Historic Gardens of Cornwall

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Timothy Mowl, Historic Gardens of Cornwall (Stroud: Tempus, 2005), 208 pp., 100 illus. in colour and black-and-white, £17.99 (pbk), ISBN 0752434365

Tim Mowl’s entertaining romp through England’s designed landscapes continues with Cornwall, although at times one senses a desire on the part of the author to turn from the geological, climatic and botanical peculiarities of the southwest and return to the more typically English landscapes and less acidic soils to the east. One of the delight’s of Mowl’s writing is his forcefully expressed opinions, and with this county he can give full vent (both directly and by suggestion) to his dislike of ‘banks of cosseted, exotic flowering bushes’ in the county’s ‘gardened parks’ – one memorably characterized as a ‘zoo of plants’. How he and Alan Bennett would have a field day visiting together, pursing their lips and muttering about the vulgarity of the hybrids!

In the scene-setting first chapter, Mowl sets out some of the ways in which (apart from the above) he has found the county different. Of how few Tudor and Carolean landscapes it has. Of how its rugged, winding coastline slashed with tidal inlets produced a response in the eighteenth century of winding linear drives with dull lodges at their ends; a tendency also to be found rather less explicably inland, where the self-same approaches here run not through ‘graciously landscaped and tree-clumped parkland’ but dull farmland fields. And of how while there was money aplenty – mineral wealth – there was a puzzling lack of investment in gardens and parks.

Some of what there is, however, is very interesting. At Prideaux Place, Padstow, the 1730s saw the creation by Edmund Prideaux of an Arcadian landscape complete with obelisk and pyramids, a wilderness with sinuous paths and a classical exedra on which were displayed Roman fragments gathered on his Italian travels. At the same time, the larger and much higher-profile Mount Edgcumbe was being developed with seashore summer houses and swirling formal planting, which continued to be added to as the century progressed with a Gothic ruin, Milton’s Temple, the Great Orangery and a good deal of planting. Last, but not least, there is Werrington Park, which had it not been dismantled by late nineteenth-century plant collectors would, it is argued, have rivalled Stourhead, Wiltshire.

Lancelot Brown never visited, but Humphry Repton (an ‘outrageous snob’ who ‘brought deference to a fine art’) advised on four landscapes in 1792 alone. Although perfectly understandably in my book, Mowl clearly loathes the man (‘quaintly oleaginous’) and does allow that the great majority of Repton’s commissions were conspicuous successes. Each is discussed, with reproductions from the Red Books for Antony (1792), Port Eliot (1793) and Tregothnan (1809). Only Pentillie is considered a disappointment, although here a proper appraisal is rendered impossible as, for the moment, the Red Book has proved elusive.

Mowl identifies Cornwall’s discrete gardening identity as dating from c.1830 when the Gardenesque brought a sudden renaissance of planting to create landscapes that are almost entirely ‘soft’, and which still draw visitors. At Penjerrick, Trebah, Glendurgan, Trewithen, Trewidden, Heligan and others the particular south-coast conditions meant that subtropical microclimates were to be found (or could easily be contrived) and greenhouses were not needed. Elsewhere, greater ingenuity and investment in hard landscaping were required to make a splash: at Pencarrow, Savage Picturesque rockworks, an Italian Garden of 1831, and a rockery contrived from boulders dragged from Bodmin Moor; at Tregrehan, a Nesfield design with statues of the Four Seasons; and at Lanhydrock, a geometric garden of c.1850 recently identified as the conception of the London architect George Truefitt.

Given Mowl’s growing reputation, and that of this series, one might expect that the red carpet – and home-made biscuits – come out everywhere he goes. But apparently not quite always, and at one garden: ‘I was made to feel anything but welcome’. You will have to read the book to satisfy any curiosity you (or Fiona Reynolds) might have about where this was. But read it anyway, as yet again Mowl has produced a study that is authoritative, entertaining and excellently illustrated, providing a memorable impression of what, in the end, he concludes is a great garden county.

Paul Stamper
English Heritage

33:2 (Winter 2005)

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