Queen Victoria and her family were the first members of royalty to have their entire life span recorded via photography. On a recent visit to the Getty Centre in Los Angeles, I was delighted to come across an exhibition on the evolution of photography that skilfully combined the technical development with a visual record of the royal family who had embraced this medium with a passion.
The addition of each new family member, special events, visits by extended family and dignitaries were all faithfully recorded over many decades. Tantalising background glimpses of architecture and gardens gave a fleeting impression of the social and environmental setting.
Photography was eagerly adopted on the other side of the world in Australia and utilised to record the development of our fledgling cities, transport, social life and notable events. But for the average family or even those more comfortably off, such technology was beyond their grasp.
When we purchased an old farm in South Gippsland Victoria in 2009 the homestead had been occupied by the same family for nearly a century and yet there were very few photographs to tell us the story of the development of the garden. The farmhouse and its accompanying sheds are listed with the local council to be of ‘Local Significance’ only. The bulk of the house was constructed in 1895, significantly extending the 1876 cottage. Only one or two formal portraits exist of the original owners, taken at the turn of the century; there are no records of the early garden. There most certainly would have been a vegetable garden, as local stores were a half day’s buggy ride away, and perhaps a few flower beds to provide cut flowers for the house.
The family, who purchased the property in 1905, retained ownership until 2003. When the second generation established their family a few snapshots were taken. Faded sepia photographs afforded glimpses of the lovely old Victorian homestead, portions of the veranda behind family groups, and a pergola behind a baby on a rug on the lawn. A series of images, taken in the garden in the 1920s, when the children were in their late teens, offered a few more clues: hydrangeas massed on the shady side of the house, a pergola, covered with trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), leading to an orchard, tree ferns in a shady courtyard.
This handful of surviving photographs, generously provided by descendants of the original owners, was the only visual record of the garden after nearly a century of one family’s occupation in that landscape. The fact is that this situation is not unusual, particularly for hard-working farming families. Up at dawn and out till dark there was little time or money for such frivolities as taking photographs or keeping a garden journal.
Oral family history convinced us that the most substantial period for the garden was the 1920s through to the 1950s. It was a simple family-orientated country garden comprising easily grown shrubs, bulbs and roses mostly obtained from swopping cuttings and divisions with neighbours and friends.
The house was saved from near dereliction by the next owners, who purchased the property in 2003. The ‘garden’, or what was left of it, had been grazed by sheep for over 30 years. A lilac, the trumpet creeper and a eucalypt were all that remained from the substantial 1930s garden. When we purchased Cluanie in 2009, it was not my intent to reproduce an exact copy of what had gone before. However any kind of records would have been very helpful in creating a garden with a sense of continuity and one that respected the ‘genius of the place’. We wanted a garden that was not ‘over designed’; a garden planted with hardy shrubs, trees and ground cover of the sort that would have been available from the 1930s to the 1950s. This was to be a garden more for pleasure than for show; a garden in keeping with the homestead’s original purpose.
The lack of evidence to date of the history of the garden reinforced the importance of keeping records of what we did for future generations. Ongoing restoration of the house and the value of property in the 21st century mean that this place is unlikely to fall into decline, as it did in the latter half of the 20th century. The onus was on us to do our part in continuing to seek out evidence of past occupation of this gracious survivor of the Victorian era and, most importantly, faithfully to record our own endeavours.
Nowadays we place more importance on our social history and many of us have the means and the opportunity to research our past, ponder on the future and to consider making our own contribution in the present. What will future generations know of our lifestyles, our efforts in our gardens, what plants and planting styles were popular and what environmental challenges we faced?
When recording the history of our gardens the biggest problem is where to begin. It all seems a little too hard and we worry that we don’t have the time or the skills. Or is it all going to be far too expensive? Talk of Conservation Management Plans or ‘Statements of Significance’ can be somewhat daunting and off-putting. However there is a myriad of ways we can start a less formal record of our own personal patch of landscape.
Photography has never been cheaper or easier. Even throw-away cameras take reasonably good-quality images. Smart phones and iPads take great pictures with very little fuss or expertise required. One fun and informative photographic record is to take the same shot from the same place in each season every year. It is the visual equivalent of the perpetual diary.
A collection of nursery tags kept in one of those old-fashioned photo books with clear stick-down pages, nursery catalogues and invoices, drawings, paintings, real estate brochures, deeds of sale, clearance sales, construction work, letters to friends and family, and garden journals are all legitimate avenues for creating a history of your garden. A perpetual diary is a great tool, as a succession of entries for a particular month can build into a marvellous snapshot of your garden for each month and season over a number of years.
Trees are of particular importance. A garden with beautiful mature trees is a delight to behold and they can be very helpful in dating a particular garden design, original garden boundary or entrance drive. They are also a good place to start if you do decide to have components of your garden more formally assessed. An arborist can provide a Statement of Significance for your trees one at a time as it suits you. Tree assessment is important because as anyone who owns an old garden knows it is the trees that make the garden, but it is also the trees that can cost the most to maintain when age or weather leave them in need of care.
Technology in the 21st century is both a blessing and a curse. We now have the advantage of excellent recording devices through regular cameras, phones, tablets, etc. It is quick, convenient and cost effective to record our gardens. The big issue is one of storage and longevity. In the past the less diligent of us kept our photos and records in a shoe box with the intent to put them in an album ‘one day’. At least if we never got around to it there was the chance that someone some time would discover our treasure and make good use of it. In this digital era everything is ‘floating in the Cloud’ and constantly at risk of permanent annihilation by the ‘delete’ button, or hidden away in files on various ‘drives’ only a computer wiz can unearth. So it is important to have a good filing system and at least one back-up drive just in case.
The advantage of informal garden record-keeping is that anyone with an interest in garden history past and present who has a little time to spare can gather together a collection of records. Even in the short term, say over a decade, to be able to look back on what you did, what you planted, what had died and what has succeeded is a very informative trip down memory lane.