“The seeming simplicity of a masterpiece is sure proof of its grace.” So said Coco Chanel.
Camellias are far from simple but no-one could deny their masterpiece status. Geometric yet organic. Structured yet soft. Straightforward yet beguiling. Very much deserving of both adoration and their own festival. Which is exactly what happens at Chiswick House in West London every year.
The enormous 300ft long conservatory which houses the oldest collection of camellias outside of China and Japan, was built for the sixth Duke of Devonshire and completed in 1813 (thirty years before the Palm House at Kew). Initially used to house figs, peaches and vines it was soon given over to more fashionable, exotic and expensive species from China and the East, to impress and entertain the leading figures of society and politics who utilised Chiswick House as a retreat from London life and a location for their lavish parties.
The camellias were brought to Britain by brave botanists on the ships of the East India Company and it is still quite astonishing to me that any plants managed to survive the gruelling six months at sea – either salt-lashed on deck, or hidden, smothered in the stuffy darkness below. Wardian cases (mini-greenhouses used by plant hunters) were not widely used until the 1840s. It is a testament to the camellia’s hardiness that any managed to survive the journey, let alone be thriving in Britain today.
Species believed to have been on the first boat from China are ‘Alba plena’, ‘Rubra plena’, ‘Variegata’ and ‘Incarnata’. Others are graced with the names of the fearless sea captains entrusted with carrying this exotic cargo to Europe. Camellia reticulata ‘Captain Rawes’ and Camellia japonica ‘Welbankiana’ (after Captain Robert Welbank) to name two. Once brought ashore they were bought by nurserymen and sold for small fortunes to wealthy clients around Britain.
The oldest camellia at Chiswick House is the Middlemist’s Red (which is actually rich salmon pink), brought from China and sold to John Middlemist, a nurseryman from Shepherds Bush and believed to have been planted in the 1820s. Only two in the world are known to exist, the other is in Waitangi, New Zealand.
The Chiswick House conservatory was badly damaged in WWII and left derelict for decades due to lack of funds. The camellias too would have been lost were it not for the valiant efforts of members of the International Camellia Society who voluntarily took care of them until the restoration of the glasshouse in 2010. Over this period, whilst carefully pruning, feeding and watering them, the volunteers researched their history and realised that in their care were some of the oldest and rarest specimens in the country. The irony is that it’s probably the years of neglect, of poor soil and broken glass that saved the camellias – when they first arrived in Britain they were presumed to be tender and thus thrust into hothouses where, invariably, the heat killed them. It was because of the WWII damage to the Chiswick conservatory; the shattered glass forcing the plants exposure to the elements, that the gardeners realised the camellias were hardy and could happily survive outside in the British climate.
As if further proof of their resilience were needed, I asked one of the gardeners in the Conservatory what the camellias were fed. Nothing, apparently. Despite the soil being poor and dust-like. He joked that they didn’t want them to grow any taller as they already have to prune them to stop them hitting the glass above. They are just kept from overheating, mulched and well-watered.
Symbolising purity and longevity in Asia (and used for everything from hair treatment oil beloved by geishas to cooking oil for tempura), in the West camellias have been revered simply as glorious, floral status symbols by the wealthy and fashionable. Most notably, Coco Chanel. Madamoiselle Chanel was first introduced to these blooms by the love of her life, the married Englishman Boy Capel, when he presented her with an enormous bouquet of white camellias. Besotted with Capel, she became equally infatuated with the exotic, elegant, effortless simplicity of the camellia. She began pinning silk versions to her lapel and had black and gold Coromandel screens featuring the blooms designed for her Paris apartment.
The camellia became, and still is, the signature of the house of Chanel. It perfectly signifies the chic simplicity of Coco’s design ethos. Everything from jewellery, cosmetics and leather goods are adorned with camellias. There is a lovely animated short film about Coco Chanel here.
Camellias are also immortalised in literature, most notably in the novel by Alexander Dumas the younger, entitled ‘La Dame aux Camellias’, (known as ‘Camille’, to English speakers) the tale of an affair between a beautiful, Parisian courtesan suffering from tuberculosis and a young provincial man. She is known as ‘Lady of the Camellias’ because she wears a white camellia when she is available to her lover(s) and then a red camellia when her illness precludes her from making love. The lead character, Margarite Gautier, was based on Marie Duplessis, the real-life lover of author, Dumas. This love story was the inspiration for Verdi’s opera ‘La Traviata’ and also Baz Luhrman’s film ‘Moulin Rouge’.
French writer, Honoré de Balzac, was also entranced. The following sonnet, The Camellia, appears in his novel L’Illusion Perdues (Lost Illusions).
In Nature’s poem flowers have each their word
The rose of love and beauty sings alone;
The violet’s soul exhales in tenderest tone;
The lily’s one pure simple note heard.
The cold Camellia only, stiff and white,
Rose without perfume, lily without grace,
When chilling winter shows his icy face,
Blooms for a world that vainly seeks delight.
Yet, in a theatre, or ball-room light,
I gladly see Camellias shining bright
Above some stately woman’s raven hair,
Whose noble form fulfils the heart’s desire,
Like Grecian marbles warmed by Phidian fire.
The Camellia Festival is on until 29th March (Tuesday to Sunday 10-4). Camellia plants are on sale alongside other camellia inspired merchandise – no Chanel, unfortunately. Obviously, even after the festival officially ends the camellias will still be flourishing in the conservatory. Go and visit this beautiful living legacy and imagine all the sights they must have seen over the past two hundred years…
There is a short BBC Gardener’s World film with Rachel de Thame about the Chiswick House camellias here.