Kenilworth Castle Elizabethan Garden Restoration

Kenilworth Elizabethan Castle Garden

Kenilworth Elizabethan Castle Garden

It is not beautiful. This is the main problem with the Kenilworth Castle garden restoration. They should have put a talented garden designer in charge of the project, with instructions to listen to the historical experts and be sure to produce a beautiful result. Tudor craftsmanship was excellent. This project looks as though it belongs in an upscale garden centre near the M25.  The aviary is too big. The fence is too low. The obelisks are too high. The lawn-fringed paths are a total historical anachronism. The elements of the composition are out of scale with each other. It does not have the charm of a medieval garden or the dignity of a renaissance garden. It is a codge-up.

Press coverage of this significant garden restoration has concentrated on the cost (£2.1m). I disagree: if anything the budget was too low for a worthwhile project, justified by (1) an archaeological investigation which found the base of the original marble fountain (2) the remarkably detailed description in the Robert Langham Letter, describing Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Kenilworth Castle in 1575.  An excerpt from this letter is quoted below. I worry about Simon Thurley’s garden judgement with regard to gardens.  He made a similar mistake with the restoration of the Privy Garden at Hampton Court. There many other things which could have been done with the money – and I would rather have seen a re-creation of a medieval castle garden.  We have enough Tudor re-creations from the BBC without EH jumping on this bandwagon – they must be wondering how they could manage some Jane Austen re-creations. If EH thought renaissance gardens looked like this, they should visit Italy and France.

An excerpt from Robert Langham’s letter about Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Kenilworth Castle in 1575: “Along the castle wall is reared a pleasant terrace of a ten foot high and a twelve broad, even underfoot and fresh of fine grass, as is also the side thereof toward the garden, in which, by sundry equal distances, with obelisks, spheres and white bears all of stone upon their curious bases by good show were set; to these, two fine arbours redolent by sweet trees and flowers, at each end one…. Then, much graced by due proportion of four even quarters, in the midst of each upon a base a two foot square and high, seemly bordered of itself, a square pilaster rising pyramidally of a fifteen foot high, symmetrically pierced through from a foot beneath until a two foot from the top, whereupon, for a capital, an orb of a ten inches thick…Redolent plants and fragrant herbs and flowers, in form, colour and  quantity so deliciously variant, and fruit-trees bedecked with their apples, pears and ripe cherries. And unto these in the midst against the terrace a square cage, sumptuous and beautiful, joined hard to the north wall…. In the centre (as it were) of this goodly garden was there placed a very fair fountain, cast into an eight-square, reared a four foot high, from the midst whereof a column up set in shape of two atlantes joined together a back-half, the one looking east, the other west, with their hands upholding a fair-formed bowl of a three foot over, from whence sundry fine pipes did lively distil continual streams into the receipt of the fountain”

20 thoughts on “Kenilworth Castle Elizabethan Garden Restoration

  1. Christine

    Very good description of why the garden doesn’t meet the criterion of beauty. It set me thinking about how you would describe the quality….

    1. the qualities that give pleasure to the senses
    2. smasher: a very attractive or seductive looking woman
    3. an outstanding example of its kind; “his roses were beauties”; “when I make a mistake it’s a beaut”

    …and it seemed from your description that harmony between the various parts is an important component.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Christopher Alexander, in The Timeless Way of Building, has some good answers to this question.
    I rather like the Greek account (for which I do not know the source) that it is to do with ‘unity in variety’.

  3. Christine

    Are you referring to what Christopher Alexander calls ‘the quality without a name’? I think he also referred to it as ‘the quality of life’.

    Perhaps it is a sensitivity to the golden mean in all things? Contextual correctness in proportional relationships? The Golden Mean according to Aristotle is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.

    I wonder if there is such a thing as ‘a quality of [creative] freedom’ in design/in nature?

  4. Julian Treyer-Evans

    Absolutely agree with you Tom about Kenilworth. I have visited it twice. My sympathies are with the gardener. She has had to work hard on an impractical project. Poor soil. Hopeless specimen hollies. Timing.

    It will be interesting to see how the garden develops over the next few years, as apart from other faults that you mentioned, the planting although historically accurate, will not look beautiful.

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    I am also doubtful about the ‘historical accuracy’. Everything which survives from the sixteenth century was beautiful – buildings, paintings, tapestries etc. It therefore seems most improbable that Tudor gardens were badly proportioned and crudely made.

  6. Dave

    After watching the TV programme documenting the creation of the garden, I am dismayed to see that the whole project was based on 1 letter discribing a garden that lasted only 15 days.

    A considerable waste of money. – the progarmme hinted at the final cost of about 4 million.

    I have heard the fountain can not work if the winds come from a particular direction for fear of flooding the site, which has no drainage installed.

    level it…

  7. Robert Louth

    I to agree with Tom. There is no unity between the castle, the surrounding landscape & the backdrop of the beautifull village. How does the design tie in to the rest of the grounds. I have restored many historic gardens in my time as a professional horticulturist & have spent many frustrating hours with owners & financiers who are unwilling to listen to voices of experience.

    EH & S.Thurley should take a leaf from Sylvia Landsberg’s Tudor Museum Garden at Southampton.


  8. Tom Turner Post author

    Robert, is Sylvia Landsberg’s garden still there and in good condition? I had an idea it was being allowed to decay – but perhaps I am muddling it up with the Shrewsbury Quest garden (or perhaps I am wrong about both!).
    I am glad comments on this blog post agree about Kenilworth, because I felt a bit of a heel in criticizing an apparently worthy project.

