Paul Johnson

Going down to Kew in daffodil time

Going down to Kew in daffodil time

Text settings

When spring finally reached London after those Arctic weeks with the bitter wind from the east, I hurried out to Kew to see what was happening to Nature. And there it all was: millions of daffodils in massed marching ranks, spreading golden carpets between the still bare specimen trees. The crocuses broke ‘like fire’ at my feet, as Tennyson says, and the magnolia blossoms were bursting on the trees with all the pent-up energy stored during the long, cold winter months: an extravaganza in ivory.

But first I looked in at the parish church of St Anne on Kew Green. It is one of my favourite churches because it has expanded from a tiny box, built as a chapel in 1714, being added to or embellished on no fewer than ten occasions, the latest being in 1988. Yet all these extensions or alterations are entirely congruous with the original concept in multicoloured brick, so you’d think it was built all of a piece. Architects commissioned to add to ancient buildings should be obliged to visit this church to see how it is done, and how to honour distinguished predecessors. Indeed, this is a church for those who design buildings. In 1960, to mark the 200th anniversary of the church’s founding, a dozen ladies of the parish formed a tapestry guild to create a set of pew cushions. They eventually made 140 of these beautiful objects, in white, red and gold, commemorating all the sovereigns connected with St Anne’s from Queen Anne, through the Georges, to Elizabeth II, and in particular the architects who worked in the parish and its great gardens — Sir William Chambers, who designed the giant pagoda; John Nash, builder of the Orangery; Decimus Burton, responsible for the vast Palm House, Wyatville and Robert Tunstall, James Paine and Sir John Barry, who built the bridges across the river. Does anyone know of a set of cushions which more splendidly commemorate the history of a church, and bring relief to the bony bottoms of parishioners and delight to visitors?

What I particularly wanted to see was the tomb of Gainsborough in the churchyard, and eventually I found it. A bit cracked and unkempt, I thought. Might not the Royal Academy, which seems to do such silly and unbecoming things these days, redeem itself by spending a little of its ample funds on tidying up the tomb of the man many believe to be our greatest painter — the only one, surely, to excel equally in portraiture and landscape?

Other noble artists are buried here too, including old Joe Zoffany, the greatest exponent of the conversation piece who has ever worked in England. His masterpiece is the group of English connoisseurs presented in ‘The Tribune of the Uffizi’, commissioned by George III’s queen and still in the royal collection at Windsor. But he also did the magnificent display of antique marbles, ‘Charles Townley’s Library in Park Street’, which is in the Townley ancestral home in Burnley, now turned into an art museum. Zoffany was a shrewd businessman who insisted on charging for each figure in his pictures. Thus ‘Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match’, which has 75 people watching and betting on a cockfight, cost Warren Hastings, who commissioned it, £1,500 — a vast sum in the 1780s. Old Zoff amassed a fortune and retired to Strand-on-the-Green, within sight of Kew, where he bought a splendid mansion.

There are some mysteries about Kew church. Is it true that in 1759 the future George III, then a shy young man and not yet king, went through a form of marriage in the church with a ravishing young Quaker called Hannah Lightfoot? The record of this marriage was later stolen from the parish chest. The chest itself was discovered empty, dumped in the Thames, and if such an operation had taken place today, the secret services (rudimentary in George III’s day) would certainly have been blamed. Among those who looked into the matter, and believed the story of George’s indiscretion, was Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Abdication crisis, the ecclesiastical referee who, as it were, saw the besotted Edward VIII off the field. Lang was excoriated in his days of splendour as a prideful and over-prelatical primate, though there is a charming essay on him by A.L. Rowse which puts the record straight. In 1942 Lang resigned his archbishopric and retired to Kew, where he served as a humble assistant curate. When he died he left the church his prayer book, a much thumbed and touching relic.

Kew Gardens were originally created by the Capels, earls from Essex, from a nine-acre plot of rich if sandy soil. The royal family acquired the land under the Georges and eventually expanded the gardens to 75 acres. They actually lived in the funny red house, most of which is still there, and when George III was mad it served as his jail, under the strict and sinister Dr Willis. Sometimes he escaped, as on the occasion when he saw Fanny Burney (daughter of the royal music-master), recognised her, chased her through the gardens, caught up and embraced her, and subjected her to a long conversation — all recorded in her diary. Such indecorous episodes do not occur at Kew today, I am sure. It is a curious fact, which I have often noted, that a really splendid garden seems to make people behave better than they normally do. They do not throw litter or pick the flowers or romp about with noisy laughter and horseplay. I noticed this again when I sat near the Hercules fountain, opposite the great glass conservatory, to paint the scene in watercolour. There were plenty of young mothers with children, old folk hobbling on sticks, middle-aged women — expert horticulturists by the look of them — and young lovers. All were smiling, radiating happiness, delighted by the warm sunshine after the long winter, content to wander about Kew, with its long, rich vistas, its blends of lawn and water, fountain-spray and fern and leaf, splashes of colour and fantastic pleasure-houses.

While painting, I made friends with a toddler who generously offered me a precious bit of his half-chewed biscuit. His mother told me, ‘His name is Joseph.’ ‘That is interesting,’ said I. ‘You don’t often come across young Josephs today. When I was a boy, I had two uncle Joes, my mother’s eldest brother and my father’s youngest brother. And I had a great-uncle Joe too.’ ‘Yes, but nobody’s going to call my boy Joe,’ said the mother. ‘He’s Joseph. That’s a strong, grand name.’ ‘So it is,’ said I. Another little boy popped up. ‘And what’s your name?’ I asked. ‘Alfred,’ said the boy. ‘Not Alf?’ ‘No, no, no,’ said the boy’s mother. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘his namesake Alfred Noyes, the poet, wrote a poem called “The Barrel-Organ” which goes, “Go down to Kew in lilac time, it isn’t far from London.” Now it isn’t lilac time yet, but go down to Kew in daffodil time sounds just as good.’ The boy’s mother said, ‘Poets are fond of Kew, aren’t they? But what did T.S. Eliot mean when he wrote “Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew undid me”?’ ‘All it means,’ I said, ‘is that Eliot was a tease. Give me Pope, who was always clear:

“I am His Highness’ dog at Kew.

Pray, tell me Sir, whose dog are you?”

Pope had that engraved on the collar of a dog he gave to the Prince of Wales.’ ‘What, our Prince of Wales?’ asked Alfred. ‘No, no. We know whose dog he is.’