Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Read All About It: Thomas Hanbury in nineteenth century China, Italy and England



If you like plants, gardens, history-lite and fine writing, get hold of Alasdair Moore's La Mortola: in the Footsteps of Thomas Hanbury (The Globe Pequot Press, 2004).

I knew Thomas Hanbury had created a famous private botanic garden in the Italian Riviera called La Morola and, when reminded on the dusk jacket, I recalled that he had donated Wisley to the Royal Horticultural Society. But that was it.

I also thought this relatively short book (256 pages, but small pages) would give me a little background on Hanbury but not be all that exciting. Instead it's a great story and beautifully crafted. Alasdair Moore can write.

Somehow Moore has interwoven the history of China and Italy in the nineteenth century, with some wonderful plants stories and a large dollop of Hanbury family history to make a great little book. The background is Shanghai after the Opium Wars where Hanbury became the biggest private property holder in the city - eventually owning more than 1450 properties! He used this money to build schools, research centres and gardens.

Clearly he was an astute businessman. Although he used much of his income for good things in China, Italy and England, there was some controversy over whether his properties were home to opium dens and prostitutes. As a Quaker and apparently ethically-sound man, this caused his some distress, whether real or not.

His family history includes the usual mix of triumph and tragedy. His brother Daniel Hanbury, a celebrated (pharmacutical) botanist and friend of the Hookers who lorded over the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew at the time, died of typhoid.

Along the way there are pithy stories about Agave and a few other botanical treats, as well as the struggles of gardening in water-deprived limestone.

I haven't been lucky enough to visit La Mortola in south-west Italy, near the Italian-French border on the Mediterranean, but I've been to a similarly intriguing 'botanic garden' called Les Cedres, at nearby St Jean Cap Ferrat in France (a picture of the coastline looking towards the Italian border heads this post).

After reading this book I must get to La Mortola, even its glory has faded a little since Hanbury died in 1907. The RHS Garden at Wisley I have visited (the image below is from my visit in 2008) but, you know, I wouldn't mind going back there as well.

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