LONDON — Not many museums discover the graves of five archbishops during their renovations, but the Garden Museum overlooking the River Thames is unique. Not only is it the world’s first museum of garden history, it’s housed in a deconsecrated church. From the 11th century to 1854, more than 20,000 people were buried inside St Mary-at-Lambeth and in the surrounding churchyard. So when Dow Jones Architects redesigned the interior — newly reopened this May — they couldn’t touch the historic walls or disturb these graves. New galleries and spaces from the 18-month redevelopment are lofted and divided with prefabricated timber, which allows natural light to stream in through the stained glass windows.
While the revamp works around the building’s heritage, it doesn’t ignore it. Memorial plaques in the nave and tombs embedded on the floor are visible alongside the exhibitions of antique gardening implements, contemporary art, lawn ornaments, and a freestanding shed — in which you can watch videos about sheds. At several different stations, visitors can listen to recreations of the voices of the interred dead, including Elias Ashmole, of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. A founding collection of that museum involved objects from The Ark, opened to the public by the 17th-century gardener John Tradescant, who also rests at the Garden Museum. Tradescant’s elaborate tomb is prominent in the lush, new Sackler Garden by designer Dan Pearson, with pyramids, a hydra, and other carvings on its four sides.
Tradescant’s posthumous presence is why the Garden Museum exists. St Mary-at-Lambeth was abandoned when, in 1976, John and Rosemary Nicholson tracked the tomb of Tradescant and his son John to the crumbling structure. Both Tradescants were renowned for their international plant hunting, credited with introducing plants such as the horse chestnut and apricot to Britain, and the elder Tradescant served as the gardener for King Charles I. Rosemary Nicholson founded the Garden Museum in 1977, saving the church and preserving this history.
Included in the reopened museum is a new gallery called “The Ark,” which reunites artifacts from the Tradescant museum. At the center of the gallery, there’s a transparent window to a dark set of stairs leading down to that previously unknown crypt of archbishops. On the walls are curiosities, natural and human made, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. They range from a cast of a dodo’s mummified head, to antlers possibly collected in Virginia, to a most unusual “Vegetable Lamb.” According to 17th-century lore, this was a half sheep, half plant creature, believed to grow in Tartary (part of today’s Central Asia). The myth may have been inspired by a woolly fern that is indigenous to China, and looks a bit like a lamb on its back with its legs sticking up (if you were suffering from malaria delirium, perhaps).
The 17th-century Ark is recognized as the first public museum in Britain — accessible to anyone for sixpence entry — and the Tradescants also maintained an influential garden in Lambeth. One of the current exhibitions — Tradescant’s Orchard: A Celebration of Botanical Art — has contemporary botanical artists responding to a publication that recorded 66 fruit varieties they cultivated. Other sections of the Garden Museum focus on changing trends in gardening from 1600 to today, with patterns for vibrant Victorian flower beds and an 18th-century “red book” that pitched country estate owners a “before” and “after” for landscaping. Also highlighted is the connection of artists to gardens. For instance, Harold Gilman’s “Portrait of a Black Gardener” (1905), portrays gardening, and the gardener, as heroic, a rare depiction, not just for the race of the gardener, but in the dignity given to him and his profession. There are innovations like 17th-century Tudor thumb pots, used for gentle plant watering, and some well-worn pony boots, designed for ponies pulling a mowing machine, a 19th-century invention that replaced the scythe. (The boots minimized hoof damage on the lawn.) Another current show highlights the art of Eileen Hogan, who painted London-area gardens as the “artist-not-in-residence” while the museum was closed.
For a small institution, the Garden Museum has a lot to take in, from the cafe’s new bronze cladding that responds to the layered bark of the adjacent plane trees, to its courtyard garden with a density of unusual plants. Although it might seem like a curious part of urban London for a garden museum — there is more concrete in Lambeth than sprawling green space — it adds some botanical calm to the neighborhood through its indoor and outdoor spaces. And it shows how caring for, and experimenting with plants, has impacted art and museums, and continues to be a bridge between human development and the natural world.
The Garden Museum is now open on Lambeth Palace Road, London.