This post started out as another “serious” look at the history of treehouses but has ended up a bit more off-beat than usual , somehow managing to include mentions of a well-known children’s book, a Disney film, donkeys, bars in the skies, the French rock star Johnny Halliday and a mistress of the Prince of Wales. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Carrying on with the “proper” garden history from last week …the “natural” landscape garden of the 18thc seemed to have no place for treehouses preferring instead temples and other paraphernalia of classical antiquity, but these too fell out of fashion as more romantic ideas about “wild” nature and landscape began to assert themselves.
So what happened next?
I was recently sent a book about treehouses for my birthday and it was a subtle reminder that we’d inherited the remains of one here in France when we bought the house 15 years ago and even laid the boards for another in a willow tree over the lake. Alas the best laid plans of mice and garden owners gang aft a-gley as Robbie Burns didn’t quite say, and the treehouse’s base still sits unfinished. Having looked at the book though maybe one day !
I was pleased – as well as surprised – to see that one of the authors was Paula Henderson a historian I admire and whose work on early modern gardens has been groundbreaking. I had no idea she was interested in treehouses and wondered what the possible connection was between them and the Tudors. You don’t somehow imagine Henry VIII sitting in an oak tree or Elizabeth I clambering up a ladder for the view.
Of course I ought to have known but as I flicked through the section on treehouses of the past the penny quickly dropped….
We left the story of Holkham last week in the middle of all the activity that was taking place at the end of the 18thc under the aegis of Thomas Coke, the reforming MP and agricultural improver. He continued his development of the landscape and the estate with the help of Humphry Repton, and the architect Samuel Wyatt until his death in 1842.
Later in the 19thc another major transformation of the landscape took place which reinstated much of the formality around the mansion, and which proved that completely contradictory approaches to garden design can work stunningly well.
The base of the Leicester Monument
Where do I start in trying to describe Holkham? And it’s not just me. Historic England’s Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest says : ” Because of the complexity of this site, the standard Register entry format would convey neither an adequate description nor a satisfactory account of the development of the landscape” and then proceeds to give a 2300 word brief summary of one of the the largest and most significant landscapes parks in the country.
The Holkham Hall estate is on the north Norfolk coast, near Wells-next-the-Sea and is enormous to put it mildly. The scale almost has to be seen to be believed. The walled park around the house stretches about 3km east to west and 4 km north to south, and covers an area of over 1200 ha. While its landscape of pasture, woods and water look entirely natural they are largely a creation of the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed the estate’s development much of which is recorded in Holkham’s extensive archives reads like a roll-call of the great and good in garden and architectural history.
It was laid out between the 1720s and 1760s by Thomas Coke, [later earl of Leicester] with the help or advice of Lord Burlington, William Kent, Colen Campbell and Matthew Brettingham. Later Lancelot Brown, William Emes, Samuel Wyatt and Humphry Repton, all had associations with the site whilst in the mid-19thc more work was carried out by William Burn, William Andrews Nesfield, Samuel Teulon and Thomas Sandys.
So a trip to see Holkham was bound to be eye-opening!