Four Centuries of History

Gunnersbury Park Study Day
9th March 2002


with an update (Spring 2003)

Princess Amelia's Bath House

'Princess Amelia's Bath House' at Gunnersbury Park

GUNNERSBURY Park, built on the site of an estate owned by the Bishops of London, was created in the 18th century and developed in the 19th century as the grounds of one and later two mansions. The Large Mansion and The Small Mansion were in separate ownership until the Rothschild family reunited the site in 1889.

After the death of Leopold de Rothschild in 1917 the estate was broken up, the then boroughs of Acton and Ealing and Middlesex County Council acquiring 75 hectares in 1925 to provide a public park. These facts and tales of the exploits of Gunnersbury Park's owners, such as Princess Amelia (of bath house fame) and their designers, including William Kent (possibly) and J. C. Loudon, formed the basis of Chris Sumner's introductory talk on the landscape's history.

Jon Lowe, one of the archaeologists involved in the recent excavations at the Bath House, described a fascinating voyage of discovery. Princess Amelia, favourite daughter of George II, purchased Gunnersbury Park in 1761 and improved the estate, using it as her summer residence until her death in 1786. The battlemented, Gothic style building at the far end of the terrace has long been known as Princess Amelia's Bath House, although it is not shown on maps of the period. Although the existing structure and the stunning Shell House and outside courtyard are undoubtedly from the Rothschild era, the most exciting find was the original 18th century foundations underneath the 19th century floor. The building can now justifiably be attributed to Princess Amelia!

Andrew Harris, who worked with Jon on the archaeology of Gunnersbury, described the Japanese Garden, a turn of the (twentieth) century fashionable garden feature, until recently hidden in the undergrowth. James Hudson laid out the garden in 1901 for Leopold de Rothschild to complement the existing bamboo garden and provide a home for his current passion, waterlilies.

Italian Inspiration

The resulting water garden with pools, connecting channels, teahouse, lanterns and a bamboo bridge is believed to have been inspired by a Japanese-style garden at Bellagio on the shore of Lake Como. Indeed, most of the Japanese gardens of the period could only be described as 'Japanese-style', one contemporary Japanese visitor to Gunnersbury commenting, "How beautiful. We have nothing like this in Japan"!

Andrew's talk was supplemented by a brief talk by Amanda Herries, author of the recent book Japanese Gardens in Britain, adding further insights into the history and planting of the water garden.

Mike Rowan from the park management team detailed the contemporary vision for Gunnersbury Park, not just as an historical restoration project, but also as a leisure amenity for the local community. His practically based lecture covered plans to restore the water garden, conservation of the Gothic Ruin, a 'spiritual' recreation of the Horseshoe Pond, and day-to-day park management issues.

Mike's tour of the gardens and parks in the afternoon enabled us to understand how plans (and hopes) might be put into practice, while his often amusing stories providing a lesson in how to try to please 'most of the people most of the time' if not all of them all of the time!

An excellent day in a series of well-attended, informative study days on historic gardens organised by Katy Myers.

Update (Spring 2003)

PROPOSALS for restoring the Japanese Garden are well advanced on paper, but at present the decision has been taken by the curator, Jill Draper, not to submit a Lottery bid until she (and the HLF) has a clearer view of quite where the whole park including the museum and other buildings is heading.

One of the at present unknown factors is the likely future of the stables. The use of the stables is likely to have an impact on the extent and nature of the restoration of the Japanese Garden, and Hounslow is still a long way off granting a lease and planning permission for any scheme.

The future use of the stables may well have an impact on how the other buildings are used. A recent fire at the Farm Dressing Rooms, originally the Rothschilds' model farm, could provide an opportunity to rethink the use of those buildings. The south wing and later cross wing were gutted and have lost their roofs, but the walls and the rustic veranda are still standing.