Director of the Garden Museum
Christopher Woodward has been Director of the Garden Museum since 2006. He was previously Director of the Holburne Museum of Art in Bath and Assistant Curator at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. You should also know this about him (if only to better understand the swimming references in this interview), last Spring Christopher raised £524, 619 when he did a 50-mile fundraising swim from Newlyn in Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly to help the Garden Museum recoup financial losses from the pandemic. His swimming continues as I suspect does his fundraising. He’s a humble fellow so I’ll brag for him — that sea is cold and treacherous, and his efforts helped save a wonderful museum from closure.
Your three favourite flowers?
Benton End irises, cornflowers, and wisteria (dammit, it feels like such a bourgeois cliché to be planting the first in the street we’ve moved in to in south London).
Tell us about your childhood garden.
At 14 I swept up in the village shop for an hour after school and earned £1.08 per hour. I spent 55 pence on a box of over-priced luxury biscuits (as I was so hungry) and the rest on plants each Saturday. My section was a rockery, and a pond we’d dug. I wanted the water to be as crystal clear as the pool garden in ‘Dynasty’ but lay watching the water go a mocking spirit-seeping green. I think a lot of teenage boys begin with rockeries and Alpine plants.
Who or what inspired your career choice?
At Cambridge I switched from history to art history in an impulse after the general studies paper asked if ‘the Greeks were hiding behind their columns’. I was taught about the landscape gardens of the 18th-century by a great and elegant Professor called David Watkin. I didn’t believe places such as Stourhead could exist: how could a classical painting become three-dimensions? David opened a secret door into a glade of Arcadia.
What is a typical day in the life of Christopher?
I begin each day with a delusion of an ordered, mechanical, and predictabe self. That works from 6.30am to nine, when I’m up with Max (two) and I write to the backdrop of Peppa Pig. Ideally, I cycle to work via Brockwell Lido. Then the whole day flows. If I don’t swim, however, the whole day revolves around wanting to go swimming.
Something we’d find:
On your bedside table: Phone charger. The older you get, the more you worry about charging your ‘phone. Teenagers are cool if it’s like, 17%. If mine is below 80% I worry about natural disasters.
In your flower arrangement: The best flowers are stolen flowers. On my way home from work are two gardens with roses floozing over the fence, and I take those for my wife. 'Flowers belong to those who need them,' I said to a lady who shouted at me.
In your garden shed: A plate for Chestnut, the stray cat we are considering adopting. He lives between several gardens. We call out ‘Have you seen Chestnut?’ to our neighbours. I love connecting London gardens.
No garden is complete without …
view into a neighbour’s garden. I love London gardens side by side, like ours.
The flaw you wish you didn’t have?
I am very good at forgetting bad things but sometimes too good at forgetting. I’m very good at leaving other people behind. For a long period of my life, I could do whatever I wanted, and that is exhilarating but also terrifying. To be free.
What would you be in another life?
I'd be a doctor at sea. I'd be Doctor Livesey in Treasure Island
Keep a diary, always use the stairs – and run up them – and always be kind to teenagers.
Who is a horticulturalist or naturalist you admire?
My job is very much about celebrating garden makers, so it changes with every exhibition. Just starting work on Roberto Burle Marx, and he’s the next hero. The Museum we have built is a Museum about liking things.
What is the one flower or plant you’d never plant in your garden, but don’t detest when you see others plant it?
Fuschia. It’s always the neighbour’s fuchsia, not yours, so you can enjoy it being a bit naff.
If there was a fire, and you could only keep one book on plants and flowers, what would it be?
Ollie Gilbert’s The Ecology of Urban Habitats, a book wonderfully dedicated to studies of flora and fauna in ruinous industrial habitats – and, actually, plants which like fires. I wrote a book about ruins, and came back to gardens through the flowers which grow on ruins. Gilbert was a botanist at Sheffield. Years later, I discovered in my late father’s papers a memoir of running from Lands End to John O’Groats with his University team. Ollie Gilbert was in the squad. I was moved by the idea of my Dad and Gilbert taking turns on those long stretches through the Highlands.
For posterity, what would you like to be known for?
To have swum the seven seas.
Quick fire: some favourite things
Book (fiction): Treasure Island
Film: The Last of the Mohicans
Painting: A piece of turf, by Durer, 1503
Smell: Martini glass
Meal: Chicken pie
Travel Destination: Formentera
A cause near and dear to me: We have been working on a campaign to change the legislation for London on levels of sunlight in housing and the public realm. Sunlight is starting to be recognized as a factor in planning.
A great walk near where you live: The Ridgeway, as it burrows and threads its way into the hills above Goring upon Thames.
Thing to collect obsessively: Tennis balls abandoned in the streets. There’s a surprising number.
Museum: Garden Museum (obv). The last other Museum I really enjoyed is the Castle Museum in Lewes.
Person to follow on Instagram: Shane Connolly
Garden in the UK: Tania and Jamie Compton’s in Tisbury, Dorset.
Garden anywhere else: Ninfa, Italy
Images of Garden Museum courtesy of previous Anthophile interviewee Dan Pearson, who designed the gardens