The Chelsea Physic Garden

When I first discovered the Chelsea Physic Garden on the River Thames Embankment in London, I felt as I imagined ten year old Mary, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s story The Secret Garden, would have felt when she unlocked the door to her secret garden: like ‘a missel thrush with a safe hidden nest… being shut out of the world in some fairy place’. In time I discovered that many people all over the world consider Chelsea’s historic fertile ground a secret. Indeed, it is almost as if those privy to it regard themselves as members of a club sharing an affection for all things green and fruitful.

Inspired by a particular landscape, similar to the historic original, the garden has the tranquil atmosphere of a ‘living horticultural education’. Its instructive, defining structure is set out in quadrants: two identified according to systematic order, a third identified according to use (e.g. medicinal, culinary, herbal, perfume, textile), and a fourth displaying plants introduced into cultivation by past curators.

In the centre of the garden there is a copy of a statue of the benefactor Sir Hans Sloane (1660 -1753) by the Flemish sculptor, Johannes Michel Rysbrack. Close by is a tiny woodland garden, and on the edges are glasshouses. Contemporary additions are the café, bookshop, educational centre and lecture rooms, which up until recently have housed the renowned English Gardening School and remain a supportive home to the associated Florilegium Society, established in 1995, a group of artists whose aim is to create a visual archive with paintings and drawings of the 5000 species growing in the garden.
Founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London in 1673, the four-acre Chelsea Physic Garden, then known as the Apothecaries’ Garden, served to cultivate medicinal plants that could be used by the Society’s apprentices for compounding herbal healing products. Only apothecaries, who trained for eight years, were permitted to dispense prescriptions for licensed members of the College of Physicians.

However, were it not for the generosity of Sir Hans Sloane, who acquired the freehold of the land in 1712, the garden might have become an historical relic. Sloane had developed an affection towards the garden when he had studied there in his youth. He determined to ensure its survival by granting the Apothecaries a lease of the site for a rent of five pounds per year in perpetuity, provided the garden remained a physic garden and a teaching establishment for the appreciation of the ‘power and glory of God in the works of the creation and that their apprentices and others may the better distinguish good and useful plants…’ Moreover, the Society was obliged to deliver annually fifty specimens of dried and preserved plants to the Royal Society – no plant was to be offered twice. The provision gave the garden a robust raison d’être.

Several horticulturalists stand out in the garden’s history for their contributions to botanical knowledge and the garden’s development. Gardener Philip Miller (1691 – 1771), through his correspondence with plantsmen in Europe and the British Colonies, enabled the doubling of the number of species in cultivation in Britain between 1731 and 1768, including paw paw, melons and pineapples. Miller’s Gardeners’ Dictionary is hailed as the most important horticultural work of the eighteenth century.

Miller’s endeavours were facilitated by the garden’s first heated greenhouse, built in 1680, which ensured the fertility of exotic plants and plants from warmer climates. In later years, the invention of the Wardian case in 1859, a miniature glasshouse, enabled the ‘safe’ transportation of plant stock on discovery ships; inside these glass domes, plants could be self sustaining systems of nutrients and water; hence they did not compete with the crew for water.

Miller’s successor, gardener William Forsyth (1734 – 1804) – after whom the spring flowering Forsythia is named – inspired the construction of the rock garden, now a listed Grade II* structure and the oldest public rock garden in Europe. Forsyth was also one of the founders of the Royal Horticultural Society.

William Curtis (1746 – 99) who was employed as a ‘Demonstrator of Plants’ established Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1787. The publication still exists, featuring illustrations of plants and articles about the cultivation and conservation of plants.

Over time the garden’s usefulness as a research centre was undermined as botanical educational institutions began to use grounds outside London. Eventually, these grounds lost their appeal as the disciplines of ecology and biochemistry gained stature, and researchers relied increasingly on DNA extracts sent by post for information rather than plants.

The City Parochial Society – which had taken over the running of the garden from the Apothecaries – debated whether or not the cost of maintenance for a steadily decreasing student population was merited. If the garden were opened to those studying horticulture in a wider context – school children, conservationists, environmentalists -– and the general public visiting for peace and pleasure, this could ensure its financial future and relevance in a world where ‘green’ issues – for instance environmental and physical health – were assuming paramount importance. As a consequence, in 1983, the garden was opened to the public.

