Some Thoughts on Lecturing

by Charles Fox

Charles was a guest speaker at the Association of Gardens Trusts Annual Conference hosted by the CGT in Falmouth, September 2007.

I first gave my lecture on the history of the Fox family gardens in the winter of 1995 to the Garden History Society at the Society of Antiquaries in London. On the vague notion that it is better to say ‘yes’ to every reasonable business opportunity offered, it is always with some fear and trepidation that I then find myself having to perform; and this lecture was no exception especially when I found, at the last moment, that my fellow lecturers were, amongst other lions, Lord Cavendish, Lord Aberconway and Mrs Verey.

I need not have worried; since then I have come across garden lecturers who, incredibly to me, lecture without slides (perhaps that is because they are for the real experts who recognise plants by bark or leaf rather than anything else). I have also discovered, ashamedly, but I hope not too late, that any one worth his salt and who really knows his subject, should be able to lecture without referring to notes.  There is however one exception to this and that is where there is a need to give lengthy quotes. Because of this, and because most of you are familiar with Cornish gardens, or at any rate magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas, this article is going to be less pictorial than some. This is not a comment on your horticultural knowledge being limited to only these genuses; indeed one of the rewards of taking the cognoscenti around gardens is that they very often know much more than the professionals and can come up with some valuable suggestions.  All that is intended is to provide a glance of a few quotes that are generally omitted from my lectures.

One of the other lessons I have learnt over the years but especially since that first lecture in London, is that there are other gardens besides Cornish gardens, and others abroad. That is one reason why visiting lecturers and organised garden visits are so important and why every now and again I take myself off on an ‘educational’: on one such trip I went to Mount Stewart in Northern Ireland and there saw not just one or two large leafed rhododendrons, but an entire grove, and a Mediterranean hillside rather than border etc. It puts things into perspective; and throughout my lectures on Cornish gardens I am always keen to say how Cornwall experiences the fashions of gardening just as much as anywhere – although I do believe the county is unique in being a repository for plants from all over the world growing in such profusion and to such size in such a favourable climate.

I also like to include a diversity of photographs which demonstrate different aspects of Cornish gardening history: the ancient inland manor houses – the advent of stately homes precipitated by the industrial revolution; the effect of the plant hunters and ensuing hybridisation; Victorian pomposity and market gardening.

Last September the Association of Garden Trusts visited Glendurgan but was not able to include in its tour a visit to Penjerrick: another of the three main Fox family gardens (the third being Trebah). Some of the most eloquent garden literature I have come across stems from the time of Penjerrick’s heyday.

Before that, however, in 1800 Greatwood, which belonged to Joseph Fox, was described not without charm, as follows:  ‘the situation and embellishments of this charming retreat render it a place of uncommon interest. The moss house, walks, and resting seats, are constructed with that superior taste, and philosophic arrangement, which give a varied beauty to the multiplicity of objects which nature and art have here assembled together. The avenues, which open through the woods, let in a diversity of pleasing objects, romantically situated on the juts of Falmouth Harbour; and the variety of trading vessels which are constantly coasting up and down the river, and give it an air of gaiety and general cheerfulness’.

In 1824, Hitchins wrote about Tredrea, which belonged to Charles Fox of Trebah, ‘The plantations raised around the abode of Mr Fox, thrive with peculiar luxuriance and give variety to the diversified scenery which arises from the effects of labour and machinery’ meaning the foundry works where 400 people were employed in the family’s foundry business at Perran-ar-worthal.

Penjerrick was, and continues to be, in a league of its own.  In 1837 Barclay Fox having recently acquired it from his father Robert Were, the eminent scientist, wrote ‘the loveliness and interest attached to the spot for old associations invest it with a charm to my mind far beyond any pecuniary advantages I can hope to reap from it’.

In 1871 The Gardeners Chronicle reported ‘Mr Fox has constructed a cave like passage which leads into what may be termed an underground grotto with a sky light. It is here the filmy ferns are seen enjoying their situations as if they were in a state of nature, whilst the dripping fountains and pools of golden carp add to the beauty of this unique promenade’.

