The Chelsea Physic Garden

Well, I made it to the one-day exhibition on Philip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and it rained only at the end of our stroll around, and then not much. We were greeted at the entrance by welcoming staff, and the Miller Stuff in the Education Room was being guarded by genial and hugely knowledgeable people both from the Physic Garden archives and from the Natural History Museum.

The plaque by the entrance gate in Swan Walk.

It all goes back to Sir Hans Sloane (whose biography by James Delbourgo I am now reading to my huge enjoyment and benefit). I have to confess at this point, with some embarrassment, that although I have read, and have regularly recommended, two elderly books about the Physic Garden, I had never previously visited it …

Magnolia ‘Heaven Scent’ in glorious bloom in the Garden.

So, making up for lost time: in 1673, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London (given its charter by James I in 1617, before which apothecaries were part of the Grocers’ Company (the Grocers themselves being, before 1345, part of the Guild of Pepperers)) took the lease of a Chelsea garden formerly developed by Sir John Danvers, second husband of Magdalen Herbert and thus step-father of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury and George Herbert. He was also a regicide, having attended the trial and signed the death warrant of Charles I, and (perhaps luckily) he died in 1655, thus avoiding the wrath of the restored Charles II.

The Apothecaries lost their original garden in 1696, when the Danvers house was demolished to make way for a road (Danvers Street), but help later arrived in the form of Sir Hans Sloane, who bought the manor of Chelsea in 1713 from Charles Cheyne (as in Cheyne Row, where Thomas Carlyle later lived). In 1722, he leased the four acres of land to the Apothecaries, requiring as yearly rent only £5 per year in perpetuity, plus 50 herbarium specimens to be prepared for the Royal Society (of which Sloane was President from 1727 to 1741).

A statue of Sir Hans Sloane, rightly at centre stage in the Garden.

This is the point at which Philip Miller enters the scene. Born in 1691, he was trained by his Scots father, a market gardener who worked in Deptford, and had established his own tree and shrub nursery in Southwark when the summons came: at the recommendation of botanist and physician Patrick Blair, he was asked by Sloane to take charge of the Chelsea garden. Eager to fulfil the ‘herbarium specimens’ part of the rent, he quickly developed a wide network of correspondents in Britain and abroad (including John Bartram), and by this means became the conduit through which many new and exotic plants and seeds were introduced into Britain.

Tulipa montana in the Garden. (My camera can’t do justice to the shade of red.) In His Preface to the 1807 edition of the Gardener’s Dictionary, Thomas Martyn says that Miller ‘ spent some time in Holland, in order to make himself master of the practice which the famous Florists there pursued in the culture of Bulbous Flowers’.

Miller was originally given quarters inside the garden, above the brick greenhouse where the citrus and other tender trees were kept in winter, but from 1734, he lived in Swan Walk, the lane alongside the garden, with his wife Mary (through whom he became the brother-in-law of the botanical artist Georg Dionysius Ehret (1710–70) and three children, both boys becoming gardeners and botanists in their own right.

Magnolia grandiflora by Ehret, watercolour on vellum.

The younger son, Charles (1739–1817), became in 1763 the first curator of the ‘old’ Cambridge University Botanic Garden, on which his father had advised Rev. Richard Walker of Trinity, the donor of the land). Thomas Martyn, in his 1803–7 four-volume edition of Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary (dedicated to Sir Joseph Banks) notes of Charles (with whom he went to school in Chelsea) that: ‘Though from his knowledge and experience he is very capable of giving information on many subjects, he has never published anything.’

This of course distinguished him markedly from his father, whose greatest work, first published in 1724, went into eight editions in his own lifetime, and many more after his death, and became the horticultural bible for several generations of professional and amateur gardeners.

The eighth edition (1768) is perhaps the most important, since in it Miller finally adopted Linnean taxonomy – the two men had met at Chelsea in 1736, but according to a caption in the exhibition, ‘Miller made it clear that he was sceptical of this new system and [they] did not part on he best of terms’.

Part of t he entry for dittany (Dictamnus albus) in the eighth edition of the Gardener’s Dictionary.

