Tag Archive for 'Time Travel'

Are there Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden?

Are there Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden?

If you live in country Victoria or have the means to get there (I may have discovered the real reason why Airforce 2 dropped Hilary Clinton in Melbourne instead of our capital Canberra) then you have until this Saturday the 28th of November 2010 to see a fabulous exhibit of Australian Fairy Art from the Victorian era at the Bendigo Art Gallery.

After stopping in Castlemaine recently to visit Tute’s Cottage I drove onto Bendigo especially to see this exhibit – it was well worth the drive.

Beautiful Bendigo

Bendigo is an extraordinarily gorgeous town. The Victorian architecture surrounding Queen’s Park, at its heart, shows the amazing wealth and opulence of the goldfields at their peak. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring but I only had enough time to see the exhibit and get on my way back to Melbourne. I have been eagerly anticipating this exhibit since February as it promised to explore the transposition of the English Victorian Fairy Art craze into an Australian context – very pertinent to our interests at TQS.

The exhibition was beautifully mounted with works from national collections, ‘never been seen before’ works from private collections (fancy how special a family would feel to own their very own fairy art) and illustrations from period books. I loved it but left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

For me the best works of the exhibit were the two beautiful painting by the Australian painter Frederick McCubbin. Frederick’s work is well known to many Australians as his triptych called ‘The Pioneer’ has graced many a lounge room wall, biscuit tin and tea towel.  It is a stunning work that subtly shows the impact of settlement on the bush. As time passes from left to right in the triptych more and more of the bush is cleared until you can just see a hint of a city in the distance. Unfortunately familiarity has bred contempt for McCubbin’s work and I get the sense that we don’t love his painitings as much as we could – too sentimental for modern sensibilities perhaps.

McCubbin’s fairy paintings have the same sombre mood as ‘The Pioneer’ until you begin to catch glimpses of the winged creatures hidden in the bush. The only clue to finding the fairies quickly is following the gaze of the small children in the paintings. In a way McCubbin is encouraging us to look through the eyes of childhood to see the bush in a new way.

Another highlight of the exhibit was a chance to see new prints of the ‘Cottingley Fairy Photographs‘. These faked photographs from 1917 show two young girls and fairies frolicking in a garden. If you haven’t ever read about the Cottingley Fairy Scandal and the role of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creater of Sherlock Holmes, it is worth following the link above. Given that the girls cut the fairy images out of a popular children book of the time – it is a wonder that anyone thought they were real. I suppose sometimes we just need to believe – and that might be why I love the Cottingley Fairy Photographs. The Cottingley Fairies are also behind the plot of the 1997 fantasy film – Photographing Fairies.

So why did I leave unsatisfied? While the craze for fairy art was an English Victorian era phenomenon it didn’t really take off in Australia until the Edwardian period – so not so much Australian fairy art of the Victorian era. The catalogue to accompany the exhibition is OK but not great. I was left disappointed by the lack of Australian context provided in the curator’s notes. Here there is a brief discussion of Victorian England’s representation of the fae as mischievous, wanton and dangerous as a salve to the taming of the wild by the industrial revolution, when an enormous proportion of the population forsook the rural life for cities. In Australia the burgeoning of fairy art in the Edwardian period is seen as a retreat from the horror of war.

I think that Australian fairy art of the Edwardian period is another version of the ‘Lost in the Bush’ myth of Australian settlement. It might surprise non-Australians to know that in Primary School we are all read and re-read the story of three young children who stray from their parents and become hopelessly lost in the bush. The children become increasingly frightened, the older sister (my hero) snaps gum of Eucalypt trees for her brothers to eat and covers them with her skirt to keep them warm at night until eventually at the point of no hope they are rescued. This is our ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and our cautionary tale about the wild wood, nature as savage and unknown. Europeans decided very early on after drought and flooding rains that the bush was out to get us. Fairies are a way of making the Australian bush safe. They are chubby cherubs looking out for us or as the Australian Girl Guide rhyme says of the bush spirit the Melluka,  ’I'm a Melluka but you will find, though I play tricks, I’m always kind’.

The answer to the question is of course ‘Yes’!

