The images are not beautiful in any conventional sense. The colours can be lurid and the reproduction poor; but they are arresting social documents, redolent of a not-too-distant age. Brent Elliott, librarian at the Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library, has for 20 years been collecting picture post-cards of British municipal parks, spanning the 20th century.
It began as a personal project, but now he has donated the collection of around 5,000 cards to the Society. Shortly he will be sharing his treasures with the rest of us on the RHS website. Some of the most charming will be exhibited in the Library's expanded premises in Westminster, soon after it reopens next month.
Hoarding postcards sounds faintly nerdish, like collecting train numbers, matchbox labels or those little stickers that come on fresh fruit. But Elliott has a strong professional motivation for his hobby. The cards provide the most comprehensive record of the bedding schemes featured in hundreds of public parks in the first half of the 20th century. Some of these were extravagantly imaginative: there were floral tributes to the monarchy in the shape of three-dimensional crowns; town names spelt out in flowers; coats of arms; floral staircases; or carpet bedding mimicking an unfurling roll of actual carpet.
Apart from Elliott's postcards, few records of these magnificent creations. The beds were so colourful and extravagant, compared with the restrained styles advocated by green-fingered gurus of the day, that they were routinely ignored in gardening journals and manuals. "Coverage of municipal parks in the gardening press is not very good after the initial period of enthusiasm in the 1840s and 1850s," says Elliott. "After that, parks used to get discussed in the national press only when there was a controversy or a particular innovation.
"Three-dimensional carpet bedding emerged in the first decade of the 20th century and started becoming widespread just before the First World War. The last article in the gardening press to deal with it appeared in about 1913, because after that it was thought to be a bit naff. Garden journalists sought to draw a veil over it. That's why, if you want to find out what was going on in the parks, postcards are the only place."
Elliott began collecting them not long after joining the RHS as assistant librarian in 1977. In those days he could find plenty of the cards he wanted in mixed 5p and 10p boxes at collectors' fairs. Now they are valued in pounds rather than pennies. His collection as a whole is probably worth well in excess of pounds 5,000.
In the cramped basement where he and the Library have been camping out while their new premises are being constructed, Brent reaches into a stack of cardboard boxes and plucks out some of his treasures. A black-and-white card dated 1912 shows a display in Brenchley Gardens, Maidstone, marking the centenary of Charles Dickens's birth. Figures from The Pickwick Papers, picked out in sempervivums or echeverias, populate the foreground, while behind them is a cottage-like structure that could be the Old Curiosity Shop. Seven years later a three-dimensional floral cenotaph was created in the same park, to honour the war dead.
Two cards from 1928 indicate the intense rivalry between parks within a single city: Bradford's Bowling Park had a floral piano, while nearby Wibsey park struck a competitive chord with an electric organ. But seaside towns are the best represented, because they are where most people send postcards from. Elliott has about 40 depicting Eastbourne alone.
Municipal parks predate picture postcards (which the Post Office first accepted in 1894) by some 60 years. With the Industrial Revolution at its zenith, philanthropists and politicians recognised the need to provide green open spaces in increasingly crowded and polluted factory towns. …