Mrs Loudon & the Victorian Garden

‘The Ladies' Companion to the Flower-Garden’, by Jane Loudon, 3rd edition, published by William Smith, London, 1844. NAL Pressmark: A.105.19.

‘The Ladies' Companion to the Flower-Garden’, by Jane Loudon, 3rd edition, published by William Smith, London, 1844. NAL Pressmark: A.105.19.

Jane Loudon (nee Webb) (1807–58) was to Victorian gardening what Mrs Beeton was to cookery. Her beautifully illustrated books on gardening and plant identification sold in their thousands and women all over the country were enthused enough by them to take up gardening as a hobby.

Although now really only known for her non-fiction work, her first work, published before she married, was The Mummy, Tales from the Twenty-Second Century, a futuristic look at potential improvements to living in Britain that she wrote to make ends meet as an impecunious orphan. One of these innovations, a steam plough, caught the attention of horticultural publisher and writer John Loudon who met, courted and married her within seven months. They began to work together on John's books and in their own extensive garden. Jane, by her own admission,knew nothing about botany, 'It is scarcely possible to imagine any person more completely ignorant of everything relating to botany than I was at the period of my marriage with Mr Loudon,' but her husband was enthusiastic and expert and she soon became a meticulous, capable gardener ready to aid him with his books.

Loudon's greatest work was the epic Encyclopaedia of Gardening. Jane assisted him with research and note taking, adding to her own knowledge as she went along. It gradually occurred to her that the technical terms and descriptions were rather off-putting to new gardeners, particularly women, who although literate and interested had often not been well schooled in the sciences. Instructions in Gardening for Ladies was published by her in 1840. It was precise and correct but written in an anecdotal style which made it easy to follow; more than 200,000 copies were sold. The opening remark in her introduction to Botany for Ladies (1842) reads, 'The following pages are intended to enable my readers to acquire knowledge of Botany with as little trouble to themselves as possible.'

Other books soon followed: the four-volume The Ladies' Flower-Garden(1840–8), The Ladies' Companion to the Flower-Garden (1841), British Wild Flowers (1846), and The Amateur Gardener's Calendar1847).

By this time Jane, a self taught artist, had begun to illustrate her own books. Her style, which involved grouping the flowers to form bouquets made her designs popular to copy as well as being used for decoupage on trays, lampshades and tables. She made full use of the new technique of chromolithography which made print production much faster and enabled her to increase her output.

John Loudon's fortunes however, had taken a downward turn whenan arboretum he planned and planted left the family nearly penniless. His health, which was always fragile, declined rapidly until he died aged 60 in 1843. Jane's response was to work harder than ever. Her output of books increased and she took on other work to supplement her income and pay off some of the debts.

Her own early success came to an abrupt end in 1848 when she was asked to resign as editor from The Ladies' Companion at Home and Abroad. It coincided with a decline in the sales of her books and her financial situation became so desperate that she was obliged to ask for money from the civil list. She died virtually penniless in 1858 aged 51.

Jane Loudon's influence is difficult to exaggerate. She made gardening accessible and managed to communicate her own enthusiasm in a very practical, useful way. Through her books, gardening came to be regarded as a recreational activity for everyone.

Female botanical illustrators

Jane Loudon was one of the most successful of a number of talented women botanical illustrators whose work is highly regarded now but which had mixed fortunes during their lifetimes. The National Art Library's collection includes work by many of them.

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