I had a very eccentric little treat this week, doing the Lambeth walk from my home, down to St Mary’s relatively recently deconsecrated church, right by beautiful Lambeth Palace, and thanks to the endeavours of a dedicated local couple today The Garden Museum. It takes its theme from the lovely and very rare tomb of the Tradescant family, in the traditional Jacobean Knot garden behind. John Tradescant senior being a man of many plants, plots, travels and fascinating schemes, first for Elizabeth I’s chief advisor Robert Cecil. They don’t make them like that anymore. Like father, like son, under King James I, but one of the testaments to a King’s many errors being the large, crook branched Mulberry tree nearby. The Scots King James, dreaming of his Greate Britaigne, the hope of legal Union with Scotland that foundered for 100 years and is perhaps about to collapse again, tried to compete with the silk trade but imported the wrong kind of mulberry, the black variety that silk worms do not like! So perhaps people have been making excuses about the wrong kind of snow or leaves ever since.
But the fascinating Tradescants, brought to life in a colourful historical novel by Phillipa Gregory, opened the very first public museum in what they called The Ark, on their estate on the edge of Lambeth Road. Appropriate stuff for Phoenix Ark Press then. It would become the basis for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford when Elias Ashmole, mason, social climber, Herald at the College of Heralds and highly self-serving fellow, co-opted it from John Tradescant the younger, then fought a court case with his wife Hester, who was allowed to keep the contents for her life time. Hester died in somewhat questionable circumstances. A cabinet of rare curiosities, The Ark may have cost a hefty six pence to visit, when an average theatre ‘ticket’ was a penny, but it was technically open to all. Then the ‘democratic’ nature of that age before James I and then a Civil War ruined everything is also the fact that in 1612 The Virginia Trading Company had opened its first Free Standing Lotterie for anyone with a ready Twelvepence, to fund ventures in the Americas. It was soon taken up by all thirteen original colonies, so is a remarkably early origin to that so-called “American Dream” and straight out of that always very capital minded and adventuring London.
The Tradescant tomb stands right next to the monument to the Bligh family, and that Captain of The Bounty and mutiny fame, who lived just opposite the coming Imperial War Museum on Lambeth Road, a man of Bread Fruits, tough navy values and the most extraordinary feat of survival and navigation, when he was set adrift by his men. As my volunteer neighbour Kay and an ex ambassador to Mongolia pointed out though, the delicate carvings on the Tradescant tomb, restored four times now, have mythical rather than religious themes, like the seven headed and heavy breasted hydra guarding a skull, masonic pyramids, and curling stone groves and grottos. All good grist to the mill of Gary, another neighbour, friend, scholar of the esoteric and expert in Chinese textiles, who has a special interest in the likes of Dr John Dee and Simon Foreman. Foreman was a self taught astrologer, geomancer and proto Doctor, who was hounded by the licensed Doctors in the City over the water, with their surgeon’s hall on Silver Street, where Shakespeare lived a while, until he got his own licence to practice from Cambridge in 1603. Repeatedly locked up in those litigative spats so beloved of Elizabethans, constantly thinking of taking ship, and a man of somewhat rampant reputation with the ladies, who called sex to halek, Foreman lived in the house of a Mr Pratt in Lambeth, hence Pratt’s Walk, right over the road. A practicing Christian, while also casting his horoscopes, helping Elizabethans dig for buried treasure, providing love charms and tokens and tending to rich and poor, but not retreating from the great plagues either in that astonishingly fragile world, he was doubtless just as good as licensed Doctors of the time. He married in St Mary’s at 7am in the morning, in 1599. That year the famous wooden and thatched Globe Theatre rose on Bankside in Southwark and it is of course from Foreman’s diaries that we have one of the only accounts of visits to Shakespeare’s performances, in Foreman’s case Macbeth, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale.
