The author of this work, Alicia Amherst, was subject more than most to changes of nomenclature. Her father was William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst (1835–1909). His father was William George Daniel-Tyssen, but in 1852 both father and son had taken the name Tyssen-Amhurst by royal licence. The son then, again by royal licence, changed the surname to Tyssen-Amherst in 1877, but dropped the Tyssen part when he was made Baron Amherst of Hackney in 1892. (Incidentally, the family was related only distantly to the Amherst who was Governor-General of Bengal and whose wife had a pheasant named for her.)
You will not be surprised to learn that a lot of this was to do with inheritance. According to the ODNB, the grandfather (originally William George Daniel) had added Tyssen to his surname on his marriage in 1814, but it also says he was born in 1801, which makes him quite a forward young man? (Elsewhere, his dates are given as 1773–1838.) His wife Amelia was the daughter of Captain John Amhurst RN and his wife Mary, the eldest daughter of Andrew Fountaine, of Narford in Norfolk. Mary’s mother, another Mary (we’re getting to the money!) was the heir of Francis John Tyssen, of Flemish origin, who owned considerable amounts of land in Hackney.
Alicia’s father was brought up in the impressive surroundings of Narford Hall, Norfolk, built by his mother’s ancestor Sir Andrew Fountaine (1676 –1753), diplomat and collector, who did not one but two Grand Tours, picking up art and curiosities wherever he travelled. He sounds a fascinating man – knighted in 1699 after making a Latin oration to William III at Oxford, correspondent of Leibnitz, friend of Cosimo III dei Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and of Jonathan Swift, and successor as Master of the Mint to Sir Isaac Newton.
Baron Amherst’s own enthusiasms including rearing Norfolk polled cattle, and collecting books: a member of the Roxburghe Club, he was interested in ecclesiastical history, the English Bible, early typography (he had seventeen Caxtons) and fine bindings, as well as exotic items like the papyrus named after him (see below). But, as the bibliographer Seymour de Ricci was in the process of compiling an extensive catalogue of the collection in 1906, disaster struck: Amherst’s solicitor was discovered to have been defrauding him, and the library had to be sold to make good the loss. (J. Pierpont Morgan bought the Caxtons, for £24,000, and later the collection of Greek and Egyptian papyri.) Baron Amherst died suddenly in January 1909 between the first and second library sales – did the stress hasten his end? – and the Gobelins tapestries, maiolica, furniture and antiquities went in further sales in the years after his death.
It was in fact the antiquities which led to Alicia taking up horticultural writing. She had become interested in plants at a young age, and her mother gave her her own flowerbed (semi-circular, and 40 feet in diameter!) to plant up and manage. She bought her first rose tree at the age of ten, and later often brought ‘exotics’ back from the family’s holidays around the Mediterranean.
But by her own account, it was the Egyptologist Percy Newberry who suggested that she should write on horticulture. Newberry (1869–1949), a skilled artist, had studied botany before becoming involved with the work of the Egypt Exploration Fund (later Society). Having worked with Petrie at Hawara and Kahun (and written the site report of the excavations at Beni Hasan), he met the Amherst family while working on the Amherst Papyrus (famous for its account of the trial of tomb-robbers) which Alicia’s father had acquired in Egypt.
Alicia explains: ‘Knowing that I was fond both of practical gardening and the study of old garden literature, Mr Percy Newberry suggested to me in the Spring of 1891, that I should edit some articles he had written on the History of Gardening in England down to the reign of Elizabeth, … and that I should carry on the History from that point. I became so much interested in the subject, and had collected so much new material, that I decided to enlarge on the original plan, and not only to continue the history, but to traverse again all the earlier part, drawing my information afresh from the original authorities.’
For both the history (published to immediate success in 1895) and her later London Parks and Gardens, she clearly has done the reading. Gardening in England includes an annotated bibliography of printed works on gardening since 1516, and discusses the fifteenth-century verse manuscript treatise in verse, ‘The Feate of Gardening’, in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, one of the earliest English texts in the subject.
Her book is not (as is sometimes claimed) the first history of gardening in England: she cites in her bibliography, for example, the 1829 History of English Gardening, Chronological, Biographical, Literary, and Critical Tracing the Progress of the Art in This Country from the Invasion of the Romans to the Present Time, by George William Johnson, (1802–66), a chemist, political economist and practising gardener; or the anonymous Rise and Progress of the Present Taste in Planting Parks, Pleasure Grounds, Gardens, &c, from Henry the Eighth to King George the Third; in a poetic Epistle to the Right Honorable Charles, Lord Viscount Irwin, of 1767. (This states firmly in ‘The Argument’: ‘No Gardens of consequence till Henry the Eighth’s reign’, but goes on to describe developments in garden style and the import of exotica in verse which is clichéd but not completely excruciating, and its citation does demonstrate the breadth of Amherst’s reading.)
By the time London Parks and Gardens was published in 1907, she had become ‘The Honourable Mrs Evelyn Cecil, Citizen and Gardener of London’, though for brand recognition the name ‘Alicia Amherst’ also appears in brackets.
She had married Evelyn Cecil (a scion of the Salisbury family) on 16 February 1898; when he became the first Baron Rockley, she became Lady Rockley, and for a few months in 1941, the Dowager Lady Rockley (her husband died on 1 April, she on 14 September). She is buried in St Aldhelm’s church, Lytchett Heath, Dorset, the family home (they also had a house in Berkeley Square in London).
During the First World War, Alicia was honorary assistant director of horticulture at the Board of Agriculture: earlier, in 1906, she was involved in staging a ‘Country in Town’ exhibition in Whitechapel in 1906, which promoted the planting of smoke-resistant flowers in poor city districts: it attracted over 33,000 visitors. (Plus ça change … I read something about a new London initiative recently?) I don’t have space to list her many interests outside horticulture, which included the scheme to encourage educated women to migrate to the colonies and involved her in worldwide travel.
I don’t have the space either to talk much about London Parks and Gardens, but it is a great read for anyone interested in the history of London: as much a social history of the metropolis as of its gardens, especially emphasising the engulfing of the surrounding country villages by the burgeoning city. Her style occasionally grates (especially when she tries to write poetically), but the book is crammed full of fascinating pieces of information.
Did you know that in 1618, Robert Wood, keeper of the king’s menagerie in St James’s Park, spent £286 on maintaining the collection of cormorants, ospreys and otters, including the digging of nine stew-ponds to be stocked with fish for them to catch? Or that in 1664 John Evelyn noted that one of the king’s cranes had a jointed wooden leg?
Or that the 600-yard long ‘paille-maille’ ground (now the Mall) was surfaced with crushed shells so that Charles II and his brother James had a good surface on which to play this form of croquet? Or that the former was continually having to advertise for his dogs, which ran away in the park and got lost? And that’s from just six pages in this most engaging read.