Interviewed by Susan Miles
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan is the president of the
London Parks and Gardens Trust. A landscape
architect with an international practice based in
London, he has advised on many public and private
historic gardens, including National Trust and
English Heritage historic landscapes. He lectures
widely on landscape history and design both in
Britain and abroad, and holds a variety of
advisory roles, including gardens adviser to
Historic Royal Palaces.
- I read that you hate the label ‘landscape architect’. Why is that?
- I don’t hate it so much as I find it a curiously unflattering
description on account of the fact that so much of the work of
many landscape architects is rather lacklustre. People can, of
course, call me what they want. I’m not too hung up on titles.
- You have worked on some amazing projects; is there one that
- Hampton Court, where I’ve collaborated with Historic Royal
Palaces (HRP) for over twenty years. It is a vast and very
diverse landscape and we’ve made a concerted effort to
research and reveal the palace’s history with a view to
refurbishing old gardens and making new ones. We’ve achieved
a lot in recent years, from re-planting the Long Water Avenue
to laying out new gardens in Chapel Court. Next Spring a new
kitchen garden, based on early eighteenth-century
design and planting principles, will be
opened in the Tiltyard
– a project we’ve been planning for roughly fifteen years.
Happily there has been money to do things –
and a willingness to do them.
Hampton Court had for a long time been a curious and underappreciated backwater,
but since the devastating fire in 1986 there has been a great interest in improving
the palace and its setting; and with great effect as we now have
hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
- Are there any historic landscapes you long to work on?
- The recreation of the so-called large ‘Vista, or opening’, that
connected Hanover and Cavendish Squares. When formed in
c.1718-20, this ‘fine Enfilade thro’ the two squares’ was an
extraordinary planning achievement, as it forged a visual link
between two of London’s grandest new residential
developments. It was praised in hyperbolic terms in 1725 as ‘an
amazing scene of new foundations, not of houses only, but… of
new cities, new towns, new squares, and fine buildings, the like
of which no city, no town, nay no place in the world can show’.
The vista was a great success because it funnelled the open
countryside deep into town, and framed a view like no other in
the metropolis. It was one of London’s greatest Baroque
planning gestures, and it remains so to this day, although
compromised by centuries of accumulated clutter. The
Crossrail project, however, presents an ideal opportunity to
recover this theatrical vista – to remove the street furniture,
signs, and trees that occlude it. I am hopeful that I can convince
Westminster City Council that it is both possible and desirable
to reinstate the vista that for over a century was celebrated as
‘one of the most entertaining in the whole city’.
- The renovation of Kensington Palace gardens, to mark the
Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, must have been a
huge challenge and responsibility. Did you have an ‘instant vision’
of what you wanted to do there?
- Yes and no. In 2005 we initiated research on the palace gardens
for HRP, which resulted in the production of a broad range of
surveys and reports covering the history, archaeology, and
ecology of the estate, and latterly the development of a series of
policies presented in the Kensington Palace Conservation Plan
(2007-8). These guided HRP’s overall strategic goals which
formed the basis for their competition to re-present the Palace
and its grounds; and the policies we developed in collaboration
with the Royal Household, the Royal Collection, The Royal
Parks, English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the
Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, the national
amenity societies, local and special interest groups and the local
planning authorities, were aimed to promote a more coherent
approach toward the improvement and management of the
palace and its setting than had hitherto prevailed – at least since
the eighteenth century.
- We had not initially thought of participating in HRP’s design
competition – nor, it must be said, had we been encouraged to
do so. When, however, we ultimately decided to throw our hat
in the ring, our familiarity with the archives assisted us greatly
in the development of our scheme. HRP’s aim was to make the
tout-ensemble a more attractive and accessible attraction for
residents and visitors to London. This also entailed an
ambitious re-presentation inside the palace to coincide with the
Diamond Jubilee of HM the Queen. We were, however, able
to extend their landscape brief to forge larger and more
ambitious links with the surrounding landscape to make the
palace once again the heart of Kensington Gardens – to
reconnect what were then a series of disconnected enclosures
and spaces with a view to recreating a coherent whole. Our aim
was to restore the lost relationship between the palace and
Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, and to create a new public
space to invite passers-by into the palace and its gardens.
- Many mature trees were felled to reveal Kensington Palace and
to open historic views linking the palace and gardens – as at
Hampton Court Palace. Do you have any qualms about this?
- None. Our detailed historical analysis of the site informed our
view that the surviving Baroque landscape – that created
through the collaboration of Charles Bridgeman (‘Gardener of
all his Majesty’s Royal Gardens’) and his patron Queen
Caroline – had been largely disfigured through unsympathetic
and inappropriate tree planting; that many trees compromised
the carefully crafted views and panoramas laid out in the early
eighteenth century. The removal of the trees was the only way
in which we could achieve our aim to reconnect the palace to its
- Of the 64 trees we felled, only 10 were mature (lime trees
planted c.1908). There was in fact a net gain in the tree
numbers as we planted, in collaboration with The Royal Parks
(TRP), over 120 new trees beyond the Broad Walk and the Dial
Walk to help reinstate important elements of Bridgeman’s
original scheme, such as so-called Feathers that flank the
Round Pond. Indeed this collaboration was an important part of
the Kensington Project, as through it we established stronger
ties with TRP and other stakeholders, and were able to develop
more meaningful and ambitious objectives for the
improvement of the royal landscape.
- Historic landscapes are clearly important to you; is it possible to
inject a contemporary response into the reworking of a historic
- Absolutely. Kensington is a contemporary response to an
historic site. Although guided by and respectful to the past, our
scheme responds to and accommodates modern needs and
uses. We have created a new layer on a very layered landscape.
