Above: The Tradescant tomb in the churchyard.
In 1972, the mainly Victorian church of St Mary, Lambeth, ceased to be used as a parish church and was scheduled to be demolished. In 1976, John and Rosemary Nicholson traced the tomb of the two 17th-century royal gardeners and plant hunters John Tradescant the Elder and the Younger to the old churchyard and were inspired to create the Museum of Garden History. It was the first museum to be dedicated to the history of gardening.
The museum is situated inside the church and also outside – in the original churchyard. The structure of the church has remained unaltered but an additional floor has been added. Some of the impressive graves in the church as well as those in the churchyard are important to the story of gardening and garden design. The museum re-opened in 2017 after an 18-month redevelopment project which included a garden restaurant.
The Museum’s main gallery is on the first floor, in the body of the church. The collection includes tools, art, and ephemera of gardening, including a gallery about garden design and the evolution of gardening, as well as a recreation of Tradescant’s 17th-century Ark. The collections give an insight into the social history of gardening as well as the practical aspects of the subject. There are three temporary exhibition spaces which look at various aspects of plants and gardens and change every six months. The redevelopment of the Museum, completed in 2017, included two new garden designs. The Sackler Garden, designed by Dan Pearson sits at the centre of the courtyard, replacing the knot garden, and the Museum’s front garden is designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole.
In the churchyard is the ornate tomb of the Tradescant family. Five members of the Tradescant family are buried in it – John Tradescant the Elder; John Tradescant the Younger with his two wives Jane and Hester, and his son, also called John, who died aged 19. The family lived near the church and are well-known for their great interest in horticulture. The plant Tradescantia was named after them. The present tomb is the third on the site of the Tradescant grave and is a replica of the original design. It was restored by public subscription in 1853.