James Bateman came from a family made rich by iron and coal during the Industrial Revolution. A landowner and accomplished horticulturist, in 1842 he bought Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire where he set about creating what has been called ‘a Great Exhibition of a garden – the whole world in one green
space, with planting to reflect the spirit of Italy and China, Egypt, England and the
At the same time as Bateman developed his gardens to represent the variety of creation, he began work on a Geological Gallery at Biddulph Grange which, when it opened to the public in 1862, presented a selection of fossils and geological strata displayed in a chronological order – his attempt to reconcile his evangelical Christianity with geological understanding at the time. Resolute in his belief in divine creation, Bateman planned his Geological Gallery as a refutation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, unveiled in The Origin of Species, published in 1859.
We arrived at Biddulph Grange (since 1988 a National Trust property) on one of the warm, summer-like days that have been the hallmark of autumn 2015. Before looking at Bateman’s Geological Gallery we went off to explore the extensive gardens.
Described by the NT as ‘a world garden’, Biddulph Grange is one of the most interesting survivals from the great age of Victorian gardening and botanical collecting. Even if you’re not especially interested in gardens it’s a great place for an extended stroll through a series of themed gardens – Italian, Egyptian, and Chinese, as well as a Himalayan Glen, a Pinetum, an Arboretum, a Cherry Orchard, a Wellingtonia Avenue, a Stumpery, a Cheshire Cottage, and a Dahlia Walk. Like separate rooms, each garden is secluded from the rest and offers a showcase for plants from a particular region. In addition there is an extraordinary collection of garden buildings.
James Bateman was a noted botanist who was also interested in the significant developments in geology that were taking place in the mid-19th century. Born in 1812, from childhood Bateman was fascinated by orchids, and after he began to publish on the subject in the later 1830s he came to be recognised as an expert.
Bateman moved into the newly-erected Biddulph Grange in 1842, and immediately set about creating what was to be an ambitious and expensive garden, a collaborative venture between Bateman and his wife Elizabeth – and their friend Edward Cooke, a painter, botanical engraver, and enthusiastic horticulturist and garden designer.
Their scheme was not limited to plants alone: buildings, bridges and
tunnels were assembled to separate the different areas and dramatise the transition between their different worlds. At one point you enter an
Egyptian tomb and take a few turns before emerging from an Elizabethan
cottage. The approach to the Chinese Garden is through an area of oriental gateways, steep steps and rocky outcrops designed to evoke a Himalayan landscape.
The Italian Garden is the first area encountered as you step down from the house itself. Italian gardens were popular in Britain in the 19th century, based quite closely at first on Italian Renaissance examples. However, by the time the Batemans came to design Biddulph, the term was applied much more loosely to any garden with formally arranged flower beds, usually featuring a stepped terrace, balustrades and giant urns. This is what exists at Biddulph Grange: the Batemans would have steeped out of the garden room onto the terrace with its central stone trough. Beyond are views of the Mosaic Parterre and several compartmentalised areas separated by high hedges and decorated with topiary.
From the terrace with its extensive views over the gardens south of the house you can head eastwards to Egypt, a lawned court with obelisks of clipped yew and a topiary Egyptian temple topped with a yew pyramid. Hidden by tall yew and beech hedges, you enter through a stone doorway flanked by two stone sphinxes and emblazoned with the symbol of Ra, the Sun God, before feeling your way along a dark passageway. All this is quite strange and truly eccentric.
But you ain’t seen nothing yet – because at the end of the dark passage is a dim chamber where you come face to face with the Ape of Thoth, a stone idol depicting the Egyptian god Thoth as a man with the head of a baboon. The National Trust guide explains why Bateman thought Thoth an appropriate figure for his garden:
Thoth was … master of both physical and divine law. He was charged with making the calculations for the establishment of the heavens, stars, Earth and everything in them. The Greeks further declared him the inventor of astronomy, astrology, mathematics, geometry, land-surveying, medicine, botany, theology, the alphabet, reading, writing and oratory. Straddling as Thoth does physical and divine ordinance, and credited with a hand in the creation of the universe and a leading role in the science of botany, he is an appropriate divinity and denizen of Bateman’s Egypt.
The sense of strangeness, of having fallen like Alice down a rabbit hole, is intensified as you leave Thoth’s chamber along a passage and exit through a structure which is a miniature replica of a half-timbered Tudor-style cottage. This is the Cheshire Cottage whose façade records the date of its construction, 1856.
The weirdness continues as the wanderer encounters the next oddity: the Stumpery, a sunken path bordered by upside-down fossilised tree roots amongst which grow a great variety of ferns and mosses. Stumperies have been described as ‘Victorian horticultural oddities’ and became popular features of 19th-century gardens, perhaps because of the popularity of ferns as garden plants at a timewhen hundreds of new species were introduced to Britain from around the world by collectors like Bateman. The stumpery at Biddulph Grange, designed by Edward Cooke, was the first to be built anywhere.
