Of gardens and gardening (1): Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary

Plate showing an amaryllis from Philip Miller's Figures (1760)

Amaryllis belladona, first introduced in Britain from South Africa in the early eighteenth century. One of Miller’s ‘uncommon’ plants.


Every self-respecting gardener in the eighteenth-century could not avoid to own, or have access to, a copy of Philip Miller’s hugely successful and comprehensive Gardeners dictionary. The edition, which is an adaptation of Miller’s Dictionary, held at Kedleston is particularly interesting for its luminous colour plates and the fact that it was published around the time Nathaniel Curzon was contemplating the contents of his new pleasure grounds…

Looking at the garden at Kedleston today, it’s hard to imagine what it would have looked like in the late eighteenth century. Changes in fashion as well as a bad case of plant disease have wiped away the original designs and the shrubs associated with them. It is also easy to forget that Curzon inherited a mature formal garden designed by Charles Bridgeman (1690-1738) to accompany the red-brick Queen Anne mansion built by Francis Smith of Warwick around 1700 (that formal garden dates from around 1720). After 1758, this garden scheme was so elaborately erased that it is only with the help of digital technology that traces of it have been found in the landscape.

Title page of Philip Miller's Figures of the most beautiful, useful and uncommon plants

Title page to Philip Miller’s Figures of the most beautiful, useful and uncommon plants described in the Gardeners Dictionary (1760)

By 1760, when Miller’s Figures of the most beautiful, useful, and uncommon plants described in the Gardeners Dictionary (ESTC T59417) was published, the Bridgeman garden was gone and the new mansion was being built. To complement the neo-classical structure, Curzon introduced a style of gardening made popular at the time by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783): the English landscape garden. This took as its starting point the genius loci described by the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and implemented in his own garden at Twickenham. For Curzon it meant marrying the idea of the Italian campagna to the undulating hills of Derbyshire to create a personal vision of Arcadia. Drawing upon gardening books, old and new, such as Miller’s Figures, new trees, shrubs and flowers were introduced to invoke a sensory experience – a wealth of colour, scent and shape – which is now lost to us.

But at least, this 2-volume set in Kedleston’s Library helps to revive a little bit of that experience for now…

Philip Miller (1691-1771) was in charge of the Chelsea Physic Garden for nearly fifty years, during which time he amassed a wealth of knowledge about plants from across the world. Generously sharing this knowledge, the Gardeners Dictionary appeared in several editions between 1731 and 1768.

Plate of Alchemilla or Lady's Mantle

Alchemilla vulgaris or Lady’s Mantle, a ‘useful’ rather than uncommon plant.

The edition with 300 coloured copper plates in Kedleston Library was first published in 1760. Despite being more of a ‘coffee table’ book (or its eighteenth-century equivalent), the Figures provides detailed descriptions and taxonomic information on the recorded plants. I only snapped a few images for a Library Open Week I put together at Kedleston in 2013 (on the theme of gardens and gardening), but a full digitised version of both volumes can be found at the Linda Hall Library Digital Collections. The link only takes you to volume 1 but volume 2 is also available – happy browsing!

Plate showing Anchusa officinalis from Miller's Figures (1760)

Anchusa officinalis or common Buglos. Not particularly uncommon!

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