The Westonbirt Rhododendrons
Westonbirt Arboretum was officially founded in 1829 by Robert Stayner Holford, a wealthy landowner and plant enthusiast who funded exotic expeditions around the world in the heyday of Victorian plant-hunting. Seeds and cuttings were brought back to his new arboretum and nurtured there like a living, botanical museum, but unlike other arboretums, which were arranged taxonomically by species and subspecies, he instead chose to design the arboretum based on the pure aesthetic beauty of his trees.
As a consequence, Westonbirt is not only a haven for botanists, gardeners and conservationists, but an incredibly peaceful and mesmerising space in which to wander and contemplate one’s place in the world. Each pathway and clearing is designed to enhance the trees it holds, every angle calculated to provide the best, most bewitching views. Even Westonbirt House, the old family mansion that has since become a boarding school, is central to the arboretum design. From the tallest tower, three ‘rides’ (long, grassy avenues) lead out into the grounds, offering lazy views over the whole arboretum.
Westonbirt is also home to a collection of old and rare rhododendrons, a plant that’s often thought of as an unwelcome invader today after escaping from Victorian gardens and colonising native woodlands. In this arboretum, however, they are a carefully managed and beautiful addition to the display, with many of the breeds cultivated by Holford himself.
When I lived in London, I used to volunteer in Sydenham Hill Wood, an ancient woodland near Forest Hill tube station that was once dissected by a railway track, taking visitors to the newly built Crystal Palace exhibition - the crown and glory of Victorian imperialism. In Sydenham, the native broadleaf trees were interrupted by monkey puzzles, sundials and even a crumbling folly - a strange trend of the Victorians to build pretend ruins in their gardens. The railway had long since been dismantled and the houses and gardens nearby reclaimed by the woodland, but beneath the moss and ferns you could still find relics of life in the wood just a century or two before. Ever since, I’ve been drawn to landscapes that have been altered by mankind, but still possess a strange wildness of their own, and although Westonbirt is very much cultivated and cared for, I sensed the same combination of nature and history together in one place.
The rhododendrons at Westonbirt captivated me, and I painted this illustration - inspired by the array of colour and exoticism interspersed with our native garden birds and butterflies.