Recently Jane and I decided we needed an outing. After a little amicable debate we settled on the eighteenth century landscape gardens and parks at Claremont and Painshill in Surrey. These are only a couple of miles apart, situated just inside the M25 near Cobham and Esher.
At the risk of coming over like Pollyanna we just had a wonderful day. Friendly staff in the cafes served good food. The rain held off. It was warm enough to sit outside but cool enough to walk briskly round the several miles of paths and tracks required to see each property properly. We followed the suggested routes that are such an important feature of the enjoyment of these landscaped parks. Since there were so few other visitors, we pretended to be the private guests of the earlier owners.
The gardens have much in common. Both are thoroughly relaxing and great places to take children and families. Both have very attractive wildlife including black swans at Claremont and the more usual white ones at Painshill. Both could fairly be called very pretty indeed. They really deserve to be visited.
Both sites are very properly listed Grade One and are extremely important examples of early English landscape parks. Both estates fell from secure private ownership into times of great uncertainty and decay in the middle of the twentieth century. The essential cores of both were only rescued from dereliction and potential property developments by the remarkable efforts of concerned organisations and individuals.
To some extent the history and existing layout of Claremont is more complicated than that of Painshill. The National Trust acquired some 50 acres of Claremont in 1949 and a major programme of restoration began in 1975. Its underlying structure was largely established over a period of more than a hundred years, between 1709 when the site was first purchased by Vanbrugh and 1819 when the last major additions were laid down. Great names involved range from Vanbrugh himself, through the 1st Duke of Newcastle to whom he sold the property in 1714, and subsequently Charles Bridgeman, William Kent, Clive of India, Capability Brown and Prince Leopold and Princess Charlotte.
Vanbrugh and Bridgeman’s baroque layout, here shown in an engraving of 1725, was partially naturalised by the alterations of their successors. It survives at its strongest in Vanbrugh’s Belvedere tower and Bridgeman’s three acre turf amphitheatre carved into a steep hill, was originally mirrored by a regular pool that Kent and Brown re-formed into a serpentine lake.
The Trust’s renovations include the re-instatement of the Amphitheatre, the clearing of vast acreages of Rhododendron ponticum that had overwhelmed and distorted both the overall layout and the individual features of the park, and the restoration of the Belisle Pavilion on the island in the lake.
The Mausoleum erected after the death of Princess Charlotte has recently been re-instated as a temporary replica. Although rebuilt in lightweight materials it offers an excellent idea of the original mass and design. The earlier breakup of the estate left Vanbrugh’s Belvedere in the possession of the adjoining school. Nonetheless it has been restored and is open to visitors once a month.
At Painshill more land has survived and its restoration looks back to the unified vision of a single owner and period. Numerous surviving images of that period helped to guide the restoration, including a series of views by Gilpin.
A fine but anonymous picture of the early 1780’s has recently been acquired by the Garden Museum. Previously believed to be of Virginia Water, its subject has recently been identified as showing Painshill viewed from the Turkish Tent.The images show the picture and the same view today.
148 acres at Painshill were, after a torrid period, purchased by Elmbridge Borough Council in 1980 and vested shortly thereafter in an excellent charitable trust. As ongoing funding becomes available the long term programme of restoration and re-instatement continues. At Painshill, the park today today is the vision of a single man with an essentially naturalistic and romantic approach manifesting itself to visitors as they move through the landscape. Its prime mover and effective architect was the Honourable Charles Hamilton, the 9th son of the 6th Earl of Abercorn, who owned and developed the property from 1738 until he was forced to sell it in 1773. Despite a perpetual shortage of cash, he demonstrated a remarkable eye for the positioning of architectural features and the layout and balance of the vital ingredients of landmass, water, trees and grass. It is his vision that the Painshill Trust is so effectively re-instating on the land in its stewardship and at times succeeds in creating a musical or even a magical quality.
At Painshill many major triumphs include the repair or re-creation of buildings such as the marvellous Crystal Grotto, the Gothic Tower, the Ruined Abbey, the Turkish Tent (albeit with the original canvas replaced by accurate but slightly stiff fibreglass mouldings) and the five arch bridge. Currently the Temple of Bacchus is being recreated on its original site and this should be completed in the early autumn. In general the reconstructions and restorations are probably more solid and enduring than the original structures, but then they have to cope with a far larger number of visitors.
Both properties are, in the best sense of the word, theatrical. You are well advised to follow the set routes so you come upon the prospects and buildings in a satisfactory order and from the best viewpoints. There is the delight of immediate vision when you look through the window of a ruined Hermitage to see the ground fall away to the River Mole or walk up the Elysian Fields to the reconstructed Gothic Tower at Painshill. For many current and historical visitors the park can and must have produced an emotional and sensual response.
You need no historical or garden knowledge to appreciate Claremont and Painshill although they still recall classical landscape and mythology. Eighteenth century sensitivities would admittedly find it easier than we do to appreciate the grounds in terms of Virgil, Pliny or the paintings of Claude Lorraine, but to do so simply adds another dimension to a wonderful experience.
These landscape parks act as theatres of transience and memory. And whatever Dr Johnson might have said about naturalistic and romantic gardens (“Pray Sir, where is the surprise the second time?”) that surprise remains in the play of light, weather, wind and the seasons across the more fixed elements.
Painshill is occasionally open on winter evenings before Christmas. If a good frost has formed, the moon is out on a cloudless sky and the crystal grotto is lit by candles then even the most hardened cynic will admit the experience to be both wonderful and magical.
Do go: It’s well worth it! Chris