ALDENHAM HOUSE, HERTFORDSHIRE
Among the famous gardens which are described or named in various chapters of the present work, some are renowned as picturesque, some as formal; in some the interest - is horticultural, in some botanical. There are few gardens which command attention from every point of view : gardens which contain numerous exquisite pictures in the natural style, yet in parts are formal; gardens in which trees and shrubs are used lavishly to produce fine landscape effects, and yet are treated as individuals of botanical interest, forming collections which embrace the newest and rarest species; gardens which have the area of great public parks and yet have the distinction and refinement of the best private places; such a garden exists, however, a few miles from London.
In the whole history of garden art, long and remarkable as it is, there has been no achievement more admirable, more satisfying, than that which has been accomplished at Aldenham House, in Hertfordshire.
Admittedly there have been vast undertakings in the past, as the earlier chapters of this book show, and at Aldenham there is nothing comparable with the grandiose and spectacular works, carried out at fabulous cost by men who were half landscape gardeners, half engineers, which amazed the peoples of past centuries. In those stupendous operations pure gardening was not the first consideration. Ambitious kings vied with each other, and stimulated for political ends the rivalries of their peoples. At Aldenham, however, neither landscape gardener nor engineer has ever been employed. There has been nothing theatrical, nothing sensational. From first to last garden art, pure and undefiled, has been the object in view,
The knowledge that art is paramount at Aldenham must inevitably have its effect on people of culture. They will go, as they do go in their thousands on the days appointed for visitors, with the reassuring conviction that what they are to see is gardening and nothing but gardening, that it stands or falls by the extent to which art, and art alone, has gained the ends it sought.
The fact that the great work of developing the garden at Aldenham is comparatively recent, having been started in 1898, has led many to consider the whole place modern. That is not the case. There was probably an Aldenham House in being before Shakespeare was born, for the first structure was reputedly built in or about 1550. Naturally there have been changes in the mansion, as there have been in the owners, The point is that Aldenham has just the same claim to antiquity as Chatsworth or Hatfield, although the sequence of owning families has not been so continuous. In turn Thomas Sutton, Henry Coghill, Robert Hucks, Miss Noyes, and Lord Aldenham have been owners of Aldenham. If the first house was really erected in 1550, the Thomas Sutton who founded the Charterhouse could not have been the first owner, as he was born in 1552, but he may have been a son of the founder. And not only has Aldenham House the hallowing charm of age, but it is richly decorated in the grand manner and plenteously stored with art treasures.
The modern garden at Aldenham is the work of a man of genuine horticultural genius, the Hon. Vicary Gibbs, a London banker, devotedly seconded by a gardener of exceptional parts, Edwin Beckett. Neither had the special training of an architect or a landscape gardener. The horticultural education of both has been based—and this is significant—on a deep love for plants. Out of that all the rest has sprung. Superimposed upon it there has grown a garden (one might say a whole series of gardens) not only of vast extent but of almost bewildering diversity and overwhelming beauty. As to area, it is only necessary to compare Aldenham with, say, Hampton Court. The flower-garden at Wolsey‘s master piece extended to four acres, that at Aldenham approaches two hundred acres. But area is after all a minor thing, the real core is treatment; and here one realises how inadequate is a single visit in any year, even if one‘s steps have the privilege of guidance by both the great workers. For Aldenham is garden within garden, repeated (with variations) a score, even a hundred, times. It is a garden of all seasons. Standing out above the majority of gardens in its wealth of shrubs, it shows colour of leaf, or stem, or twig alike in spring, summer, autumn, and winter. There is apparently no week, perhaps no day, in which colour cannot be found.
It is particularly in connection with shrubs that one realises the remarkable versatility of Aldenham, A garden most beautiful, it is also virtually a botanic garden, one might almost say a nursery. For there are acres upon acres of shrub-beds, planted, not with commonplace aucubas, but with all the rarest introductions from the Far East. Famous modern collectors in China and Tibet like Wilson, Farrer and Kingdon Ward have had no mo e liberal supporter than Mr. Gibbs. Hundreds of thousands of seedlings, many wholly unknown to cultivation, are raised on the place every year, each labelled, the pedigree of each docketed.
