Camellias have been grown in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam as a garden plant for thousands of years. The name of ‘Camellia’ was given to the genus in the 18th century, in honour of Georg Josef Kamel, a Moravian Jesuit apothecary and botanist, who worked in the Far East.
The Camellias that grow at Chiswick are all of the species C. japonica. The original collection was ordered by William Lindsay in 1828, the 6th Duke’s Head Gardener, from Alfred Chandler’s Vauxhall nursery. The number and name of all the varieties were not detailed but visitors’ descriptions include references to varieties of C. japonica such as ‘Alba Plena’, ‘Welbankiana’, ‘Lady Granton’, ‘Lady Hume’s Blush’, ‘Woodsii’, ‘Beali’ (now ‘Beali Rosea’), ‘Nobilissima’, ‘Imbricata’, ‘Chandleri’ and ‘Elegans’. Today’s Conservatory collection of 33 different varieties includes many of the earliest varieties introduced to Britain. Using stem girth as an approximate guide it is probable that the Camellias identified as C. japonica ‘Variegata’, ‘Imbricata’, ‘Chandleri’, ‘Alba Plena’, ‘Pompone’, ‘Aitonia’, ‘Corallina’, ‘Rubra Plena’ and ‘Rubra’ are all from the original planting.
The Conservatory and the Italian Garden.
The Conservatory, a Grade I listed building, was designed by the architect Samuel Ware (who later designed the Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly) and completed in 1813. At 300ft long it was one of the earliest large glass houses to be built and thus a forerunner of Decimus Burton’s glass house at Kew and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace.
The Duke also commissioned Lewis Kennedy to lay out a ‘Italian’ garden in front of the Conservatory. Completed in 1814 the Italian Garden represents an early example of the reintroduction of formal gardens to England.
The garden is characterised by its symmetrical formality and intricate pattern of flower beds. Stone urns on plinths are set against an enclosing semi-circular path. The central path is
flanked by copies of two magnificent Coadestone vases; the originals are now housed in the Conservatory.
Images photographed by John Fielding; Conservatory photographed by Clive Boursnell.