In Praise of George London, c.1640–1714

Posted on September 7th, 2011 by Charles Boot

Pat Bras

We often see references to the splendid 17th-century nurseries of London & Wise at Brompton Park, London. They were used by royalty and many other important landowners who were ‘improving’ their estates. They supplied trees, shrubs, fruit trees and especially the newly introduced plants, mainly from North America.

The formal designs of George London & Henry Wise were nearly all swept away by the naturalistic landscapes of the 18th century. Perhaps only one remains, at Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire. This layout was a collaboration between the owner and London & Wise, who supplied the plants, the work carried out by locals. In modern times the elaborate Parterre has been grassed over but the Wilderness remains with many delightful statues of cherubs and fine stone urns.

The National Trust has recently re-created London’s early 18th-century gardens at Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire. Fortunately some of the original plans of George London were available at the Worcestershire Record Office, they are probably office copies. It is a delight to see the house returned to its original setting. A single Cedar of Lebanon is probably the only survivor of London’s original planting.

The Grove (below) near the house is small, designed around an oval walk. On the outside are blocks of mixed small trees, surrounded by a hornbeam hedge, with tufts of small elm trees every 15ft. This is a sheltered area for the enjoyment of the garden. There are niches along the walk to display statues and rare plants in pots.

George London's 'design' for the Grove at Hanbury Hall. By courtesy of Worcestershire Record Office

George London's 'design' for the Grove at Hanbury Hall. By courtesy of Worcestershire Record Office

It is interesting to look at these designs which were rather different from the usual gardens of the day, as recorded in the many engravings of Johannes Kip. I suspect George London had an enlightened client in Thomas Vernon who was a successful London lawyer, and that they were both influenced by the writings of John Evelyn. Evelyn didn’t like the regimented schemes we see in Kip’s engravings, and was advocating more natural lines and the planting of many more trees. He wrote about the pleasures of views out into the surrounding countryside. Looking at London’s plans here, we get the feeling the grounds were laid out for the pleasure of a family who would enjoy walking around and admiring the views over the local countryside.

Further out in the parkland, at the highest point, is the Viewing Platform. This is a plantation of large native trees with paths radiating out to create views of distant villages. These are named on the working plan (below), together with measurements needed to set out the design. This ‘excursion’ must be intended for those who wanted more energetic exercise!

London's drawing recording the views out from the Viewing Platform at Hanbury Hall. By courtesy of Worcestershire Record Office

London's drawing recording the views out from the Viewing Platform at Hanbury Hall. By courtesy of Worcestershire Record Office

The man

Originally he worked for Bishop Compton at Lambeth Palace, where he learned about ‘curious’ new plants from North America. Later, when he set up his own business he travelled on horseback to visit his customers’ estates. The most prestigious of these was Queen Anne.

His first commission was for Lord Weymouth at Longleat in 1682. His then traditional approach was recorded in a Kip engraving of 1690. This shows a formal design of squares and oblongs, adorned with a few fountains and parterres-de-broderie and rows of trees. However I detect a touch of originality even there, the main axis is a long, wide path leading to an elaborate arbour, surrounded by trees. The several water features are fed by diverting the small River Leat; simple water engineering.

In John Evelyn’s book The Complete Gard’ner (1693) he includeed a report on the Brompton Nurseries with some detail of their horticultural expertise and knowledge of silviculture; they must have been advanced for the day. It does suggest that George London was a disciple of John Evelyn and had already acquired a feeling for his ‘rural gardening’.

It is important to mention London’s own book, The Retir’d Gard’ner (c.1706). This must have been a great help to landowners. It is a translation from a French book by Louis Liger, adapted by London & Wise. It explains ‘good horticultural practice’, and was helpful with growing newly acquired exotics and Mediterranean plants. It also explains the fashionable garden design of the day.

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