This view of London Bridge is from about 1745, and sets the period – this was the year that Peter Collinson sent publications on electricity and equipment for performing electrical experiments to the Library Company of Philadelphia for Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) to use in his research (*)
INTRODUCTION TO THE PLANTS OF PETER COLLINSON
The English garden circa 1716 was known for its turf and topiary, not its large collection of flowers or shrubs. It consisted, as one French visitor observed, “principally of extremely smooth lawns ... divided into plots and squares by long wide paths” as well as “holly, yew, laurel and cypress cut in all sorts of shapes and figures”. These gardens sought beauty in geometric splendour rather than movement and colour. Intricate patterns in the turf provided the variety, not drifts of blossom. Gardeners laid out what plants there were, carefully choosing their positions in the overall composition, all trimmed and manicured. Not even a strong wind could rustle the leaves of the stiff green sculptures – the only noise in the stillness came from the gurgling waters of the fountain(s).
And whereas in the past gardens had been visual experience, they were evolving into tactile experiences for all the senses. Some of the flowers came so close to the path that the hooped petticoats of the women visitors brushed against them, releasing the fragrant scents of the blossom. Instead of motionless rigid hedges that enclosed parts of the garden, now the leaves danced to the rhythm of the wind.
These changes heralded a return to nature. There was a sense that one must respect the environmental rigours of the site, and at the same time the garden must be conceived not to a prearranged model but by studying the setting. The poet Alexander Pope called it “the genius of the place”. This heralded a new relationship between painting and nature, which Pope summed up in the famous declaration that “all gardening is landscape-painting.”(1) Of course, planting for these ‘landscapes’ led eventually to an increased interest in new trees and shrubs.
Referring to Thorndon Hall garden laid out by Lord Petre (2) - Collinson wrote to John Bartram, the famous American botanist, plant hunter and correspondent (in September 1741)… “The whole is planted in thickets and clumps, and with these mixtures are perfectly picturesque, and have a delightful effect.³” Every corner turned revealed a new vista or arboreal scene. No other garden in England combined the new ideas of the informal landscape garden with such horticultural genius and arboreal diversity. For the first time encyclopaedic horticultural knowledge was given priority over the ability to use the protractors, dividers and levels which had long been the tools of the trade. This is the background against which Collinson collected plants and planted his gardens in Peckham and Mill Hill.
Thorndon Hall 1834
This map (3) by John Ogilby and William Morgan dated 1676 in the upper part shows Grace Church Street where the Collinson business was based and to the west is Clements Lane where Peter Collinson was born. The map shows how close the Thames and the docks were to his business premises – and how easy it was for Collinson to go and collect seed boxes.
Collinson Garden in Mill Hill – 1749 till 1768
In the above plan Ridgeway House is clearly shown and the extent of the Peter Collinson Garden would have been the plots numbered 156 and 157. His stable block was probably in plot 159.
The Collinson Garden in Mill Hill was kept up some years after his death, by his son, Michael Collinson. Afterwards it fell into the hands of Richard Anthony Salisbury Esq FRS. About the end of the century it was purchased by the protestant dissenters, for a foundation grammar school: the house was turned into lodging-rooms for the boys, and Collinson’s table fitted up as a chapel. Anew house has since been built.
On examining the grounds which formerly belonged to Ridgeway House, in January 1835, several trees and shrubs planted in the time of Collinson were found to be still remaining. A platanus 40 ft. high, and 1½ft. in diameter at a foot from the ground; a deciduous cypress 48 ft. high, and 1½ft.in diameter; four pinasters, the diameter of the largest of which was 3 ft.; two of Pinus Cembra with trunks nearly 2 ft. in diameter, and from 50 to 60 ft. high, which must be the finest specimens of this tree in England; a tulip tree 30ft. high, diameter 9 in. and two cedars with clear trunks between 30 and 40 ft. high, and diameters of nearly 4 ft. the branches of which cover a space of 60 ft. in diameter.
Near the spot where Collinson’s house stood (for it is now pulled down) there is a cedar 60ft. high, with its lowest branches reclining on the ground, and covering a space of 70 ft. diameter. Near it a very old laburnum, and a sweet chestnut, with a trunk nearly 5ft. in diameter, and its branches extending 30 ft. on each side. There is a Quercus Ilex covering a space of 35 ft. in diameter with its branches; and a weeping willow 50 ft. high; there are a Chinese arbor vitae 25 ft. high; two red cedars from 30 to 40 ft. high, which the [present gardener says was planted by Linnaeus, but this could not be the case as Linnaeus left England in 1737; a hemlock spruce with two trunks, each 1ft. in diameter, and 50 ft. high, with branches extending about 30 ft.; two Portugal laurels, each covering a space 40 ft. in diameter; an arbutus 1½ ft. in diameter, with branches extending some 20 ft.; a very handsome variegated holly covering a space 18 ft. in diameter; a handsome box tree 15 ft. high; and a cone of laurustinus 20 ft. in diameter at the base; besides several other trees and shrubs evidently as old as the time of Collinson. It is greatly to the credit of the proprietors of the school, that all these fine specimens are carefully preserved, and the name of Collinson respected as it ought to be. (4)
(*) Peter Collinson Chronology by Alfred E. Schuyler
(1) Gardens in Art by Lucia Impelluso p.92
(2) Plants 2 - Plants in Garden History by Penelope Hobhouse p.198
(3) London in Maps by Philipa Glanville
(4) The ‘Post Script’ is an extract from ‘Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum (the Trees and Shrubs of Britain) by J. C. Loundon F.L. & H.S. 1844 - in eight volumes: Vol I pages 56/67