Miller also produced a companion work,  Figures of the most Beautiful, Useful, and Uncommon Plants described in The Gardeners’ Dictionary, Exhibited on Three Hundred Copper Plates, accurately engraven after drawings taken from nature. With the characters of their flowers and seed-vessels, drawn when they were in their greatest perfection. To which are added, Their Descriptions, and an Account of the Classes to which they belong, according to Ray’s, Tournefort’s and Linnaeus’s method of classing them. The first volume of the first edition was published in 1755, and the second in 1760, and they are – needless to say – absolutely stunning. (Ehret was one of the artists involved.)

Magnolia grandiflora, in the 3rd edition of Figures etc. (1809). The artist is Johann Müller (see below). (Sorry about the protective laminate and ensuing reflections.)

I was also very excited to see a coloured copy of Elizabeth Blackwell’s Curious Herbal, which I first encountered last year in Modena. She of course lived in Swan Walk while working on the project by which she hoped to rescue her family from penury, and both Sloane and Miller encouraged her. The book was open at a page depicting lavender, and it was matched with a similar image by a modern botanic artist.

Elizabeth Blackwell’s lavender (above) and a modern example of botanic art (below).

There was also a copy of Miller’s other best-selling work, the Gardener’s Kalendar, one of those useful but terrifying month-by-month instruction books which remind you how far behind you are with your garden chores. This is the sixth edition of 1743; there were fifteen between 1731 and 1769.

The Gardener’s Kalendar, with a page for April appropriately open.

Turning to the herbarium collection, now in the Natural History Museum, there were several pages on display, including the type-specimen for Gladiolus byzantinus, with Miller’s own ink annotations down the left-hand side, followed by a short pencil note by none other than Daniel Solander, who worked on the herbarium, presumably after it had been conveyed to the British Museum, where he was made curator of the natural history collections in 1773.

The type-specimen of Gladiolus byzantinus, still colourful after 250 years.

Back outside in the garden, there is a tremendous amount to see. Sir Hans Sloane stands at the centre (see above), surrounded by blooms in pots, and Banks pops up near one of the ponds.

A bust of Banks among the perennials.

There is an ancient mulberry, and lots of camellias and magnolias.

The mulberry tree.

New to me, and quite spectacular in full flower, was Stachyurus chinensis.

Stachyurus chinensis in flower.

And I’m quite resistant to euphorbias in general, but I thought this Euphorbia purpurea, from Tenerife, in one of the glasshouses was superb.

Euphorbia purpurea in flower (or rather in bract).

There are frequent reminders of the importance of the Miller and the Physic Garden to a burgeoning world economy: not least in the introduction of cotton seeds to North America, and Sloane’s ‘invention’ of chocolate – both of which of course required the hard labour by slaves at which Sloane himself, in his brief stay in Jamaica in the 1680s, had shown himself unmoved.

An advertisement for Sloane’s chocolate on the side of a little caravan in the Garden.

One oddity about Miller’s life (he retired in 1769 amid some acrimony, and was succeeded by his protégé William Forsyth, dying in 1771) is that there is no known picture of him.

Forsyth’s contribution to the Garden is explained here: note the picture to the right, which includes Banks.

The one which appears in later editions of the Gardener’s Dictionary in fact depicts Joseph Miller, aka Johann S. Müller, a German-born botanist and illustrator – though it is curious that, as the ODNB points out, Thomas Martyn, who knew Philip Miller well, did not apparently question the likeness.

A pomegranate painted by Joseph Miller/Johann Müller for Icones plantarum officinalium (1730).

So, all in all, a Grand Day Out, and well worth repeating! The Chelsea Physic Garden Needs You – it is no longer supported by the Apothecaries or any academic or medical institution, so if you are looking for Paradise in London, do bear this lovely, peaceful, fascinating place in mind.


Robert Fortune, doyen of plant-hunters, was briefly curator of the Physic Garden in the 1840s.

This entry was posted in Bibliography, Biography, Botany, Gardens, History, London, Natural history, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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