The Claremont Amphitheatre as a problem in historic garden restoration

The amphitheatre in Claremont Landscape Garden

The historic amphitheatre in Claremont Landscape Garden


Clockwise, the images of the Claremont Amphitheatre show (1) Charles Bridgeman’s design, as illustrated in Stephen Switzer’s Hydrostatiks (2) John Rocque’s drawing shows the garden as modified by William Kent after 1734 (3) a drawing by an unknown artist with the water as a circular pool (4) a recent photo of the amphitheatre as a feature in what is now called Claremont Landscape Garden. Claremont is a pleasant and popular place – so why not leave it as it is? The amphitheatre was almost lost at one point and then restored by the National Trust. I am sure they were right to restore the amphitheatre but I do not think they went far enough. Stephen Switzer (in his Introduction to a general system of hydrostaticks and hydraulicks 1729) wrote that: ‘The upper part of the work may very easily be seen to be a sketch of the fine Amphitheatre at Claremont, (belonging to his Grace the Duke of Newcastle) the design of the very ingenious Mr. [Charles] Bridgeman; and the lower part, where the water spouts out, is an addition of my own, from a work of that kind that I have done for the Right Honourable the Earl of Orrery , at Marson in Somersetshire. In this composition, which I humbly conceive to be the noblest of any in Europe, may be seen a very magnificent taste and way of thinking, and in which I can’t help observing, that had the ingenious designer had more room at Claremont, he would certainly have made his water much larger than that little circular basin, which is seen therein, and which is very much eclipsed by the prodgious grandeur of that Amphitheatre. And this I note for the advantage of those who have more room for such a purpose: as for the rest the plan speaks for itself.’
Bridgeman and Switzer and are significant figures in the history of garden design and far too little of their work survives. More of Kent’s work survives. The problem with Claremont is that it lacks the high quality one would expect from such a distinguished cast, though Vanbrugh’s avenue, bowling green and Belvedere Tower are very good. My suggestion is to restore more of the design shown on Switzer’s drawing. I would like to see Switzer’s ‘water spouts’ and the first metre of the baroque canal (it could be done with jetties if there is insufficient land). Restoration of the ‘wilderness’ in which it is set would also be welcome (ie the woodland with straight rides and twisting paths). This would give Claremont a clear separation between (1) the Kentian landscape garden (2) the late baroque features designed by John Vanbrugh, Switzer and Bridgeman. If some way of arranging it could be found, a way of viewing the house and setting which Lancelot Brown designed for Lord Clive would also be highly desireable. The aim should be to make Claremont into first class garden it should be: it is in danger of becoming a public park for the middle classes.

24 thoughts on “The Claremont Amphitheatre as a problem in historic garden restoration

  1. stephen Harmer

    Having visited a few weeks ago we did discuss what could be seen as a superficial restoration having just restored one piece of what was a much broader picture and giving the idea that the restoration was entire. I do think that a specific period/year should have been chosen and the restoration completed in full to this date.
    Also a concern for me were children and energetic adults who saw the main role of the feature as an area to climb over and role down, this as could be clearly seen on the day has taken a heavy toll of the grass. Not that I am aganist introducing children to gardens (I have four under five)and Claremont is a great place for them to let of steam.

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  2. Tom Turner Post author

    The term ‘landscape garden’, as used by the NT, is a little troubling. This is not so much because it was not in use when the garden was made (making the name anachronistic), it is more that the term belongs with the nineteenth century ie it describes what the garden is today rather than what its distinguished designers intended it to be. I would really like it to be restored to the first half of the eighteenth century. Maybe the site should be semi-sliced with the western half becoming Vanbrugh/Switzer/Bridgeman and the east half Kent/Brown?

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  3. Christine

    Agreed. The intention of the garden as a private estate rather than a public park should be recognised. The public park is another genre entirely. Of course, some royal parks ie. Greenwich, have successfully been converted to public parks. However, achieving the right balance between the public and private qualities of the park may still be important for its management.