Purple King Climbing Bean and Fairy

Victorian fairy folklore is full of cautionary tales about farmers who failed to heed the warnings of fairies: don’t plant your potatoes here, don’t call your cows without using their proper name, don’t use all the milk without leaving us a saucer by the front door (so like living in a share house) and the ever popular don’t forget to leave us a corn-dolly from your new harvest. Ruin, failed crops and disappointment in love follow all who don’t do as they are bid.

As a gardener I am fully prepared, if the fairies at any point tell me where they want the carrots planted, I will do as they say (actually I would do pretty much anything to get carrots growing properly)!

Pollen pants means that it is both 'Hammer Time' and a Bee - so not a fairy!

If you look carefully through my posts you will see that on a number of occasions I have been lucky enough to accidently capture images of the fairies that live in my garden – I could tell you how many there are – but the fairies don’t want me to spoil the fun.

Has Beans!

Has Beans!

Throughout this project I have been haunted by the question – what types of vegetables did people grow in Melbourne during the Victorian era (well haunted might be an overstatement … so Victorian). Discovering the answer to this question has not been straight forward. This is an update on an earlier post in which I searched through a collection of ancient seed catalogues in the National Herbarium of Victoria‘s library.  The selection of vegetable seeds available in each catalogue was surprisingly small.  There were artichoke, cabbage, carrot, turnip, onion and other basics. Mmmm…

…so I began trawling other other library collections…

My next step was to visit the State Library of Victoria, in June, a magnificent Victorian beauty, in the heart of Melbourne’s Central Business district.  I went to the State Library to read an original copy of ‘The Colonial Gardener : being a guide to the routine of gardening in Australia with a catalogue of select kitchen, garden and flower seeds as sold by Smith, Adamson and Co, 1854‘. This short pamphlet, with a surprisingly long title, published twenty years after the settlement of Melbourne is now digitized and available to read on-line (and as SJ has said – the Victorians would have loved the internet. I did however enjoy the experience of handling an original copy).

Reading Room at SLV - or what the afterlife looks like!

The ‘Colonial Gardener’ provides advice to commercial and beginner gardeners in an almanac style. I love the foreword to the pamphlet – authentic 1850′s marketing spiel!

“At considerable trouble and expense, we have got the following calendar compiled, by a thorough gardener to meet a very obvious want. It has been criticised by and had the approval of some of the oldest resident gardeners in the colony and though printed principally for the guidance of our non-professional customers, professional gardeners but of short experience in the colony might do worse than be guided by it. It may not enter sufficiently into detail to satisfy all, but we flatter ourselves that the information it does give is substantially correct. Smith, Adamson and Co.”

Finally, a proper list of vegetables! The interesting thing about the ‘Colonial Gardener’ is that it shows the beginnings of working out how to grow vegetables in the new colony. The entries each month provide general growing advice, invariably refer to the unpredictability of rainfall and the extremes of temperature. One of the interesting things I’ve noted about their advice is that they are encouraging gardeners to plant ‘a little and often’ this is still great advice as it means that you have a succession of vegetables available rather than them being ready all at once. This is something that I still struggle with as a gardener because once I’m out there with the seed packet open I’m in a planting kind of mood! ‘Little and often’ also has the advantage of ensuring that in an unpredicatable climate you are more likely to get at least some of your crop. Very clever Messers Smith and Adamson!

My next challenge is to see how many of the seed varieties listed in ‘The Colonial Gardener’ still exist in modern seed catalogues. This task is likely to take longer than the life of this blog – so at the end of December 2010 I will move this research to my regular gardening blog.

Making a start on this research in June the first Victorian vegetables to go into my garden were broad beans (Yes Fava Beans! Liver and Chianti fffff). The Colonial Garden lists two bean varieties for planting in June: the Mazagan and the Long Pod. Looking in the American Heirloom Seed Companies catalogue the Mazagan are described as an early fruiting dwarfed plant.  I can’t find seeds available to Australia so far.

Long Pod have also been hard to identify as there seems to be a long list of bean types that have been called Long Pods – the Mr Smith of the vegetable world. In Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management – The Art of Gardening, Mrs B cautiously promotes both the Mazagan and Early Long Pod with the following advice

“…but whatever sort is grown, the culture is the same, and as it is not a favorite vegetable with many persons, it should be carefully considered how much ground can be devoted to it without encroaching on space required for more important crops”.

