Research and Redevelopment at the RHS Lindley Library, London


Susan Robin, RHS Lindley Library


The Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Libraries is the collective name for the libraries situated across the four RHS Gardens at Wisley, Harlow Carr, Hyde Hall and Rosemoor, and the establishing library at the Society’s headquarters in Vincent Square, London. Combined, they create the largest horticultural library in the world.

This article focuses on the Lindley Library, London, how its collections can be used, and the ongoing redevelopment of the library.

The Library has two public areas. The Lending Library is our upstairs drop-in library. It is open to the public Monday – Friday 10am to 5pm, and anyone with an interest in gardens is welcome to browse or study. It contains our newest stock, classic titles, and current issues of select periodicals. Only RHS members may borrow material. Downstairs, the Research Room is accessible by advance appointment. In both rooms we permit reader photography and photocopying if conditions allows, with the caveat that it is the reader’s responsibility to adhere to the rules of copyright. We take enquires from the public by phone, post and email and look to reply within 10 working days. Enquires can range from the date a particular flower was first seen in UK garden centres; to how best to protect physalis from frost?


The Lindley Library, London is the heritage library for the RHS, and so holds the majority of its archives, rare books and special collections, alongside modern printed books and an historical and modern art collection. Broadly, our collection focus is the history of gardens and garden design, horticultural taxonomy, garden plant introductions, and commercial horticulture.

At the Library you will find the stories of discovering new, wild plants; the registration lists for particular cultivars (plants created by breeders); thousands of flora and plant monographs, specialist magazines, and nursery catalogues; and stunning artist representations, which all assist a researcher in identifying the date of creation or introduction of a plant, its defining characteristics, and it commercial popularity across the UK. The social, artistic, and pragmatic development of gardening can be traced through 19thC horticultural advice and plant hunting, early 20thC interests around public health and green spaces, the 1960s boom in gardening as an everyman hobby, and onto today’s popular interests in home and garden improvement and ecological awareness.

The oldest book within the collections is a 1514 edition of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis. Other notable holdings include Gerard’s Herbal (1597); Akizato’s account of the gardens of Kyoto (1799); Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca (1806-1830); the account book of Capability Brown (1753-83); and the papers of Gertrude Jekyll, and E.A. Bowles. Our collection of art work includes original pictures, photographs, and contemporary published prints by Redoute, W. Hooker, John Reeves, Lillian Snelling, and Siriol Sherlock. The oldest volume of drawings in the collection is by Dutch artist Peiter van Kouenhorrn (C1630s), while modern books on techniques include the classic textbook An Approach to Botanical Painting by Anne-Marie and Donn Evans (1993).

As with most libraries space is a challenge for us, and we have far more stock than we could possibly house on-site. We hold thousands of modern books (20thC+) in offsite storage (all marked as such on our online catalogue), that can be recalled with a few days’ notice. By using offsite storage we can keep titles and subject collections that may have fallen from popularity, but which we can see will be advantageous to future researchers, allowing us to maintain an authoritative collection for the library into the future. It also enables us to keep our onsite collections up-to-date, while ensuring all material remains accessible to our readers. 


Staff and students make much use of the collections in their own research. Our Art Curator Charlotte Brooks built upon the source material used by one of our PhD students, who had researched the history of our Reeves collection of ‘Chinese drawings of plants’ 1817-1831, to establish a confident date of painting of a particular picture of a Quilled Pink chrysanthemum. These RHS commissioned paintings were sold in the 1850s to ease the Society’s financial troubles. The collection was dispersed before eventually being returned via purchase and bequest. Records of the paintings were just as dispersed across the RHS archives. By cross referencing a numbered stamp on the painting, the date of Reeves arrival in Canton, an article from the Transactions of the Horticultural Society 1817-1818 noting the arrival of a possible ‘Quilled Pink’ from China, an entry in the RHS Council Minutes for 1826 retrospectively mentioning pictures received by Reeves, the contemporary sailing times from Canton to London, and the now known life cycle of the chrysanthemum, Charlotte was able to suggest a probable painting date of 1817-1818. As with all specialist libraries, continued research into our own holdings and history helps strengthen and clarify our resources.


 Chrysanthemum indicum ‘Lou Kwun Mee’, Chrysanthemum indicum ‘Toze Lung Sou’ (‘Quilled Pink’), Large volume 3, page 8.

The Library also has a wonderful team of volunteers, many of whom have chosen to give their time to the RHS as they have a passionate interest in garden history and horticulture themselves. One of our long standing volunteers is a member of two garden history groups and uses modern (20th C+) books and periodicals, as well as the RHS archives to confirm information in their society newsletters, and to find places of interest for the groups to visit. The breath of the collection has enabled her to develop her knowledge of noted historic landscape designers such as Joseph Paxton, and Russell Page, and to study the private papers of William Robinson. She regularly draws on publications past and present such as Alicia Amherst’s London Parks and Gardens (1907) and Coke and Borg’s Vauxhall Gardens: A History (2011), as well as specialist topic periodicals Historical Gardens Review, Historic Houses Association Magazine, and New Arcadian Journal, which focuses on the cultural politics of historical landscapes. Such a collection of titles would be difficult to find together in any other public library.

Redeveloping the Library

The Library is currently undergoing refurbishment, with phase one to be completed on 7th March 2016. Our Lending Library remains a place for study and browsing, but now includes an exhibition space with display boards and cases that will allow us to show our three key collections; books, art, and archives. Until now, we have not had the facilities to promote all our collections outside of RHS Shows and special events, and we hope that exhibiting these collections will result in a broader awareness and study of these often unique and correlative holdings.

We are also looking to use this redefined space for talks and events. To make room for the display area, we removed our free standing book shelves and undertook a book rationalisation programme, to ensure that our readers still have a quality lending collection to hand. This entailed sorting and assessing our onsite lending collection of approximately 3,000 books, either retaining a title in the Lending Library, sending it into offsite storage, or relocating it into our reference collection downstairs. The Lending Library has also been redecorated, which involved the careful removal and packaging of portraits of our founding members, and logistical juggling of space between furniture and stock. Behind the scenes, our storage areas have been updated to make them more environmentally stable and to increase storage capacity. The art, archives, and heritage collections will be installed and accessible by 21st March.

Phase two will be the redevelopment of our Welcome area, with the installation of a glass door and new reception desk which will make us more visible to our readers, as well as introducing the sale of related RHS merchandise, such as botanical prints, into the Library. As with many redevelopment projects, we have faced the challenges of delays, and for us this has impacted on our planned reassessment of the reference collection. Our hope was to have a refreshed and reorganised lending and reference collection for our readers on reopening, but this is no longer possible. However, we are not disheartened! With tactical planning, we aim to continue with our improvements of our reference library, resulting in a collection that is more engaging for our researchers and more focused on our collection policy areas.

If you would like to learn more about the collections held at the Lindley Library, London please contact us at or visit our webpage at to see our opening times and online catalogue.

With thanks to Dr Brent Elliott, Charlotte Brooks, Lucy Waitt, and Joan Pateman.

Bibliography: Elliott, B., 2009. Occasional Papers from the RHS Lindley Library. Volume One. London. RHS Lindley Library.

 Refer 32 (1) Spring 2016


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