The Landscape Guide

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see

The Mixed Style at Wimbledon House: an illustration from Loudon's Suburban Gardener

Garden historians are wont to say that J C Loudon invented the 'Mixed or Gardenesque style', and that Alton Towers is the best surviving example of his taste. This is false. Their reasoning appears to be that Alton Towers is described in the Gardener's Magazine, which Loudon edited, and that it looks like a physical counterpart to his encyclopaedias on gardening and architecture: a vast assemblage of plants and garden buildings in styles from all parts of the known world. 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
The Pagoda at Alton Towers The Pagoda at Alton Towers
The glasshouses at Alton Towers The glasshouses at Alton Towers
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
The yew arches at Alton Towers in 1900 'Stonehenge' at Alton Towers

Alton Towers is the best example of the Mixed style but it was severly criticised by Loudon and the planting design is not Gardenesque. The plants at Alton Towers are in irregular groups but the collection is of very marginal interest to plantsmen and there is no evidence of a botanical zest for identification, classification and variety. Loudon was appalled by the mixture of styles at Alton Towers - it offended him in the same way that encyclopaedia entries on 'rakes and roses' or 'French and Finnish' architecture would have offended him. After visiting Alton Towers in 1826 and again in 1831 he wrote the following descriptions of the gardens:  

Alton Towers is a very singular place, both in its geology, which is peculiarly adapted for grand and picturesque effects, and in what has been done to it by the late Earl of Shrewsbury..... This nobleman, abounding in wealth, always fond of architecture and gardening, but with much more fancy than sound judgement, seems to have wished to produce something different from everything else. Though he consulted almost every artist, ourselves among the rest, he seems only to have done so for the purpose of avoiding whatever an artist might recommend. After passing in review before him a great number of ideas, that which he adopted was always different from every thing that had been proposed to him.  

Loudon found the consequences of the Earl's policy to very mixed indeed:  

The first objects that met our eye were, the dry Gothic bridge and the embankment leading to it, with a huge imitation of Stonehenge beyond and a pond above the level of the bridge alongside of it, backed by a mass of castellated stabling. Farther along the side of the valley, to the left of the bridge, is a range of architectural conservatories, with seven elegant glass domes, designed by Mr Abraham, richly gilt. Farther on, still to the left, and placed on a high and bold naked rock, is a lofty Gothic tower or temple.... consisting of several tiers of balconies, round a central staircase and rooms; the exterior ornaments numerous, and resplendent with gilding. Near the base of the rock is a corkscrew fountain of a peculiar description..... below the main range of conservatories are a paved terrace walk with a Grecian temple at one end.... The remainder of the valley, to the bottom, and on the opposite side, displays such a labyrinth of terraces, curious architectural walls, trelliswork arbours, vases, statues, stone stairs, wooden stairs, turf stairs, pavements, gravel and grass walks, ornamental buildings, bridges, porticoes, temples, pagodas, gates, iron railings, parterres, jets, ponds, streams, seats, fountains, caves, flower-baskets, waterfalls, rocks, cottages, trees, shrubs, beds of flowers, ivied walls, rockwork, shellwork, rootwork, moss-houses, old trunks of trees, entire dead trees, &c., that it is utterly impossible for words to give any idea of the effect..... in one place we have Indian temples excavated in it, covered with hieroglyphics; and in another, a projecting rock is formed into a huge serpent, with a spear-shaped iron tongue and glass eyes.  

It is difficult to conceive of a garden with a greater mixture of stylistic features than Alton Towers. Loudon most certainly did not consider it a model to be imitated and concluded : 'we consider the greater part of it in excessively bad taste, or rather, perhaps, as the work of a morbid imagination, joined to the command of unlimited resourses'.

