On the Rocks

The Pulham Legacy in London

By Claude Hitching

Pulhamite rocks along the bank of Duck Island Cottage
1895-99: The Pulhamite rocks along the bank of Duck Island Cottage in St James's Park
(Photo: Claude Hitching)
The ruined tower and gateway at Park Hill, Streatham
1873-80: The ruined tower and gateway at Park Hill, Streatham
(Photo: Claude Hitching)
The Bridge over the 'rocky ravine' at Park Hill
The Bridge over the 'rocky ravine' at Park Hill
(Photo: Desirée McDougall)
Pulham's conversion of the old tile-kiln into a Gothic-styled
tower-cum-boathouse folly at Gunnersbury
1874: Pulham's conversion of the old tile-kiln into a Gothic-styled tower-cum-boathouse folly at Gunnersbury
Gothic ruin near the old stable block in Gunnersbury Park
Gothic ruin near the old stable block in Gunnersbury Park
(Photo: Claude Hitching)
An old castellated entrance lodge at Gunnersbury Park
An old castellated entrance lodge at Gunnersbury Park
(Photo: Claude Hitching)

James Pulham and Son, the eminent firm of Victorian and Edwardian landscape artists, are mostly remembered today for their picturesque rock gardens, ferneries, follies and grottoes with which they embellished many of the great country estates and parks around the country; but, as garden fashions evolved around the turn of the 20th Century, they also extended their portfolio to include grand, balustraded terraces, and formal Italian and Japanese-styled gardens. They supplemented this by manufacturing a wide range of very high-quality garden ornaments, such as fountains, vases, urns, and seats in their Manufactory in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.

There were four generations of the Pulham family involved in this business, and all of the principals were called James; for case of identification, I refer to them as James 1, 2, 3 and 4. When natural rock was not economically available for their rock gardens, they often made their own by building heaps of rubble and old bricks, and coating them with their own proprietary brand of cement that very soon became known as Pulhamite. The craftsmen who sculpted the surfaces to simulate the colour and texture of natural rock were called 'Rock Builders'.

The key London Pulham sites include: the 'Pelican Rocks' in St James's Park; the Norman Folly and Rocky Ravine in the gardens of Park Hill, Streatham, home of Henry Tate; and the boathouse folly and rocks around the banks of the 'Potomac Lake' in Gunnersbury Park, Hounslow. The Pulhamite rocks along the banks of Duck Island in St James's Park are shown in figure 1, and the Norman Arch Folly at Park Hill is pictured in figure 2. The 'ruined tower' is tucked away in a remote corner of the grounds, and is now covered by overgrowth, but the walls of the tower have traditional mediaeval 'cross slit' windows, and it is possible to enter the single rooms on both floors. Unfortunately, most of the panoramic views that could once be seen from the upper floor are now obscured by nearby buildings, but it is intriguing to imagine what a vantage point this must have been all those years ago. Figure 3 shows the Pulhamite 'ravine' crossed by the (non-Pulham) bridge in the main part of the grounds.

Another fascinating Pulham folly is on the banks of the 'Potomac Lake' in Gunnersbury Park, on the borders of Hounslow and Ealing. Lionel de Rothschild invested Gunnersbury ‘with such splendours as were unknown in England outside Her Majesty's own grounds’, during the latter years of the 19th Century. He purchased some more ground at the south-west corner of the estate in 1861, which included an old clay pit called 'Cole's Hole', and in 1874 he engaged James-2 to re-landscape this into a boating lake.

James's initial idea was to construct a rather formal boathouse on the edge of the lake; but for some reason this plan was rejected and it was decided instead to convert the old tile kiln that stood alongside the clay pit into a gothic-styled boathouse-cum-folly (fig 4). An inlet was cut underneath the kiln, so that boaters could descend to the landing stage via steps leading down from the ground floor entrance; the shoreline was lined with Pulhamite rocks for some yards on either side, and an artificial rock-lined island created a few yards offshore. There are some typical Pulham faces at Gunnersbury around the doorways, although most of them have now decayed quite badly.

According to James-2's promotional booklet, Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery (published in 1877), this is the extent of his firm's activities at Gunnersbury, but there are one or two other items of interest in the park that lead one to suspect that he almost certainly returned on at least one further occasion. The first is adjacent to Princess Amelia's Bath House, where there is what looks like a basement fernery. It is now very seriously overgrown, but nevertheless looks similar in underlying construction to other ferneries described in the booklet.

Elsewhere in the park, there is a small gothic folly near the stable block (figure 5), which was erected to obscure the view of the stable walls from the house. There is also what was presumably an entrance lodge at an entrance that is now closed off (figure 6); and although there is no documentary evidence to ascribe these structures to Pulhams, it seems reasonable to suggest that they may well have been responsible, bearing in mind the fact that the firm are known to have worked on the site.

Leopold (son of Lionel) de Rothschild's Head Gardener at Gunnersbury, James Hudson, laid out the Japanese garden at Gunnersbury in 1901, although very little of it now remains. According to the records, Japanese workers were brought over especially to design and construct this garden, which is exactly what is said to have happened with a number of other similar gardens with which the Pulhams were involved - my feeling being that a Pulham team may well have worked alongside the Japanese. How 'genuine' these gardens are also seems open to question, because one contemporary Japanese visitor who looked round the 'Japanese-style' garden at Gunnersbury is reputed to have commented: "How beautiful. We have nothing like this in Japan!"

Claude Hitching is the author of Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy, published by Garden Art Press.

Further information about Pulham sites in London can be viewed at http://pulham.org.uk/where/london