Last week’s post gave an introduction to the history and garden design of Upton House, near Banbury which is now in the hands of the National Trust. Although the underlying structure dates from the very end of the 17th/early 18thc, the garden owes most of its charm and sophistication to the family who bought it in 1927.
Walter and Dorothea Samuel, the 2nd Viscount Bearsted and his wife, probably didn’t buy Upton for its grounds but for its potential as a country retreat with a difference. Upton was to house their extensive art collection, and to provide adequate accommodation for country house parties. But in the process they developed a garden that probably rivals their paintings and objets d’art for quality.
Read on to find out how they did it…
They started by employing Percy Morley Horder to “rehabilitate” the interiors and sympathetically extend the mansion at either end. Nowadays Horder is not a well known name but he had a solid reputation as the designer of the architectural elements of a fair number of other gardens, as well as churches and educational buildings, notably the principal building at Nottingham University. Arthur Oswald in the first of two articles in Country Life in September 1936, details all the various changes made to the house without much critical comment whilst in 1946 just after Horder’s death, James Lees-Milne in his usual sharper tone found “nothing of consequence architecturally.”
A more charitable view has been taken more recently by Alan Powers who says it was done without ostentation but using the best quality materials and excellent modest taste showing 1920s interest in textured finishes which were especially popular with art collectors like the Bearsteds. Power says the “desire to recreate an imaginary 18thc atmosphere was relatively novel feature of taste even in the 1920s” but it was becoming popular and soon fashionable as what Osbert Lancaster called “Curzon Street Baroque.”
Oswald’s second article concentrates on the gardens but makes no mention of who was responsible for the design, apart from the hard landscaping aspects which are all attributed to Morley Horder. Much of this was a tribute to the Bearsted’s philanthropy. They had bought Upton during the Great Depression with high levels of poverty and unemployment locally. Apparently Lord Bearsted wrote to the local community announcing that “Any man who presents himself at my house at 9am on Monday morning shall find work there.” Judging by the photo below this offer must have been widely taken up and apart from providing Horder with some of his workforce others were probably employed in maintaining and extending the gardens.
However it seems it was Lady Bearstead who took the lead in the garden, although not without some advice. This came from Kathleen Letitia Lloyd Jones, usually known simply as Kitty, a young Welsh garden designer [b.1898]. She had studied at the Royal Botanic Society’s practical gardening school at Regent’s Park between 1917-19 and then in 1925 graduated from Reading with a degree in agriculture and horticulture followed by a national diploma of horticulture. For women this rarely if ever led to a career and instead Kitty Lloyd Jones became a private gardening tutor, working from a cottage in the grounds of Dane End House, at Ware in Hertfordshire. She also opened a plant nursery and exhibited at RHS shows and Chelsea. By the early 1930s she had branched out and set up a garden advisory consultancy at White Cottage, Binfield, in Berkshire working with and for upper class families who she met largely through her network of existing clients.
According to her biographer, Rachel Berger, many of her clients had only recently acquired their large country properties because the 1920s and 30s saw many change hands, as a result of war casualties and fortunes being made and lost rapidly in economic booms and depressions. “Such clients needed advice on managing their gardens and their grand scale, and modifying them to suit their lifestyles. They wanted to be sure of having a garden in fashionable good taste.”
Lady Bearsted arrived at Upton with lots of money and enthusiasm and wanted to make the garden a place of beauty and relaxation and fashionably good taste . In June 1930 she commissioned Kitty Lloyd-Jones to advise on designs and planting and over the next 6 years Kitty remained closely involved. Luckily some of the correspondence between client and designer between 1931 and 1934 survive and from this Berger believes it would be possible to identify which parts of the garden were inspired by Kitty. Her way of working involved staying at Upton for a few days at a time, when she would design plans for the garden, itemise the work to be done with the Head Gardener, Mr Tidman, and write lists of suggested plants for Lady Bearsted to approve.
This was followed up by letters. In July 1931, for example Kitty sent a long letter to Lady Bearsted outlining her suggestions for re-designing the gardens. ‘The two bare places where the greenhouses were pulled down are certainly rather difficult’, wrote Kitty, ‘But I have an idea which I would like to think about. There is plenty to get on with at the moment and this could be done during the winter. I thought I’d better mention that this is being considered because Tidman said you were most anxious to get something done there this year and I was afraid you would think we’d forgotten it.’
