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That British migrants to Australia continued to plant and tend English plants abroad, despite differences of ecology, rainfall, and soil, is one of the facts of Australian environmental history. Since almost the first British colonists landed on the land of the First Peoples, British migrants have denigrated local plants as “ugly” and awkward, and wrote of their homesickness for English roses. Yet, as with so many other areas of British cultural transfer, scholars have been vague in describing how British cultural influence came to dominate in Australian garden design. The absence of a distinctive Australian garden aesthetic from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries is usually explained as due to a combination of imperial loyalty, cultural cringe, and the “tall poppy” effect. The second chapter of my dissertation suggests that this explanation only tells part of the story. I argue that a major reason British garden design trends came dominate in Australia was because of the commercial export of the writings of British gardening authors such as William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll. 

This chapter explores how Robinson and Jekyll, through their books and periodicals, came to shape Australian notions of good garden design form the 1870s through to 1935 and beyond. In the 1870s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, Australian book import firms ensured that William Robinson’s books and periodicals were circulated to readers in elite horticultural societies, where they were highly influential. By the turn of the century, however, the growth of the Australian middle class and the associated middle-class periodical market facilitated Gertrude Jekyll’s ascension to fame in Australia. The wide circulation of Jekyll’s books and Country Life articles provided a pattern in design and in diction which Australian garden writers such as Edna Walling, Millie Gibson, and Jean Galbraith would follow in the succeeding decades. 

Holly Swenson is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Northwestern University. She studies the relationship between media, business, and cultural identity in the British World. Her current research focuses on the role of media business practices in shaping Australian affiliation with Britain from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries.

All welcome- this seminar is free to attend but booking is required.