Remembering Mr. Kemp: Gardening in a ‘book-making age’

I have a long-standing interest in the Victorian information environment, which is many ways still influences our own. In particular, I have been fascinated by how information-rich was the world of botany, horticulture and the design of parks and gardens in that period. Several of the leading garden designers were also prolific authors and editors, who took advantage of, and contributed to, the advances in the communication of knowledge, and may even be regarded as pioneers of an information society. In an earlier post, Remembering Sir Joseph, I reprised a presentation on Sir Joseph Paxton, one of the foremost of the gardener communicators.

Another leader in this area was Edward Kemp (1817-91), one of Paxton’s protégées and assistants. Though much less well known than his mentor, and lacking Paxton’s ubiquity, which gained him the label of the ‘busiest man in Europe’ – acting the Duke of Devonshire’s agent, building railways, designing the Crystal Palace, sitting in Parliament, and more – Kemp was nonetheless a very significant figure, as a both landscape designer and as an author and editor in what he himself termed “this book-making age”. He was a modest man, leaving no autobiography or collection of papers; no photograph or realistic image of him is known to exist, and the significance of his work has been largely overlooked.

To try to remedy this, a conference was held in 2017 to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth, the papers for which have been published in a special open access issue of Garden History (2018, vol. 46, supplement 1). While most of the articles in this issue focus on Kemp’s work as park superintendent and as a designer of parks and gardens, I have a contribution in this issue, on his role as a communicator of horticultural knowledge.

Edward Kemp was, and is, best known as a park superintendent and as a designer of parks and gardens. he was born in on September 25th 1817 in Streatham, then in Surrey, now in South London, his father being a tailor. Little is known of his early education, but he was clearly self-educated to a considerable degree. Starting his training at the Horticultural Society Gardens in Chiswick, he worked under Paxton at Chatsworth House. He is remembered today mainly for landscape designs: laying out Birkenhead Park from 1843 to Paxton’s design, and then acting as its first superintendent from 1845 for several decades; designing public parks and cemeteries, mainly in the North-West of England; and undertaking many private commissions for villa gardens. His works were highly influential on designs for both private gardens and public parks, most famously on the design of Central Park in New York and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, following Frederick Law Olmsted’s favourable impression on visiting Birkenhead Park in 1850 and 1859.

Edward Kemp left no autobiography or even a photograph, so is remembered mainly by his landscapes. Birkenhead Park: image Parks and Gardens UK.

He was, however, also an influential and best-selling author. His How to Lay out a Garden, running into several editions, is the best known and most influential of his written works, being widely read in America and Australia. There were others, notably editions of the Hand-Book of Gardening, and his Parks, Gardens etc. of London and its Suburbs, the first ever such regional survey. He assisted Joseph Paxton with the editing of his publications, both magazines, notably the Magazine of Botany, and books, and was a regular and thoughtful contributor to magazines, most notably the Gardeners’ Chronicle. Together with John Gibson and Edward Milner, he was one the protégées of Joseph Paxton, who, alongside their mentor, did so much for the dissemination of horticultural knowledge, as authors, editors and compilers, in the midst of the nineteenth century communications revolution. They played a major part in establishing Victorian horticulture and landscape design, and conveyed their ideas to a wide public, through the newest technologies for communicating useful information. Kemp’s main publishers, Bradbury and Evans, were among the most advanced printing firms, making full use of the new steam printing presses

Fuller discussion and details are in my paper in Garden History. An extended version of this article with some added material on Kemp’s life and work, additional remarks on analogies with present day gardening writers, additional links to digitised versions of original materials, and extra images, is in the Humanities Commons repository.

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