As with shrubs, so with trees, There are vast collections of species, some exotic, some native, of the kinds best known in British gardens, parks and woodlands, That fine old English tree, the yew, is a case in point. The best species and forms may be found in the grounds, In this connection one may refer to the valuable article by the Hon. Vicary Gibbs on Taxaceae (yew family published in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, vol. ii. People interested in the yew (and who is not?) will find in it a mine of information
on this venerable old tree, so long associated with British churchyards. They will learn that although normally diœcious (male and female forms in separate trees as with the aucuba, the hop, and several others), a female branch will be found occasionally on a male tree, They will learn of at least one variety of which no male form is known, but a female only. They will learn of noble specimens here and there on the countryside, such as those on Mickleham Downs in the neighbourhood of Leatherhead, Surrey. And they may suffer the shattering of a delusion held by many—that yews were planted in the churchyards in order that our bowmen could have the best of wood for their bows, whereas most of the wood used for bows by English archers was imported from the Pyrenees. The trees of Aldenham are indeed a wonderful source of interest and pleasure.
Cross-fertilising is carried on extensively with many kinds of plants, from choice hot- house things to plain kitchen-garden vegetables. The interest of, the joy in, Aldenham willi however, lie for most visitors, as would naturally be expected, in its lovely ranges of flower-garden. One uses the word “ranges“ advisedly, for there are numerous pieces which are gardens in themselves, and yet which form but a part of the wonderful whole. Here, for example, is a piece of water enclosed by banks of shrubs, its calm surface en livened with a host of water-lilies; there, at the turn of a walk, is a belt of rockwork clothed with exquisite bloom. Then there is the Wrestler‘s Pond, having the shape of a Maltese cross, with fountain in the centre and beautiful colonies of water-lilies. From a bridge one looks down in another place on water which plashes from dripping stone, and passes
on over a rocky bed to a ravine whose sides are planted with beautiful things. And there is human interest too, for in one water-garden one sees a dipping-pool (Fig. 647) with a holy-water stoup brought from a church at Venice.
One passes from garden to garden, from avenue to avenue, from vista to vsta. While the note of nature is truly and firmly struck in almost every part; while, far away from the house, one feels in solitude among ranks of trees or groups of shrubs, there yet comes a momen when on the terrace behind the house one sees a formal garden (Fig. 648) which in spring is furnished with tulips, primroses, polyanthuses, and other gay things, and in summer is alive with equally beautiful flowers.
Landscape gardening in its purest, its most beautiful form is pursued at Aldenham on a scale rarely equalled, yet its garden interest is no more exhausted there than in the shrubberies and greenhouses, the orchards and the kitchen-gardens. For many great hardy herbaceous plants, particularly including Michaelmas daisies and delphiniums, are given special treatment, all the best varieties being grown and new ones raised annually in large numbers. It is because of this that on an autumn day the visitor may come upon a broad belt of perennial asters, giving light and fire to a long border (Fig. 649). Pictures such as this—and it is but one of thousands—live in the memory.
And memory, recalling the Aldenham of twenty years ago not less vividly than the Aldenham of the present; recalling, too, hundreds of gardens seen in our own and other countries, can find no parallel to the achievement which it represents, having regard to
the configuration of the ground, the soil, the vast extent, and the short period in which everything has been accomplished. Nature gave a flat surface and stubborn London clay; art has produced range and elevation in infinite variety and an amenable earth abounding in fertility. Moreover, this wonder—garden equals in area the combined parks of many an important town. Unexcelled as a work of pure art, a storehouse for thousands of orna mental plants which are now unknown but are likely to possess great artistic and commercial value in the future, a birthplace and testing-station for numerous utilitarian members of the kitchen-garden, almost equally important artistically and educationally, Aldenham stands for English gardening in its highest, its greatest phase.
Among the gardens on the eastern seaboard of England, where the great East Anglian shoulder thrusts out into the North Sea, there are few which can compare in beauty with The Pleasaunce, that exquisite gem of horticulture founded by the late Lord Battersea a few miles from Cromer.
One recalls one‘s first visit, when the man who called it into being, famous alike as politician, sportsman and artist, himself acted as guide, and afterwards quietly asked a guest still struggling with his impressions and emotions to suggest improvements. In reply one could speak only of learning, not of teaching.