Crimson Broad Bean in flower by October (mid-spring Melbourne)

Eventually I found an ‘Early Long Pod’ Broad Bean in the Australian Yates Seed Catalogue. I love broad beans so despite Mrs B’s warning I planted a whole garden bed and added some ‘Crimson Flowered’ Broad Beans another old variety of bean rescued from extinction by seed savers in the 1970′s. One of the main themes that I keep returning to in my reading, and it is especially evident when you look at old fruit catalogues or read ‘The Victorian Kitchen Garden’ by Jennifer Davies, we have far less variety of vegetable seeds available to us now than the Victorian gardeners had.  One of the losses that I feel most keenly is that we no longer have the knowledge of what grows well in our own neighborhoods and in many cases we have lost the plants.

Now it is November (late-spring in Melbourne) and there are broad beans ready to eat. They have grown so well this year as the weather has stayed wet and humid. Our first wet spring in ten years! I harvested a big pile and turned to Mrs Beeton’s Household Management to see if she included receipies for broad beans.

Has beans!

Young beans liberated from their pods.

Here is Mrs B’s receipe

1092. INGREDIENTS – To each 1/2 gallon of water, allow 1 heaped tablespoonful of salt; beans.

Mode.—This is a favourite vegetable with many persons, but to be nice, should be young and freshly gathered. After shelling the beans, put them into boiling water, salted in the above proportion, and let them boil rapidly until tender. Drain them well in a colander; dish, and serve with them separately a tureen of parsley and butter. Boiled bacon should always accompany this vegetable, but the beans should be cooked separately. It is usually served with the beans laid round, and the parsley and butter in a tureen. Beans also make an excellent garnish to a ham, and when used for this purpose, if very old, should have their skins removed.

Time.—Very young beans, 15 minutes; when of a moderate size, 20 to 25 minutes, or longer.

Boiled Ham Beans and Swirls of Parsley Butter - Yummy!

Something to bear in mind is that if you salt and boil tender young broad beans for 15 to 25 minutes they will taste and look like grey sludge (hence Mrs B’s contradictory views on the enjoyment of beans). My advice is to get some unsalted water boiling rapidly and blanch for 3 minutes any longer and they are yuck, yuck, yucky.

Parsley butter (cut parsley up finely and mix with butter) was a revelation with the ham and beans and is really worth trying. I made little swirls with a piping bag rather than placing in ‘a tureen’ as directed – with only two to feed a tureen would be over-kill and the parsley butter doesn’t keep very well.

All in all I highly recommend growing and eating broad beans with or without cannibalism and Chianti.

Time Traveling to Tute’s Cottage, Castlemaine

There is a garden in country Victoria that I’ve been wanting to see ever since Mandy Stroebel’s fantastic new book ‘Gardens of the Goldfields – A central Victorian sojourn’ came out in July this year – Tute’s Cottage. This tiny cottage now jammed between a road reserve and the Forest Creek embankment was built in 1858 when the surrounding area was still being mined for gold. Tute’s cottage was occupied under miner’s rights – the right to fence off a small amount of land to create a productive garden, these types of gardens were amongst the first gardens of settlement, and were not owned by the occupiers but leased from the Crown.

Tute's Cottage - lived in by 'Miner's rights' from 1858 to 1997.

In Mandy’s book she describes her project to recreate an 1850′s productive garden in the bones of the remaining allotment garden at Tute’s. This garden is now looked after by a collective of neighbours who live near the cottage and is occasionally open to the public – especially on Castlemaine’s Open Garden Weekend – the weekend after the Melbourne Cup each year.

Broad Beans (Back Left) growing in Tute's Cottage Garden.

Mandy also notes the difficulty of finding nurseries and seed catalogues that still stock Victorian seed varieties and plants. You will see in the photo of Tute’s Garden that the beds are edged with local sandstone rocks. Miners had to be resourceful in creating their productive plots from materials at hand and gardens of this period were often edged with bones or bottles – these were subsistence rather than pleasure gardens.

If you feel like time traveling to the 1850′s and can’t afford a Tardis or Star Gate then a day in Castlemaine during the yearly Garden Festival is the strategy for you. Failing that boil up some broad beans and ham.

