Book Review – English Garden Eccentrics

Jeremy Garnett reviews English Garden Eccentrics, by London Parks and Gardens President Todd Longstaffe-Gowan.

There is something in the spirit of man that both delights in, and is drawn to, the eccentric. This superbly researched collection studies explores the nature of eccentricity, expressed in garden creation from the eighteenth century onwards. It abounds with illustrations which tantalise our imagination since many of these eccentricities have disappeared over time.

The reader is taken on a dizzy voyage of rock-work mountain ranges, caves, grottoes and tunnels, automated hermits and collections of exotic birds and animals. We encounter gigantic churchyard topiary, a bizarrely decorated Byzantine folly, a statue garden described as a classical rubbish heap, a Druid’s walk and a vivarium in a London back garden. The examples selected would have been sources of considerable astonishment to the contemporary visitor, and an intriguing group of London gardens provides many examples.

We visit four extraordinary Middlesex churchyards famous for their ancient yew topiary, clipped into curious sculptural shapes on a gargantuan scale. The first recorded was the Harlington Yew in 1729 and the others probably date to around the same time, as though by fashion. Only the topiary at St Mary the Virgin, East Bedfont – in the form of two giant peacocks – survives today. They are said to represent two proud and haughty sisters who declined with disdain offers of marriage from a prominent local; in revenge, he had the yews cut into this pair of symbolic shapes.

Harcourt House in Cavendish Square was the London home of the eccentric 5th Duke of Portland, one of the wealthiest men of his day. He is described as wearing unusual dress: a tall hat, loose coat, and umbrella whatever the weather, and trousers tied up below the knee with a piece of common string. His obsession with privacy led him to erect a high-glazed screen round part of his property, and a massive stable block on another, to deter onlookers. Inside these high walls, his privacy was similarly protected by constructing a labyrinth of subterranean passages – some wide enough for a coach and horse – linking suites of underground apartments. The house – a sombre looking structure – was pulled down and redeveloped in 1907.

Another eccentric was Dr Samuel Phené, a man of considerable intellect and a widely travelled polymath who inherited an estate in Oakley Street in Chelsea in the 1850s. The house he built was whimsically Byzantine in style. Contemporaries described it as having the appearance of an Italian Renaissance château. The four-acre garden, originally intended as a statue garden, suffered an unfortunate fate at the hands of this obsessive
collector; he accumulated classical statuary with no plan for its distribution within the garden, which eventually assumed the appearance of a ‘classical rubbish heap’. The house was sold after his death in 1912 and eventually redeveloped; only the Phené Arms public house serves as a reminder of this eccentric.

The Reverend Willam Stuckely was another eccentric and an eighteenth-century antiquarian collector. He was both a Doctor of Medicine and a clergyman, and, on his retirement from his parish in Lincolnshire, he retired to Kentish Town. There he indulged his Druidic interests, setting out his garden in concentric circles with features such as a Druid’s walk, a temple, a hermitage, a grotto, a mausoleum, and a tumulus.

Ramillies House, near Oxford Circus, was from 1784 the property of Dr Joshua Brookes, a leading anatomist and the son of a prominent bird trader. In his garden he amassed large blocks taken from, and intended to represent, the Rock of Gibraltar. Around this extraordinary feature, he created his vivarium; in a letter to Sir John Soane, he describes a spacious reservoir of fish, aquatic plants and oceanic birds. Within the caverns of the rock resided a vulture, a white-headed eagle and an auriculate owl.

We begin to detect a common theme which emerges from the author’s analysis of garden eccentrics – namely how so many were passionate collectors of items gathered during their travels, a theme from the early days of the Grand Tour.

A fascination for mountains also emerges throughout this collection of eccentric gardens and their creators. One of the most impressive, judging from contemporary sources, was the Swiss glacier garden created by Lady Elisa Broughton in the 1820s, when she inherited Hoole House in Chester. John Loudon visited it in 1831 and declared it ‘a most extraordinary rock garden’, but it was much more than that. A visitor in the early 1860s, some time after the death of Lady Broughton, declared it ‘a most extraordinary caprice’, thirty feet high and crammed with every sort of Alpine species. The highest pinnacles represented the Alps, with white spar used for glaciers and snow peaks, all set against a bright emerald green lawn with bedding as though to represent the valley floor. Sadly, the garden exists no longer, and the author’s collection of stunning illustrations is all that remains.

Another example of an Alpine garden created on a scale bordering on the eccentric was created by Sir Frank Crisp at Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames, in 1889. Crisp was a successful lawyer and legal adviser to the Liberal Party, for which he was knighted. Like Lady Brougham, Crisp had a predilection for Alpine gardening inspired by the fame of the Matterhorn, which was first conquered in 1865 when he was a young man of 22. The Henley Matterhorn, as it became known, was set in a four-acre area within a larger garden, the crowning point being an exact model of the Matterhorn. The mountain was formed of York gritstone, its slopes covered with pulverised Derbyshire spar to resemble snow, and the peak boasted of a slab of the real Matterhorn. A mountain torrent was created, winding and twisting its way down to a pool at the base of the mountain. The garden lives on, unlike so many in this collection, and is privately owned by the widow of the Beatle George Harrison.

If gardens can be perceived as perfect examples of a three-dimensional art form, they give unlimited scope for eccentricity. The important theme of this hugely enjoyable book is that the heart of eccentricity lies in a resistance to conformity. What others might regard as eccentric is simply an urge not to conform, or even a lack of awareness of what conformity should be.

The author encourages his readers to catch a spirit of freedom and dare to be eccentric – an important message in this age of conformity.

English Garden Eccentrics is available to purchase from Yale University Press: www.yalebooks.co.uk/page/detail/?k=9781913107260