Cotehele: zinging in the rain

detail from “Cotehele House with daffodils on the Bowling Green”, by Rena Gardiner, National Trust

I realised what it was like to be an aristocratic landowner when I  visited Cotehele in Cornwall the other day.  There were no pesky visitors and apart from one or two staff scurrying rapidly from building to building my partner and I had the place completely to ourselves.  Admittedly it was immediately the site opened on a Tuesday morning in February but the main reason for the apparent lordly solitude was the fact that it was raining. And when it rains in Cornwall it rains. And when it wasn’t raining hard it was drizzling steadily through the thick and clinging mist. It was a case of water, water everywhere. But whereas I normally would be sensible and stay at home I was on holiday and determined to see the place…and suprisingly the weather didn’t matter, particularly when I recalled a letter about a garden visit that I’d read written by the Dowager Countess of Mount Edgcumbe in the summer of 1862: “Unluckily it began to pour (at Tavistock – where you know Charles II said it always rained) – & we walked about the charming gardens under umbrellas.”

Your intrepid hero…there is a view across the Tamar and some beautiful gardens behind me- honestl!

And it certainly wasn’t as  bad as  June 1872 when she wrote:” We had a great thunder-storm last Tuesday – with rain really like ramrods. …The rain came thro’ the ceiling of Ernestine’s room, & through the floor, into the Housekeeper’s room below – wetting her books, & soaking some clothes in a drawer. The carpet was taken up as quickly as possible, & hung up to drain – & the rain from the quadrangle ran down 2 steps into the lobby – & 3 buckets full of water had to be taken up before they could lift off the matting on the floor.”

So seeing Cotehele in the mist and rain is nothing out of the ordinary and just meant walking complete with a mac, wellies and an umbrella…and, even at such an inhospitable time of the year, the grounds which she helped create are so stunning it would been worth walking around even without them! Continue reading

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What’s going on the Shrubbery? And what’s it got to do with Mr Repton?

The Shrubbery Scene, from the Trial of the Rev. James Altham, 1785

This post started out life months and months ago as a draft piece on eroticism in the garden generally. I’d found some great images and references and was looking forward to surprising you, my readers, with a little naughtiness….surely not on a Parks and Gardens blog!

I  began compiling a list of snippets, references and images to include, and then  thought I’d discovered two unknown women garden designers when I read a paragraph in a 18thc newspaper which said that  “Lady Foley and Mrs Arabin have kindly undertaken to plan the intended shrubbery behind Gower Street – can anyone doubt their capability, who reflects with what art they displayed the beauties of nature in their own gardens.” [Daily Universal Register, 2 Sep 1785]  although that turned out not to be quite the case.

As one thing led to another I realised  there was far too much for a single post, and that there was a good concentration of stories from one particular period, SO here are some tales about what went on in the Shrubbery… and probably elsewhere too … in the late 18thc.

BUT what has all this got to do with this year’s hero Humphry Repton? Read on to find out



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Camellia donkelaaris from 
The Garden.  [ed. William Robinson], vol. 54: (1898)

Knowing that I was going to spend some time in February in  Cornwall looking at gardens  I realised I’d probably be looking at a lot of camellias.  I’ll probably upset or even irritate a lot of people by saying straight out that I’ve never been  their  greatest fan, partly because the flowers die so miserably, turning brown and refusing to drop, but more disappointingly because despite their glossy leaves, strong structural form, disease-resistance and vivid colours they just don’t smell. And that’s a hard fault to forgive.

Middlemist’s Red
Perhaps the world’s rarest Camellia cultivar

But on the bright side  a couple of weeks touring Cornwall and seeing them as the backbone of so many amazing gardens has made me reconsider.  So I’m going to pay  a visit to the annual Camellia Festival at Chiswick House Conservatory which runs until March 25th and that might just completely overcome my prejudice!

So read on to investigate their history in our gardens, and also to discover an excellent newish  blog by Siân Rees, a professional gardener, who  has written about them this week too…

detail from Single White Camellia / Single Red Camellia, from Samuel Curtis, A Monograph on the Genus Camellia, 1819, Museum of Fine Art, Boston


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Saltram: threats and popularity

We tend to think of properties owned by the National Trust as being protected in perpetuity. Their land is usually inalienable and their pockets to restore and maintain great houses are deep and usually well-filled. But this is not alway the case. Sometimes the threats come from an unexpected place: being too successful. If that sounds a bit crazy the example of Saltram, described by the executors of the 4th Earl of Morley, the last private owner  as a “white elephant”, might illuminate the point.

In August last year I visited Saltram House just outside Plymouth as part of the Gardens Trust conference.  I was in a group taken round by the Head Gardener, and was taken aback by some of the problems he reported, which were not caused by neglect or lack of vision but because of sheer success of the Trust’s policy of increasing revenue  and interest by attracting more and more visitors.

I had the opportunity to revisit a few days ago, and turned up 20 minutes after the gardens opened on a Monday morning in mid-February to find the car park almost full.  By mid-morning the FULL sign went up.  There was a temporary loo block in the entrance area, the small cafes had queues and the circular parkland walk is hard-surfaced in most places and at times was  a bit like a busy High Street in the sales.  So what’s Saltram got to offer that attracts so many people?

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Gardens on the Wall 2: The French Connections

detail from Les Jardins Francais, 1821 by Zuber

This is a very belated follow-up to a post about gardens on walls in 18thc England in 2016 which looked at the work of John Baptist Jackson and his contemporaries.  And by “gardens on the wall” I don’t mean “living walls” but wallpaper.

England and France were rivals over many things in the 18thc. Indeed they were at war for large parts of it. Apart from seizing large chunks of the French overseas empire England also took over the role of the world’s leader in gardening, but there is no doubt that the French took the lead in developing gardens on walls.  When, in 1753,  the French ambassador in London sent back some English wallpaper to decorate his home in France  he started a design  revolution nearly 40 years before the more famous one.

detail from Les Jardins Francais, 1821 by Zuber

When that started in 1789 it began more than 20 years of continuous warfare across Europe. This cut Britain off from a lot of continental cultural influences. In France it invigorated design and fashion with bold, clear and simple taking the place of elaborate, ornate and luxurious.  Wallpaper, bizarrely, was one of the best showcases for these dramatic changes in styles. It not only became political propaganda but in the process all manner of gardens and landscapes took to the walls of both public and private spaces in a completely different way to that we saw in 18thc England.

by Jacquemart et Bénard , Paris c. 1794/1797, Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris

So read on to find out more… Continue reading

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Amorous polygamy at Abbotsbury

No – it’s not south-east Asia but south-west Dorset!   Abbotsbury, a garden founded by the Strangways family in the late 18thc,  was my first point of call recently on an out of season tour of some gardens in the south-west.

In 1863 Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography, must have been rather surprised by the contents of a letter he had just received from his uncle, William Fox Strangways, the 4th earl of Ilchester. The two corresponded regularly and often about gardens  but this time Uncle William was complaining about his elderly gardener not just chopping bulbs in two & trying to stick them together again but asking what he should do about “amorous polygamy”.  This was surely scarcely a subject fit for the pen of a Victorian gentleman so no wonder William said it had “left indelible impression in my memory.”

Amyris polygama
From: Dictionnaire des sciences naturelles. by Jussieu  &  Turpin.
 1816-1829, volume 5, plate 266

Actually its nothing as potentially scandalous as one might think. Uncle William’s  gardener was rather confused and asking what he should do with Amyris polygama,  more commonly known as the Chilean pepper tree, one of the rarer plants  in the garden. So sorry if you’d read this far expecting a bit of salacious gossip but read on to find out more about this amazing sub-tropical garden and its origins.

[All photos are my own from Feb 2018 unless otherwise stated] Continue reading

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Repton in a flap! Red Books and theatricality…

What’s the one thing that everyone knows about Humphry Repton apart from the fact that he spelt Humphry without an E? I’d guess it’s the fact that he produced Red Books, so called because of their red morocco leather bindings. [That’s despite the fact that half of them aren’t red but brown, and there were apparently even one or two with green card covers.]

These Red Books contained a lengthy handwritten analysis and description of the site, together with his proposed  improvements, beautifully  illustrated with his own watercolour sketches  and were, apart from a  few given as gifts in the early days, sold to his potential clients.

Of course the key element of the Red Book’s design was the flap, or, as Repton called it, the slide.  It was an uncomplicated visual trick employed to show “before” and “after” in a quick and non-technical way, but despite its simplicity it has more than a degree of showmanship.  I’d originally hoped to get this post finished before the end of the pantomime season because this week’s post is going to consider Repton, his Red Book technique and  his theatricality.   I suspect that might cause a few raised eyebrows.  After all what’s Repton got to do with the stage or showbiz? I think the answer is quite a lot, although perhaps it’s not always obvious.

Self-portrait of Humphry Repton surveying the estate of Welbeck Abbey, from Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening 1795

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William Caparne : painter and plantsman

Mrs Pinchney’s garden                          Guernsey

The love of plants runs in the blood, or so it might appear from the life of William Caparne  teacher, painter, plantsman and iris fanatic.  

A very private man, but who travelled widely in Europe and met and was befriended by Monet,  he eventually gave up teaching and moved to Guernsey to paint landscapes, gardens and the flowers which he grew and bred in his nursery there: above all botanical paintings of his beloved iris. Despite his horticultural achievements he and his work were soon forgotten, and have really only been bought back to their deserved place in the pantheon in the last 20 or so years.

A House of Nerines, Guernsey

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The Darlys: Chinoiserie and big hair

Mary and Matthias Darly were designers, engravers and printsellers in late 18thc London, who were particularly well-known for their caricatures and satires on contemporary politics and fashion.

Matthias Darley, c.1775
British Museum

Matthias [sometimes refererred to as Matthew] illustrated books of designs for ‘ornament’,  furniture and architecture, particularly garden buildings, with a particular focus on the fashionable taste for Chinoiserie. He  was good at spotting trends and keeping up with fashion and  according to his biographer, Timothy Clayton,  became “a central figure at a time when English craftsmen were struggling for a distinct identity and for preference over foreign rivals”. Mary, on the other hand had no pretensions of grandeur, called herself “The Mistress of Fun” and specialised in sharply observed caricatures.

Darly’s Trade Card, British Museum

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Bolsover: a Mannerist Masterpiece

detail of the Venus Fountain, photo by Edward Moss

If you’ve ever driven on the M1 between Nottingham  and Sheffield you can’t have missed the  large castle perched high on a steep promontory overlooking and commanding the wide valley below. This is  Bolsover Castle, visible for miles around, and enjoying one of  most magnificent settings of any historic building in Britain. Having said that it’s also quite likely you’ll have carried on driving and not turned off to investigate further. If that’s the case you’ve missed a treat, and doubly so since English Heritage completed their restoration and improvement works.

But Bolsover isn’t just any old  castle, indeed its only a castle in form and outward appearance. It’s actually an early 17thc mannerist  pleasure palace and a masterpiece of design. You can tell from that description that I quite liked it! [My photos, Nov 2017] unless otherwise stated] Read on to find out exactly why…

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