Experiments in Victorian Floristry Continue…

Experiments in Victorian Floristry Continue...

in which I am both Under Gardener and Lady’s Maid.

Well time travellers I feel that I have a good handle on how to make floral buttonholes now. Emboldened I decided to tackle the task of creating a floral hair decoration and dress garland. “Why ?”, I hear you ask – well as I have learnt floristry in large Victorian estates was the responsibility of the Head Gardener.

Roses for 'The Duchess'.

Supplying flowers for an exacting Mistress must surely have been one of the Head Gardener’s most terrifying tasks – I can imagine many a stout and tweedy fellow quaking in his Wellingtons at the though of displeasing ‘Her Upstairs’. Luckily my dear friend ‘The Duchess’ has a beautiful head of hair and the patience to put up with a very inept Lady’s Maid.

The hair do.

Step 1: Make a Pony Tail.

Step 2: Pull the Pony Tail back through the hair.

Step 3: Split Pony Tail into 3 Plaits.

Step 4: Turn the plaits up and pin.

Step 5. Place pinned roses in hair.

Step 6: Poke small flowers around roses.

My own unruly head of hair is evidence that I don’t know very much about hair styling. In order to work out how Victorian ladies wore their hair I looked at more than a hundred images on-line – these were not very helpful for the uninitiated and frankly a little scary. Severe was definitely the ‘new black’ of the Victorian age.

It seems that early in the Victorian period hair styles were very controlled and neat and as the era unfolded hair styles became looser and less formal. Clearly my untidy hair marks me as a natural Edwardian. I watched the film ‘The Young Victoria‘ again for inspiration and found Queen Victoria’s hair do’s were just too complicated to try as a first go – all those tiny plaits, perfect neatness and twirly bits. I decided to pick an informal style which would allow for some margin of clumsiness. I found this clip with a demonstration which was a big help.

Well the Duchess and I had a very fun afternoon but I learnt that I would be a rubbish Lady’s Maid. It took me about an hour to put together a hair style that probably should only take ten minutes. Luckily as an Under Gardener all I would need to do is make sure that I grew the appropriate roses and picked them as instructed – whew!

Dress Garlands

Next step was to make a matching dress garland for the Duchess.

Rose Garland.

The DVDs that I ordered of the BBC’s Victorian Flower Garden, Kitchen Garden and Kitchen have finally arrived and I have loved watching these three fabulous series again. This clip shows the enormous amount of foliage that really grand Victorian women would wear on formal occasions. Attending a ball must have been like watching a swaying garden!

In the photo above you can see my attempt at a garland.  I used thin paper-covered milliner’s wire and tied the roses to the wire using green paraffin tape. The paraffin tape melts as you mould it with your hands and gives a very realistic effect of all the roses growing from a single stem. I’ve not been able to find out what Victorians would have used but a very knowledgeable gardener I work with suggested that Head Gardeners would have used thin gauze silk. I think the garland turned out OK but would be better if I had added more greenery and some smaller flowers amongst the roses.

Next floristry challenge will be to dress a full dining table but I plan to leave that to the spring – which for me here in Melbourne is next September.  In the mean time back to the garden as it is past time for getting the winter seeds in the ground.

Finally we have a photo of the Duchess’ beautiful companion modelling her own garland.

Beautiful B

Time Travel to Marvelous Melbourne – Como House

Time Travel to Marvelous Melbourne - Como House

Last week I was overcome with excitement when my copy of Mrs Beeton’s Guide to Garden Management – the art of gardening arrived in the post – finally! The tricky thing is that this Wordsworth Reference Series book doesn’t let you know when it was first published or reprinted.  It does own up to being newly type-set in 2008. So should I assume that it is abridged?

I’ve never heard Mrs Beeton’s name associated with a gardening book. I have seen reference to a Mr Beeton’s gardening guide. Doing some googling I found that Mr S.O. Beeton published this book in 1861. So now I’m not sure which book I actually have?

On the plus side this book does have one very long article on the usefulness of the Dutch Hoe. Be advised do not operate heavy machinery while reading this coma-inducing quote.

