May 20, 2007

Keynes’s Dahlias.

Filed under: Anecdote — duncan @ 7:55 pm

It’s always interesting to know how a ruling-class family established its wealth. To find the Economic Journal quote about Neville Keynes (in the post below), I re-read the opening chapters of Robert Skidelsky’s magisterial Maynard Keynes biography. Maynard’s grandfather was a self-made man. The source of his money? Gardening. “At seventeen he won his first prize – a pair of sugar tongs – for his pinks. Determined to profit from his green fingers he gave up bristles and turned to dahlias. His one-man dahlia exhibition at Stonehenge [!] in 1841 attracted thousands. This was the start of his reputation, and the foundation of his fortune. Dahlias made him. Cleverly developing new strains, he helped promote the dahlia boom; when the dahlia bubble burst, he switched with equal success to roses. As he prospered, John Keynes diversified into banking and other commercial activities.” The family never looked back.

There are books and books to be written (I’m sure lots of them already have been) about the role of gardening in the economy of the British empire. One of these days I might get round to writing a post about Joseph Paxton, an extraordinary self-made man if ever there was one. (Check out Kate Colquhoun’s biography, ‘A Thing in Disguise’.) Much 19th century exploration was fuelled by the insatiable market for exotic plants. Men fought and died over new species of orchids. It seems a striking instance of what one is tempted to call (following Bataille) a general principle: economic activity is fuelled, not by the desire for necessities, but by the desire for luxuries. The conquistadors were searching, not for food, but for gold; and in the early nineteenth century groups of hardened men set out on perilous expeditions to collect new kinds of pine trees. Many never returned.

1 Comment

  1. Entirely agreed. Head down to Heligan Gardens in Cornwall (I used to work there) for a magnificently restored example of the grand, wonderful absurdities of the astonishing scale of the upper-class’s plant-collecting enthusiasms.

    Comment by Tom — May 20, 2007 @ 8:30 pm

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