To demonstrate how the past has informed our new design, one
need only to look at the Wiggly Walk – a 100m long access ramp
which connects the Cradle Walk and the Orangery lawn (over
3.5m above the level of the palace) to the new café and shop –
to see how its meander echoes the serpentine paths that
threaded through Bridgeman’s Wilderness. The ramp is
functional, enjoyable to use, and refers directly to an historic
feature of the gardens. There is also a longstanding precedent
for employing earthworks to remodel the royal gardens: indeed,
every major refurbishment of Kensington Palace Gardens from
the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century has
been predicated on shifting great quantities of soil to create
waterworks, terraces, and lawns. In keeping with this tradition,
our scheme entailed the excavation of 6,000 cubic metres of soil
to create Palace Lawn, a large sloping lawn with a pair of broad
converging paths, which connects the Palace to the Broad Walk
bringing visitors to the palace’s new east entrance.
- Are public rather than private spaces more important to you, and
how do you approach projects as different as Kettle’s Yard in
Cambridge and the Canterbury Cathedral Landscape Design
- Not really. I work on a range of different projects at variable
scales and in different and often very distinctive settings, and I
try to approach each one as unique. I enjoy responding to every
project on its merits, and to rise to challenges imposed by the
constraints and opportunities dictated by the site, its local
circumstances and the client. Design is to me creative problem
solving. I prefer above all to work with engaged clients rather
than faceless organisations as beautiful and meaningful places
can only arise through the collaboration and commitment of
people who live and work in them, or those who have a stake in
their management and success.
- You are a great fan of the London square; what is its significance?
- My abiding fascination with squares springs from a variety of
sources. Firstly the theme of enclosure, as it registers the social
changes which galvanised the transformation of the open,
unelaborated spaces at the centre of the city’s seventeenth-century
piazzas into planted gardens. Squares were enclosed
a view to their physical improvement, and their enclosure
an act of social control. The advent of secure enclosure
led to the creation of codes of behaviour to govern the
of the space, and these in turn guided the layout and
of the central areas. The nature of the boundary
and the gates which defines the enclosure are of
no less interesting: they have invariably been both
and conspicuous with the aim of offering
No less appealing to me is the theme of domesticity, and
particularly the symbolic elaboration of the squares’ central
gardens as preserves of domesticity. The central gardens,
regardless of their insular nature, were perceived as extensions
of the house. This unusual and sometimes awkward
relationship demanded special approaches to the treatment of
the central gardens in terms of accessibility and visibility.
- I am also intrigued by the social dynamics of squares – not the
least because they are such singular and well-developed social
organisms. Squares are uniquely complex communities made
up of interdependent individuals and groups more or less
closely connected with one another, the health of which is
dependent on the harmonious interworking of the
communities’ culture, politics, and economics.
- How important is the work of the London Historic Parks and
Gardens Trust and how do you see your role with the
organisation in the future?
- Terribly important. I am completely behind the Trust’s aims to
enhance our knowledge and appreciation of London’s vast and
varied landscapes. Its educational remit is crucial to its work
and achievements, and one is trying constantly to promote its
objectives. I’m pleased to play a part in the Trust, and to
encourage all and sundry who value London’s green spaces to
do so too.
- You and your partner Tim Knox obviously delight in discovering
lost works of art and unusual artefacts. What are the most
treasured items amongst your fabulous collection?
- This is a difficult question to answer as we are so hopelessly
acquisitive. Among my favourite trouvailles is a Carrara marble
effigy of an Arabian sheep laid out on a broad marble plinth. It’s
a fantastic ovine effigy commissioned sometime in the mid-eighteenth
century by connoisseur and collector William
second Earl of Bessborough (1704-93), from the
sculptor Joseph Wilton.
was resident in Italy
1749 to 1755, during which time he supplemented his
by copying excavated classical sculpture for his English
and occasionally supplying them with new compositions
by classical antecedents. These imaginative works
known as invenzione;
and my sheep is just such a creature.
sacrificial sheep – for it has a
wound in its belly – atop an ancient Roman altar
within a garden temple in his Thames-side villa at
Here it remained until it was sold after his death.
I came to own it a few years ago having bought it at auction
the descendants of the family who acquired it directly
posthumous sale at Christie’s
- If you could wave a magic wand, how would you improve our parks?
- I would invest in their informed management and invigilation.
This is not, I know, a very glamorous prospect for would-be
investors, but our urban parks desperately need our support.
Whilst over the past fifteen years there been very generous
funding of landscape capital improvements, there is chronic
underinvestment in long-term maintenance. We’ve got to
encourage those who hold the purse strings that integrated and
sustained stewardship make good economic sense and have
the potential to yield significant ecological, social and cultural
Todd regularly contributes to a range of publications, including Country Life, The
Times, Apollo, Sunday Telegraph, The Journal of Garden History, The Burlington
Magazine, and World of Interiors. He is founder and editor of The London
Gardener, journal of the LPGT, and is the author of The London Town Garden
1700–1840(2001), The Gardens and Parks at Hampton Court Palace (2005), and
The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town (2012) which won the 2013
John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize, given by the Foundation for Landscape
Studies, and is shortlisted for the 2013 Art Book Prize (formerly the Banister
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan at Kensington Palace
Hanover Square, London, looking north, 1751. The vista that connected
Hanover and Cavendish Squares when formed in c.1718-20 was a great success
because it funnelled the open countryside deep into town, and framed a view like no
other in the metropolis. It was one of London’s greatest Baroque planning gestures.
An aerial view of Kensington Palace, 2012
The new Palace Lawn, Kensington Palace