Have to Share: “Uncommon and Expensive” – Edwards’s The British Herbal

Well now that Spring finally feels like it has arrived, one’s thoughts head into dirt and gardens and plants and herbs, so wanted to share this article from the most recent issue of Colonial Williamsburg:  “Uncommon and Expensive” by Mary Miley Theobald, on John Edwards’s The British Herbal   – you can read it online here:

There may be no better guide to the plants that grew in eighteenth-century gardens than The British Herbal, a rare collection of botanicals by artist John Edwards, published in 1770. “It’s one of the most valuable books we have,” said Wesley Greene, garden historian in Colonial Williamsburg’s historic trades department. “It lets us document the sort of plants that were available in the colonial era.” Edwards referenced Linnaeus for every plant, allowing Greene and others to identify species precisely. 

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titlepage britishherbal

Edwards, John. The British Herbal, containing one hundred plates of the most beautiful and scarce flowers and useful Medicinal Plants which blow in the open air of Great Britain, accurately coloured from nature with their Botanical Characters, and a short account of their cultivation. London: Printed for the Author; and sold by J. Edmonson…and J. Walter, 1770.

You can see this slideshow of a number of the prints here:  http://history.org/foundation/journal/Spring13/herbals_slideshow/#images/herbals4.jpg


[images from the Colonial Williamsburg article, photography by Barbara Lombardi]

The book is indeed quite rare: a quick look at auction records shows that one sold for $17,026 in 1993; for $25,300 in 1997 and for $36,000 in 2000.

One wonders if Jane Austen knew this work – there is no mention of it in her letters or novels, nor is it in Gilson’s bibliography as a work known to have been owned by her.

She may have been more familiar [as I was] with Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal (London, 1739) – you can view this whole work online at the British Library at their “Turning Pages” site: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/blackwells/accessible/introduction.html#content

titlepage blackwell herbal

Blackwell’s illustrations are quite lovely as this one example of a male peony shows:

blackwell - male peony

[image from Picturing Plants]

The story of Elizabeth Blackwell’s (1707-1758) creation and publication of this work is an interesting tale – she drew, engraved and colored all the illustrations to accompany the botanical descriptions of her doctor husband in order to pay his debts and effect his release from prison.  Many of the plant specimens were from the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. A copy sold at Christies in 2009 for $17,500, and various plates appear at auction periodically.

We do know that Jane Austen knew of Gilbert White, author of The Natural History of Selborne (1789), and whose house, now a museum, was near the Austen’s home in Chawton. The herb garden at White’s house is depicted in Kim Wilson’s In the Garden with Jane Austen [page 98] with a list of the herbs, and you can visit the house and garden site here.

So now into the garden and away from the computer … but will ask, What is your favorite herbal book?

c2013 Jane Austen in Vermont

On My Bookshelf ~ “In the Garden with Jane Austen”

Jane Austen loved a garden.  She took a keen interest in flower gardening and kitchen gardening alike. The Austens grew their own food whenever they could and had flower gardens wherever they lived, at their parsonage at Steventon in Hampshire, their town gardens at Bath and Southampton, and when they returned to Hampshire, at their cottage garden at Chawton.  In Jane’s letters to her sister Cassandra, we see her planning the details of these family gardens, discussing the planting of fruit, flowers, and trees with enthusiasm.  In the course of her life, she also had the opportunity to visit many of the grander gardens of England:  her brother’s two estates at Chawton and Godmersham, the manor houses of friends and family, and probably even the great estate at Chatsworth, assumed by many to be the inspiration for Pemberley…

So begins the new book “In the Garden with Jane Austen,” by Kim Wilson, author of Tea with Jane Austen, published by Jones Books [2008], one of my purchases at the AGM Emporium in Chicago, and for those of you enamored of the traditional English garden, a lovely addition to your bookshelf.

Wilson takes us on a visual journey through various gardens Austen would have created for herself, visited, or imagined in her novels, all interspersed with photographs, quotes from her works and letters, and vignettes of engravings and poetry from her contemporaries. 