Mr Tidman lived in the house, aptly named Bog Cottage, overlooking a shady valley area, which was overgrown and waterlogged. When Kitty first mentioned this site in her letters to Lady Bearsted she said, ‘Perhaps we could begin to clean the piece below Tidman’s house. Not ‘till the spring probably because it is wet there in winter – with the other jobs really done I feel we can begin something new, don’t you?’ She used a natural spring to feed a series of small streams that now flow through the bog garden through rills into a large tranquil pool before feeding the lower ponds elsewhere in the grounds.
In fact Oswald does not mention the bog garden in his articles, although he does mention “the attractive brick cottage whose leaded dormers proclaim it to be contemporary with the house. By the removal of the windows the ground floor has been converted into somewhere pleasant to sit.” This presumably implies that Kitty’s plans had not been effected by 1936.
Amongst the other areas she worked on were the small paved garden, at the end of the terrace behind the house. This is virtually hidden at ground level but designed to be seen from the bedroom on the floor above where gaps in the trees allowed a view to some of the terraces on the steep southern slope.
She advised too on the rockery that Lady Bearsted wanted in the area behind the swimming pool.
When you visit the gardens you can see her influence in many areas – the soft planting, strong colours and fashionable style. She explained more about her ideas in a book The Modern Flower Garden, although I cant see it in the BL catalogue.
It is these gardens, modified and created by Kitty Lloyd-Jones and Lady Bearsted, that are described by Oswald in his second article, although, as I said earlier, neither of them is actually mentioned. It is a fairly poetic description. The house is said “almost to be floating on the great level lawn that stretch away to the brow of the plateau.” Looking the other way “the sheet of green grass extends before us without visible boundary, its horizon line merging with the upward slope of the park beyond. Kent, as Walpole said, ‘leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden’ but here the ha-ha is a whole valley.”
“Lawns in England often fill the role played by water in the architectural formalities of other climes, and their tideless expanses of unplumbed green may lap the very stones of the stairs and terrace walk so that on stepping down one has the feeling of passing into a different element.”
Beyond on the slope down to the lake Oswald talks of the opportunities “for a grand layout of terraces and garden architecture related to the house behind” but admits that there would be problems of scale with this and adds that “Lord Bearsted has contented himself with a less ambitious layout [where] the kitchen garden has been preserved and new developments are confined to the parts of the slope above it and at either end of it.”
Morley Horder designed an elegant and impressive balustraded double stone stairway, now covered in wisteria, which was lined with iris and brooms, as well as topiary. Beside it on the descent are “two enclosed gardens sheltered by yew hedges containing roses and delphiniums.” Rachael Berger also believes that it was Kitty who did the finer points of design to cope with the changes of level that are a striking feature of Upton.
Not only does the stairway look good, but it also offers amazing views of the various gardens on the slope.
Lord Bearsted gave the house to the National Trust in 1948, although the family continued to live there until 1988. The Trust asked Kitty Lloyd-Jones to come back and advise again, particularly the restoration of the gardens following the depredations of the war.
Unfortunately, like William Sawrey Gilpin [see post ] Kitty did not write about her commissions, or talk about them much with her friends or family. The way in which she worked was quiet and understated, because in the circles in which she moved it would have been frowned upon her to take too much of the credit away from the owners.
Although the National Trust has not sought consciously to restore the 1930s gardens the present borders strongly resemble the plantings depicted in country life and in the chapter in modern garden craft.
John Sales, the National Trust’s garden advisor, writing in Country Life in 1991, argued that Upton was “one of the most under-visited gems”of the Trust. He compared its 17thc terraces with those at Powys castle and arguing that its “other garden features, colour schemes and plantsmanship are of the highest order.” [actually I’m glad I didn’t read his article until after I almost finished writing this post because he writes much more fluently and knowledgeably than me]. He described the planting of the terraces, and noted that if visiting in October asters are the star turn there – Upton holds a national collection. That is a definite incentive to return – as is the new tea pavilion in the grounds!
For more information see “Kitty Lloyd Jones: Lady Gardener and Nurserywoman” by , Rachel Berger, Garden History, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Summer, 1997), pp. 107-116