A Family Affair: The Avenue Gardens and Picturesque Shrubbery, Regent’s Park, London

Posted on March 15th, 2013 by Charles Boot

A Family Affair: The Avenue Gardens and Picturesque Shrubbery, Regent’s Park, London

Dr Shirley Evans describes the work of the Nesfield family

In this plan of the gardens, right is north

In this plan of the gardens, right is north

In 1861 the landscape designer William Andrews Nesfield, 1794–1881, received one of his most important public commissions; not only because the scheme is still in situ, impressively restored in 1996, but also because it is one in which all three Nesfields were involved and it was adjacent to the family home at 3 York Terrace. Apart from Nesfield Snr’s contribution, his eldest son the architect William Eden Nesfield (1835–88), designed a Lodge House to accompany the gardens and his second son Arthur Markham Nesfield (1842–74) was, after the first year, to provide the planting plans for the Avenue Gardens and also design an adjacent Picturesque Shrubbery.

Originally Regent’s Park had been planned as a ‘fashionable residential estate set in extensive private parkland and occupied by wealthy merchants and professional people’ (J. Summerson The Royal Parks Survey, 1981). As part of the scheme a small palace or ‘guignette’ was proposed for the use of the Prince Regent, the future George IV, although this was never built, the avenue intended to lead to the palace was constructed. The Park was partially opened to the public in 1835 and in 1851 was transferred by means of the Crown Land Act from the management of the Commissioners of Woods, Forests & Land Revenues, Works and Buildings, to the newly formed Ministry of Works.

In January 1861 Nesfield Snr’s professional advice was sought with regard to the removal of existing trees from the southerly end of the lower section of the Broad Walk. He recommended that some of the horse-chestnuts, which were stunted to such an extent they could not be saved, should be removed. In December of that year he put forward a plan for ‘dress ground in a geometric arrangement.’ In January 1863 his plans were approved by the Office of Works and became known as the Avenue Gardens. His design consisted of strictly formal planting within a strong structure of straight vistas and axes, a promenade along which many people were to pass daily. Long relatively narrow beds with brightly coloured flowers were his solution, into these beds he introduced coloured gravels, box and topiarized evergreens. This design was a departure from the sophisticated parterres-de-broderie he provided for his private clients, and many of them could be classed as simple flowerbeds. The pattern rhythms were linear in their conception, being intended to lend variety and interest to the public as they walked up and down the central avenue. Whilst the beds were strictly formal they were not designed to reflect one another symmetrically across the avenue. When the design was put in place it must have had a strong appeal to the large numbers of people who passed along it daily, especially those who came from the poorer areas of London.

An important component in the gardens was a large cable frieze consisting of six circles containing one type of bedding, each circle surrounded by a ribbon of Verbena Purple King and edged with Cerastium.

The gardens were laid out within four existing rows of trees, a row of wych elms formed the outer edge, the inner a row of horse-chestnuts. Nesfield added an inner avenue of poplars in the north and south compartments, on both the west and east sides. Gravelled paths were bounded by turf panels in which were planted formal beds for the display of spring bulbs and summer bedding, set off by individual specimen shrubs. The plants were provided by James Vietch of Chelsea. In all there were twenty-four curved flower beds, with eight large Tazzas, five feet in diameter, eight upright vases with pedestals to stand about seven feet high, both to contain flowers. There were also four ornamental kerbs to the circular beds and a large Lion Tazza to act as the centre-piece to the gardens, bought from the artificial stone works of Austin and Seeley & Company of 371–75 Euston Road, London. They were edged with ornamental iron railings supplied by Hill & Smith.

Regents Park, Summer 2012 Jubilee planting scheme

Regents Park, Summer 2012 Jubilee planting scheme

By June 1863 the western side of the gardens was complete. The eastern side was finished in August, and the whole scheme was put in place by the Winter of 1863–64. In 1864 William Eden Nesfield designed a small Lodge House in the vernacular ‘Old English’ style as a terminus for the garden. It was said of this little building that ‘with its handsome gables and verandahs nestling among the trees, it will form an elegant finish to the vista in the western garden looking southwards’ (Gardeners Chronicle 1864, p890).

Two years after the completion of the Avenue Gardens, William Nesfield’s second son Arthur Markham Nesfield designed an additional area, known as the Coliseum Gardens, but described by Markham as a Picturesque Shrubbery. Here he introduced over 150 plants both evergreen and deciduous, together with a water garden. Markham travelled extensively on the continent, examining and recording gardens and nurseries, and could have become aware of the work of Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps (1824–75), chief gardener to the city of Paris, who introduced exotic specimens into his designs. Nesfield’s caption for the Sketch Plan for the Picturesque Shrubbery reads, ‘Concentrated display of all the new foliage plants as they are brought out by Mr. Barillet.’ Although Nesfield Snr. was responsible for drawing up the original plans and planting scheme after the first year it was Markham who provided the Avenue’s planting plans and these exist for the years 1864, 1866, 1867 and 1869.

That these gardens are still admired today by the many thousands of people who pass along the Avenue is a testament to the original skills associated with the Nesfields.


2 Comments
Leave a comment