Try the new

May 16, 2014 6:17 pm

Chelsea Flower Show: an illuminating history of garden lighting

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments
Gardeners have benefited from several bright ideas over the centuries, but information on the subject remains in the shadows
Serralunga Paloma dove-shaped outdoor light, from £135,©Federico Villa

Serralunga Paloma dove-shaped outdoor light, from £135,

“I count only the sunny hours,” is a message often found on sundials. But life in the garden does not necessarily stop when the sun goes down. Gardens have been illuminated for special events for centuries – but just try to find a decent body of information on the subject.

One of the few accounts of garden illumination to appear in the age of the oil lamp was a short item in the Gardeners’ Chronicle for 1855 about the annual opening to the public of Arundel Castle in Sussex. George McEwen, the head gardener, reported: “Nearly 3,000 lamps were in use on the occasion, and being disposed in straight and drapery lines on the terraces with festoons, wreaths, and arches on the arcades and walls, together with a liberal admixture in the flower beds and by the fountains, the effect of the whole was very striking. Upwards of 3,000 visitors promenaded in the gardens from half-past 8 to half-past 10 o’clock.”

Arundel wasn’t alone in putting on such entertainments. A few years earlier, 160,000 “variegated lamps” were used for a fête at Enville Hall, Staffordshire. Lighting the garden, along with the occasional firework display, was something that fell within the duties of many country house gardeners. Yet you will look in vain in encyclopedias of gardening for any advice on the subject.

The account of Arundel, with its “drapery lines” and festoons, suggests the model that 19th-century gardens followed: the commercial pleasure gardens of the 18th century, in particular London’s Vauxhall Gardens. These were places of evening entertainment and some form of lighting apart from the untrustworthy moon was necessary. From the 1730s, Jonathan Tyers promoted innovations in lighting, using hundreds – and, in later years, thousands – of oil lamps hidden among Vauxhall’s shrubs. By the end of the century, Vauxhall employed 44 lamplighters.

Vauxhall Gardens, c1850©Getty

Vauxhall Gardens, c1850

Tyers worked with a Swiss immigrant, Johann Jakob (known in his adopted country as John James) Heidegger, who developed a way to rapidly light candles by connecting them with flammable flax threads. He pioneered this technique for the coronation of George II in 1727, lighting almost 2,000 candles in under three minutes. A mid-century account of Vauxhall describes the effect: “Upwards of a thousand lamps, to succeed the setting sun, are so disposed, that, by an artful communication from one to another, as quick almost as lightning, they all take fire in a moment.”

Another Vauxhall effect involved transparencies, placing lights behind oil-painted canvasses. This practice was stopped in 1798 when a lamp overturned and set the canvas on fire.

Vauxhall set examples which were followed on special occasions elsewhere. Parks and gardens became a setting for public demonstrations of new lighting technology. Gaslight was first used in a garden context in 1814 to celebrate the “Glorious Peace” in St James’s Park. Limelight – or koniaphostic light, as it was called initially – was first used outdoors in 1839 at the Surrey Zoological Gardens in Kennington, only a few years after its initial use for the stage. In 1878, Carl Siemens used the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden in Kensington for one of the first public demonstrations of electrical lighting, winding five miles of cable around the site. A letter from the society’s assistant secretary, Samuel Jennings, recalled Siemens “danc[ing] about the place – ‘Now we have done it – now we have done it – now we will light towns’”.

The Chinese Bridge in St James’s Park in 1814, by Frederick Calvert©Getty

The Chinese Bridge in St James’s Park in 1814, by Frederick Calvert

Oil lamps and candles provided the majority of illumination for garden fêtes throughout the 19th century. George Fergusson Wilson, the original owner and developer of what is now the RHS Garden Wisley, was a director of Price’s Patent Candle Company and made his fortune by revolutionising the manufacture of candles, yet there is no record of his trying his hand at garden illumination.

By the end of the century, however, innovations were appearing. While the fashion for Japanese gardens made Japanese stone lanterns fixtures in many gardens, these lanterns continued to use tallow as their means of illumination if they were lit at all. Acetylene flares were being used for garden parties before the first world war. And at Friar Park, in Henley-on-Thames, Sir Frank Crisp introduced electric lights into his five caves. In one, the Vine Cave, the light fittings took the form of “glass bunches of grapes of different colours holding electric lamps. (In this case it is ‘In Vino non Veritas!’).”

Look in any gardening reference book published in the interwar years, however, and you will find that “light” is treated only as a synonym for a garden frame. Even amid the enthusiasm for electricity in the garden that swept through Britain in the 1950s, electric lighting appeared primarily in greenhouses as a means of forcing plants. Lighting manufacturers began to produce equipment for the garden years before the gardening press began to treat the subject seriously.

The turning point came in 1969 when John Brookes published Room Outside, his call for the garden to be treated as a living space and not as an ornamental backdrop. His first recommendation was for lighting as an aid to safety; but lighting for evening activity also formed part of his argument.

The first specialist book on the subject, David Carr’s Light Your Garden or Patio, was not published until 1987, followed the year after by Peter McHoy’s Evening Garden (Gardening by Design). The volume of literature since then has been small.

An advert for Crompton in 1951©Alamy

An advert for Crompton in 1951

Crompton Parkinson Ltd, formed in 1927 by the merger of two of the pioneers of electric lighting, was probably the major manufacturer of garden lighting in postwar Britain. The firm was still going in the 1980s, until its identity became confused by sales and mergers. By then, firms of horticultural sundriesmen, such as Hozelock and Lotus Water Garden Products, were diversifying into garden lighting systems, to be followed by garden furniture makers such as Sommer Allibert (Hozelock offered product lines with tempting names such as Moonglow, Nightglow and Aquaglow).

In the late 1990s, specialised garden lighting firms began to exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show. In 2000, solar-powered lights made their appearance, with Alpan solar lights. And last year, there were 17 companies listed in the catalogue as supplying lighting equipment.

Dr Brent Elliott is the RHS historian

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments



More FT Twitter accounts