    The land was inherited and enclosed as a park by Humphrey Plantagenet. The rivalry of Humphrey of Glouchester and Cardinal Beaufort was part of the cultural politics of the fifthteen century. Humphrey was known during his lifetime as a patron of literature and the arts, and posthumously has been given the epitat ‘Good Duke Humphrey’. Cardinal Beaufort is perhaps most famous for presiding at the trial of Joan of Arc.

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  4. Tom Turner Post author

    There can be no objection to public use of Claremont – but it does not follow that it should have any of the character of a nineteenth century public park.

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  5. Michael Simonsen

    I guess Kent has a dramaturgy of his improvements and nothings need more care and sensible skills as a work on a multi-layered designed landscape, here four layers. The visitors today enter the park at a side where never before an entrance was located. It is an absolute dilemma that the interested visitor is thus robbed of the opportunity to understand the original dramaturgy and scenery of the area in which he is pushed at the wrong place. It is not the only garden or designed landscape managed by especially the National Trust where the original entrance situation of the park in the original layout with its important vistas and relationships was not preserved. Perhaps this is unimportant for visitors on their “Great Day Out”, but it is important in terms of the interest in long-term management and for connecting committed and dedicated people in their engagement for and to a historical site. Maybe Kim Wilkie has notice some in the CMP for the Girls School?

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  6. Michael Simonsen

    Dramaturgy:… and more important in an Management Plan! What else should be a garden, especially in the Augustan Style?
    The Cow at Claremont has lost a lot of steaks.

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  7. Tom Turner Post author

    The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘garden’ like this: An enclosed piece of ground devoted to the cultivation of flowers, fruit, or vegetables . Not much dramaturgy here! The etymology of ‘garden’ is explained as follows: < Old Northern French gardin (Central French jardin ) < popular Latin *gardīnum , < *gardum (Old French gard , gart , jart , garden) < Germanic *gardo-z (Gothic gard-s , Old High German gart , Old Saxon gard , Old English geard , Old Norse garð-r , enclosure: see garth n.1 and yard n.1). The Germanic languages have also a weak form, with the special sense ‘garden’: Old Frisian garda , Old Saxon gardo (Dutch gaarde ), Old High German garto (Middle High German garte , modern German garten ). Compare Provençal gardi , jardi , jerzi , and jardina (feminine) (also Spanish jardin , Portuguese jardim , Italian giardino , which appear to be adoptions < French or Provençal).

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  8. Michael Simonsen

    Happy welcome to the veggie grounds! With this kind of a purely functional, imperfect view the Claremont Amphitheatre must be a wine yard and the pond is introduce for fish production.

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  9. Michael Simonsen

    …and cultivate the people with all this be and pass full of beauty.
    The term derives from paradeisos (greek) and the Sanskrit Paradesh. Tis means an enclosed space for deer and exotic animals or for exotic fruits and other plants or for human pleasure or for all of them together.

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Paradeisos (paradise) is a Persian word which adopted by the Greeks and given a new meaning. In Persian, as you say, it probably meant a park in which plants and animals were collected. This leads me to a 3-fold classification for the ancient world: hunting parks, sacred landscapes and gardens.

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  10. Christine

    Having just wandered through a botanic garden (an entirely cultural landscape) gazing at the activity of waterbirds on a pond, listening to the reassuring sound of a waterfall and taking delight in the tiniest new additions to the animal kingdom in all their cute fluffiness…and thinking how wonderful it is to be reminded we are not the only species on the planet going about our daily lives…a park in a city is both a retreat from the urban choas and business and a useful reminder of the natural world which can all too easily be forgotten inside four walls and a roof.

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Despite the lack of hunting and food-gathering, I certainly think botanic gardens are the nearest equivalents of the Persian Paradeisos. But I also think they were quite separate from the ‘landscape’ tradition which celebrated the wonders of the natural world. I am a great believer in keeping open space types separate, both when analysing the ancient world and when planning the modern world. This gives me a distrust of the term ‘greenspace’ which tries to bring them all together.

