From a Victorian Garden: Creating the Romance of a Bygone Age Right in Your Own Backyard
Review By Brenda Peterson
November 4, 2013
BC Studies no. 142-143 Summer-Autumn 2004 | p. 321-2
GARDENS ARE EPHEMERAL, constantly changing and easily lost after only a few years of neglect. The Point Ellice House in Victoria, British Columbia, is an exceptional historic site where the gardens, with original, plantings now over 120 years old, have been successfully recreated.
Using the story of, and remarkable documentary evidence available for, the Point Ellice House and gardens, From a Victorian Garden paints a detailed portrait of a Victorian garden and provides readers with practical information for creating a period garden.
Housing one of the richest collections of Victoriana in western Canada, the Point Ellice estate of the O’Reilly family provides a glimpse into the life of well-to-do settlers living in Victoria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Original furnishings, wallpaper (with spare rolls), books, magazines, clothes, personal letters, garden journals, photographs, receipts, plant lists, and annotated seed catalogues are among the 15,000 plus items left in the home.
In 1867 Peter and Caroline O’Reilly bought Point Ellice House, which was constructed around 1861. The house remained in the immediate family until 1974, when the government of British Columbia purchased it as a historic site.
With the assistance of garden historians, professional archaeologists, and the wealth of archival information left in the house, the curators of the Point Ellice estate have undertaken the recreation of the gardens, which is the main focus of this book. The gardens played a central role in the life of the O’Reilly family. They were a venue for playing sports such as croquet and lawn tennis, and for entertaining guests during the summer months (in 1886 the O’Reillys hosted a high tea for Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and his wife). The kitchen garden provided fresh vegetables and fruit for the family, and cut flowers for decoration of the house interior.
The authors make excellent use of excerpts from the detailed archival records of the O’Reilly family. Letters between husband and wife, diaries, plant lists, and, most important, historic photographs illustrate the story of how the gardens were cultivated and used by their owners. The book highlights the influence of popular British garden writers on the design of this colonial garden, including the use of hardscape and the selection of plants. The text is rich with extensive quotations from Victorian garden books.
The main author, Michael Weishan, is host of the American television program The Victory Garden, which has over two million viewers each week. He is a garden designer, specializing in period gardens, and lives in an 1852 farmhouse west of Boston. He is also gardening editor for Country Living magazine, where his monthly column, “Your Garden,” is read by over eight million subscribers. This is his second book on historic gardens; Ballantine published his first book, The New Traditional Garden, in 1999. Given Weishan’s large audience, staff at Point Ellice House should brace themselves for a surge of new visitors.
While this is primarily a book for gardeners, with most of the text devoted to practical, how-to information, I recommend it for anyone with an interest in the social history of Victoria. The creative layout of the book, illustrations, photographs, and presentation of historical information are excellent. I do have a few complaints. The poor choice of italic font for the quotations from letters and journals makes for difficult reading; and careless copy editing resulted in some errors. For example, James Douglas is called John Douglas, Sir John A. Macdonald’s last name is spelled “McDonald,” Kootenay is spelled “Keetnay,” and some dates are off by a year or two. I was also disappointed by the absence of a list of the O’Reillys’ gardening books found in the house.
On my first visit to Point Ellice House many years ago, garden historians were just beginning the enormous task of restoring the gardens. After clearing a section in the north part of the grounds, their efforts were immediately rewarded by the sprouting of hollyhock seeds, which had been lying dormant in the soil for almost sixty years. With seeds purchased at the house, I now have direct descendants of the Point Ellice hollyhocks growing in my Kitsilano garden.
The restoration of the gardens at Point Ellice House is a work in progress, and I look forward to following the ongoing development of this great Victorian treasure.