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Keeping the Gainsborough garden true to its Georgian roots

PUBLISHED: 10:28 13 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:28 13 February 2018

A view through the Gainsborough Garden to the back of the house. Picture: Gainsborough House

A view through the Gainsborough Garden to the back of the house. Picture: Gainsborough House


Gainsborough House head gardener Jane Lowe on the challenges of using only natural products and plants which were available during the lifetime of the legendary painter who grew up at the Sudbury home.

Benton Lorna, a Cedric Morris iris at Gainsborough House garden. Picture: Clare DawsonBenton Lorna, a Cedric Morris iris at Gainsborough House garden. Picture: Clare Dawson

The centre piece of the garden at Gainsborough House, the Sudbury childhood home of Thomas Gainsborough, is a mulberry tree with spreading giant boughs. It is more than 400 years old - an age that more than qualifies it for the garden, which only contains plants available during the lifetime of the celebrated portrait and landscape painter who lived at the house until he was 13, in 1740, and died in London in 1788.

The person in charge of ensuring all planting abides by the rule – the Gainsborough House management team introduced the condition along with another, to grow everything organically, 25 years ago - is head gardener Jane Lowe.

Jane spent most of her working life dealing with the fragile egos of the arts and entertainment world, leading the events management team at the Barbican, in central London. Now, after moving to Sudbury 15 years ago, the delicate flowers Jane tackles are all horticultural – and the lifelong gardening enthusiast is well equipped for the role.

If only James I had been as green-fingered. The black mulberry tree was planted in the garden, as were thousands all over the country, in response to an order by the king made with the idea of establishing a silk producing industry.

Head gardener at Gainsborough House Jane Lowe. Picture: Gainsborough HouseHead gardener at Gainsborough House Jane Lowe. Picture: Gainsborough House

However, Jane tells me, it is the white mulberry tree that feeds silkworms, not the black one cultivated in the estates and substantial gardens of England under James’s bidding.

Ironically, Sudbury did become the centre of the UK’s silk weaving industry. Vanners Silk Weavers bought a chunk of the Gainsborough’s House garden, which had been an orchard, to extend their business. The company has gone on to produce the silk for several royal weddings and work with some of the leading textile designers in the world.

The mulberry tree may have been planted in error, but it is a much-loved feature of the garden. It is most striking in May when it comes into leaf and grows plump black mulberries, the House’s executive director, Mark Bills, has collected to be made into jam.

Given a guided tour of the garden by Jane on a bitingly cold February afternoon when Jane shows it to me, the skeletal tree still has a sculptural beauty with branches that appear to prowl along the grass. Jane brings in a tree surgeon every couple of years to prune and prop up the branches with stumps as otherwise, she explains, it would have swallowed up the entire garden in its four centuries of life.

Not to everyone's taste - the fruit of the medlar tree. Picture: Anne PurkissNot to everyone's taste - the fruit of the medlar tree. Picture: Anne Purkiss

The surgeon also corsets the pair of Irish yews so they grow sentry straight and tall at the entrance to the garden from the back of the house.

Gainsborough House is planning a refurbishment and extension for opening in 2021 as it is not financially viable in its current state. After Heritage Lottery Fund assistance it still needs to raise £700,000. Tree surgeon services are a large expense and Jane, who works in the garden as a volunteer, has to work on a minimal budget to look after the garden.

So the enterprising and talented Jane began to raise money for the garden’s upkeep herself, selling homemade knitted socks, gloves and scarves.

As the money has come in, Jane has put it to good use in the garden, all the while abiding by the rules for what can and can’t be grown.

The mulberry tree, which has been dated at more than 400 years old. Picture: Gainsborough HouseThe mulberry tree, which has been dated at more than 400 years old. Picture: Gainsborough House

“We used to have a lot of tall Forsythia and other shrubs by the back of the house, until I found out they were not brought into the country until Victorian times. When I had the money to do it, they all came out.”

The Forsythia has been replaced by several balls of the evergreen shrub Box, which was very popular in Georgian times. Jane ensures that every new plant is of a species available to gardeners in Gainsborough’s time by consulting a list of eligible plants compiled by the Royal Horticultural Society. There is plenty of choice as during the eighteenth century, the range of available flowers and plants grew rapidly to keep pace with the increasing interest in botany.

I stop at a medlar tree, which bears winter fruit considered a delicacy in Georgian times, but not to many modern tastes – Jane screws up her face at the memory of trying one – but the tree does offer an abundance of pink and white blossom in spring.

Despite wintry spots of colour from a scattering of snowdrops, climbing jasmine and pots of pansies around the print workshop – a neighbouring building turned into an artists’ studio as part of Gainsborough House – and a blossoming witch hazel plant with spidery yellow foliage, Jane admits no garden can “look ravishing” all year round.

But spring is just around the corner and Jane and her team, which now numbers just one after a recent retirement, are gearing the garden to come alive with colour when the seasons change.

There are beds of hundreds of tulips and roses, a carpet of white alliums to spring up under the mulberry tree and some very special irises, which Jane is very proud of, and which blend rather sweetly with a new exhibition at Gainsborough House.

Until June, as well as original works by Gainsborough and fellow Suffolk painting great John Constable, the museum will be showcasing a collection of more than 100 works by the artist Cedric Morris which were gifted to Gainsborough House.

Morris was also a keen plantsman and his garden at Benton End, in Hadleigh, where he ran an influential art school with students including Lucien Freud and Maggi Hambling, was full of his propagated irises in all kinds of wonderful colours. Several of the irises in the Gainsborough Garden are Cedric Morris varieties.

Jane says: “I think it is rather nice that we have the Morris irises in the garden at the time of the exhibition. As he was an artist he was after painterly and peculiar colours. He was the first man to breed pink irises.”

If you come to Gainsborough House for the exhibition you’ll step through the garden to begin your tour. Just as in Georgian times when gardens were seen as an extension of the house, a place for recreation and entertainment, there is the opportunity for visitors to sit in the garden in cloistered quiet, reflecting on the stunning artwork they have seen inside or to put a question to Jane, who will likely be hard at work

– weeding in a large garden that doesn’t use chemicals is a never-ending job.

Plants and seeds from the garden are sometimes for sale to raise funds towards the upkeep of the garden. Gainsborough House and Garden is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm and on Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Admission is £7 for adults, £2 for children over £5 and £16 for a family ticket. For more information, visit here or call 01787 372958.

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