I’ve just found a new favourite garden. Every so often, like most of us I suspect, I visit a garden and go…wow I could live here but maybe I’d just alter this, move that, add a few of this or thats and so on… but a couple of weeks ago I discovered somewhere that is well-nigh perfect. And I’m clearly not the only one who thinks that. The garden’s website proudly banner-headlines Philip Ziegler’s comment that “Melbourne Hall was, and mercifully is, one of the most exquisite of the smaller stately homes of England, while the formal gardens… are as close to perfection as any in the country…“.
The gardens at Melbourne Hall are probably the best surviving example of their period, classically formal in an Anglo-French Baroque mix. Of course, as Robin Lane Fox put it in a recent article “a hectare or so of enclosed garden is hardly Versailles in Derbyshire, but the use of space is extraordinarily interesting.” The layout while seemingly simple, is subtly complex, making it a precis of all that is best in the gardens of the time. And to make it more interesting still, the gardens have continued to evolve, adding touches of colour to the range of greens that otherwise dominate. So perhaps it’s not surprising that more than 20 garden features are Grade I listed including the intricate metalwork gazebo that I mentioned at the end of last week’s post on Treillage. So read on to find out more…
All photos are by David Marsh, April 2015.
Melbourne Hall appears at first to have turned its back on its neighbours.It stands on an angular plot, tucked away behind walls next to the parish church, and sheltered by its service courtyard and outbuildings, and so it is scarcely visible from the main road into the centre of Melbourne itself. In fact, as you’ll be able to see from the plan further down this post, its two main facades face East over the gardens, and South over a beautiful 20 acre stretch of water known as The Pool.
The estate has remained in the hands of the same family since the lease was purchased in 1629 by Sir John Coke, a local MP who rose to be Secretary of State to Charles I. Passing through the female line several times, it was the seat of Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne, and then passed to the Earls Cowper and finally to the Kerr’s who are also Marquess’s of Lothian. It is now the home of Lord Ralph Kerr, the younger son of the 12th Marquess, and his wife, Marie-Claire who is a portrait painter and landscape artist.
In 1692 the lease was inherited by Sir John Coke’s 18yr old great-grandson Thomas who had been tutored in the Netherlands as well as at Oxford, and according to his descendants he also studied architecture and garden design in France. He was certainly very culturally aware and when he became MP for Derbyshire in 1698 a friend said he would be “as proper a man to serve the nation in the House of Commons as any that will be there; for by your travelling and conversation in the world I believe you know the circumstances of Europe as it now stands as well as anybody.” (Robert Jennings, Cowper MSS, 2.377)
He was also well connected and amongst his friends were James Brydges, the future Duke of Chandos and builder of Canons, and many leading Tory politicians including Henry St John, the future Viscount Bolingbroke and leader of the Tories. To be a Tory was the right thing to be under Queen Anne, and Thomas was appointed a Privy Councillor and Vice-Chamberlain of her household in 1706.
More importantly Coke was a gentleman architect in the golden age of English amateur architecture, and of course, as such, he turned his hand to garden design as well. The family have extensive archives which show that in 1699 he sent a design to George London and Henry Wise of Brompton Nursery, and perhaps asked for their comments and suggestions on how it might be planted. An undated letter, thought to be from c.1700, to Coke says that “Mr Wise has sent two drafts to form and plant the ground. One you have made choice of, to suit with Versailles.” Brompton then supplied the plants including 600 large limes at a shilling apiece.
Henry Wise visited Melbourne in 1701 but further work was delayed until Thomas was able to buy the freehold of the site in 1704. On 6th May that year he signed a contract with William Cooke of Walcot to reconstruct the old flower and kitchen gardens as ‘a division of Partare work’ with ‘terrasses, sloops, verges and fleets of steps’ for £400.
That summer Cooke began installing the statuary and other ornaments for which the garden is still rightly renowned. Most came from the workshop of Jan Van Nost, one of the leading sculptors of his day who had come over from Flanders and, after marrying the widow of his first employer, set up independently on Haymarket in London. Van Nost provided lead figures of amorini, vases, baskets of flowers and mythological figures. Incidentally Van Nost also provided a number of chimneypieces in the house as well as for Sir Thomas’s London house in St. James’s Place.
In October the same year, 1704, a second contract was agreed by Coke with William Cooke for laying out the rest of the garden. Most of this part was entirely new and occupied a former field to the south east of the old garden. This second contract, for £450, comprised levelling and forming the ground for ‘divisions of wilderness work’, ‘reservoirs or bassons for water’, fruit walls, kitchen gardens, orchards, plantations and hedged alleys.
Correspondence between Cooke and George London suggests that plans were sent to Henry Wise for his approval but it is not clear whether these represented alterations to Wise’s original designs or an entirely new layout he had devised perhaps in collaboration with Coke.
The hydraulic work was undertaken by George Sorocold. He was a fascinating and inventive man who, if this blog wasn’t just about garden history, would deserve a post all of his own. He was a pioneer of urban water provision and laid on a supply in Derby, the first outside London. In 1705 the waterworks was sold to none other than Thomas Coke, and its clear that the two got on well and that probably Coke backed other projects that Sorocold was involved in. For more information on Sorocold follow the links from:
The family archives show that Thomas was often away from Melbourne, and in his absence the work was supervised by his sister Betsy. Their correspondence is the main source of much of the information about dates, prices and sources for the garden, and is another example of how the role of women is often overlooked.