When I visited recently I was fortunate to be able to meet Judi Stone, the Chair of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society, and view members’ work. Stone explained that each year the artists choose which plants they each will portray from a methodical list. ‘Different sorts of plants appeal to different people,’ she commented.
Artists rely on cuttings and photographs for reference. They submit their completed work to an independent panel that judges their suitability. The Society also endeavours to encourage a greater awareness of botanical illustration by organising exhibitions of members’ work at the garden and elsewhere in the UK and abroad. Last year the Society exhibited at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York.

What distinguishes botanical illustration from other artistic endeavour is that it serves both science and aesthetics. The sensibilities of the artist enable the rigorous pursuit of knowledge by the scientist; they create an objective mirror of nature.
Although botanical illustration dates from antiquity, it did not acquire its robust stature in the European world until the late Renaissance, when the scientific revolution began to unfold and visual representations of living matter became useful recording devices. This did not, however, preclude collectors enjoying the paintings and drawings for their artistic beauty.

European landowners also appreciated the talents of botanical artists. They commissioned them to create pictorial catalogues of their floral collections. Artists often accompanied explorers on their travels in order to make visual ‘documents’ of plants species. Pictures of the living specimen rather than the dried guarantee greater accuracy and detail. Moreover, a visual reference of a species prevents confusion arising due to problems with nomenclature, so the wrong specimen is not identified for a particular use.

A botanical drawing has significant advantages over a photograph. By definition it can portray dissection, seasonal traits – the leaves, seeds, buds and flowers – sometimes perspective – a branch features in the foreground while the tree or shrub to which it is attached is added in the background. Sometimes associated environmental or ecological systems are depicted, though traditionally the picture is set against a white background.

Shades of light and dark may hinder the accuracy of a photograph captured by the camera’s ‘click’, camouflaging informative detail, while the botanical illustration is not subject to the censorious time constraints of the press of a button. The artist has the luxury of replacing damaged living specimens with healthy ones, the use of the microscope and magnifying glass.

‘Sometimes the panel suggests an addition to the picture,’ explains Judi Stone. ‘Botanical accuracy is the major consideration; colour is absolutely vital, too.’ She agrees that, as with photographs, no two supposedly precise images of a subject will be the same. Stone elaborates:

After carefully drawing the plant image, the artist constructs the portrayal slowly to create shape, a sense of texture, depth and shadow. One builds up layers of paint, usually working from light to dark. Watercolour is usually employed; oil on canvas is rarely as effective. We discourage the use of vellum in favour of hot pressed paper – it’s very smooth and thicker. Vellum is expensive and for storage we have to put thick card in between each painting or drawing. This takes up more chest space than hot pressed paper, which can be preserved in thin archival plastic sheets. In case of disaster we take slides of pictures which we store elsewhere!

How important is knowledge of botany for the artist? Stone explains: ‘what matters most are powers of observation. Many members are scientists, botanists and or gardeners. Some have retired from one career and seek another; others are very young and embarking on their first career.’ Stone is a biochemist whose initial research at Imperial College concerned insects. ‘I enjoyed dissections. Instinctively I appreciate the importance of accuracy rather than embellishment. My skills were transferable.’

Before going back to full time work after starting her family, Stone took an adult education course in botanical illustration purely for pleasure. Her tutor was impressed with her achievements and encouraged her to exhibit her work, notably at Kew, where Stone now works as an illustrator.

During the past fifteen years, Stone believes, there has been a great Renaissance in botanical art, partly due to the activities and encouragement of collectors such as Dr. Shirley Sherwood. Indeed, in 2008, The Shirley Sherwood Gallery for Botanical Art was opened at Kew.

Perhaps the rebirth reflects a growing interest in preserving the natural environment, making the most considerate use of our natural resources. In this green light, by opening its gates to the public, the Chelsea Physic Garden has established itself as a fertile source of life-long learning about caring for our planet. An environmental saviour?


My thanks to Rosie Atkins, Curator, Chelsea Physic Garden, for her support and the pictures, courtesy of the Chelsea Physic Garden, and also my thanks to Judi Stone, Chair, the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society, for her support and the use of the botanical illustrations courtesy of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society.

For more information about the Chelsea Physic Garden, including opening hours and special rates and privileges for ‘Friends’, and the Florilegium Society, please go to

First published in The Art Book, Volume 17, Issue 3, August 2010.