Oxford's Physick Garden

Oxford's Physick Garden

David Loggan’s print ‘Hortus Botanicus The Physick Garden in Oxon’, from his Oxonia illustrata (1675), is arranged with the north wall of the Garden at the bottom of the print, and the River Cherwell on the left (east-side of the Garden). The Garden is quartered by two broad, tree-studded paths running north-south and east-west. Each quarter is protected by a yew hedge and accessed by two metal, presumably bolted, gates. Within each quarter, numerous small beds are arranged in formal, geometric patterns. The symmetry of the quarters is broken by elaborate, bird-topped topiary in the south-west quarter.

Bobart the Elder’s penchant for topiary is also revealed in the two yews clipped to be ‘Gigantick bulkey fellows, one holding a Bill th’ other a Club on his shoulder’ inside the Danby Gate. The Fellow of Magdalen, Joseph Addison (1672-1719), a contemporary of Bobart the Younger, preferred 'natural' over manicured landscapes, complaining that 'we see the marks of the scissors upon every plant and bush' (Addison, 1712). By the 1830s, topiary was no more, although one of the yews from Bobart the Elder’s hedges survives; it is the oldest tree in the modern Botanic Garden and was planted around 1645.

Against the insides of all the Garden’s walls are trained trees. By the end of the seventeenth century these walls probably accommodated at least 15 types of cherries, three types of almonds, two types of medlar, apricot and quince, and 'divers kindes' of peaches, pears, apples, and black and white plums. Double pomegranates, to the height of the walls, covered with 500 flowers, grew and, in 1661, ripe figs were presented to the University's Chancellor.

In 1670, a 'Plantarum conditorium hyemale' (top right), for evergreens such as myrtles and citruses, was built adjacent to the Physic Garden outside the North Wall (approximately in the centre of the current road between Magdalen College and the Botanic Garden). It was later converted into professorial accommodation before being demolished in the late-eighteenth century to widen Magdalen Bridge.

Academics and gentlemen, together with two dogs, roam along broad paths outside the fenced quarters. Three men are also at work.

Many changes have been made to the walls and the surrounding buildings of the Garden since the seventeenth century, although the broad paths that now cross in the centre of the Walled Garden broadly follow their original courses. Standing in the centre of the modern Garden, in late September, looking south-west towards the only unmodified corner of the walls, one can get a sense of what Robert Morison saw when he gave the first botany lecture in the University in early autumn 1670.

In Loggan’s print, in the same volume, entitled ‘Nova & accuratissima celeberrimae Universitatis civitatisque Oxoniensis scenographia’, which is a large-scale map of Oxford, a rather different Physic Garden is presented. There is a similar arrangement of beds within the walls, but additional walls are shown attached outside the west and north walls and, most notably, a tower to the west of the Danby Gate.

Reference: Addison J 1712. The Spectator 414: 499-500.

Commentary: Stephen Harris (July 2020)