Before Kew, there was Loddiges Nursery. Most of the palms and non-native English ferns you’ll find smattering London’s parks and gardens came from the 18th century market that occupied the then-village of Hackney on Mare Street. Bringing in plants from all over the world, it became the home of hothouse pioneers, where overhead sprinklers were first developed, as was an iron grill system to distribute heat throughout the building, creating an ideal – and very non-English – climate for the horticulture. Originally founded by Joachim Conrad Loddiges in the 1770s, over the next 50 years it became one of the largest, most well-known sites of floral agriculture, making significant contributions to the scientific community and the city’s urban planning.
It was also the site of artist Jo Hixxy’s first large-scale mural, an opportunity that would go on to shape her practice for years. “The job was through a housing association, and it’s really interesting to think that there was one of the biggest plant nurseries there, given that’s it’s now primarily a residential neighbourhood,” Hixxy says. “We’d found some drawing from the early 1700s when they were importing trees from Australia – all the palms you see in London came from this father-son nursery. We also manages some illustrations from the daughter, which is all they had given that it pre-dates the camera.” Today in the Hackney archives you can find sketches of trees reaching as tall as 30-feet high, carried on carts through the streets to their new homes across the city. One from 1854 is said to have previously belonged to the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, an import that had been in Loddiges’ possession for decades.
“Of course, there’s a blue plaque that acknowledges the history of this building and the era outside, but I couldn’t help but think that no-one really reads them anymore, and that’s what set me on the road to pursue botanical drawings,” Hixxy says. Since then, her work has brought the plants and horticultural history of the area into her site-specific works, a pairing which made her a perfect fit for the Peabody-backed, Moniker Projects commission along the Thamesmead canals. Drawing on the area’s expansive plant life and native fauna, her contribution is styled in the likeness of old railway posters form the 30s and 40s, another nod to the history of the area and the country. Her work often finds ways of bringing the past into the present, a practice that asks us to spend a little more time smelling the roses and reading the little blue plaques around us.