Todd Longstaffe-Gowan

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 stands out?
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 setting.
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 garden?
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 Competition?
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 with a view to their physical improvement, and their enclosure was an act of social control. The advent of secure enclosure swiftly led to the creation of codes of behaviour to govern the use of the space, and these in turn guided the layout and cultivation of the central areas. The nature of the boundary treatment and the gates which defines the enclosure are of course no less interesting: they have invariably been both defensive and conspicuous with the aim of offering protection and privacy.
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 Ponsonby, second Earl of Bessborough (1704-93), from the English sculptor Joseph Wilton. Wilton was resident in Italy from 1749 to 1755, during which time he supplemented his income by copying excavated classical sculpture for his English patrons, and occasionally supplying them with new compositions informed by classical antecedents. These imaginative works were known as invenzione; and my sheep is just such a creature. Bessborough displayed Wilton’s sacrificial sheep – for it has a conspicuous wound in its belly – atop an ancient Roman altar set within a garden temple in his Thames-side villa at Roehampton. Here it remained until it was sold after his death. I came to own it a few years ago having bought it at auction from the descendants of the family who acquired it directly from Bessborough’s posthumous sale at Christie’s in 1801.
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 benefits.

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 Fletcher Prize).

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan at Kensington Palace
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan at Kensington Palace
Hanover Square, London, looking north, 1751
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
An aerial view of Kensington Palace, 2012
The new Palace Lawn, Kensington Palace
The new Palace Lawn, Kensington Palace