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Garden History

Garden History

I have been very fortunate to have worked on some of the most interesting and ambitious garden restoration schemes to have been undertaken in England. At Kenilworth Castle, Bolsover Castle, Hampton Court Palace, Chiswick House, Wrest Park and Great Whitley Court I have been involved in gardens dating from the 1570s to the 1870s.

My interest in historic gardens began during the repair of the fire damage work at Hampton Court in the late 1980s. I had become responsible for the plans to show the restored rooms to the public and had undertaken deep research into how the state rooms were used. As I did this I realised that the gardens and the rooms were inseparable. They worked functionally and aesthetically as a single unit. It dawned that if we were to restore the rooms as they were in 1700 there was a big argument that the gardens should be likewise restored.

This triggered the project to restore the King’s Privy Garden on the South Front which I managed between 1991 and 1995. When it was all completed I published the history of the project in a special volume of Apollo magazine The King’s Privy Garden at Hampton Court 1989-1995 (1995). You can find the full story there on pages 3-22. However, the whole thing was a pioneering venture. At the time it was the most ambitious garden restoration attempted perhaps anywhere in Europe and it was possible only because we had such incredibly good evidence of William III’s garden of 1700. Not only were there large parts of the original garden surviving, there were excellent plans, prints, drawings and paintings; a suite of contemporary building accounts; a herbarium in the National History Museum and fantastic archaeological evidence. All this meant that we had so much more than the Dutch, for instance had had at Het Loo.

There were obviously lots of questions that we could not easily answer even with all this superb evidence and so we had to make some educated guesses as to a small number of elements. In this we were helped by a brilliant team of historians and evidence from other gardens either built by William and Mary or by their contemporaries.

The result as you see here was staggering: a complete transformation of the whole appearance of the south front of the palace; but it was more than that because it showed how the south gardens had been used and the way the orangeries, the king’s private rooms and the gardens interacted in terms of etiquette and daily life.


Air view of the south front of Hampton Court in 1992 showing the very overgrown garden. In fact many of the Yew Trees were those that were planted for William III in 1700; cutting them down was our biggest and bravest decision

Air view of the south front of Hampton Court in 1992 showing the very overgrown garden. In fact many of the Yew Trees were those that were planted for William III in 1700; cutting them down was our biggest and bravest decision

This remarkable view from a balloon shows the archaeological work underway in November 1993. In the northern section of the garden you can see the beds dug into the river gravels by William III’s gardeners in 1700

This remarkable view from a balloon shows the archaeological work underway in November 1993. In the northern section of the garden you can see the beds dug into the river gravels by William III’s gardeners in 1700
Post Restoration

Air view of Hampton Court after the restoration was complete. This shows how important the Privy Garden was in bringing the palace and its landscape together

At the Museum of London I had limited scope to be involved in large scale garden restoration, but arriving at English Heritage there were exciting opportunities. For almost a century English Heritage and its precursor, the Ministry of Works, had been at the forefront of understanding and presenting historic gardens. One of the early pioneers was Charles Reed Peers, the Ministry of Works’ Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments from 1910, responsible for assembling so much of the National Collection of historic buildings. Under his direction the open field where he believed Sir Christopher Hatton’s garden had stood at Kirby Hall was given a new formal garden in an Elizabethan style. As understanding and investigative techniques moved on, much more was learned about the development of the Kirby landscape, and in 1997 Peers’ garden was replaced with a baroque parterre to a design by George London, who worked at Kirby in the 1690s. At Chiswick House from 1952 onwards historic plans and views were used to inform a restoration of Lord Burlington’s famous garden, while at Mount Grace Priory in 1994 a miniature domestic garden was laid out to evoke the appearance of a Carthusian monk’s solitary cell of the later Middle Ages.

Soon after arriving at English Heritage we put together a proposal to the Wolfson Foundation for the restoration of a number of major EH gardens. Work eventually took place at Witley Court, Worcestershire; Ashby de la Zouche, Leicestershire, Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire as well as several much bigger projects described below.

Witley Court from the south showing the gardens as restored to bring back W. A. Nesfield’s Italianate scheme of 1854-1860

The first of the big schemes that Wolfson helped with – and which got a major Heritage Lottery Fund grant was at Chiswick. Chiswick House is England’s finest Palladian villa, its garden was designed by William Kent and Charles Bridgeman and was influenced by the Roman campagna and the idyllic landscapes painted by Claude Lorrain. The garden’s most significant period is from 1733 when it led the ‘natural taste in gardening’ influenced by Alexander Pope, which was to lead to the English landscape movement. It is one of the most important gardens in Europe, famous throughout the world.

In the late nineteenth century the villa and its gardens had a chequered history and tragically the gardens got separated from the house. In the 20th Century they became Municipal Park looked after by one of the new London boroughs. The aim was to provide a place for the working classes of London to exercise.

Two views of the gardens before our project. Showing vandalism and neglect. In many ways the garden was a huge dog lavatory

When I became Chief Executive one of the things I was determined to do was bring this remarkable place back to life. I wanted to find a way of bringing house and garden back together again in harmony just as we had done at Hampton Court. After some long negotiations we succeeded in persuading the local authority who own the park to create a trust with English Heritage unifying for the first time for almost a 100 years the house and garden. I managed to persuade my good friend, Rupert Hambro (who was my Chairman at the Museum of London) to chair this trust and he led an extraordinary project to restore house and gardens back to their appearance as they were in Lord Burlington’s day.

