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Discourses of Horticulture in England, 1660–1760

Richard Coulton, Queen Mary, University of London, United Kingdom, Fellow 2005–2006

My research project focuses on discourses of horticulture in England between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. It situates practices of gardening within their historical contexts, concentrating on a period when a burgeoning, elite taste for fashionable gardens coincided with the growing intellectual curiosity about the natural world that was displayed by members of the gentry and middling sorts alike. These developments were not unrelated: rather, the garden's capacity to facilitate work in both experimental and systematic botany was coupled with the utility of the new science for improving gardens as sites of aesthetic beauty, scholarly enquiry, and social exchange. Horticultural discourse-in the form of printed texts, manuscript correspondence, and metropolitan clubs (for example)-conveniently located the interface between divergent practical and theoretical approaches to gardening; yet its emergence and codification was not a straightforward process, informed (and at times directed) as it was by contemporary concerns with political economy and the land, commerce and consumption, sociability and status, nationhood and empire.

The research I had completed prior to this year examined the social and literary worlds of professional horticulturists (especially trading nurserymen) in England around the turn of the eighteenth century. At Dumbarton Oaks I have broadened the scope of this work, most importantly by interrogating the social milieus and textual productions of genteel gardeners, with particular reference to the pursuit of horticultural knowledge within the Royal Society, and to the generic conventions and cultural currency of georgic as a polite category of writing about husbandry. However, the most crucial outcome this year has been a methodological shift within my project as a whole. In attempting to integrate histories of elite, aristocratic gardens with those of the manual labour and technical skill of bourgeois horticultural practitioners (two domains of garden studies that hitherto arguably have failed to establish adequate dialogue), I had exploited the idea of the garden as social space, one variously productive of cultural, commercial, and intellectual interactions between people of unequal status and background. Yet this approach was in some ways counter-productive: after all, gardens during this period were deployed far more regularly to preserve and reinscribe dominant social relations than they were appropriated as sites of transgression. Instead it is in the construction, revision, and dissemination of contemporary horticultural expertise that such dynamic exchanges between gentleman, professional, and labourer can readily be observed and explored. I have therefore altered my project's focus from representations of garden space towards discourses of horticultural practice, and anticipate that this will produce a more astute account of the complex interplay between knowledge and sociability, taste and property, work and wealth, within which the nascent science of gardening was produced and conditioned.