National Gardening Week

Photographs of Mrs Earle are scarce but one is included in a Lushington family album (SHC ref 7854/4/47/3/7).

Celebrating Maria Theresa Earle

We've all come to appreciate our outdoor space more than ever in the last few years and for National Gardening Week (29 April to 5 May) Surrey History Centre celebrates one of Surrey's finest gardeners, Maria Theresa Earle (1836 to 1925).

Mrs C W Earle, as she was better known to her readers, lived at Woodlands in Cobham. Surrey History Centre's unique library and archive collections help tell the story of this fascinating and talented woman's life and gardening prowess.

Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden

Mrs Earle had developed her garden at 'Woodlands' to include a terrace with containers of plants, beds and borders of hardy plants and a kitchen garden planted with a wide range of culinary herbs. She was from the aristocratic Villiers family and became a horticulturalist and writer on garden subjects who first came to national prominence at the advanced age of 61.

Following encouragement from her niece, the suffragette Constance Lytton, Mrs Earle published an influential book of anecdotes, gardening and household matters arranged by month of the year entitled Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden in 1897. Encouraged by its success she wrote six more volumes. Taken together these books provide us with an insight into the life of a late Victorian and Edwardian woman.

Like today's bloggers, vloggers and influencers, Mrs Earle gathered a large following amongst the aspirational middle classes and amateur gardeners. Professional gardeners and garden writers such as Gertrude Jekyll came under her influence, and her books became a standard for garden writers to follow.

In 1897 an anonymous reviewer of her first book (possibly the editor, William Robinson) wrote in The Garden journal that "Mrs Earle…..comes of people who for many generations back took their highest pleasure in their gardens, and greater pleasure than we fear the present generation of women on bykes [sic], women at golf and cricket, horsey women and new women generally are likely to share. It is an interesting book about many things, and Mrs Earle being a good gardener and not a mere patron of the art, there is not a little to be learnt in it."

Radical Theresa the influencer

Known to her family as 'Radical Theresa' for her views of temperance, vegetarianism and women's suffrage, Mrs Earle also had artistic talents and connections. Encouraged by John Ruskin's opinion of her work, she enrolled at South Kensington School of Art in 1856 and her circle of contacts grew to include artists, painters, writers, musicians and actors such as Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, G F Watts and Margaret Cameron.

Having married Charles Earle in 1864 the couple entertained many friends at Woodlands including members of the Lushington family who lived locally at Pyports in Cobham. Theresa's garden was much admired by those in her circle and Edward Burne-Jones was particularly keen to visit. Theresa herself was a frequent caller at Pyports and great friends with Susan Lushington, who on one occasion wrote: "Mrs Earle is delightfully warm hearted and generous - but fatally unscrupulous I always feel."

Mrs Earle died in February 1925 and her obituary in The Times reads, "All through her life Mrs Earle was an ardent Liberal, a vegetarian and friend of many Liberal statesmen who are still alive... But she was probably seen to her best in her Surrey home near Cobham, in her garden which she had beautified in an original manner."

Miriam Farr, Surrey Heritage volunteer, reveals the full story of Mrs Earle's life, career and family, on our new Exploring Surrey's Past web page.

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