In 1874 The Gardener’s Chronicle again reported  ‘Thousands of Devonshire and Dorsetshire coombes and Isle of Wight chines possess equal and superior advantages of accessory scenery, but I doubt if there is one which can compete with Penjerrick in a certain indescribable effect, the effect of landscape gardening carried out with the most exquisitely cultivated taste…..a sweet influence of peace and quiet rest, perhaps the consequence of the unpretentious humility everywhere manifest which conquers one’s inmost heart…..It is this view of a species of fairyland which has made the reputation of Penjerrick; it will certainly repay a journey of many hundred miles for a glimpse of this view alone’.

In 1897 Hamilton Davey wrote…. ‘At Penjerrick, which every Cornishman knows as a bit of the tropics come up for an airing, the judicious introduction of an exotic flora has produced a scene as ravishing and as romantic as any bit of fairyland. If anywhere in Cornwall, it is here that the wizardry and abandon of nature are felt to the full’; continuing in 1899, ‘aisles of dense cypress, dainty corners and fern fringed dells, chaos of Himalayan rhododendrons mixed with plants from New Zealand and branches from the Rockies……ideas rather than objects have been planted at Penjerrick, nowhere marred by tame uniformity. From spick and span gardening Penjerrick is a haven of aesthetic rest’.

Perhaps the most significant of all Hamilton Davey’s musings is when he wrote ‘How much Cornwall owes to Penjerrrick is a question she may never learn to answer quite justly’. Penjerrick had the ideal microclimate for the propagation of tender species which the plant hunters were bringing back to this country; and there is written evidence that the Foxes were in correspondence with the great sponsoring families who were looking for suitable recipients.

These quotations from over 100 years ago may be very descriptive but are nonetheless romantic writing at its best; what I do think is more interesting is that many of the notes, here and elsewhere, indicate the benign climate of the past. No doubt there were gardener’s boys who wheeled potted oleanders and citrus fruit trees in and out of glass houses, but generally the impression is of an almost Mediterranean climate where exotic things thrived out of doors. So now with global warming I wonder if we should be feeling encouraged rather than discouraged, and if we should be pushing horticultural boundaries climatically; certainly what was possible on Tresco thirty years ago is now becoming possible on the mainland – and there are examples of this at Trebah and also the small garden at the Minack theatre.

In 1897 Hamilton Davey wrote in the Journal of the Royal Institution, five years after Howard Fox had brought home banana trees from Ceylon, ‘At Rosehill’, one of the Foxes’ town houses, ‘the banana, the citron, and the orange have been grown in the open for several years; dracaenas 20-25 ft high are of common occurrence; and from one end of the grounds to the other surprises in the way of plants fall so thick and fast that the visitor really begins to doubt his senses. Without any protection abutilons have reached a height of 20 ft, Nicotiana calossia 14 ft, and Datura sanguinea a diameter of 14 ft and a height of 9 ft’.

Of Robert Were Fox and Rosehill a French visitor wrote, ‘The orange, date and lemon trees pass the winter here in the open air, grow freely and bear ripe fruit. I saw a tree there from which 123 lemons were plucked in one day, all excellent and much sweeter than those sold at the shops. Mr Fox has naturalized more than 300 exotic species’.
Grovehill House, another family property in Falmouth, received the Banksian medal for acclimatising 223 foreign plants probably in the oval wall garden where orange and lemon trees grew.

History does not recall which Fox said, ‘A pear is at its best for twenty minutes: during which time it may be seen to glow with a peculiar radiance by all who care to look’, but certainly this is a question I often ask my own children at the breakfast table, ‘is this pear glowing with a peculiar radiance?’ There is an odd psychology whereby those who attend illustrated lectures sit in anticipation of identifying the next slide; and if all else fails at least, hopefully, I can rely on the ‘peculiar radiance’ which is the magical property of the projector.

Many of the above quotations are from my book Glendurgan A Personal Memoir of a Garden in Cornwall published by Alison Hodge  £12.95 ISBN 0-906720-35-4