Before and after pictures of the rose garden

There still remains much to do at Chiswick, especially for the house, but the restored gardens and the new café which we commissioned, have, I think, transformed people’s enjoyment and appreciation of the place.

The villa in its restored landscape: paradise on earth

Quite a different project, in scale and in methodology was that to restore the Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth Castle that had been planted by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in 1575. Thanks to a very detailed contemporary description of the garden by Robert Langham, its location has always been well known, though from the late 18th century, if not before, the area was planted as an orchard. There were archaeological investigations at Kenilworth in 1970 and 1975, in the hope of finding evidence of Leicester’s garden. The results were disappointing, and the new garden which was planted in the area after the excavations were complete was an approximation of the plan published in William Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire in 1656.

In the autumn of 2004 archaeological evaluation at Kenilworth revealed what had long been suspected: that evidence of Elizabethan features indeed remained, which had eluded the diggers in the 1970s. With this discovery, and the realization that the roots from the ‘Tudor garden’ were threatening the layers beneath, the decision was taken to undertake a full excavation, which then took place over the summers of 2005 and 2006. When this work was complete, and a huge research programme was completed, the decision was taken in October 2008 to attempt a new and complete re-creation of the Elizabethan garden.

The archaeological excavation of the garden at its fullest extent in 2006

This was the first attempt at an accurate representation of a known Elizabethan great garden. While the evidence for it was considered sufficiently good to justify a re-creation, it was not without gaps and contradictions. The evidence was different in form and in quantity to that at Hampton Court, for instance. We therefore worked to a broad hierarchy: of first importance were the two principal primary sources: Langham’s description of the garden in the Letter of 1575 and the archaeological evidence. These two were the core sources and we sought as far as possible to re-create everything which they indicated in the Elizabethan garden. A small amount of other Elizabethan material, principally information included in Leicester’s archives supplemented these. The second tier of information was formed of material relating to the evolution of the garden in the eighty years which followed, in the period before the castle was dramatically altered by Joseph Hawkesworth. This included the two important visual sources of the early 17th century – a fresco and a ground plan published by William Dudgale in 1656. The third level of key information was that of relevant contemporary comparative material: the evidence of gardens, statuary and other applied arts produced in this period in a comparable cultural context.

Our intention was to include in our re-creation all the significant elements described in the Langham Letter, using the second tier of information to add detail to or temper that picture. We avoided re-creating any substantial element which was not referenced in our first or second tier sources. Where that information was incomplete or confusing we used the information of our third tier evidence, contemporary comparative material, to fill the gaps.

How all this was undertaken and how we came to the spectacular end result is told in The Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle published by English Heritage in 2013 and edited by John Watkins and Anna Keay. It is a fascinating read. The re-created garden at Kenilworth opened to the public in April 2008. It was one of the most successful projects we have ever undertaken. Visitor numbers at the castle increased from 88,000 to 140,000 a year.

The completed and restored garden at Kenilworth Castle, now the best place to see what a large-scale, high-status Elizabethan garden would have been like

Perhaps most ambitious garden project of all, at least in scale, is our 20 year project to restore Wrest Park Gardens. The continuous ownership of this property (by the Grey family, later de Grey, from the Middle Ages to the twentieth Century) has resulted in a garden that illustrates three important phases in English garden history: 1. Henry Duke of Kent from 1706 onwards enhanced the garden in the formal garden style inspired by Versailles. This later evolved to include formal woodland walks with garden buildings; 2. Between 1758 and 1760, the Marquise de Grey employed Capability Brown to enclose the garden with a perimeter serpentine river-like lake; and 3. In 1834 the 2nd Earl Grey began to demolish the old house and build a new house almost twice the distance from the Long Water. The new perspective necessitated the construction of extensive new terraces with parterres in the French manner.

The garden buildings had been in the care of English Heritage since we were set up, but the house and the landscape itself was managed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council under a 999 year lease. In 2006 we successfully negotiated to take on house and grounds thereby unifying the two in single management, much as we did at Chiswick. Here, however, we kept the whole thing under direct management. BBSRC also gave us a dowry of £3.211m to repair the mansion house.

The restoration of the gardens has been a very ambitious task helped, in part, by a generous lottery grant. The total capital cost was more than £4m. There were terrible problems with drainage in the canals caused by lack of maintenance – this was killing trees and causing them to be blown over. After dredging the waterways we re-instated the lost scale and proportions of the forest walks and restored each of the enclosed gardens. We removed inappropriate planting and re-established the network of original avenues, pathways and vistas. We relocated statues to their original locations and made or bought new ones where they were missing. We also restored the orchard in the Kitchen Garden.

A view from the south terrace of the house looking over the restored landscape at Wrest Park

There is lots more to do and further phases over the next fifteen years will do even more to bring this magical place back to life.

Finally watch out for the restoration of the Stuart Garden at Bolsover Castle coming this summer (2014). A section on this will be added to the website as soon as the garden is completed!