Follow the path through The Stumpery and you arrive in China. This area, hidden from the rest of the garden by high banks, trees, and the tall, stone Wall of China is perhaps the highlight of a visit to Biddulph Grange. Within the Chinese Garden a wooden Chinese Temple looks out across a tranquil pool crossed by a wooden footbridge. Perched high above the garden is the Joss House, a small pavilion painted vibrantly, like all the Chinese structures, in red, green and yellow.
This ornamental landscape of rocks and exotic plants is a Victorian vision of China that brings to life the popular willow-pattern scenes on the bone china that Thomas Minton had been producing at his pottery just down the road in Stoke-upon-Trent since 1798.
From the Chinese temple the view takes in the arrangement of exotic plants brought back from the Far East by Robert Fortune: there is a golden larch (one of the oldest surviving in the country), purple-leaved Japanese maples, Japanese cedars and tree peonies planted amid tufa carted here from Derbyshire.
There are exotic creatures here too: a gilded water buffalo idol sculpted by Waterhouse Hawkins (who also designed The Ape of Thoth) looks out from his pavilion on the far side of the lake, while a giant stone frog also surveys the scene.
But, perhaps the most atmospheric area of the whole ‘Great Exhibition of a garden’ is the ‘Great Wall of China’ that Bateman had built to screen the Chinese Garden from the surrounding area. Along a dramatic rocky ridge a path winds between rocks and boulders, through stone archways, and across a chasm on a precipitous bridge.
A wider pleasure ground extends around and beyond the ‘world gardens’ providing opportunities for pleasant walking. Paths loop through the Pinetum, a showcase for one of the finest collections of conifers assembled in mid-Victorian Britain, and the Arboretum. Among the many species represented are examples of coastal redwoods, Wellingtonia, and Japanese cedars. The have been planted on mounds to emphasise their silhouettes against the sky. Giant stone pine-cones reinforce the Pinetum theme.
In the Arboretum, Wellingtonia Avenue, which runs uphill away from the house, offers fine views back towards the house and the hillside beyond. The Avenue terminates at Great Vase Court where a massive stone vase is set in a clipped yew-hedged square.
The west side of the garden is bounded by the curving Lime Avenue, which is tyhe one part of the garden which pre-dates the Batemans’ arrival at Biddulph Grange. Before 1840 it formed the main highway between Biddulph and Congleton. The Avenue leads to ornamental iron gates designed by Edward Cooke. From the gates a drive led to the Batemans’ other home, Knypersley Hall.
After our stroll through the grounds we visited the Geological Gallery which is housed in a narrow building that in Bateman’s day formed the entrance to the garden. Like the gardens beyond, this has been extensively restored by the National Trust in the last decade (though many of the fossils that were once displayed in the gallery have been lost and the gallery truncated in the period between 1923 and the 1960s when Biddulph Grange became a children’s hospital.
The Gallery opened to the public in 1862. The form in which the fossils are displayed – separated into bays numbered after days one to six of creation – makes the structure the only one of its kind in the world.
The gallery’s unique layout, trying to reconcile known British geology with the Biblical creation myth was described soon after its opening by Edward Kemp, writing in The Gardener’s Chronicle in 1862:
‘The geological gallery, which is upwards of 100 feet long, is lined with stone and lighted from the roof … Advancing into the gallery, it will be found treated in a way that is quite unique, and is singularly illustrative of the great geological facts of the globe. On the one side, at about three feet from the ground, a series of specimens, showing the earth’s formation, and exhibiting all the various strata in their natural succession, are let into the wall, in a layer about eighteen inches wide; and above this are arranged the animal and vegetable fossils that the respective strata yield … The whole is distributed into ‘days’ supposed to correspond with the six (so called) ‘days’ of the Mosaic cosmogony, beginning with the granites, and passing into the slates, the limestones, the old red sandstones, the coal formations, etc, with such animal and vegetable remains as occur in each. On the other side of the gallery the walls are covered with geological maps and sections, and between a set of seats provided for the accommodation of those who wish to make the matter a study, is a series of tables, on which various remarkable geological specimens are arranged; thus rendering the general effect artistic as well as instructive.’
The gallery is contemporaneous with The Origin of Species, the book by Charles Darwin published in 1859 that challenged the Biblical account of creation. Bateman knew Darwin – he sent him orchids to work on -so he would certainly have been familiar with Darwin’s theory and the controversies it provoked. The gallery was perhaps Bateman’s attempt to reconcile his evangelical Christianity with the fossil record and the burgeoning discoveries in geology.
For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.
