Andrew Lambirth

Celebrating William Blake

Andrew Lambirth visits an exhibition in the first museum of garden history

St Mary-at-Lambeth, built beside the walls of the Archbishop’s Palace, was once the parish church of Lambeth, until it fell into disuse in 1972. Thankfully, this handsome building was rescued from demolition some five years later by the foundation of the Museum of Garden History and the Tradescant Trust, appropriately named after the great family of gardeners.

Three generations of Tradescants are buried in St Mary’s churchyard in an elaborately carved sarcophagus, while nearby is the tomb of Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. John Tradescant the Elder (c.1570– 1638), who was gardener successively to the 1st Earl of Salisbury, the Duke of Buckingham and King Charles I, opened a ‘closet of rarities’ at Lambeth around 1630, the first public museum of its kind, containing such wonders as ‘A Dragons egge’ and ‘Two feathers of the Phoenix tayle’. Both he and his son were distinguished botanical travellers and collectors, venturing as far as Russia and the New World. John Tradescant the Younger (1608–62) inherited the museum and added to it, later gifting it to Elias Ashmole, whence it was bestowed on the University of Oxford, and entered the Ashmolean.

Dating from 1370, St Mary’s is now the welcoming home of the world’s first museum of garden history, replete with implement collections, gift shop and café. (Suggested voluntary donation £3 per adult.) As I wandered between the cabinets of exhibits, containing anything from a Neolithic axe to an early 20th-century vasculum, a hand-forged trowel, c.1800, or a Norwegian dibber, a demonstration of printing was being given to a group of students. The demonstrator was Michael Phillips, who has relief etched and printed facsimiles of William Blake’s plates from Songs of Innocence and Experience. This practical display was part of Cloud & Vision: William Blake in Lambeth, a celebration by contemporary artists of Blake’s ten productive years at 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, before he moved down to Felpham in Sussex.

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