Regular readers will be aware that over the past couple of years, the Irish Aesthete has devoted much time and attention to the subject of the Irish country house garden and its evolution since the early 17th century. This study has taken a number of forms, including an exhibition of paintings of walled gardens (which show, incidentally, can at present be seen in Kylemore Abbey, County Galway, which has its own restored walled garden), a two-part television documentary, and a conference on the subject. The last of these, held last autumn, has now spawned a book, Digging New Ground: The Irish Country House Garden 1650-1900. Co-edited by Professor Finola O’Kane, the publication contains essays from a wide variety of knowledgeable experts in this field of study, all of whom offer fresh insights into their chosen topic.
Country house gardens, like country houses themselves, only really begin to appear in Ireland from c.1600 onwards; prior to that date, the only cultivated areas resembling gardens as we know them would have been attached to religious houses, monasteries and convents. In her contribution, Vandra Costello looks at these early domestic gardens and what form they took, much influenced by ideas from Italy, France and Holland, while Terence Reeves-Smyth explores the evolution of the walled garden, once an essential feature of any country house of substance. But while early gardens almost celebrated their artifice, from the mid-18th century onwards, the natural and the romantic – sometimes in conflict, sometimes in harmony – came to dominate horticultural theory and practice alike, influenced by such notable English practitioners as Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. However, during this period Ireland produced her own distinguished garden designers, not least John Sutherland whose highly successful career is examined by Patrick Bowe. Thomas Pakenham looks at the creation of arboretums in this country, and Seamus O’Brien explores the explorers: those intrepid botanical hunters forever in search of new plant species to bring back to Ireland. There are essays on garden buildings by Ruth Musielak, on the effect of technological advances in the production of glass and iron by Laura Johnstone, on evaluations of and improvements in gardening during the 19th century by Finola O’Kane, and an assessment of the Irish country house garden in the 21st century by Catherine FitzGerald. Plus, the Irish Aesthete tells the story of John Hennessy Saul, born into a family of gardeners, who emigrated to the United States where he established a thriving horticultural business, involved in the design and creation of gardeners throughout that country.
John Hennessy Saul was born in December 1819 at Carey’s Wood, a dower house on the Castlemartyr estate owned by the Boyles, Earls of Shannon: appropriately enough, the place, now called Carewswood, is a garden centre. Both Saul’s grandfather and father were gardeners, so it was almost inevitable that this would also be his choice of profession, as was also the case for several of his brothers. After working first in Ireland and then in England for some years, in 1851 he emigrated to the United States where he was almost immediately employed by the country’s most influential landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, with whom he then worked on the layout of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Following Downing’s untimely death in July 1852, Saul established his own business in the city, and within a few years was running an 80-acre nursery supplying plants to customers from the Atlantic to the Pacific, not least Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City, along with many other public and private commissions. Saul’s catalogues often offered opportunities to buy varieties of plants that he had cultivated: charmingly, he tended to call these after his wife. He also wrote regular specialist articles for all the leading horticultural publications of the time, won prizes in all the major competitions then being held and served on a number of important horticultural boards and committees. When the District of Columbia’s Board of Works established a Parks Commission in Washington in 1871, Saul was one of its founding board members and produced plans to increase the number of trees throughout the city: he was serving as the commission’s chairman at the time of his death, aged 77, in May 1897. John Hennessy Saul was clearly a remarkable man, and an outstanding horticulturist who learnt his skills while young and working in an Irish country house garden. Across the centuries, emigration has sent millions of Irish men and women around the world, and it seems probable that at least some of them worked in the same field as Saul, and perhaps enjoyed similar success. Their stories wait to be rediscovered and told, thereby enriching Ireland’s own gardening history.