  9. Kim Northrop

    Just visited Kenilworth. Excellent post. I was far more delighted with the much smaller but much more pleasing [to me at least] garden/s at Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-Upon-Avon [I was the Midlands for one day of touring.]

  10. Mike Purkess

    Tuesday 21 July 2009. Visited with friends – pouring with rain – but a thoroughly enjoyable experience for us all. Don’t pretend to know a lot about it but to me the whole design evoked a feeling of Elizabethan England. Found the obelisks and fencing to be nicely in proportion while the central fountain was quite beautiful. The guide to plants in each ‘knot’ was fascinating and most helpful. Hope to return over the years to watch the garden mature.

  11. Marian

    An excellent talk by Dr Anna Keay – the Properties Presentation Director at English Heritage – on the Restoration of the Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth yesterday at the Garden Museum. It was part of a Symposium exploring Sources of Evidence in Garden History, focusing on the written word.

    As you point out the main piece of evidence was the letter from Mercer Robert Laneham describing the Queen’s visit in 1575. Some of the written description, such as the quality of the gravel, was much more helpful than a painting or plan would have been, but in terms of proportion a plan would have been more helpful. As a mercer Laneham/Langham was very interested in measuring everything, and his detailed measurements were used in the recreation. I am tempted to wonder whether some of his measurements were to impress his fellow mercer correspondent Humphry Martin, leading to possibly oversized obelisks and a super-aviary. His spelling and use of words was sometimes ambiguous, with the fountain being potentially topped by a ball or a bowl (his word – ‘boll’. He says the obelisks were porphery, but EH used wood as the archaeological finds did not show enough physical support for porphery. More conjecture was used in the arbours, for which design a Du Cerceau engraving and a contemporary French garden arbour were used. The little fences seem the weakest part of the design, being both total conjecture and rather small. They should hopefully disappear when the hedges grow up through them, which will soften the whole look. Dr Keay’s presented approach was rigorous and wholely dedicated, and she and John Watkins’ team deserved to create a wonderful garden. The addition to the pot of more design-led conjecture may have created something less stark.

    It is often frustrating that Local Authority Conservation Policy prevents any ‘conjectural restoration’ in listed gardens/building facades, and I hope that this use of both historical fact and educated guesswork by English Heritage itself will open the way to a more imaginative (ie creating an image or picture from several references) approach at the local level.

  12. Tom Turner Post author

    Thank you for all this information. It is curious that local authorities should be stricter than English Heritage re ‘conjectural restoration’. Maybe you have to be in the position of setting rules before you feel confident about breaking them.
    Re Kenilworth, I also think the mown grass outside the fences are a significant weakness: surely the land cannot have been managed like this. It seems far more likely that the paths ran beside the fences.
    As noted before, historical judgment is not enough for a restoration project. There must also be a powerful injection of design judgment. This lesson should have been learned from Hampton Court.

  13. Pingback: Garden archaeology and archaeologists | Garden Design And Landscape Architecture Blog –

  14. Michael

    A garden is a place of civilization, but to work on gardens you need to have:
    – soil under your finger nails, like a gardener
    – an understanding of the the seasons, like a farmer
    – an understanding of trees, like a forester
    – a familiarity with the world of ideas to make gardens
    – a painter’s eye
    – technical information about archaeology, history and science
    If you only have one type of knowledge then you cannot make good gardens. Feelings about the beauty of nature only develop when you work with the nature, they cannot develop from books. The proportions of the water feature at Kenilworth look as though they were based on book knowledge from the 19th century, only.

  15. Tom Turner Post author

    All good points. But are you arguing that the training of experts in Historic Garden Conservation is so similar to that of training experts in Garden Design that you have to be a designer first? – and then you have to learn about history and consevation techniques. It is worth thinking about the situation for buildings: do you have to be an architect in order to care for historic buildings?

  16. Mynhardt Potgieter

    I am wondering wether it would be wise to add my penny’s worth so to speak…

    I bow the knee to such extensive knowledge as is evident in all the above comments…but here we go anyway.

    Say I was approached to “re-design” a historical garden, say it is from the Elizabethan Era and say it is very much in the public eye and visited by people from all over the world?

    Where would one begin? Would you please the critics or would you draw a line between practicality, design and function? After all, most people who visit these historical houses and their gardens are out to be “visually entertained” for lack of a better term. I spoke to someone who visited such a property only yesterday and they described the garden as being “…overgrown and rather untidy…”
    If you run the property as a business, which you must in the current economical climate, there is much to be said about keeping costs down and making sure it “looks pretty” in order to secure good visitor numbers and the resulting profits for the Trust.

    It is a very fine line indeed and I take my hat off to anyone who tries their hand at it.

  17. Tom Turner Post author

    Mynhardt, thank you for your comment. But, in this case at least, I see no reason why we should have to choose between ‘attractiveness to visitors’ and ‘historical accuracy’. My impression that everything which survives from the Tudor court is beautiful and fascinating. So the re-created Kenilworth knot garden should have these qualities. I am not however an expert on the period and it may be that a book to be published next year will persuade me that they have done the right thing: The Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth by Anna Keay and John Watkins. The title causes me some concern: Elizabeth I was not a garden maker and I would rather they had followed Roy Strong in regarding the character of the gardens of the period in a renaissance context.

  18. Light Up Your Ride

    I am also doubtful about the ‘historical accuracy’. Everything which survives from the sixteenth century was beautiful – buildings, paintings, tapestries etc. The title causes me some concern: Elizabeth I was not a garden maker and I would rather they had followed Roy Strong in regarding the character of the gardens of the period in a renaissance context.


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