John Claudius Loudon, botanist, city and landscape planner, garden and cemetery designer, author and garden magazine editor, was born on the 8th of April, 1783.
That the ‘father of the English garden’ was born in Scotland shouldn’t be too surprising. The Scots have always been an example to the English. Why else, over the centuries, would they have coveted the land and its rule? John Claudius Loudon was the Scottish born pioneer of horticulture and gardening, without whom the modern garden may not ever have materialised. If not for Loudon, we probably wouldn’t have had the pleasure of watching Charlie Dimmock on our TV screens or the decidedly dissimilar pleasure of gardening with Alan Titchmarsh. Loudon was the Titschmarsh of his day, and his work as a journalist and author of articles and books on the pleasures of growing plants and visiting parks made gardening accessible to people at all levels of society. However, the first horticulturist of his day was more than a ‘C-list’ celebrity.
Loudon was born the son of a farmer, in Cambuslang, and allowed his budding talent for gardening to grow, making flower beds in a wee garden patch his father had given him. With that beginning, his desire to be a landscape gardener was cultivated and, from the age of fifteen, he was employed as a draughtsman and assistant to a landscape gardener. He also studied chemistry, botany and agriculture, for four years, at the University of Edinburgh. Later, he established one of the earliest agricultural colleges, at Great Tew Park, in Oxfordshire, which he ran until 1811. In that endeavour, one biography described Loudon as the “Triptolemus of England” – Triptolemus being the character from Greek mythology who taught the Greeks how to plant and reap crops.
In 1803, Loudon headed down to London to introduce “more of the picturesque” into the English landscape. He promptly established his own landscape gardening practice and it was also at this time that he started to write. His first book, published in 1804, was the heftily titled, ‘Observations on the Formation and Management of Useful and Ornamental Plantations, on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening and on Gaining and Embanking Land from Rivers or the Sea’. Not for him the short sharp title, almost getting the entire introduction on the dust jacket. Later on, in 1822, Loudon published his great work, ‘Encyclopaedia of Gardening’, which was so popular, due to its all encompassing comprehensive nature that it went through nine editions. Then, in 1826, Loudon founded his successful periodical, ‘The Gardener’s Magazine’. Initially published quarterly, it continued for nineteen years, by which time it had become a monthly journal.
Loudon was the first major advocate of the provision of public parks for 19th Century England. Amongst his works devoted to the parks cause was an extremely far sighted design for a ‘green belt’ proposal for London, which he introduced in an article called ‘Breathing Places for the Metropolis’, written in 1829. Throughout most of his career he conducted a crusade for more public open spaces, chiefly through his prolific output of articles, books, and magazines. To complement his gardening talents, Loudon was also responsible for introducing improvements in the design of greenhouses and invented solar heating systems. In addition, he also developed plans for better housing for industrial workers.
In 1831, Loudon undertook the planning of the Birmingham Botanical Garden. Here, Loudon’s views on what he termed the ‘gardenesque’ style of planting began to take shape. The inclusion of correctly labelled exotic trees and shrubs was known as the ‘Principle of Recognition’. He undertook various landscape design and construction projects, all of which were in stark contrast to the relative uniformity of style of the so called ‘natural’ landscapes designed by Lancelot Brown and others. Loudon was particularly scathing of Brown and once wrote, “Wherever his levelling hand has appeared, adieu to every natural beauty! See everything give way to one uniform system of smoothing, levelling and clumping of the most tiresome monotony.” So much for the capabilities of Brown.
When he gave up the farm at Great Tew Park, the money he had made enabled Loudon to travel to Europe, where he visited Sweden, Russia and Germany, amongst other countries. Unfortunately, by the time he returned after a year, in 1814, Loudon’s fortune had been lost through risky speculation. So he went back to square one and revived his interests in landscape gardening and writing. That return triggered arguably his greatest work – ‘Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum’ – in which he published, in 1838, an illustrated account of all the trees, wild or cultivated, that grow in Great Britain. Sadly, however, that production wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be. Loudon had financed the publication at his own risk and was in debt to the printer, stationer and wood-engraver to the tune of £10,000.
Loudon tried to ensure that everyone had the chance to enjoy plants and a pleasant environment. Today, there are only a few of his gardens that have survived in their original form. Nevertheless, his significant contribution was that he truly took gardening to the masses and helped encourage the diversity of plant material within gardens that continues today. His influence lives on in many large parks and gardens as it does in the gardens of suburban villas throughout the land.
Throughout his life, poor Loudon was plagued by illness, which at times he ameliorated by taking opium; not an uncommon practice in those days. As early as 1806, he was afflicted by rheumatic fever, which left him with an anchylosed knee and a contracted left arm. By 1826, he was suffering from arthritis and that year he endured a terrible setback when an arm had to be amputated at the shoulder after a botched operation for a fracture. Undaunted, the indomitable Loudon continued to work and when he could no longer draw or write, he resorted to hiring draughtsmen and amanuensis to prepare his more complex plans. Determined to the very last, Loudon began his final project, the municipal cemetery at Southampton, despite suffering from the advanced stages of lung cancer. After a round trip to Bath and Oxford, late in 1843, he returned to London, where his doctor confirmed his imminent demise. John Claudius Loudon died of lung cancer, on the 14th of December, 1843. Loudon was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.