Monday, 17 July 2006

Gardening antiques: you don’t need green fingers for this growth investment

watering cans
by Christopher Proudlove©
It was not one of my finest moments. Out at a weekend car boot sale, I spotted a galvanised vintage watering can, not unlike the ones illustrated in my 1926 Army and Navy mail order catalogue. A snip at a quid, it was mine and once home, I was eager to try it out. Sadly, a split in its base, concealed by the way it was made, meant more water gushed from the bottom than it did from the spout. No matter, it makes a lovely ornament on the patio.

In contrast, one of my best auction bargains was a vintage lawnmower, circa 1910. It was a beautiful, ornate cast-iron work of art. It was also in full working order, but I never actually used it in anger – a combination of it being too precious to get wet and it requiring too much effort to push across the lawn meant it led a charmed life while in my possession! It cost me £15 and if I'd had the space to have kept it, I would have done so.

I know someone who collects lawnmowers and I can quite see why. They are truly wondrous contraptions. In fact, interest in gardening antiques is growing fast (pardon the pun). So, while you browse around the garden centre looking for that perfect plant or accessory, why not give some thought to nurturing a collection of your own?

An engineer named Edwin Budding invented the lawnmower in 1830 and it ranks as one of the greatest inventions of all time, specially if you take into account its benefit to gardeners who previously had to rely on the scythe. However, any invention can be improved upon and Budding's was no exception. Shanks of Arbroath; Ransomes of Ipswich and Green of Leeds all added their own innovations so that Budding’s original simple gear-driven gismo was soon overtaken by chain-driven limos of the lawn.

Towards the end of the 19th century, competition ensured prices were competitive and almost anyone who wanted a lawn could afford to maintain it. Almost inevitably, the Victorians tried to harness steam to power their mowers but these were quickly superseded by petrol power.

Of course, not everyone has the room to display a collection of lawnmowers, but not everything needs take up so much space. Take watering cans, for example. While most of us have moved on to the plastic variety, pause for a moment’s admiration of the 17th century thumb-operated earthenware version with perforated base.

In the 18th century, brass and copper versions took over from pot examples and in the early 19th century, tinplate cans, often painted red or green were in use. Even relatively modern galvanised cans make an interesting display when examples of various sizes, shapes and purpose are grouped together.

I don’t pretend to be a gardener – it’s too much like hard work for my liking. But I do have favourite garden-related collectables and they relate to planting seeds and seedlings and protecting them once they start to thrive.

Charming handlights, or hand glasses as they were called in the 19th century, shaped like little houses with removable lids; cloches or bell glasses; forcing and blanching pots for rhubarb and sea-kale and – best of all – glass cucumber straighteners and grape storage bottles all fit into this category.

Victorian novelties

No, these have nothing to do with the latest EU directives on fruit and veg. They are Victorian novelties, which today would make wonderful conversation pieces in anyone’s collection, gardener or not. Be warned, though: the obvious vulnerability of glass garden items makes them quite rare and, therefore, valuable.

Cucumber straighteners look like elongated glass bottles, the neck of which, when in use, was tied by string to a vine support. The young fruit was enclosed in the straightener and was thus forced to grow straight. Grape bottles, meanwhile, look a little like early baby bottles. The most common is the Copped Hall patent bottle, made by Wood & Son. In use, a section of vine that included a bunch of grapes was placed in the neck of the bottle, which was then filled with water and charcoal. The result was perfectly purified grapes.

If all this is too flippant for you, the serious collector has about 200 years of decorative garden antiques to which he or she can turn his attention. You’ll be spoilt for choice. There’s fountains, urns, sundials, staddle stones, birdbaths and jardinières; furniture made from stone, marble, cast iron, notably the famous Coalbrookdale products, and even garden gnomes, some of which do qualify as antiques.

Pictures show, top:
A page from my 1926 Army and Navy catalogue showing the variety of watering cans that were available to ship anywhere in the Empire. Prices start from three shillings (15 pence)

Below, left:
Tools of the trade: vintage lawnmowers, wheelbarrows, watering cans and even garden tools continue to give good service but they also make a charming collection and amusing conversation piece – even if you don’t have a garden

Weird Victorian tools, plant markers and Keep off the Grass signs might be redundant in these days of decking and postage stamp size gardens, but they are no less collectable

keep off the grass wheelbarrow

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