Darwin’s Origin of Species proposed the mechanism of natural selection by which life on earth had evolved, so challenging the account found in the first book of Genesis and summarised by Moses in the verse from Exodus above. The seven-day story of creation was the accepted orthodoxy of Bateman’s time – but now Darwin (drawing upon geological discoveries in the previous half-century) proposed a multi-billion year alternative, raising acute questions about a creator God and the authority of the Bible.
A defining moment in the controversy that ensued was the head-to-head debate
between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce, which took place at the Oxford
University Natural History Museum in June 1860. The battle between intelligent
design and evolution is echoed in Bateman’s three-dimensional display.
Bateman, along with probably the majority of his peers, firmly believed in the doctrine of creation outlined in the Genesis narrative with its six day time-scale and the immutability of species which were all seen as divine creations. Yet there is an interesting connection between Darwin and Bateman – and it’s also interesting to remind ourselves of the intellectual ferment associated with Staffordshire in this period.
Charles Darwin was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin on his father’s side. In the 1790s Erasmus had written a long poem called Zoonomia, in which he argued that life had changed over great stretches of time, with new creatures emerging from old ones. On his mother’s side, Charles Darwin’s grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, scion of a family of free thinkers and liberals opposed to slavery and committed to philosophical and scientific enquiry. Both of Darwin’s grandfathers were members of the Lunar Society, that illustrious informal club of Midlands industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals, who met regularly between 1765 and 1813.
As for Bateman, from an early age he had been fascinated by plants, collecting assiduously and in particular developing a fine collection of orchids. He became a noted authority on the species and supplied Darwin with specimens and helping him with their names which Darwin found helpful in developing his ideas about evolution.
Yet, in 1874, in a monograph on orchids, Bateman challenged the way in which Darwin had used his material on the order of Orchids to argue for the evolutionary development of species rather than divine creation:
The marvellous and inexhaustible variety of form in the Order is not due to its ancient lineage, nor yet to the vast periods through which endless transformations are assumed to have been continually taking place, because Orchids- according to geologic reckoning- are but a thing of yesterday, and have never been found in the fossil state. Yet their constant companions the Ferns trace their pedigree to the earliest vegetation of the primaeval world! To the believer this problem is not hard to solve. Ferns and other flowerless plants came early in the Divine programme, because the coal, into which they were to be ultimately converted, had need to be long accumulating for the future comfort and civilization of our race; while the genesis of Orchids was postponed until the time drew near when Man, who was to be soothed by the gentle influence of their beauty, or charmed by the marvellous variety of their structure, was about to appear on the scene.
This is a perfect summary of the thesis presented in the Geological Gallery in which Bateman associates the sequenced rock strata and fossils of the geological record with the six ‘days’ of God’s creation, each of which he was ready to allow spanned a considerable period of time.
More than 100 feet long, built of sandstone and floored in Minton tiles, the gallery was a serious restatement of the story found in Genesis. Yet at the same time Bateman did not entirely turn his back upon the evidence of geological enquiry: his gallery attempted a synthesis of the two contending points of view.
He used examples of rock strata and minerals to illustrate the steady progress of geological time, and opposite them a series of fossils to chart the birth of fish, birds and mammals. The head of an ichthyosaur was displayed on Day Four, and a mammoth’s tusk on Day Six. As indicated in the quotation above from Bateman, ferns appear close to the beginning of the sequence and orchids near the end.
Bateman’s Geological Gallery was probably greatly influenced by the ideas of the geologist and theologian, William Buckland, who was teaching at Oxford while Bateman was a student there. Buckland’s attempts to reconcile what the fossil record was saying with the biblical narrative was exactly what Bateman was trying to do in his gallery.
In 1820, Buckland had published Vindiciæ Geologiæ; or the Connexion of Geology with Religion explained, justifying the new science of geology whilst at the same time attempting to reconcile geological evidence with the biblical accounts of creation. Buckland’s hypothesis was that the word ‘beginning’ in Genesis meant an undefined period between the origin of the earth and the creation of its current inhabitants, during which a long series of extinctions and successive creations of new kinds of plants and animals had occurred.
Bateman’s Geological Gallery therefore represents the specific moment when Victorian science and religion collided.
By the late 1860s the cost of maintaining the Biddulph Grange gardens was proving beyond the Batemans’ resources. In 1868 the house was passed to their son, who sold it three years later to Robert Heath, a leading Staffordshire industrialist. The gardens and house continued to be maintained to a high standard, but in 1896 the house was largely destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt, but in 1923 was converted into a children’s hospital. By the 1960s the house and gardens were increasingly neglected and subjected to vandalism. However, in 1988 the National Trust acquired the gardens, and since the mid 1990s an extensive restoration process has been completed.
Walking around the gardens, I was impressed with the number of cast-iron garden benches positioned at various spots, all of them incorporating elegant metalwork representing plants, leaves and ferns. I have no idea whether these were part of Bateman’s original garden – or who designed them. But they are very attractive.