Gardener and friend to Alexander Pope for 20 years
Alexander Pope was busy with his garden by the end of 1719, the year in which he came to Twickenham, although it is not clear that John Serle had yet joined him. In a statement related by Edmund Curll, Searle is held to have said that there were not 'ten sticks in the garden when his master took the house'. This was in 1735 when Curll also claimed that Serle had been there eleven years. The statement is at best apocryphal because Pope did not take the house, he built it.
Relationship with Pope
Serle was of some education and he came to play a wider role in Pope's life than merely as jobbing gardener. The opening lines of his Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot testify to this: Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu'd I said/Tye up the Knocker, say I'm sick, I'm dead. He referred to him as 'my man John'. When Pope took to growing pineapples, in specially constructed and heated 'stoves' it was Serle who supervised cultivation and delivery of the ripe fruit. One may assume that he also looked after Bounce and her puppies while Pope rambled between country estates during the summers. He also visited Ralph Allen's quarries at Combe Down above Bath and advised on the selection of masonry for the grotto entrance from the garden. Following Martha Blount's disastrous visit to the Allens at Bath in 1743 Serle was sent to Marlborough to meet and escort her home.
The Serle family
It is not known where John Serle came from: there is no record of his baptism in Twickenham, nor of his marriage to Sarah who also entered Pope's employment, possibly as his housekeeper. Three daughters were baptised at St Mary's Church: Felicia on 23 July 1730 (buried 25 October 1733), Felicia on 28 November 1733, Susannah on 10 April 1739. The family lived in a house at the eastern corner of Pope's garden.
When Pope died he left Serle and Sarah a year's wages and £100, with a further £100 if he should outlive Martha Blount, his principal legatee. In the event he died in 1746. It has been claimed that Ralph Allen took him into employment at Prior Park after Pope's death, but this cannot have been for very long. Sarah appears to have left Twickenham after 1750. She was later identified, living with her married daughter in Newport, Shropshire, in 1783, aged 90.
Description of the grotto
In 1745 John wrote, drew and Dodsley published his booklet A PLAN OF Mr POPE'S GARDEN. The major part of this work is actually a description of the grotto and the minerals in it, together with a plan of the grotto and a perspective view. At the back were included a selection of poems. The volume was in effect a guide book for visitors, sold for 1/6d and includes the only known contemporary layout of the garden.
Anthony Beckles Willson, Mr Pope & Others at Cross Deep in the 18th Century, 1996
William Wimsatt, The Portraits of Alexander Pope, Yale University Press, 1965
John Serle, (introduction by Morris R Brownell), A Plan of Mr Pope's Garden, The Augustan Reprint Society No211, 1982
George Sherburn, The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, Oxford, 1956