The collection includes one of the world’s rarest camellias, Camellia japonica ‘Middlemist’s Red’ – one of just two known specimens and descended from the only one to arrive in the UK, collected from China in 1804 by plant hunter John Middlemist. Other specimens include C. j. ‘Imbricata’, thought to date back to the original planting of the Camellia House in 1828.
After it was extensively damaged in a near miss from a Second World War bomb the conservatory was all but abandoned and came close to demolition in the 1980s, when a campaign began to save it. The camellias were largely undocumented by then, but the intervention of volunteers from the International Camellia Society has since helped identify more than 30 of the 42 specimens.
The Conservatory’s restoration is part of a wider £12.1m project, funded by English Heritage and the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, to restore the extensive gardens and parks around Chiswick House. Though the structure was little more than a shell when work began, the wooden frame has now been painstakingly replaced and the metal elements restored and repainted before rebuilding the conservatory. Some modern improvements have also been added to compensate for the Victorians’ mistaken belief that camellias weren’t frost hardy.
‘We now wouldn’t be putting camellias indoors,’ says John Watkins, gardens supervisor for English Heritage. ‘So we’ve installed red cedar shading outside – and conditions for the camellias are better than they’ve ever been.’
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