudon was an eminent Victorian. He personified that moral force, thoroughness and desire to fill every moment with useful productivity that seem to us the hallmark of the 19th-century man of distinction. His name is largely familiar nowadays through his prodigious output of publications: his Encyclopaedia of Garden-ing alone went through six editions in 20 years.

When he arrived in London from his native Scotland in 1803, Loudon’s intention was to establish himself as a garden designer in the Picturesque mode. He was successful in this at first, but an attack of rheumatic fever, whose consequences were to dog him for the rest of his life, brought
a change. From 1806 onwards, he became a reformer, urging on his readership the need to rationalise their estates, their finances, their communities. His output is exhausting merely to browse, rooted in his lifelong habit of working through the night.

Loudon travelled across Europe in search of novelty and excellence, critically reviewing his experiences at length in his Hints on the Formation of Gardens and Pleasure Grounds, Remarks on the Construction of Hothouses or The Different Modes of Cultivating the Pine-Apple. His pioneering Gardener’s Magazine was similarly didactic, pressing the professional gardener to raise himself by self-education.

At the same time, Loudon urged higher wages and better accommodation for the gardener. This zeal for improvement can be seen in his garden designs. Having begun as a disciple of the Picturesque, with its enthusiasm for variety of ground and controlled prospects, Loudon’s style became increasingly focused on the display of plants as specimens. As plant introductions poured into the country from foreign expeditions, he promoted the idea of the arboretum as a means of displaying individual tree species in informal groves, with each tree given room to develop its natural form, labelled with scientific name and place of origin, like a butterfly in a museum.

When Loudon was approached by the liberal industrialist Joseph Strutt to lay out a pleasure ground for his workforce, this was a project that brought together his many talents and preoccupations. The park was surrounded by railings to suggest inclusiveness, and its flat surface was broken up by ridges of soil, along which were planted labelled tree specimens. The Derby Arboretum, opened in 1840, expressed Loudon’s desire to provide opportunities for leisure, education and moral improvement, and became the prototype for public parks throughout the world.

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Loudon’s final great project was his illustrated catalogue of trees and shrubs, Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum. He was determined that this magnum opus would be superbly illustrated, and invested huge amounts of care into its production. The result was definitive, but ruinously expensive. Loudon found himself obliged to increase his output still further, and famously died in his wife’s arms, dictating another moneyspinner. It was a measure of his reputation that a committee of worthies, including Dickens and Paxton, immediately formed to pay off his debts.

1783 John Claudius Loudon was born in Cambuslang, Lanarkshire, the son of a farmer.
1790s He became an apprentice at Dickson and Shade’s Edinburgh nursery in 1798, studying agriculture, botany and chemistry at Edinburgh University at the same time.
1800s In 1803, Loudon arrived in London, where he met Sir Joseph Banks and Jeremy Bentham. In the same year, he published his first article, proposing improvements to London squares, and made proposals for Lord Mansfield’s estate at Scone, followed by influential pamphlets on agricultural improvements.
In 1804, he exhibited three landscapes at the Royal Academy. In 1806, however, he suffered an attack of rheumatic fever, ominously resulting in a fixed knee and a contracted right arm. In 1808, he took up the offer of a lease on a rundown 1,500-acre farm at Great Tew, Oxfordshire, where he formed an agricultural college for landowners’ sons and farm bailiffs.
1810s By 1811, Loudon had made a fortune of £15,000 and moved to 42, Pall Mall. He embarked on a long European tour, but found on his return that his banker had lost his capital
in bad investments, so he had to start again. From 1816, he developed his theories on wrought-iron curvilinear greenhouses, from which others made highly successful businesses, but Loudon saw little benefit.
1820s Loudon’s right arm was broken at the shoulder in a botched cure, and was later amputated. He emerged from the operating room dictating his latest work. In 1822, he published his best-known book, the Encyclo-paedia of Gardening. Five further editions followed, each radically
different from the last. In 1823, he designed and built his own house at Porchester Terrace, Bayswater, with its signature ‘domical conservatory’ facing the street. In 1826, he launched the pioneering Gardener’s Magazine, a forum for professionals.
1830s In 1830, Loudon married the Gothic/science-fiction writer Jane Webb, who became his secretary (and wrote numerous books for a new market of ‘lady gardeners’). Their daughter Agnes was born in 1832. In 1838, he published The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion and, in the same year, Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, at a disastrous initial loss of £10,000.
1840s As Loudon struggled to rescue his finances, his output burgeoned still further. In 1840, his influential public park, the Derby Arboretum, opened. In 1842, he designed the Histon Road Cemetery in Cambridge, assisted by the architect E. B. Lamb, and the following year published
his standard work on the subject, On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries. By now, however, Loudon’s own health was in terminal decline as lung disease set in.
1843 J. C. Loudon died in his library at home in Porchester Terrace. His wife, Jane, later wrote that ‘he was always most anxious to promote the welfare of gardeners… he laboured not only to improve their knowledge, and to increase their temporal comforts, but also to raise their moral and intellectual character’.