The art and craft of Sutton's exhibition

Sutton's 1889 catalogueSutton's was founded in Reading in 1806, trading at first as corn merchants under the name "House of Sutton"; later, the company began to sell flower and vegetable seeds. It grew to become a major international firm, as well as the pride of the town.

This display shows just a few of the many thousands of Sutton's-related items held in the collections at MERL, and can only hope to sketch the history and influence of the firm throughout its 200-plus years.

For many people Sutton's is a "brand": one might see packets of seeds on the shelves in a garden centre, then buy them and experience the product itself. Farmers and market gardeners might order seeds direct from a catalogue. By definition, a seed or bulb does not look like the picture on the packet or in a brochure, and so for much of its history the challenge for the company has been to show off the plants that the seeds will become (if properly cared for). This marketing challenge inspired what we might call the "Art of Sutton's", and we can enjoy its full glory in the lavishly illustrated catalogues of the late 19th century. For people in Reading, the name "Sutton's" also represented, for many years, an important local business: a source of employment and of civic pride . The richness of the Sutton's archive lies not only in the art, but also in the insight that it provides into the craft, and the hard graft, that lay behind the colourful marketing.

Several MERL volunteers are former Sutton's employees, and their knowledge has been invaluable both in cataloguing the archive and in producing the publication Suttons Seeds: a history 1806-2006, which is available to purchase in the Museum shop. This event is part of a series of events related to A History of the World.

This exhibition was first on display at the Special Collections Service in April 2010 and is on display again from 2 September - 23 November 2014. 

List of exhibits

J. Chalmers Morton. The Suttons of Reading, c.1887 (TR SUT P9/2)

Garden equipment catalogue, c.1926 (TR SUT P2/A480)

Photograph of the vegetable seed room,1922 (TR SUT PH3/10)

Photograph of the Calcutta (Kolkata) staff, 1950s (TR SUT PH3/20)

Sutton's kitchen herbs (2007/18)

Seed kit: Sutton's mustard and cress farm (2007/17)

Pamphlet commemorating the visit of King George V to the company's premises in Reading, 1918 (TR SUT PH2/1 - part)

Photograph of the seed test laboratory, 1926 (TR SUT PH3/12)

Photograph of the bulb room, 1899 (TR SUT PH3/2)

Photograph of the carpenters' workshop, c.1900 (TR SUT PH3/3)

Programme for annual staff excursions to the Isle of Wight trip, 1896 (TR SUT SP2/82)

Photograph of a model of the recreation grounds in Early, 1950s (TR SUT [un-numbered])

Leaflet accompanying Christmas gifts to staff on active service, 1915 (TR SUT SP2/11)

Broadsheet price list, 1833 (TR SUT P2/A2)

Bulbs catalogue,1882 (TR SUT P2/A146)

Bulbs catalogue,1892 (TR SUT P2/A155)

Bulbs catalogue,1895 (TR SUT P2/A158)

Sutton’s farmers’ year-book and graziers’ manual, 1924 (TR SUT P2/A246)

Martin Hubert Fouquet Sutton. The laying out and upkeep of golf courses and putting greens, 1906 (TR SUT P9/15)

Further reading


Suttons Seeds : a history, 1806-2006. Earley : Earley Local History Group, 2006. Copy available for reference at MERL LIBRARY--4752-EAR and for purchase in the MERL shop.


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