Book Review

The Historic Gardens of England: Hampshire

Timothy Mowl and Jane Whitaker
£19.95 from Wells Bookshop, Winchester or available direct from Tim via his website:
Review by Rosemary Baird

From medieval cloistered gardens to the great landscapes of the eighteenth century, Timothy Mowl and Jane Whitaker have produced a delightful book that is both scholarly and infinitely readable.

Dr Whitaker specialises in early gardens, her skill being evident in the first two chapters which tell the story of the monastic and castle gardens of medieval Winchester, showing how these great institutions used gardens for herbs, for produce and for pleasure. The College had theirs both for food and for study, but ladies required beauty, represented by the modern medieval garden for two Queens Eleanor at the Castle, as well as further away at Odiham Castle by the tale of pleasure gardens for three royal ladies. This is riveting simply as Hampshire history.

At Netley Abbey and Titchfield monastic lands were converted into houses for wealthy courtiers. Here Whitaker moves ably into her favourite period, the Tudors. The new crescent-shaped lake at Elvetham, where Elizabeth I made a great progress in the summer of 1591, is brought at long last into the story of Hampshire, with descriptions of the incredible garden festivities. The fashionable arrangement of garden compartments skirting the house can still be seen at Bramshill.

Professor Mowl is the guru of landscape history of which this is the fourteenth in his series. Originally an architectural historian, his thought-provoking books include studies of the towering 18th century artistic personalities William Kent (2006) and Horace Walpole (1996). This means that he brings a powerful background to the study of garden history. At the University of Bristol he created a school of landscape history, of which Jane Whitaker, like other of his co-authors, was a student. One learns the bones of any garden first through its location, owner and purpose. The historic design and planting are then fleshed out, through maps, accounts, watercolours, engravings and letters as well as by dramatic detective work, sometimes using aerial photography. The tale is full of discoveries. As Mowl cheerfully comments ‘Green wellies and dusty archives’. Excellent illustrations are included, happily integrated into the text, with a number, including contemporary views and plans, in glorious colour.

Mowl takes on the task of describing the emergence of design in the seventeenth century, where evidence can be sparse. Contemporary commentators such as Celia Fiennes described parterres of flowers and shrubs at Breamore, with ‘Cut-work’ and ‘Imbroidery’. A Franco-Dutch style landscape at Southwick Park was engraved for publication in 1707 by Kip and Knyff. Fascinating suspicions are pronounced of probable great formal layouts for which there are neither documents nor drawings. Work at Stratfield Saye, Broadlands and Abbotstone was all swept away by later landscaping.

As the story moves into the absorbing topic of eighteenth-century design, it is thrilling to find that famous gardeners were present in Hampshire, with celebrated intellectuals steeped in classical learning here to comment and advise. London and Wise made a plan for Herriard; Stephen Switzer was born in Hampshire and is recorded at Cranbury Park, and Charles Bridgeman was involved in three sites, not least Hackwood, his smaller sites also being included. In 1734 Alexander Pope stayed at the (lost) idyllic garden at Bevois Mount, overlooking the Solent, which had serpentine walks, labyrinths, alcoves, a variety of garden buildings and statues in Italian marble. Although we do not have a Rousham in Hampshire, how wonderful to know that we once did, and that garden fashion was so much discussed. The owner, keen horticulturalist Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough, was a friend of Swift and Gay, and an admirer of of Henrietta Howard on whose gardens he advised at her newly built Marble Hill at Twickenham.

Hampshire is fortunate to have in its Record Office at Winchester a 1759 map of the county by Isaac Taylor, showing the names of estate owners. Mowl defines a mid century period of a burst of building of follies in a variety of styles, including some at Dogmersfield Park. All changed with what he describes as ‘the minimalist revolution’ of Lancelot Brown, who visited Highclere and made a plan, albeit executed later. Mowl waxes lyrical on this landscape. With Brownmania now at a peak, he tells the story with enthusiastic impartiality, pointing out that commentators sometimes criticised Brown for what he swept away; but that his work was completely remarkable.

The work on Regency gardens is especially novel, finding four general categories in coexistence. This is of course intriguing in Jane Austen country, where there was a great boom in country house building in the Regency period. It is not surprising to learn that Timothy Mowl’s next book is to be on Regency gardens. One can guess that he turned to his co-author (and research planner) for High Victorian gardens, which are not his favourite, and Whitaker also writes the chapter on modern gardens, citing Kim Wilkie’s flowing green terraces at The Holt and John Coke’s garden at Bury Court with admiration. The blend of the nine chapters is seamless.

Mowl and Whitaker pay tribute to the work of the research team at Hampshire Gardens Trust, founded by Gilly Drummond, and for access to their findings, as well as to the County Record Office.

This is a key publication for anyone interested in garden history. For someone interested in the history of places, powerful families and the pleasures of the imagination, it is a joy.

Rosemary Baird