John Abercrombie was an interesting man, but not peculiar or any more eccentric than many folks I know! He was clever, knew a good thing when he saw it, and had a long and interesting life. I like him, based on what I see, and think you might as well. What he did well was take the good horticultural information of the day and present it in a very clear way in very focused subject books.
Upon his death "he was lamented by all who knew him, as cheerful, harmless, and upright".
Visit the super blog this photo of Prestonpans comes from!
The story starts here. Abercrombie was born in Prestonpans, one of two sons.
Prestonpans, Scotland....Take a look in street view in Google maps. I can see I would love visiting Scotland. (Off topic: If you like old pottery, creamware in particular, Prestonpans and several other adjacent towns were famous for their kilns.)
Just the facts: From about 1751 to 1759 Abercrombie worked as gardener to Sir James Douglas. He married a member of the Douglas family household and with his wife soon began what would become a very large family, consisting of 16 daughters and two sons. Abercrombie then returned to Scotland for 10 months. (His wife must have been relieved...)
John served his apprenticeship with his father, John Abercrombie. In 1744 he moved south where he worked for a number of places, including the Royal Gardens at Kew and Leicester House. Abercrombie became gardener to Doctor Munro at Sunning Hill, Berkshire, England and to several others including Lord Bateman, Lord Kensington and Sir Robert Darling.
In 1763 he lived in Hackney, working as gardener to Mr. Alveres before setting up a successful market gardening business in 1770. He will have been a contemporary of and in competition with Loddiges. after a couple of years he became a publican in Mile End which he turned into the "Artichoke Tea Garden" , but returned to gardening as his wife did not like the life style. He then started writing.
He was apparently invited to superintend the gardens of Catherine the Great in Russia but declined choosing instead to send a copy of "Every Man his Own Gardener".
From the late-1790s and into the early-1800s Abercrombie was occasionally employed to plan gardens and pleasure grounds. He continued his interest in tea and in practical gardening and writing up until his death.
The following is worth reading, as it alludes to John Abercrombie's mildly eccentric side, but also gives insight into the times.
From: An Encyclopedia of Gardening: comprising the theory and practice of horticulture, floriculture, arboriculture, and landscape-gardening, including all the latest improvements. a general history of gardening in all countries, and a statistical view of its present state, with suggestions for its future progress in the British Isles - 1824
1766. Abercrombie, John, son of John Abercrombie, who had a nursery and garden in the neighborhood of Edinburgh; and was in the habit of supplying the markets of that city with vegetables.
John Abercrombie, our author, was born in 1726; and was educated at a grammar school, till he attained an age to be of service in his father's business, for which he had always a predilection. After he had arrived at manhood, on some trifling family differences occurring, he left his father, and came to London; in the vicinity of which he worked for some years as a journeyman gardener. To note the particulars of most interest, he was long employed in the Royal Gardens at Kew, and at Leicester House, now Leicester Fields, and in these situations he occasionally contributed to the boyish diversions of his present majesty.
He lived as principal gardener with several noblemen and persons of high rank and respectability, and particularly with that eminent botanist, Doctor Munro (father of the present celebrated physician), at Sunning Hill, near Windsor. Here he continued several years, and was married while in the doctor's service, to a young woman in the family of Sir James Douglas, where he had before lived. He afterwards had a garden and nursery at Hackney, whence he sent his goods to Spitalnelds Market; and the profits of his business enabled him to support his increasing family with comfort and decency.
At this crisis, some time about 1770, Mr. Davis, an eminent bookseller of London, accompanied by Dr. Oliver Goldsmith, having previously ordered a handsome entertainment at an inn in Hackney, surprised Abercrombie with an invitation to dine wltn them with a view to induce him, by encouraging overtures, to compose an original work on Practical Gardening. Abercrombie consented, with reluctance, fearful it might call off his attention too much from his garden and nursery; and at last, only on the condition of his materials being revised, and the style improved by Dr. Goldsmith. This celebrated writer, however, did not perform his part of the undertaking: after the papers had been handed to him by the humble gardener, then an inexperienced writer, and anxious to have his luxuriances pruned, the doctor said, as an apology to the bookseller for returning the MS. unrevised,that "Abercrombie's style was best suited to the subject of which it treated." Abercrombie, however, frequently lamented, and the public possibly may do the same, that this very perspicuous and elegant writer did not fulfill his engagement.
Abercrombie's first work was entitled Man his own Gardener, which had a rapid sale, from the temporary profits being considerable he was induced to neglect, and soon after to give up, his nursery; and to enter upon a course of authorship on horticultural subjects.
On first publishing Every Man His Own Gardener, the diffidence of Abercrombie induced him to affix to the title-page the name of Mawe, who was gardener to the Duke of Leeds. After the publication of a second edition, he accepted of an invitation from the nominal author of his book, who had been much flattered by the complement to visit him in Yorkshire. When introduced to Mawe, whom he had never before seen, poor Abercrombie (as he used facetiously to narrate" encountered a gentleman so bepowdered, and so bedaubed with gold lace, that he thought be could be in the presence of no less a personage than the duke himself. However, they soon came to a right understanding; for he continued his visit for more than a fortnight, and " fared sumptuously every day." He likewise received much information from Mawe, as the groundwork of improvements which he afterwards made in his book. Every Man His Own Gardener, and in other publications. They subsequently maintained a friendly correspondence for years.
About the year 1774, Abercrombie took a teagarden at Hoxton, near the Shepherd and Shepherdess; and exhibited in the grounds his practical skill in raising exotics and choice fruits: his arbors there are, to this day, spoken of as rural curiosities. In different parts of the garden he was accustomed to fix pieces of his own humble poetry.
At length he left it, on the expiration of the lease, which he was unable to get renewed. Unfortunately, just before the lease had expired, the original proprietor of the grounds under whom Abercrombie held, and who was disposed to do him the most friendly offices, died. This gentleman was an eminent goldsmith, and an alderman of the city of London: during his illness, his relations prevented Abercrombie from visiting him, or from access to the house. On his death, Abercrombie experienced another severe disappointment, in not being noticed in the alderman's will; although be had been led, by professions of friendship and promises of assistance, to form the highest expectations from this quarter.
Previous to the year 1790, Abercrombie's family had grown up and had settled away from home. From this period to the time of his death, he chiefly depended for support on the occasional improvements which his several works required. From 1796 to the time of his decease, he resided at Charlton Street, Somer' Town, except when he was visiting a friend at Cambridge, or was engaged in any professional pursuit at a considerable distance from town. When out of business, he was a constant visitor, being a great walker, of the nursery-ground and botanic gardens around the metropolis, with the object of collecting horticultural and botanical information. He was also occasionally employed in planning new gardens and ornamental grounds, as a horticultural surveyor and improver; for which he was sometimes handsomely remunerated.
In the spring of 1806, being in his eightieth year, Abercrombie met with a severe fall, by which he broke the upper part of his thigh-bone. This accident, which happened to him on the 15th of April, terminated in his death. After lying during the interval, in a very weak exhausted state, without much pain, he expired in the night between April and May as St. Paul's clock struck twelve. He was lamented by all who knew him, as cheerful, harmless, and upright.