SIL’s Early Modern Gardens Exhibition

Why should we in the compass of a paleLayout of Elizabethan garden

Keep law and form and due proportion,

Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,

When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,

Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,

Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,

Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs

Swarming with caterpillars?

Richard II, 3.IV

This month’s exhibition at the Shakespeare Institute Library is on Early Modern Gardens and features some wonderful early books on the subject and literary allusions to gardening, including a first edition of Andrew Marvell’s poem The Garden. Dr Jill Francis, one of the country’s experts on the subject (and part-time assistant at the library) explores this rich area of study.


The first practical gardening manual to be printed in English was Thomas Hyll’s A Most Brief and Pleasaunte treatise, teaching how to dresse, sowe, and set a garden, first published in 1558. It was reprinted many times, under a variety of different names, ultimately appearing as The Gardeners’ Labyrinth in 1577, a year after the author’s death.

However, Thomas Hyll was no gardener and the information in his books was taken from classical sources. During the late sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century a few more books were published by gardeners, for gardeners, with practical advice appertaining to English gardens. William Lawson’s A New Orchard and Garden was one such book, which proved extremely popular.

Paradisus Terrestris

Parkinson, Paradisus Terrestris

In 1629, John Parkinson produced probably one of the greatest gardening books of the period, Paradisus Terrestris, Paradisi in Sole; or, A Garden of Pleasant Flowers. Despite the somewhat pretentious title and the book’s expensive folio format, it was nevertheless a highly practical guide to gardening and the plants of the period, packed with advice and illustrated throughout.

As well as gardening books, herbals were another popular genre, the best and most well-known example being John Gerard’s Herball, first published in 1597, revised and reprinted in 1636 and still in print today. John Parkinson also produced a magnificent herbal, Theatrum Botanicum in 1640. The fabulously intricate and detailed title pages of these folio volumes are displayed in our exhibition.

Early modern gardens, as now, were an opportunity to demonstrate wealth and status. The primary function of any garden was a utilitarian one – to produce food and medicines for the family. However, anyone with the time and money could also use their gardens to create spaces filled with ornament and flowers in which to walk or sit, to admire the layout, enjoy the fragrances and, increasingly, to marvel at the new ‘outlandish’ plants, such as tulips, being brought into England from across the seas. To be able to fill your gardens with such exotic delights was a luxury only to be indulged in by the privileged few.

Kind thanks to the Cadbury Research Library for lending us their gardening treasures for this exhibition.

Dr Jill Francis, Library Support Assistant, Shakespeare Institute Library


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