Monday 24 January 2022

Greening Glasgow in the 19th & early 20th centuries

Prof. Clare A.P. Willsdon

‘Greening Glasgow in the 19th and early 20th centuries: art, health and horticulture in the public park’ is a series of three talks and an interview with David Mitchell, a former Curator at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Vice Chairman National Trust for Scotland, and Chair of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme, delivered by Professor Clare A.P. Willsdon.

How can art history help combat climate change? It can’t sequester carbon – but it can, I believe, give perspective and insight to our relations with nature, as we strive for sustainable ways of living. Glasgow’s parks highlight this. Parks, after all, are designed by human hand – so are forms of ‘art’ – yet they are also, of course, living nature. They show us the changing seasons; the colours and scents of their flowers lift our mood; we get to know them intimately, as part of local neighbourhoods. Not least, their foliage absorbs the carbon we breathe out, giving back oxygen in turn; something first discovered in the nineteenth century. In this sense, we live our parks, an integral part of their history, even as they live us.

In Kelvingrove Park, along the central path, we can also see the past in the bursts of Oriental poppies, red as flame, and the clumps of purple Michaelmas daisy, dishevelled but proud, that still tell of once-stupendous borders. Equally, the ponds at Queen’s and Elder Parks are clearly where children once sailed toy boats, just as their fathers and uncles built real ones on Clydeside. 

Queen’s Park pond with toy-boats © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

Taking my late mother for outings to Victoria Park, I rolled her wheelchair literally through time: through gilded gates ‘gifted by the ladies of Partick’ for the 1887 Jubilee, along cherry avenues, up to the Viewpoint, down (remember to brake!) to roses, tennis courts, playing fields…and the astonishing fossil grove, preserved from 330 million years ago. 

Left: Victoria Park, Whiteinch: Blossom © C.A.P. Willsdon
Right: Interior of the Fossil Grove, postcard c. 1910 © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

Victoria Park, so artfully designed around the fossil grove, must have been a paradise on earth when first opened in 1887. But who created and designed it? And who made the Botanic Gardens with Kibble Palace, Tollcross with its ‘rhododendron glen’, Alexandra with its ‘Saracen Monument’, Springburn with Europe’s once-biggest conservatory…? Was the city’s nineteenth-century greenspace as much to do with pride and identity, as art, time, nature, or what we now call ‘biodiversity’? 

I turned for answers to the archives. In the Mitchell Library, I discovered the meticulous, plant-by-plant and season-by-season records of the City’s horticultural department – and an urgent, almost breathless account by Sir William Gairdner, First Chief Medical Officer of Glasgow, and his City Council colleagues, of their visit to Paris in 1866 to view its new parks. Here was ‘free air’ for all, as Gairdner put it – an inspiration, clearly, for Glasgow’s greenspaces as part of the fight against disease caused by overcrowding, and pollution that attended its new industrial might. But also, surely, a call to creativity: to shape a better future; to link art and nature (and perhaps outdo Paris in the process….).

I discussed my findings with the botanist David Mitchell: how the trees chosen for Alexandra would have resisted pollution; how Tollcross’s ‘exotic’ aucubas were also resilient; how glasshouses were born of the same engineering skills that drove Glasgow’s industrial prowess. Dennis McCue, meanwhile, Glasgow Neighbourhood and Sustainability Services Information Officer, kindly alerted me to the City’s historic photos of the parks: barefoot weans, nurses with prams, tobogganing, bandstands, ‘ferneries’ and Maypoles….and lovers on benches, by night as well as day. Here was not simply ‘free air’, but all of life itself. 

In 2020, I gave a first group of talks on this remarkable history of Glasgow’s ‘greening’; my Dear Green Bothy series builds on those, and includes an interview with David Mitchell, as well as many of the historic photographs, by kind permission of the Mitchell Library and City of Glasgow. I hope the series may encourage a new understanding as well as enjoyment of Glasgow’s green spaces, as vital links between our past and our actions for the future.

Greening Glasgow lecture series: