Rapacious borders

Gardens are by their nature ephemeral and the majority of the remarkable examples discussed in English Garden Eccentrics have long since disappeared. But that, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan argues, is just as it should be because these places are best understood as extensions of their creators’ selves. Remove the visionary force, and what remains loses its animation. Gardens are front and center in this book, which, he states, is concerned not so much with “what makes individuals eccentric than with how they have used landscape to map out their own personal biographies”. This comes as a relief: books about eccentrics often have a bewilderingly capacious scope. English Garden Eccentrics succeeds because of its narrower focus on how individuals have channelled their energies into a common pursuit and pitched their imaginations against natural and topographical constraints. There is nothing narrow, however, about the range of planting, pruning, building, tunneling and menagerie-making the author sets out here.

Longstaffe-Gowan has delved deeply into archives, old newspaper reports and contemporary visual material in order to recreate on paper strange and spectacular gardens from a 300-year period, beginning in the seventeenth century with ingenious waterworks around what the antiquary John Aubrey called a” marvelous grotto” animated by artificial thunder and lightning. Some gardens will be familiar: among their creators, perhaps the best-known is Sir Francis Dashwood, instigator of extensive pleasure-grounds and the notorious Hell-Fire Caves at West Wycombe. But the book’s originality stems from the obscurity of many of the people and gardens Longstaffe-Gowan has unearthed. These include Sir Charles Isham who introduced the gnome to English gardens when, in the 1860s, he built a gigantic rockery at his Northamptonshire estate and peopled it with models of fairy miners – probably an idea he got during his travels in Germany, which brought him into contact with the traditional Gnomen-Figuren or “folklore figures” used by miners as talismans. A militant group are captured on camera taking strike action in Sir Charles’s rockery.

Here, too, is Sir Francis Crisp, who constructed an exact model of the Matterhorn in his Alpine Garden (the illusion was only broken when garden birds perched on its summit); and Joshua Brookes, who decorated his garden with, in his words, a “very large and picturesque piece of Rockwork, formed chiefly of considerable masses of the Rock of Gibraltar, adapted to the purpose of a Vivarium, at present inhabited by an Eagle and several smaller rapacious Birds”. Birds of a more decorative nature were a feature of Lady Reade’s Oxfordshire garden in which she built a vast crescent-shaped aviary; when she traveled she would fill her carriages with her beloved parrots, macaws and cockatoos, along with pet monkeys and other creatures – much to the delight of spectators.

Among the most intriguing of Longstaffe-Gowan’s subjects are those whose gardens either reveal an unsuspected aspect of their nature, or greatly magnify a known one. In the first category is Jonathan Tyers. He was the proprietor of New Spring Gardens – later known as Vauxhall Gardens – on the south bank of the Thames, pleasure grounds offering food and drink alongside a cheerful array of music, theater and exhibitions. By contrast, the private garden he created at Denbies, a farmhouse he bought in 1734 near Dorking in Surrey, was, writes Longstaffe-Gowan, “among the wittiest dismal demesnes in Georgian England”. This garden – dismantled immediately after Tyers’s death – was called “Il Penseroso” in a nod to Milton’s poem, and clearly intended as a counterpart to Vauxhall’s “L’Allegro”. The attractions of the contemplative life Milton explores in “Il Penseroso”, however, were not pursued; Instead Tiers made a penitential experience of the journey through his hillside garden. The visitor would follow a path described in the sole account dating from Tyers’s lifetime as a “labyrinth of walks; some descending, some ascending; in some parts easy, smooth, and level, in others rugged and uneven; a proper emblem of human life!”. At almost every turn one would encounter large flags bearing admonitory messages; one was led to a temple of death in which to contemplate mortality, papered with extracts from Edward Young’s Night Thoughts and Robert Blair’s “The Grave”; and when one left the Temple it was through a gate constructed from stone piers in the form of coffins, each topped by a human skull. Longstaffe-Gowan suggests that this “anti-pleasure” garden, bathed in “a strange air of guilty gloom”, worked as a fundamentally literary experience: the visitor would be immersed in an anthology of moralizing verse, realized in three dimensions.

In the second category – the magnification of traits – is the eighteenth-century antiquary William Stukeley, who carried out pioneering fieldwork at Stonehenge and Avebury and convinced that the Druids were responsible for these monuments. Stukeley’s increasing personal obsession with druidic culture was expressed in his own successive gardens, the first of which was at his home in Grantham, where, in the 1720s, he created what he called a “temple of the druids”. Here he planted trees and hedges in concentric rings around a central “antient appletree oregron with sacred mistletoe” to reflect the layout of the sanctuary at Avebury. Later in life, Stukeley settled in Kentish Town in north London, where the druidic elements to his garden became yet more concentrated; again he planted in circles and added a Druid walk and a range of other features including a temple, a grotto, a hermitage and a tumulus. He also built a mausoleum, not as a tomb chamber but as a site devoted to contemplation and retrospection. One can only speculate about the druidic rites Stukeley may have enacted in this carefully staged arena.

Where, though, does caprice shade into eccentricity? Topiary, which has a history in England stretching back to the sixteenth century, is a feature of a number of gardens included in the book and Longstaffe-Gowan is careful to distinguish between the popular use of “small-scale yew topiary for the frivolous decoration of modest London gardens” and what he terms “freakish deviation[s] of the conventional practice”. These deviations included remodeling huge ancient churchyard yews “to resemble relics of antiquity”, among the most famous of which was the Harlington yew in Middlesex, clipped into bold geometrical masses in the early eighteenth century by a local gardener, John “shaver” Saxy. (It is interesting to note how many of the gardeners here seek to connect with the past.) The Countess of Dudley of Witley Court in Worcestershire, the subject of another chapter, was so fond of topiaries that she made regular excursions around the neighborhood in search of examples to buy for her garden; though whether she can strictly be regarded as an eccentric is a moot point.

Few would dispute the credentials of Charles Waterton of Walton Hall near Wakefield, although this proto-conservationist would have seemed stranger to his contemporaries than he appears today. On succeeding to the family estate in 1806, he set about making it into a sanctuary for birds and animals, in particular those he felt were unjustly persecuted. At a time when barn owls were considered vermin, he built a box in which they could nest, and, in his own words, “threatned to strangle the keeper if ever, after this, he molested either the old birds or their young ones” . Weasels, hedgehogs, jays, jackdaws, hawks, kites and ravens were among the other “vermin” he encouraged, and he spent much time and money planting trees and shrubs for cover and wooden structures for their accommodation. He was just as keen that people should enjoy his grounds, frequently inviting “pic-nic parties” of workers from the surrounding mills and patients from the Wakefield Asylum. Even so, wild rumours circulated that strange Squire Waterton rode around his estate on the back of a crocodile – an idea based on a youthful escapade involving a caiman that he recounted in his travel-memoir Wanderings in South America (1825). If they encountered him in his grounds, however, most visitors took this busy, plainly-dressed man for a gardener.

Longstaffe-Gowan concludes with perhaps the most eccentric of all the gardens in his selection, though at the first glance it appears to be the most conventional. It belonged to Mabel Barltrop who, in the years following the First World War, created a new Garden of Eden close to the site, she believed, of the original: Bedford. Regarding herself as a prophet, she was a leading member of the Panacea Society, which sought to reconfigure the Holy Trinity into a foursquare system in which Barltrop – or Octavia, as she was known to her community – was the Daughter to balance the Son. They believed that, when Jesus Christ returned, His first move would be to pay a visit to Octavia and stroll with her around her garden. The plot at the back of no. 12 Albany Street remained in most respects a typical suburban garden of the period, with a large lawn to facilitate social gatherings from tea parties to the Second Coming. Among a few less conventional features were a chapel, a makeshift altar on which members’ confessions were burned – accompanied by a toy lamb to symbolize Christ – and a large weeping ash called Yggdrasil after the sacred “world tree” in Norse mythology, around which members would dance, thus, Longstaffe-Gowan explains, “harnessing the power of this pagan symbol”.

As well as being a historian, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan is himself a gardener and practising landscape architect, and English Garden Eccentrics is enriched by the depth of his working knowledge. His experience also gives him an imaginative sympathy with each of his garden-making subjects who as a result spring from the page as real, if highly unconventional, human beings. Indeed, one of his aims, he writes, is to encourage fellow gardeners to defy dull conventionality, “to inspire those who feel a spirit of freedom welling up inside them to dare to be eccentric – to pluck up the moral courage and indulge with impunity “.

Susan Owens is the author of Spirit of Place: Artists, writers and the British landscape2020

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