Further garden work was carried out in 1708 when the hexagonal dovecot from the earlier garden was remodelled and given its current attractive roof, as part of its conversion into the estate’s Muniment Room. This is marked C on the plan above, and stands just inside what is now the public entrance to the gardens from the service courtyard [marked A] opposite the church. There is a small modern garden area tucked in behind it and some other service buildings.
From there the visitor is faced with a long narrow [and narrowing] slice of garden, walled on both sides, with the hall hidden away on the right. There are several mature specimen trees but the eye is drawn to the small fountain in the distance, which can be glimpsed between billowing yew hedges.
As can be seen from the plan, on reaching the fountain there is an entrance through the yew hedge into the main section of the garden about two thirds of the way down its length. This is flanked by a pair of lead putti, as incidentally are the other entrances to this part of the garden. Others wait further along the path. Once through there is an instant change of mood and scale from enclosure to openness.
Immediately in front of the visitor at this point is a lead figure of Mercury in a formal grass plat. The house stands on a rise on the right overlooking a gentle sloping stretch of lawn, with some specimen trees, while on the left set into the hedge line is a statue of Andromeda, and then a view over the Great Basin to the single most famous feature of the garden – the wrought iron arbour known as ‘The Birdcage’ [marked D on the plan].
This was made by the celebrated ironsmith Robert Bakewell in 1706-8 for £120. Its design is similar to the wooden arbours common in French gardens, which were discussed in last week’s post on Treillage. It was made at a forge in the basement of ‘Stone House’, which still stands on the south side of the parish church.
The Birdcage arbour made Bakewell famous, but its manufacture left him penniless, although he went on to produce ironwork for many other important buildings, including Derby cathedral.
This section of the garden, again as can be seen from the plan is flanked by two walks which run from the terrace in front of the house down virtually to the Great Basin. One, the Library Walk, is open, and backed by the wild-looking yew hedge. Andromeda stands at the eastern end.
The other, the Yew Walk, is nowadays effectively a tunnel which completely screens a large section of garden from the house. Indeed at first glance it appears to be the garden’s southern boundary. Perseus, a companion figure to the Andromeda stands at the eastern end.
Had this formal slope with its geometric layout, hedges, basin, walks and, of course, the Birdcage been the entirety of Melbourne Hall’s gardens it would have been a fascinating historical survival, but it is not.
What lies beyond, the second section designed by Coke [and/or Wise] in 1704 shows how clever the original scheme was, and surprisingly even better how it has been adapted by more recent owners, particularly the current ones, Lord and Lady Ralph Kerr.
As can be seen from the full plan of the garden, from the Birdcage a wide grass path, that cannot be seen from the house or the garden in front of it, runs southwards between more overblown yew hedging. As the visitor turns onto it the entire feeling of the space changes from openness and light to enclosed,cool and shady. The path crosses the end of the Yew Walk and then widens before rising up a long slope and away into the distance.
Roughly midway along is a circular pond, complete with simple fountain. It acts as the meeting point for three sets of cross paths. One pair, at right angles to the main path each lead to another basin, complete with waterspout and wooden summer-house/covered seat on the further bank. The others lead to urns or other eye-catchers.
This is Baroque gardening at its best: simple formality, revealing gentle surprises one after the other in gentle succession. Later owners added Taxodium distichum to the mix and, now mature, these fit surprisingly well.
Further along the walk, on the eastern side lies the kitchen garden, now not used as such, and not accessible to the visitor. It is, however, of considerable historical interest and three 12ft high red brick forcing walls dating from c.1704 are listed as Grade 1, as are two further walls with later outbuildings and greenhouses attached.
Further on again, and on at the top of the rise, stands the Four Seasons Vase, another of Jan Van Nost’s pieces, which is one of the finest examples of Baroque lead sculpture anywhere. It was a gift to Thomas Coke from Queen Anne in 1705.
The vase stands at the centre of several paths which lead down avenues of lime trees to the property boundaries. These are perhaps the least successful elements, simply because they only lead to blank brick walls, rather than having the eye diverted or tricked in some way. A seat, urn or something troupe l’oeil might lend a completing touch. However, one these paths leads back through the Wilderness or woodland that lay behind the walks. And it is here that the skill of the current owner really shows.
During the last century things became overgrown with sycamores and laurel and over the last 10 years or so Lady Ralph Kerr had overseen their clearance and the introduction of touches of colour to the dominant green. Specimen trees and shrubs have been introduced along with bulbs and herbaceous planting in beds that run along the small stream that flows through this section of the garden. These are designed to be at their best in late spring and early summer before the leaf canopy fully develops.
This has been eminently successful and complements both the formal structure and the woodland setting really well. This should come as no surprise since as Robin Lane Fox pointed out you should “never underestimate a portrait painter turned gardener.” There is a much fuller account of the planting in his FT article:
One of the other unusual things about Melbourne is the fact that it is possible to walk around much of the boundary from the outside as well. A road leads past the south front of the Hall with its carriage drive or Coach Ring, and between the garden wall with its overhanging hedges and the Pool, and then a footpath leads around much of the eastern edge. This allows views into the garden.
Not as good, however, as the view from the terrace in front of the garden front of the house in the opposite direction – back over the road to the Pool through an elaborate iron balustrade by Robert Bakewell which was restored in 1994.
Whether you walk inside and look out or outside and catch glimpses back in Melbourne is a wonderful place to spend time, stroll and take in the genius of gardening past and present!
I now wish I’d turned this visit into two posts… but too late. For more information see our database entry and the Hall’s own website at: