The British galleries in the Victoria & Albert Museum hold many treasures but probably none more interesting to lovers and historians of gardens than two large early 18thc wall hangings from Stoke Edith in Herefordshire. They show elaborate formal garden scenes in the Anglo-Dutch style of late 17th century.
George London, the great landscape designer and royal gardener, is known to advised at Stoke Edith in 1692 so it is likely that pleasure grounds there were laid out around then, in a similar formal style to that depicted these amazing embroideries.
It is tempting to think that the hangings depict the actual gardens that London designed for Paul Foley, who was Speaker of the House of Commons, and if one believes family tradition that they were made by the women of Foley’s family that would be more than a possibility. Unfortunately this view, which used to be shared by Historic England, has been disputed more recently by experts at the V&A who believe that the sheer scale of the hangings, and the consistently high quality of the workmanship suggest that this was unlikely to have been an amateur affair. They argue instead that the hangings were bought from a professional workshop and probably represent a pastiche of contemporary fashionable garden features rather than Stoke Edith itself. There is certainly evidence of the purchase of other hangings for the house [Country Life, 9 Aug 1956].
Whatever the truth read on to discover more about Stoke Edith and what the hangings tell us about garden design of the period…
In 1670 the Stoke Edith estate was bought by Thomas Foley, the greatest ironmaster of his day, and given to his second son Paul who later became an MP and Speaker of the House of Commons. It was, said Celia Fiennes, who visited several times, “a very good old house of Timber worke but old fashion’d and good roome for Gardens but all in an old form and mode.” However she also noted that “Mr Folie intends to make both a new house and gardens; the latter I saw staked out.” This was largely done between 1695 and 1698.
Celia Fiennes returned in the early 1700s, after Foley had died, to see the works completed by his son Thomas, and she wrote a lengthy description: “there is a fountaine bason just faceing the balcomy doore that leads to a terrass paved with black and white marble; this terrass gives a vast prospect of the country it being scituated on the ascent of a hill, many rows of trees in meadows below it add to its beauty, being all within his own ground; he has a great estate and a great parke above it with great woods; the adornment of the rooffe is flower potts and figure globes and scallop shells; it will be noble compleate buildings and deserves 10000£ a yeare to liuve like it.”
George London’s designs for the estate were impressive, and later surveys and descriptions allow the formal terraced gardens to be imagined with some accuracy. But London was not just concerned with amenity and ornament. He also laid out large areas of woodland which was of particular importance to Foley because there was a constant call for timber for the family’s iron-making business.
George London linked the formal gardens around the house with the countryside beyond by the use of radiating avenues and walks, through the surrounding parkland. Celia Fiennes also mentions in 1695 the 500 acre deer park that Foley was licensed by James II to create.
In 1790 Edward Foley commissioned a Red Book from Humphry Repton and within a few years what remained of London’s formal gardens was then swept away. New Lodges and estate cottages were designed by William Wilkins, [later the architect of the National Gallery] and there were plans for a new model village. Repton returned to Stoke Edith in the later 1790s and produced a plan for an extensive network of coach drives around the surrounding Woolhope Hills which was to be dotted with more estate cottages orné, some of which survive.
Further major changes took place, after 1854 Lady Emily Foley asked William Nesfield to reinstate some formality and create a geometrical parterre. A near contemporary photograph shows the full intricacy of his design, the centrepiece of which was a great curving parterre (the Great Compartment) before the south front, while south-west of the house was a terrace with flower beds and gravel walks.
Following a great fire in 1927 the house was left abandoned for years, the central section finally being demolished, although the two wings still stand. Twenty years ago the gardens were described by English Heritage as “overgrown, with fragments of garden ornament appearing in the undergrowth.” The park is now used as a pheasant shoot.
Interesting though the house was, it is the hangings that are most in the public eye.
The smaller of the two hangings is worked mainly in tent stitch in silk and wool threads on a linen canvas ground. There are also some areas of applique in linen, for example on the Chinese pots. The design was drawn in pencil on the canvas before embroidery started, and there are holes along the edge of the canvas where it was once attached to a wooden frame whilst it was being sewn. Over time the hanging, once rectangular, has been stretched out of shape and is now roughly a parallelogram. In 2016 it was re-hung on a new linen support for display in the British galleries.
The garden is viewed from a raised terrace over the balustrade looking towards a semicircular summer-house with a domed roof, and red-brick boundary wall covered in beautifully trained and laden fruit trees. Beyond there are trees and hills – could these be the Malverns ?
It also shows a parterre a l’Anglaise with straight, wide paths dividing the garden into four quadrants of lawn, each surrounded by flower borders with tulips, carnations and closely clipped topiary. Two of the lawns have pools with fountains and the others have cherubic sculptures rather reminiscent of Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire which dates from the same period and where London was also possibly involved.
In particular it is worth noting the wide spacing of the individual plants so that they could be admired separately and without competition from their neighbours. It also reflected their comparative scarcity and cost.
English lawns were much admired by contemporary European gardeners including Andre Mollet who recommended a mix of grasses and herbs such as chamomile to recreate the English effect. In the hanging itself the lawns are depicted using many varied shades of green rather than just a single flat colour.
The gardens appear to slope toward the viewer with two wide terraces, and steps leading down through a stone balustrade in the foreground. This would, of course, have been the case at Stoke Edith itself where the garden was on quite a steep incline.
Another interesting feature are the embroidered shadows cast by some, but not all, of the people, sculpture and topiary. The exceptions are the largest statues where presumably it was felt adding a shadow would spoil the colours of a large area of the rest of the design. Similar effects can be seen in Daniel Marot’s 1703 Nouveau Livre de Parterres.
The hangings show the gardens in use, and perhaps not in the expected way. In the centre are a group sitting around a table set up in the middle of the path, rather than the summer house and being serenaded by a harpist. Elsewhere there are a woman with a fan accompanied by a child, and the family pets: a spaniel, a monkey who has picked a carnation, a parrot and a peacock. There is even a servant who is captured falling down the steps in the foreground and dropping his tray of glasses. Somebody somewhere had a sense of humour!
The second and larger hanging was made in a similar way to the first, and with similar materials, although there are one or two sections where some small areas of the design were not completed. It is made up of four pieces of canvas joined together but the lower edge has been cut so the embroidery may originally have been deeper. There may also be a section missing from the top of the embroidery. It was once sliced up to allow for a door opening!
Again the design is of a formal garden, perhaps slightly more ‘serious’ in tone and approach than the smaller hanging. It is good evidence for the love of ‘exotics’ and ‘greens’ which William III thought were “the greatest addition to the beauty of a garden, preserving the figure of a place, even in the roughest part of an inclement and tempestuous winter”.
The orangery, which looks remarkably similar to the upper part of the house at Stoke Edith itself, sits at the end of another four part parterre, with the two sections closest to the orangery centred around statues – Bacchus or Mercury respectively, whilst the two nearer the viewer are laid out round a large fountain featuring a dolphin being ridden by a cherub. A further large area of water, perhaps with its banks faced with flints, can be seen on the right hand side with some swans gliding on the surface.
There is an elegant wrought iron gate in the foreground in the middle of a stone balustrade, with stone lions on top of the gateposts. Apparently they are holding the arms of Thomas Foley’s wife, Anne Knightly.
Although the colours are very faded you can still make out the blue and red decorations on a white background of the 14 Chinese porcelain pots which hold lemon and orange trees.
Many of the plants and features are the same as in the smaller hanging. There are well spaced tulips and carnations in the otherwise bare earth beds together with clipped pyramid and standard evergreens. Down either side of the central section of the garden are grass plats planted with what appear to be dwarf pines. The urns on the balustrade contain hollies and the pots on the left, in front of the row of trees, probably contain lilies.
The brick wall to either side of the orangery have espalier fruit trees, [although they are difficult to see clearly in the image!] and there are archways through to a grove of trees and a church tower with blue hills in the distance.
The hangings have been in public ownership since 1996 when they were accepted in lieu of tax payable on the estate of Henry Thomas Hamilton Foley, and were allocated to the V&A.
Surprisingly there is very little written about them but if you want to see them for yourself head off to the V&A – although there is only one on display at the moment. You can also hear Anna Pavord talking about the garden depicted in the hangings in a short audio clip at:http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-embroidery-from-stoke-edith-house/