Discover the history behind two of Kew's bonsai trees, and the little-known story of a British bonsai pioneer, Gwendolyn Anley.
Gwendolyn Anley – A British Bonsai Pioneer
This time around, something a little different; some bonsai family history. I would like to cast some light on a relatively unknown pioneer of British bonsai, Gwendolyn Anley.
Back in 1995, I happened to hear about a pair of Chinese junipers that had been lodged at a bonsai nursery for “intensive care”. Rumours of their unusual history piqued my interest, and I was soon able to make contact with their owner. The owner of the trees, who is now sadly deceased, was generous enough to donate these two Chinese junipers, and later a similarly historic Zelkova serrata, to the bonsai collection at Kew.
One of two Chinese junipers (Juniperus chinensis) donated to Kew Gardens in 2005.
It is grown in the distinctive “root-over-rock” style. (Accession number 2005-2013)
History of the trees
When the trees were collected we were fortunate enough to also receive detailed information about their history, indicating that they are possibly the earliest Bonsai imported into Britain that still survive in their pots.
We were lucky to be able to borrow and copy this image of the same bonsai
(Accession number 2005-2013) taken in 1956. Though the tree has aged,
and the pot has been changed, note the familiar, unchanging rock!
The trees were originally imported into Britain by Gwendolyn Anley, who was the great aunt of the donor. Mrs Anley was famous for her Iris and alpine plant growing, on which subject she wrote two books “Irises - Their Culture and Selection” (1946) and “Alpine House Culture for Amateurs” (1938).
Gwendolyn Anley at her home, “St Georges”, in Woking, with some of her bonsai
The donor was also able to loan Kew some of Mrs Anley’s photographs, which were taken during her travels in Japan where she studied the art of Bonsai in 1935. Other images were taken for inclusion in “Gardening Illustrated” magazine in 1946. Included amongst these photographs were images of the two recently donated junipers.
Writing on bonsai growing
I was interested to find that Mrs Anley also wrote one of the earliest English language articles about bonsai growing. A search of the Kew libraries revealed a book named “Miniature Gardens” published in 1955, and containing a final chapter by Mrs Anley entitled “Bonsai: An Introduction to the Japanese Art of Dwarfing”.
In this brief chapter she clearly explains the rudiments of bonsai care in which she is assumed to have had some degree of training. She probably aquired her skills while in Japan with her husband, Brigadier General Barnett L. Anley, who appears to have been there for ambassadorial duties. She writes:
“From my window I used to watch a Japanese [man] tending his trees. Every specimen in a large collection was examined daily, and during the summer the trees were watered three and four times a day, according to the amount and quality of the sun, the wind or the temperature. How many people in this country are prepared, or can afford, to give such punctual and unremitting care?”
Count and Countess Matsudaira with some of their huge collection of
miniature bonsai. This photograph would have been taken in the 1930s.
Time in Japan
Photographic evidence suggests that, while in Japan, Gwendolyn met Count and Countess Matsudaira, who were the best known growers and collectors of miniature bonsai (“shohin”) at this time. Count Matsudaira’s collection eventually reached a thousand specimens of excellent quality which he and his wife, Countess Akiko, tended with great enthusiasm. Whenever he was on a trip, he used to carry some of his favourite bonsai with him in a basket specially designed and made for the purpose! In 1934, about the time Gwendolyn was visiting Japan, Count Matsudaira was named the first president of the newly-formed Kokufu Bonsai Association. The Association is still extant today, running the most famous of the Japanese annual bonsai exhibitions.
Gwendolyn Anley maintained a garden named St Georges, in Woking, about which I found a wealth of information in Graham Stuart Thomas’s book “Recollections of Great Gardeners”. The donor of the bonsai trees indicated that her late aunt could be rather fierce, and this is borne out in Mr Thomas’s book when he mentions approaching the Anley’s gate to find a sign reading “Considerate people will shut this gate; others are requested to do so”. He also mentions another notice over the fireplace in the study reading “if you have nothing to do, please don’t do it here”!
He confirms Gwendolyn’s presence in Japan in the late 1930s, and notes that she “came back with a treasury of Japanese thoughts which altered her outlook in many ways”. Her bonsai are mentioned in passing: “I think it was the discipline and economy of cultivating these characterful pieces that proved the great attraction”. He finishes his article in a more forgiving mode, saying “she enriched my life with much kindness, refuting to the full whatever impression might have been gained by the two notices in early days!”
Following Mrs Anley’s death, her collection of bonsai were distributed amongst her relatives, whereupon most of the trees are assumed to have died. Four of her bonsai are known to have survived until recent times, and three of these trees are now in the collection at Kew Gardens.
- Richard -
About Richard Kernick
Richard Kernick is the Bonsai specialist at Kew Gardens. He has worked at Kew since 2004, caring for and improving the bonsai collection while also working part time for the Alpine unit, helping to maintain their collection of woodland plants.
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