Foreman, who is also buried somewhere in the church, was of course most interested in the witches in Macbeth but is a man whose reputation was especially blackened by being linked not just to that Occult that influenced so many, including Shakespeare, but to the famous Overbury murder, even though the poor man had himself been dead two years. As he was lampooned on stage by Ben Jonson, Foreman was described in court by Sir Edward Coke as “that devil Foreman“. Coke was of course the lawyer who changed the world, and built his own fortune too, when he gave the ruling in 1606 that the King could arrest no man except by good cause of the English law. Early soundings of a Civil War. A woodcut of Foreman with bristling necromantic beard adds to the dark myth, as does the legend that he predicted his own death in a journey across the Thames from Puddle dock, crying out “an impost, an impost“. As his biographer AL Rowse says, no doubt he had a natural intimation of the stomach ulcer that probably ended things in a straining boat trip, and in a world very fond of “mystergoguery and hermetic nonsense“. Perhaps it is about a different kind of language too. Elias Ashmole is buried in St Mary’s as well, although we only got closer in our pilgrimage when our guide kindly snuck us into the office, where his grave is somewhere below the photocopy machine. She also showed us the exquisite ‘Peddlar’s Window’ though, a little gem of stained glass and the bequest of a local man made good. Though it may be a restoration, since most of the Church windows were blown out when a WWII bomb droped on Lambeth palace, despite the Nazi’s famous avoidance of St Paul’s (not quite, in fact).
With strange purpose-built wooden exhibition rooms inside a remarkably large and impressive church, which in the days when Lambeth, or ‘the lamb’s bath’, was near open country must have dominated the edge of the river and that ‘horse ferry’ crossing that set the topography of today’s Lambeth Bridge, long after only covered London Bridge was the gate into the City, the Garden Museum is rather oddly done and awkwardly laid out too. Indeed, although I did not see the permanent exhibits, in such a place it is the suddenly discovered curiosities like that window that really delight, or a plaque to a D’Oily Cart, along with perhaps the finest cake in England, tasted at the nice little bar restaurant. It hums gently with older folk, pretty girls in their tiny jumbled office or students sketching plants in the garden, although it has the security and capacity now to have exhibited a Canaletto, among other things. But it should take the lead of John, Hester and their Ark, not nasty, grandiose Elias at all, and revel in sharing the eccentric, archaic and the curious.
It’s very existence is a testament to the moving tenacity of individual lives and passions, people who know that we are all really plants, that need good soil, nurturing and our time in the sun too. Perhaps then some of the pieces from the Ashmolean will be brought here, or an Ark will really sail the river’s edge once again. Get mayor Boris on the case and tell him to stop going on about Dragon Feasts, or protecting The City. Much meat for such a fascinating area as Lambeth, stretching, in that dramatic near Ox Bow bend of the river that made this such swamp land, and seems to fold the whole world back on itself, straight to Southwark and theatreland, that centre of our own research, based on lost St Margaret’s church there. This is an epicentre of study though for such an opaique and fascinating time and one that of course completely rewrote our internal and external landscapes. You can capture that in the 17th century plaque on the wall outside St Mary’s, courtesy of a Mr Turberville. The family made a bequest of £100 a year to support two poor local boys of an extremely poor but burgeoning district, of the ‘Stink trades’, like tanning, glass making, pottery and butchery too, kept on that famously detrops ‘South of the River’ side. An area of course dominated by thousands of watermen too, the spitting cabies of their day, and there is a Sail street by Pratt’s Walk, for the cottage industries serving the all important river. But that self proclaiming bequest was made with the proviso that the good offices of the parish should not be directed towards “fishermen, watermen, chimney sweeps or Roman Catholiks“! So of course the last words must go to the master, Shakespeare, and his line from Cymbeline that “All golden lads and lasses must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust”. At least with a Garden Museum we can all be reminded that life’s ashes are always good for the beauiful roses.
DCD Phoenix Ark Press
Admission to the Garden Museum varies from between £5 and £7.50 for adults and £3 for Student concessions. The cafe is its own delight. To visit their website CLICK HERE