The Dutch Hoe, or Scuffle, as it is sometimes called, is shown at A. It consists of a sharp and comparatively narrow blade, attached to the socket by two arms, which spring from the lower end of the latter, and are fastened at their extremities to the blade, one on one side and one on the other. The blade of the hoe being thus attached forms an angle with the handle, and by means is almost parallel to the surface of the soil when in use. The edge is thrust into the earth with a pushing motion and cuts up the weeds, which, with the surface soil, pass through the aperture between the arms.  By this arrangement the tool meets with far less resistance, and the labour is rendered far lighter than it would be if the opening was closed, or even if the socket for the handle proceeded immediately from the centre of the blade.

The mysterious and legendary Dutch Hoe

As we know the Beetons were editing or compiling these books from many other uncredited sources rather than writing them. This gardening book like BOHM is a grab bag of articles from horticultural magazines, journals and pamphlets. This led me to wonder about the reliability of this book as a text for explaining how the Victorians gardened. Was this the kind of book that you owned rather than used? Certainly it is likely to be a reference book that came out to the colonies but does it capture gardening in Australia in the Victorian era? Australia has such a radically different climate to the Mother Country.  In other words have I been barking up the wrong tree?

Como House - Living in very grand style in colonial Melbourne

While I try to find some Australian gardening reference books I decide to visit Como House in inner-city Melbourne. This amazing house was built in 1847 and is still furnished with its original period furniture and boasts a vegetable garden – hazar!

Apart from being stonking enormous it really has a very plain exterior or I guess elegant depending on your point of view. It actually looks more like an English Regency house than a English Victorian country mansion. The family that built this house were extremely rich owning some 1 million acres of sheep farms across Victoria – baa! It seems unlikely that lack of money was the barrier to a  full flowering of fanciness in architecture.

I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside due to the low lighting that they use to conserve all the soft furnishings. Have a look at their gallery if you are interested.  I was however allowed to take as many photo’s as I wanted in the laundry – very happy!

The laundry outhouse at Como

So by way of an update to my earlier post exploring Victorian laundries here is the real thing.

The devices on the window sill are for ironing crimps into fabric and lace.

In the back left hand corner is a wood fired copper in the corner. Just to the right of the copper is a black iron stove for heating Flat Irons.

Stove for heating irons.

This laundry would have been a hot and steamy spot. It does at least have high ceilings and lots of doors and big opening windows. So not as bad as it could be – still I bags working out in the garden rather than in the laundry as a Washer Woman. I do love the old shabbiness of this room!

A green winding mangle just like Grandma used to use.

That’s probably enough laundry porn.

The kitchen was really unbelievably basic which is surprising as it was the kitchen they used right through until the 1960′s when they sold the house to the National Trust.

The benches in the kitchen were all low; about mid thigh in height.  I’m 165 cm (5ft 6 in) and I would have had to stoop down uncomfortably to use them. The tour guide said this was evidence of how short people were during this era – I don’t know – this would make them very very small indeed.

The scullery seemed cramped for catering to such a large household so maybe they used more of the outdoor space around kitchen than just the indoors? This would be a good solution apart from the flies.

Scullery - not the Queen's

Unfortunately the 5 acres of garden remaining around the house are a legacy of the the 1920′s. The vegetable garden is a recreation of a garden planted by the Mistress of the house in 1925 and uses varieties that were available in Melbourne between the wars.

The 1925 Vegetable Garden with chicken coop but no Art Deco stylings

A little disappointing for me as I was hoping to see how Victorian-Melburnians grew their vegetables. While my time traveling experiment wasn’t entirely successful I have since found one fabulous book and a lead on another.

Remembered Gardens – Eight women & their visions of an Australian landscape by Holly Kerr Forsyth is a wonderful read. Forsyth states that

“Gardens created in the colonies during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) displayed all the plants popular in Britain.  In towns and cities, front gardens of the less wealthy continued to feature circular and oval beds surrounded by upturned rock or glazed tiles…Gardens of the wealthier settlers now featured edging of Box, introduced to the colony in about 1828, and even carriage circles. A typical front garden for a large Victorian terrace house might have a parterre of box hedges encasing standard roses.”

So nothing yet specifically about the vegetable gardens but it is likely that Melburnians were using the same vegetable seeds as the English.  To confirm this I need to track down an 1858 publication called Brunning’s Australian Gardener. More time travel maybe required!

Artichoke flowers at Como