BEAUTIFUL BRITAIN: Romance and Reason 2…..

In my last post I was waxing lyrical about the way that history and ruins in particular were romanticized  in the 19thc, and how gradually Ruskin’s idea of trusteeship of  the ‘national heritage’ were adapted and adopted.  This came at a price.

The garden on top of the keep, Farnham Castle, Surrey in c.1890

The garden on top of the keep, Farnham Castle, Surrey from Beautiful Britain, 1894

I started with a photo of a late Victorian garden on the keep of Farnham Castle. It looks moodily if somewhat fussily romantic, almost sentimental and chocolate-boxy.  The foreground shows a formal plan around a font and a lot of lush planting while the background appears wilder, the tumbledown buildings and walls serving as a framework for trees and overgrown creepers especially ivy.


The same garden on a postcard printed in 1904.

The garden was popular enough to be made into a postcard ten years later in 1904, and was presumably the pride of  at least one bishop’s wife because the castle, set in its 320 acre deer park,  was the country seat of the Bishops of Winchester. By 1930 the castle was  surplus to requirements and  the park was sold to the town council to save it from building development and shortly afterwards the ruined keep was transferred to the Office of Works and Public Buildings.


Men from the Ministry, by Simon Thurley, [Yale University Press, 2013]

As Simon Thurley points out in Men from the Ministry it became one of the 273 in their care compared with just 44 twenty years earlier.  The garden was probably grubbed up at that point as, like most of the other monuments,  the castle quickly became subject to that well-intentioned but rather ruthless simple landscaping that used to typify almost all ancient monuments.

Edmund Vale, a contemporary author and commentator, wrote in Ancient England in 1941 that there were two kinds of ruins: ‘the Victorians preferred one kind and ourselves the other’. Theirs ‘moves slowly but surely from somethingness to nothingness, and may therefore be called a progressive ruin’.

Title Page of Ancient England, by Edmund Vale, 1941

Title Page of Ancient England, by Edmund Vale, 1941

For them the ‘good of a ruin’ was one that rouses the imagination of the beholder, either constructively or creatively. And a roused imagination is a fine thing …   They did not expect to get ‘exact knowledge but atmosphere and improvement…and to be put in touch with the romance of the situation. ‘   But he added ‘the progressive ruin is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.’ [pp.1-2].

Although the blame for this – if blame it is – is normally put on the historians and archaeologists who worked at the Office[later Ministry] of Works there were other earlier examples of  ‘tidying up’ and very simple landscaping. At Newark Castle, for example, the grounds were laid out in the 1880s to designs by H E Milner, as free public pleasure grounds as a memorial of Queen Victoria’s  Jubilee.

Newark Castle Gardens, from Beautiful Britain, 1894

Newark Castle Gardens, from Beautiful Britain, 1894

But after the Ancient Monuments Act of 1913  there is no doubt that a rigid housestyle was adopted. Since the Office of Works was only responsible for ancient monuments and not country houses, gardens or landscapes, they approached preservation, protection and presentation of a historic site in an entirely different way.   Removing the ivy and other vegetation, clearing the fallen stones,  and uncovering the structure and layout made the site easier to understand, and Thurley [p.135] suggests they felt ‘the loss to the imagination would be repaid by the gain to the intellect’. Edmund Vale was less optimistic: ‘It is too soon to say what we ourselves believe in when we visit our preserved ruins. The cult is a new one and its priesthood is puritanically inclined, so far as mysteries are concerned’ [p.2].


Penrhyn Castle, from Beautiful Britain, 1894

Vale was not the only one concerned. The ministry’s approach also  horrified James Lees-Milne of the National Trust who talked of ‘the wanton sacrifice of aesthetic considerations to mere archaeological pedantry.’ Lees-Milne and the Trust set themselves up as champions of the more popular  romantic approach, in opposition to what they saw as the over-academic purists.


Penrhyn Castle © Robin Drayton & licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

A good example of this can be seen in their approach to Penrhyn Castle near Bangor, pictured here in the 1890s and today.

Nonetheless the new aesthetic dominated state run properties until at least the 1980s.  You could tell the difference almost immediately between a National Trust property and one in the care of the ministry.


Key to the phases of building plan published by Bartholomews in 1904 © Bartholmew Archive, National Library of Scotland.


Phases of building plan for Farnham Castle, published by Bartholomews in 1904 © Bartholmew Archive, National Library of Scotland.

In fact, as Simon Thurley points out [p.140] it wasn’t merely archaeological tidying that was taking place. ‘The work may have been methodical but it was not archaeological… it was thoroughgoing  clearance.’ It led to the introduction of phased plans, outlining the development of the site but in the process led to destruction of most post-mediaeval additions and alterations,which were not considered particularly important.


The protection for the mediaeval well at Farnham Castle © Richard Croft & licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

At Farnham this meant that to preserve the castle’s structure and reveal its layout accurately, the garden had to go. In its place the preserved and somewhat sterile fabric were surrounded by the well-known manicured lawns and gravel paths.

This robbed the place of most of its aesthetic appeal and what little atmosphere was left after the initial clearance and consolidation work was further depleted by a shed put up over the excavated mediaeval well. Hardly a visually appealing swap for a ‘gothic’ ornament set in formal flower beds.

Yet as Rosemary Hill pointed out in her review of Thurley’s book in the Daily Telegraph: ‘It is the paradox of conservation that to preserve a structure the last thing you can do is leave it alone.’ There has to be a compromise between romance and reason. Had nothing been done Vale comments sadly, “only this and perhaps the next generation could have gone on enjoying these fruits of decay. The third generation would have had no ruined mediaeval buildings to look at, with or without ivy.’

to be continued….

For more information see:      Farnham Park       Newark Castle       Penrhyn Castle

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1 Response to BEAUTIFUL BRITAIN: Romance and Reason 2…..

  1. Pingback: Reimagining Kirby | The Gardens Trust

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