The Pleasaunce was, and remains, an artist‘s garden. It was the original, the finished work of a man on whose walls hung some of the best paintings of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Moroni, Burne-Jones, Bassano, Rubens, and Whistler; a man to whom the import- ance of line, form and colour was a law, Cyril Flower had brought both training and imagination to bear on the task which he had set himself. Despite this, he was not troubled by horticultural tradition, It was nothing to him that seventeenth-century architects and landscape gardeners had tied themselves to severe axial lines, terraces, elaborate water- devices, fountains and statuary, for these things were not art as he understood it, He had no sympathy, indeed, with the formal system as such. His respect for form did not blind him to the demands of Nature. He could not visualise the garden as a mere appendage of the house, although he was quite prepared to associate the two in harmonious ways. Above all things he set before himself the task of making a garden which should be beautiful in all its parts—a garden that conformed to the laws of art in line and colour and yet was entirely informal, creative, stimulating and original. He achieved success in a very remark able degree—so much so, indeed, that The Pleasaunce became one of the distinctive gardens of modern England.
It remains a private possession, but just as, in mediaeval times, the great nobles of Italy threw open their grounds to the public, so, in these days, do many liberal-minded proprietors of English gardens give the people access to them on stated occasions. Garden lovers may, therefore, visit The Pleasaunce at particular times, as they may the royal gardens at Sandringham a few miles away; and one can hardly imagine a more pleasant and inspiring pilgrimage than that which is made to embrace both these beautiful places.
Visitors to The Pleasaunce will find roses, hardy herbaceous plants, alpines, shrubs and aquatics used with equal taste and skill. They will see delightful pergolas, loggias and summer-houses. They will find enchanting ponds and pools, the banks of one of them planted with beautiful shrubs, beyond which a summer-house looms (Fig. 650), the water carpeted with nymphaeas.
The many beautiful walks will particularly arrest attention. It was in his treatment of walks that the creator of the garden displayed his greatest skill and originality. He was one of the first, if not the first, to edge walks with small borders of rock, planted with attractive alpines; and these stone-lined paths remain one of the most pleasing features, But there is much of the now familiar (and in many other places gravely overdone) crazy-paving, and some walks are wholly flagged. Of the wider walks, some are bordered with bright-hued shrubs, such as golden yew and golden box, clipped to a neat yet not excessively formal shape; and these give a note of both colour and distinction.
The rose-garden, with the neighbouring summer-house whose pillars are clothed at the base with flowering evergreens and wreathed above with ivy, is another beauty-spot. The approved plan of growing only one variety in each bed is adopted in most cases, for this facilitates securing that general effect of colour-harmony which is so desirable, and yet so difficult to obtain when several varieties are mingled in a bed. The sundial round which some of the beds are grouped gives its sedate, mellow and soothing note to the scene.
There can be few visitors who will fail to note the striking effect of flowering plants and shrubs grown in large tubs and vases. Particularly are these conspicuous in the Italian garden, with its flagged courts that are interlaid with mosaics (Fig. 651).
The low walls of the bays, with their time-stained stones, the counterbalancing promontories of gay flowers, the massed shrubs on the boundary walls, and the bold groups of colour beyond, combine in an entrancing picture. No shrubs are used more effectively in tubs and tall vases for selected places than fuchsias, which in some instances are lofty bushes, bearing myriads of graceful and beautiful flowers.
Pergola and herbaceous border combine to form another charming section. The herbaceous plants are of the approved kinds; and here, as elsewhere—in the rock-edged paths, in the Italian garden, in almost every part of the place—attention is devoted to the finish, a foreground of suitable dwarf plants being provided for the purpose. The pillars of the pergola, mostly brick or flint, are clothed with roses; but there are pergolas in other parts of the grounds which bear different burdens, in one part fruit-trees, in another laburnums, which in their abundance and their grace, though not in their colour, recall Mr. William Robinson‘s wistaria-covered pergolas at Gravetye Manor, in Sussex.
The Pleasaunce is not a garden which description can portray, nor one which can be understood and appreciated by the casual looker-on; but it is one of those works of art which study confirms as great, and in its finished beauty creates ineffaceable impressions.
WISLEY GARDENS, SURREY
In days that the present writer recalls vividly, it was held as a grave reproach against the Royal Horticultural Society that its appeal was less to horticulturists as such than to members of the nobility whether or not they had a real interest in plants and garden art.
The society‘s headquarters were then at South Kensington, where it held periodical meetings, much as it does now at Vincent Square, Westminster. Its membership was small, it was poor, and it strove to make ends meet by letting its grounds for functions remote from horticulture. It had a garden at Chiswick, small, but well conducted on plain lines by a Scottish gardener.
