Mr Barr's bulbs: the catalogues of the 'Daffodil King'

Spring has sprung and the Garden is alight with the bright colours of spring flowers, including the glorious yellows and whites of the daffodil. But did you know that for much of the nineteenth century the daffodil was not valued as an ornamental flower?
Its place as a favourite in our gardens has much to do with nursery owner Peter Barr (1826-1909), whose passion for collecting, cultivating and supplying daffodils in the late nineteenth century earned him the nick-name ‘The Daffodil King’.

“A genial, sprightly Scotchman, who wears a Tam O’Shanter cap” is how Peter Barr is described in an issue of the Gardeners’ Chronicle from 1901. Barr was born in Scotland in 1826, but spent most of his working life in England. From 1861 he was based in London where he founded with a partner the firm Barr and Sugden (later Barr and Sons), which sold seeds, bulbs and plants grown in its own nurseries, from a shop in Covent Garden.

Last month Cory Library volunteer Janet finished a project to sort, list and box the library’s collection of catalogues issued by the Barr firm, and it is to these that we turn as the subject of this month’s Library Pick.

The catalogues in the collection cover the period between 1861, when the firm was created, and 1956, when the business was bought by the Wallace nurseries at Tunbridge Wells, and the London premises were closed.

Quite a number of the catalogues include handwritten notes, which makes them a unique and exciting resource. In one or two, marked “Mr Barr” on the covers, there are corrections and suggestions, some of which have replies. Were these Peter Barr’s own copies, and are the notes conversations between himself and an editor?

This ‘editor’ is not shy of expressing strong opinions – examples of his comments include “rubbish”, “worthless”, and “good for nothing”! He is particularly vociferous in expressing his dislike of an instance of what he sees as needless name-dropping. Next to a list of “Paxtonian collections of flower seeds” he writes:

“Why not use your own name? Sir Joseph Paxton [an eminent Victorian gardener] has nothing to do with what you choose to put in to the collection, & you have everything [to do with it]. … This is a piece of bombast. … Say your own selections … & it will take better, as well as be less liable to be looked upon as a piece of thin puff or hard push. I have a great dislike to this.”

The objection was apparently ignored, as the list of “Paxtonian collections” appears again in the following year’s catalogue!

This interesting and unique collection forms part of a larger collection of catalogues from a wide variety of firms, which library volunteer Janet is continuing to explore, and that we hope to make available to researchers in the future. They are fascinating, not just as a record of a firm’s activity and the plants and related horticultural products then available, but as evidence of developments in botany, changing gardening and social fashions, the development of print technology, and the artistic and design trends of their time.

Jenny Sargent
Cory Library Manager
April 2017