    Return to start of section 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
Ashridge: Repton's Mixed Style Plan and illustrations of the the Monk's Garden and the Rosarium
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see

The real inventor of the Mixed style was Humphry Repton. His last book contains proposals for a variety of 'different kinds of gardens' which were restrained by the standard of Alton Towers but very mixed by the refined standards of the eighteenth century. Repton described Ashridge as 'the child of my age and declining powers' and his 'youngest favourite'. He said that few other projects had 'excited so much interest in my mind', and published a fragment from the Ashridge red book in which he justified the mixture of features as follows:  

The novelty of this attempt to collect a number of gardens, differing from each other, may perhaps, excite the critic's censure; but I will hope there is no more absurdity in collecting gardens of different styles, dates, characters, and dimensions, in the same inclosure, than in placing the works of a Raphael and a Teniers in the same cabinet, or books sacred and profane in the same library.

    Return to start of section  

Declining, Repton's powers may have been, but his reasoning had a most potent effect on Victorian gardens. The Ashridge Red Book proposed no less than fifteen different types of garden. They included a holy well in an enclosure of rich masonry, a winter garden, a monk's garden, a sheltered garden for foreign trees, an American garden, raised beds, and a rosarium which was 'supplied from the holy well, and then led into the grotto, from whence it is finally conducted into the drinking-pool in the park'. The suceeding fragment from the red book on Woburn Abbey proposed another American garden and a Chinese-dairy 'decorated by an assemblage of Chinese plants, such as the Hydrangea, Aucuba, and Camellia japonica'. Since Repton's Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening was published in 1816, and Alton Towers was made between 1814 and 1827, it seems certain that Repton, as the most famous landscape designer and gardening author of his day, was the predominant influence on the Earl of Shrewsbury. However Repton's different types of garden were only intended to make the foreground more Beautiful; the Earl and many subsequent designers applied the style to whole estates.      Return to start of section 

Shendish, Hertfordshire, a prime example of Edward Kemp's work in the Mixed Style

Edward Kemp published the first edition of his highly successful book on garden design in 1850 and included a number of Reptonesque designs by his own hand. It is perhaps the most typical of all Victorian books on garden design.  

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
Underscar in the Lake District, designed by Edward Kemp

Kemp advocated 'the mixed style, with a little help from both the formal and the picturesque'. Fearing that this might not be a sufficient mixture he went on to say that 'an absolute adherence to one style.... is not to be rekoned among the paramount virtues of the art', and even individual styles should be adapted to fit in with the peculiarities of individual sites.  

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
Biddulph Grange

Believers in stylistic purity may never appreciate the Mixed style but its popular appeal has always been great. Surprisingly few good examples remain, though two good examples survive within thirty miles of Alton Towers: Biddulph Grange, and Tatton Park. In order to gain a full appreciation of the style it is necessary to resort to one of three expedients: one can look at contemporary illustrations (especially Loudon's); one can look at the photographic books which were published between 1890 and 1914; or one can go on tour and set the remembered images beside each other in one's mind. The tour could well start with a visit to the surviving parts of Repton's work at Woburn and Ashridge. It should then include the following:

     Return to start of section 

Alton Towers
The aviary at Waddeston Manor
The circular rosary at Regent's Park
The Indian garden at Sezincote
The Italian terrace and the rose gardens at Shugborough
The Brighton Pavilion, based on a Repton design
The Chinese and Egyptian gardens at Biddulph Grange
The alpine garden in the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden
The bamboo glade and the Palm House at Kew Gardens
The Great Conservatory in Sefton Park
The conservatory and the American garden at Bicton
The Swiss Cottage at Osborne
The Japanese garden and the fernery at Tatton Park
The Chinese bridge at Winterbourne, University of Birmingham Botanical Gardens
The prehistoric monsters at the Crystal Palace.

 Alton Towers itself has been turned into an amusement parks which attracts large crowds and could develop into 'England's Disneyland'. The more ephemeral garden features have gone but the main garden structures were soundly built and are well maintained. Time and the Earl's lavish plantings have welded them into a unified whole which has the self-confident exuberance of the great nineteenth century railway stations, piers, hotels and churches. Like these buildings, the gardens at Alton Towers can be seen as symbols of the nineteenth century thirst for travel, comfort and spiritual adventure.  

The variety of countries in the above list remind us that the Mixed style helped to safisfy the globe-trotting Englishman's taste for the exotic. Nowadays they turn to the television set, the package tour, the internet or the National Geographic Magazine.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
The Great Conservatory at Sefton Park, Liverpool

Go to next Section