Gaskell House Blogs

John Ruskin’s Strawberries

30th July 2019
in blog, Garden

We have strawberries growing in the front garden. Unlike Lady Ludlow in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novella, the decision to plant strawberries was not prompted by a wish to show our aristocratic genes. We are told in Chapter 3 of My Lady Ludlow, that “…the great hereditary factor on which my lady piqued herself ………… was the power she had of perceiving the delicious odour arising from a bed of strawberries in the late autumn, when the leaves are all fading and dying. ‘Listen,’ her ladyship would say. ….’the old families have gifts and powers of a different and higher class to what the other orders have’.” So she ordered the gardener to plant a bed of strawberries under her window.   Like the narrator of the novella, we gardeners would probably fail that test.

No, we planted alpine or wild strawberries to provide a year-round green ground-cover, having discovered from an attempt to use them as an edging on the vegetable bed, that wild strawberries give rampant, but attractive ground cover, with the bonus of sweet edible fruit.

Alpine Strawberry- EG Garden

The added bonus is that, in this year of John Ruskin Bicentenary, the strawberries provide a link between the garden at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House  and Mr Ruskin himself. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture Ruskin includes them in his description of the spring flowers to be found in the pine forests of the Jura in France “..a blue gush of violets, and cowslip bells in sunny places; and in the more open ground, the vetch, and comfrey ….and the wild strawberry, just a blossom or two, all showered amidst the golden softness of deep, warm, amber-coloured moss.”

There is a watercolour by Ruskin of the wild strawberry, (and, I think, the “amber-coloured moss) which is now held in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford

Image© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


It was donated by Ruskin to the Ruskin Drawing Museum in 1875. Given that Meta Gaskell reputedly received drawing lessons from John Ruskin it is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine her being given such an example to learn from.

The further link to John Ruskin came when I joined the Friends of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House on a recent visit to Brantwood, Ruskin’s house on Coniston. (See Leslie’s blog )

The house has a beautiful garden, on a much grander scale than ours. But what we did have in common was the use of wild strawberries as ground cover. At Brantwood they are planted at the foot of the hedge to the right of the path leading to the front door. I took the photo at the head of this blog when I visited.

And there is one more link between the garden and John Ruskin. In the current exhibition at Elizabeth Gaskell House, “My Dear Mr Ruskin”, a book is displayed opened at an illustration of a magnolia and laburnum leaf. The leaf  shape of the magnolia looks very similar to the small tree we have planted in the lawn. So the garden is doing its little bit to celebrate the Ruskin bicentenary.

Chris Tucker

Garden volunteer

Plans are like a card-house-if one gives way, all the others come rattling about your head

Elizabeth Gaskell, 1864