Thursday, 16 April 2015

Project Genesis takes root!

This week is National Gardening Week which ties in perfectly to the first subject of Project Genesis, the archive of renowned horticulturist and landscape gardener James Russell.  In many ways James Russell makes an ideal starting point for the project.  Unusually for a Borthwick collection, the archive of James Russell has a published catalogue, prepared by Katrina Legg in 2003, which includes a biography of Russell himself and a full list of the 473 files that make up the archive together with details of its history and system of arrangement.

Whilst I have often fetched items from the James Russell archive for visitors in the searchroom, preparing a Collection Level Description and authority file for the collection was the first opportunity I’ve had to look through the catalogue in detail.  The breadth of material is remarkable.  The James Russell archive takes up some 72 archive boxes and includes more than 100 rolls containing extensive correspondence, plant lists, plans, sketches, photographs, magazine and journal articles and other administrative papers relating to his work with hundreds of individuals and organisations in the UK and around the world.
‘Promotional literature for Sunningdale Nurseries’. Ref: JR 1/77
Helpfully for the modern researcher Russell kept the papers for each of his clients together in a single file, separating out the larger plans and sketches to be stored as rolls.  When cataloguing new collections archivists seek to preserve its original order wherever possible and so these files and rolls have been largely retained as they were received in the 1990s – albeit with some new packaging and a few less paperclips.
In its entirety the archive tells the story of Russell’s career from the 1950s to the 1990s.  It was a career that saw his work in the revival of Sunningdale Nurseries in Surrey; create the Rose Garden, Ray Wood and the arboretum at Castle Howard; undertake countless projects for private clients at home and abroad and receive the Royal Horticultural Society’s highest accolade, the Victoria Medal of Honour.
‘Annotated plan of arboretum at Castle Howard’. Ref: JR 1/264
As the archive shows, his clients included the paper merchants Wiggins Teape Ltd whose new rooftop gardens, designed and planted by Russell in 1976, were dubbed the ‘Hanging Gardens of Basingstoke.’  Outside of the UK his commissions took him to Normandy and Nassau, and even to Japan where he advised on the landscaping of Mount Akagi Nature Observation Park for the Seiyo Corporation between 1987 and 1991.
In between such projects he found time to take part in plant hunting expeditions and horticultural excursions to America, Madagascar, Nassau, Georgia, the Bahamas, Sri Lanka, Mexico, St Lucia, Belgium, Holland, to name just some of his destinations referenced in his papers.  In 1985 he became one of the first Westerners to visit the province of Guizhou in the new People’s Republic of China with John Simmons, then curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
As the archive makes clear, his specialism was rhododendrons. The Sunningdale rhododendrons had their origins in the Himalayan expedition of Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1849.  Some of the rhododendron seeds he brought back to Kew from Sikkim in the Himalayas found their way to the celebrated Sunningdale nursery in Surrey where they were sold, helping to fuel a new gardening fashion.  However when Russell took over the nursery in the 1940s he found that not all the trees grown from the 1849 Sikkim seeds had been sold and the surviving rhododendron trees found still growing in the grounds formed the basis of Sunningdale’s revival.  When Russell left Sunningdale for Castle Howard in 1968 the majority of his rhododendrons went north with him and they can still be seen today in the magnificent Ray Wood, laid out by Russell in the 1970s over twenty-five acres of the Castle grounds.
James Russell was not a man who sought publicity, preferring to be seen as ‘simply a gardener.’  Nevertheless his skill and expertise was recognised during his lifetime and in addition to receiving accolades from the Royal Horticultural Society, Russell was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of York in 1994 for his contribution to botany and conservation.  Russell died in 1996 but his archive stands as a testament to the man and his work, providing a valuable insight into the history of landscape design and horticulture in the second half of the twentieth century and a full and fascinating resource for the historian and gardening enthusiast alike.

Sally-Anne Shearn

T. Aldous and J.Winter, Hanging gardens of Basingstoke,’ in Architects’ Journal (Aug 1977).
Julia Brittain, Horticulture: The Plant Lovers Companion (2006).
John Grimshaw, ‘Ray Wood rhododendrons on show,’ in John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary (May 2013)
John Grimshaw, ‘Rhododendron thomsonii,’ in John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary (March 2014)
Katrina Legg, The Archive of James Russell, garden designer, deposited at the Borthwick Institute, University of York (York, 2003).

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