We begin at Chawton Cottage, Austen’s home from 1809-1817, and the setting of the cottage and kitchen gardens that she wrote about so lovingly… “You cannot imagine – it is not Human Nature to imagine what a nice walk we have round the orchard” [31 May 1811], and then references to farm and parsonage gardens, which we see in Emma (Robert Martin’s summer house in his farm garden), and who can forget Mr. Collins day-long labors in his garden, much to Mrs. Collins’s satisfaction!


The chapter on Mansion and Manor House Gardens takes us to Godmersham Park and Chawton House, Austen’s brother Edward’s estates in Kent and Hampshire, Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth, and Stoneleigh Abbey [in Warwickshire] and the Vyne where “every park has its beauty and its prospects” where “one likes to get out into a shrubbery,” and we are reminded of Mr. Rushworth and his “improvements,” and the settings of Pemberley, Rosings, Mansfield Park, and in Emma, where the garden is nearly the heroine’s only place for solace, and Fanny with her own geraniums in her room (but she cuts roses for Mrs. Norris! …and a nice touch here … “Recipes for Mrs. Norris’s Dried Roses”)

Gilbert White's House, Selborne


Austen’s life in the cities of her times was confining, and one of her joys was the City Gardens.  Wilson travels through the gardens of Georgian Bath, a variety of London’s garden squares (Henry Austen lived in several places in London and the areas surrounding these show up in her novels as the London homes of her characters:, Brunswick Square in Emma, Hanover Square and Portman Square in S&S), the garden at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton (where Austen’s characters visited, if not Jane herself), and the small town garden the Austens had in Southampton.

We all know that Austen was a self-described “desperate walker” much as she imagined Elizabeth Bennet, so her love of Public Gardens & Parks is apparent in her novels and letters:  Kensington Gardens, St. James and Hyde Park in London, Sydney Gardens and Alexandra Park at Beechen Cliff in Bath, Box Hill (made famous in Emma), and the tours of the picturesque (as Elizabeth’s tour through Derbyshire in P&P), and Netley Abbey near Southampton.

Kensington Gardens


The chapter on Recreating Jane Austen’s Garden offers plans on the Chawton Cottage kitchen garden and flower border, the border garden of Houghton Lodge, the herb garden at Gilbert White’s House (in Selborne, near Chawton), and a Georgian garden with plans of the Kennard Hotel garden in Bath.

Gardens featured in Austen film adaptations closes the book with a list of the various real-life houses, gardens and parks that breath life into Austen’s stories…many are open for tours and how better to experience the places that Austen herself created for us than to take a leisurely walk around the grounds of these locations. 

Wilson provides a bibliography to entice the reader with yet more books to peruse: they run the gamut from “The Formal Garden in England” [R. Blomfield, 1901] to Cowper’s “Poems” to “Hints for the Preservation of Wood-Work Exposed to the Weather” [J. Crease, 1808] and “The Juvenile Gardener, Written by a Lady for the Use of her Own Children” [London, 1824]

So this quick summary is of course lacking in what makes this book so charming – the many photographs, the quotes from the novels, the flowers!  Ms. Wilson has given us a gift!  I live in an English cottage cape, surrounded by what were once charming gardens…I struggle to keep them looking as I know they must have in some long-gone past, … I have many books on cottage and English gardening, perennials and borders, herb gardens, Gertrude Jekyll’s gardens, Penelope Hobhouse on all manner of gardens, even how to make an all-white garden … so this book is a delight to add to my collection, combining as it does my love of an English garden and my love of Austen….it is a visual feast, a good quick read that brings so many elements to the table…it is unfortunate that we are now upon the winter scene here in Vermont, and though I cling to my last rose struggling mightily against the frost that visits us every night, I can perhaps make some new plans through the long winter, or better yet, plan a garden tour through the English countryside next spring…or at least do a re-read of this lovely book……

Chawton Cottage Garden