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  11. Christine

    This morning on my walk through the botanic garden it was a little less like paradise as it was crowded with school groups and the beginnings of the lunchtime crowd. The oasis quality had been lost and even the animals were scurrying away from the noise and movement deeper into the vegetation of the gardenbeds.

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      See above blog post on paradise.
      The British Museum’s Egyptian Galleries in the British Museum are among my favourite places in London – but their tranquility is usually destroyed by boring parties of bored school children learning how to tick boxes in preparation for their future careers as health and safety inspectors.

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      That would be more than enough for me. Much though I like archaeology I think they dig up far too much, to further their careers, and leave it to be damaged by the elements. This is what is happening to Pompeii and I have seen a desert city being eroded in the wind which, had it been left unde the dunes, would have lasted for a few more millennia.

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  12. Stephen Harmer

    You are right Christine, if just one of these young students finds they enjoy history and is entralled by the Egyptian galleries then job done. As for the other bored young students, the saying you ‘have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince’comes to mind.
    I agree with Tom regarding some aspects of archaeology, the ‘Time Team’ approach cannot be justifyed, but if ancient sites remain covered and not discovered, how will we learn? Maybe in another millennia the protection of sites will have more importance and the reruns of ‘Time Team’ will be a distant memory.

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  13. L.Penman

    “..: it is in danger of becoming a public park for the middle classes.”

    Find it offencive and snobbish. Are midddle classes still regarded as plebs? Shell we restore the place to its glory so aristocrates could walk there instead of plebs?

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  14. Tom Turner Post author

    I did not make my point very well. My intended meaning was (1) the quality of the garden should very high (2) it should not take on the character of a public park (3) my impression is that the middle classes prefer Claremont to their local parks because you need a car and spare cash to get in – so the people they do not want to encounter on leisure occasions are not there. Aristocrats and billionaires tend to have their own parks with high fences and security guards, so they do not need to visit National Trust Properties for relaxation – only for cultural interests.

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  15. Stephen Wass

    As an archaeologist working on the newly ‘discovered’ amphitheatre at Farnborough Hall, Warwickshire http://www.polyolbion.org.uk/Farnborough/October-November11.htm
    I too have recently visited Claremont. I felt very clear that what I was looking at was primarily an artefact of the twentieth century allbeit with roots in the eighteenth, further restoration would simply be adding an additional level of interpretation from the perspective now of the twenty first century which is fine providing we don’t kid ourselves that we are somehow recapturing an authentic experience of an eighteenth century garden. It can’t be done, we are not the same people. As you can see I am something of a sceptic when it comes to reconstruction. Not that such activities don’t have their place but their function to instruct, entertain and possibly inspire but it’s not ‘the real thing’.

    In terms of usage I do believe that there are big issues here thrown for me into stark relief by the experience of visiting Chiswick. Here we have the amphitheatre fenced off and, I was told by the staff, alarmed to prevent access at pretty well all times contrasted with the rest of the garden which exhibits a pattern of activity: ball games, dog exercising, which would seem more at home on a recreation ground. I’m sure Chiswick would work better for me if the amphitheatre were opened up a little and the gardens closed down a touch.

    P.S. Please don’t give archaeologists quite such a hard time. Yes we do get it wrong occasionally but if you saw the hoops we are having to jump through to conduct even the most modest amount of digging within the boundaries of a National Trust property you would be sobbing in sympathy – well almost.

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Thank you for the comment – sorry I could not get the link to work.
      I agree that we cannot get back to anywhere. I am, today, in a place which I knew very well 50 years ago. In one sense, it is remarkably unchanged. But in other ways, it is completely different.
      As an (amateur historian) I am very keen to get back to as many periods in history as I can. Books help and so do reconstructions, whether they are drawings or physical reconstructions.
      With Chiswick and Claremont, I think they are precious relics and anything which can be done in the interests of historical accuracy should be done. Any other policy would seem like changing the words in an original copy of a Shakespeare play.
      Re archaeologists – I love what they do and read a lot of their books, always believing that they probably make as many mistakes as any other profession and that they are in need of critical commentary to keep them on their toes!

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