Magazine article The Spectator

I Predict a Riot

Magazine article The Spectator

I Predict a Riot

Article excerpt

When my father was director of the RSC at Stratford, we lived in a Regency house that belonged to the theatre but had originally been built for Sir Robert Hamilton, modelled on his colonial home in India. Many directors and actors had held tenure there and musicians and secretaries were housed around the stable yard with a view into the huge kitchen garden.

My mother planted the conservatory at the side of the house and you could tell who had been lingering there by the pale-blue plumbago flowers sticking to their clothes. It was wild but safe -- and that's really the point about conservatories.

While her garden was planted with clipped Le Nôtre-style box hedges and disciplined standard roses lining gravel paths, the conservatory was a riot of lush foliage and blossom, and the sun warmed the scent of flowers into a heady concoction in the summer.

You'll understand why, subsequently, whenever I put a key in my own front door, I look up at the house and think 'surely there must be some mistake?' And you'll know why, if I ever win the lottery, a conservatory will feature on my shopping list.

The first conservatories in Britain were at the Oxford Botanical and Chelsea Physic gardens, and on large country estates.

From about 1750, the ten-acre nurseries lining the King's Road in Chelsea became chic meeting places where highly luxurious and terrifically exciting new plants could be found. The 'Old Purple' chrysanthemum gathered from China by scouts from Colvill's nursery was snapped up by every duke, earl and marchioness for their pleasure gardens. Lee and Kennedy at the Vineyard nursery in Fulham supplied vast quantities of plants to the Empress Josephine at Malmaison, and were issued with special passports to travel to and from France during the Napoleonic wars.

After the tax on glass was lifted in 1845 and Paxton built the Crystal Palace in 1851 (based on his Great Conservatory at Chatsworth) a wider British public hardly needed persuading of the attractions of their very own conservatory.

Most conservatories today are mouldy uPVC horrors, or naff neo-Victorian confections. There are also perfectly tasteful kitchen or family-room extensions with lantern roofs, or sleek contemporary glass structures, which maybe house collections of contemporary sculpture. None of them seem to feature plants. This spring the Nature Look is big news in interiors, with oversized leafy patterns, floral motifs and an accent on the colour green -- so maybe it's time to welcome plants in conservatories again. …

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