Cecily Sidgwick biography - Chapter 6 - The Children's Book of Gardening (1909)

Winifred Cayley Robinson  Cover illustration for The Children's Book of Gardening
Winifred Cayley Robinson Cover illustration for The Children's Book of Gardening



Shortly after settling in Lamorna, Cecily teamed up with Mrs Ethel Nina Patience Paynter to produce The Children’s Book of Gardening, which was published by Adam and Charles Black in November 1909 to catch the Christmas market. Ethel, the only daughter of Sir Edgcombe Venning FRCS, Surgeon to Edward VII, had married leading Lamorna landowner, Major (later Colonel) Camborne Haweis Paynter (b.1864) in 1904, but was much younger than him.


The Preface indicated that "the book was suggested by the questions of a boy of twelve who lived in Germany and sent for an English book that would teach him the elements of gardening." Such boy, whose name was Cyril, was one of the children of Cecily’s sister, Adele Maas, and, upon making enquiries of the editor of a well-known gardening journal, who indicated that no gardening book had yet been written from a child’s point of view, Cecily determined to write one herself, in the belief that there would be a market for such a tome "in these days, when so many children have a garden." Certainly, in the book, she admits that she had had a little plot of land, when a child, to call her own, which had stimulated her interest in gardening. However, she never considered herself an expert and, accordingly, for this project, she enlisted the aid of Ethel Paynter, who not only was a keen and knowledgable gardener, transforming the grounds of her Lamorna home, ‘Boskenna’, but also had a young daughter, Betty, born in 1907.


In addition, Cecily asked Winifred Cayley Robinson, whose only child, Barbara, was born in 1900, to produce some illustrations for the book. Accordingly, the book is dedicated to "Betty, Barbara and Cyril", albeit in relation to Barbara, whose parents led a nomadic lifestyle, it is said, "she is a traveller, and can have no garden of her own; but she sets daffodils in her friends’ gardens, and is content to see them, with her inward eye, dancing in the breeze for their delight." Whilst it was admitted that Betty was far too young to be doing any gardening herself, it was felt that she would soon be quite capable of giving instructions to her father’s gardeners!


The Sidgwicks could have got to know Frederick and Winifred Cayley Robinson either at the Ellises in Carbis Bay or in Lamorna. Charles Marriott mentioned that, in addition to the Sidgwicks, he also met the Cayley Robinsons at the Ellises, for they too used, from time to time, one of Edith’s holiday cottages, whilst Austin Wormleighton records that the Robinsons had become great friends of the Birch family from a stay in Lamorna in 1906, and, when they were in Carbis Bay again in 1908, they promised to visit Houghton Birch in Lamorna regularly, whilst John Birch was away that summer for an extended trip to Norway and Sweden.


The book has chapters on The Situation and Soil, Annuals, Hardy Perennials, Bulbs, Corms and Tubers, Biennials, Bedding Plants, Roses, Carnations and Pinks, Lilies, Rock and Wall Gardens, Difficult and Shady Gardens, Some Hardy Climbers, Fruit and Vegetables, Window, Room and Japanese Gardens and concludes with A Calendar of Work. Sections of the text, which was clearly written by Cecily, are quite charming. For instance, in the piece dealing with soil, she comments, "Even grown-ups often seem to think that earth is earth, and that any flowers will flourish in any ground. But, as a matter of fact, plants are even more various and dainty about their food than human beings; they answer as well to clever treatment, and they look as starved as slum children when they are not properly fed." (p.5) She also makes some remarks about her own childhood - how she would never forget the moment when she saw her own initials growing in her little plot, having been made of mustard and cress, and how she still liked unripe greengages to ripe ones, "because they remind her of those that grew against the wall of her own garden when she was a child, and which she always ate long before they were ripe". (p.181 & 183)


However, it is Winifred Cayley Robinson’s twelve delightful colour drawings that make the book the most expensive now of all Cecily’s output. Two young girls feature in many of the illustrations - the older one is likely to be Winifred’s daughter, Barbara, who was probably aged 7 or 8 at the time that the paintings were executed, whilst the younger one is most likely to be ‘Mornie’ Birch, who would then have been about 4. One image showing in silhouette a mother and young child may be of Ethel Paynter and Betty. Given that the Preface makes clear that the Cayley Robinsons did not have their own garden, one wonders whether the settings are at either ‘Vellensagia’ or at ‘Boskenna’. Certainly, the illustration called A Cornish Cottage is of the front of ‘Vellensagia’, and other scenes include a low stone wall similar to the one that surrounds that property. A depiction of a croquet lawn will probably be of Boskenna.


Jim Hosking records that the book was sufficiently successful for Ethel Paynter to buy herself a Queen Anne cabinet with her share of the profits. However, Cecily’s literary earnings book only records a payment of £22-10 specifically attributable to this book.