Gardeners were not ill-satisfied with Chiswick. A minority, neither small nor uninfluential, urged long and persistently that the South Kensington centre should be given up, and Chiswick Garden made the headquarters of the society. Perhaps at one time this minority was nearer success than its own leaders ever knew. Be that as it may, the society‘s fortunes took a change for the better with the great revival of gardening interest which set in about the end of the last century, and with the gift to it by the late Sir Thomas Hanbury of Wisley Gardens.
It may be a moot point whether the acquirement at Westminster of a large and well- equipped hail of its own, or the acquisition of Wisley, was the stronger influence in the further great increase in the society‘s strength which followed. Certain it is that Wisley swiftly became, and still is, an asset of immense value and importance. Its history is not without interest. Great horticulturist though Sir Thomas Hanbury was, and famous as were his achievements in gardening, he was not the founder of Wisley Gardens. They came into being through the wanderings of a nature-loving, flower-loving Battersea candle- manufacturer, one G. F. Wilson, whose name lives only in its attachment to a few plants. This nature-seeker found Wisley during a characteristic ramble, acquired it, and made the plantings which were destined to grow into so rich a heritage.
One must ever remember to the society‘s credit that it has dealt generously and spaciously with Wisley. It has enlarged the garden enormously, built glass-houses and laboratories on a handsome scale, and made extensive plantings of fruit-trees and ornamental trees and shrubs.
Founded mainly as a home for hardy plants, growing in a more or less natural environment, Wisley retains its charm for nature-lovers, while assuming wider interests. It was embellished with a large rock-garden (see frontispiece to Volume One) which alone in the season of its chief beauty attracts visitors in large numbers. Constructed by specialists, it was made on a scale which precludes complete repetition except by people who have both wealth and ample space; nevertheless, it is capable of conveying lessons to alpinists of all classes.
The great rock-garden is not, however, the only attraction for lovers of hardy flowers, who will learn valuable lessons of the possibilities of plant-culture in cool, moist, shady places by allowing themselves time for slow, tranquil rambles in its dells and coppices and by its hedgerows. Conversely, they will learn what delightful pictures can be made under drier, hotter conditions by observing how much at home are pinks, rock roses and other plants growing on the face and summit of dry walls (Fig. 645).
The ever-growing legion of shrub-lovers find rich pabulum at Wisley. And when, as in many cases, the love of aquatic plants goes hand in hand with that of shrubs, there is a still greater reward. The pond in the shrub-garden (Fig. 652) unites two interests, and enviable is the lot of the horticulturist who can seek this place not only in spring but also in summer. The greatest feast of shrub-beauty is obtained in May, of nymphaeas and other water-flowers in July; but at all seasons Wisley has its rewards and its lessons.
Wisley Gardens possess a source of interest and beauty which ordinary gardens, large or small, lack—a feature, in fact, which is not to be found elsewhere except in the grounds of a few of the great trading firms—namely, extensive trials of the different species and varieties of popular plants. On July days one may see, for example, a great array of modern roses, or of sweet peas, or of irises, or of poppies, or of dahlias, or of phioxes, or of delphiniums. It is not suggested that all these plants will be on trial in the same season; but it is safe to say that in most years July will show extensive trials of several important kinds, each a beautiful display in itself, and with the additional interest of educational value. The Wisley trials, indeed, form one of the most useful items in the work of the Royal Horticultural Society. It is obvious that when a selected number of important plants are selected for cultivation in a particular season, and thereupon a large number of the best varieties, old and new, of each, are sown or planted side by side, the whole forming a considerable area—it is obvious, one repeats, that something may be expected which will not only be very beautiful as a spectacle, but will also be intrinsically educational.
Lying near the heart of the Surrey pinewoods, catching something of their piquant odours when the heat-haze quivers over the surface of the adjacent ponds, Wisley Gardens draw with irresistible force nature-lover and gardener alike. There is no branch of horticulture which is not touched there with distinction. Considering the poor sandy soil, hardy fruit is grown with a success which surprises; and the stock vegetables of the kitchen- garden are also made to flourish. Homely and uninspiring, they are nevertheless important, like the fruit, in the economy of the garden and the household. Far from negligible, therefore, are those phases of the society‘s operations which concern themselves with food plants.
Still, having regard to the circumstances in which the garden came into being, it is natural and right that its chief interest should lie in the skill with which the woof of its natural amenities has been interwoven with the warp of modern flower-gardening in its highest aspects. It is in that triumph—for triumph it most truly is—that Wisley Gardens will live and grow, a joy to garden-lovers of the present, and certain to be a still greater joy to those of future generations.