Last week’s post was about Ella and Florence du Cane two adventurous aristocratic young women who, in pre-war Edwardian England, wrote and illustrated garden-related travel books.
Despite their popularity before 1914, by 1918 the story was different. There were far fewer travel books published – and none at all for the sisters – but there may well have been other factors at work. The family estate, Braxted, had to be sold to pay their brother’s debts, so after her war service Florence returned to live with their mother at Mountains, the former dower house. She also took seriously to horticulture, not only taking over the running of Mountains but making a career of garden design. Meanwhile, although some of Ella’s paintings continued to be used to illustrate books she spent most of her time at nearby Beacon Hill House, painting and creating a new garden around what was once a small, but soon enlarged, cottage.
Both gardens were soon being recognized as interesting and significant and were reported on by Christopher Hussey in Country Life, almost in tandem, in 1925. All the photos come from the articles on 14 March & 2nd May respectively and have the original captions unless otherwise stated.
Let’s start with Mountains, their mother’s house, where the sisters lived after their father’s death in 1889. It’s listed as Grade II* by Historic England but the garden only gets mentioned in the last sentence of the description: “One of the earliest Japanese Gardens in Britain by Lady Du Cane, still exists by the stream in the garden.” It is followed by a reference to an article in Country Life 14 March 1925. The inspiration behind its creation must surely have been the sisters visits to Japan. So I set off to find the article.
It contains a good run of photographs, but none of anything remotely Japanese apart from a mention of ‘Japanese cherries’ on the accompanying sketch map, so I scanned Hussey’s text. He is enthusiastic about the garden, and uses Mountains as an example of “the new kind of gardening that is perforce taking hold on country estates” post-war. But no mention of a Japanese garden.
However reading more carefully, there were “Japanese iris brought from the famous Hori-Kiri nursery”, whilst “the effect of a rock garden had been very cleverly obtained.”
Elsewhere there was a mention of Japanese maples and slightly more bizarrely ” a garden house, built on a Japanese pattern and roofed by a Suffolk thatcher.” But these elements seem rather vague and dispersed. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Mountains doesn’t get a mention in Amanda Herries book Japanese Gardens in Britain, or any of the online websites I’ve looked at on Japanese gardens.
So either Hussey was extremely well entertained by the Du Canes and wanted to flatter them or he really loved the garden and didn’t care much about any Japanese elements. He reports that although the garden was on poor soil and small, it was “an exquisite patch of earth” with half an acre of flowers in bloom most of the year in “masses broadly harmonized” and “none of the common types of garden have been introduced save the so-called rock garden in the little valley.” Overall the visitor is “spared the specimen and given poetry.”
But apart from his lengthy descriptions of the planting, what Hussey obviously picks up on at Mountains is the new reality of post-war horticulture. “The day of the great pleasure garden, with its succession of sub-divisions into rose, water, rock, herb, Chinese, American and anything-you-like gardens, is no doubt of it, over.”
While he recognized that “here and there a great garden is kept up out of respect for the past”, citing Ashridge as an example, or that they survived because of “the compelling enthusiasm of the owner who are themselves experts like Mr Vicary Gibbs or Mr Hanbury” these were undoubtedly the exception. Other land owners “must aim at a completely different kind of garden” and not trying to cram in examples of everything multum in parvo as happened in Victorian villa garden [see Mrs Lawrence’s for a good example of that].
That was exactly what Lady Du Cane and Florence had done. They had accepted and adapted to their changed circumstances and had made a interesting small garden which should be seen as an exemplar to others.
In fact this style was quite appropriate to the house. Mountains was not a grand mansion but a small(ish) early 18thc red brick farmhouse, which probably got its name from its position on a ridge commanding expansive views towards the estuary of the Blackwater and the sea beyond. “The garden” says Hussey “lies open to this vast prospect and its masses are partly conceived in the nature of foregrounds.”
Around the house were the usual kind of things – stone flagged terrace, some box edged beds, with stonecrops growing in cracks, lots of pots, colour coordinated tulips. And here Hussey turns lyrical, indeed almost surreally rhapsodic as you can see from the paragraph below:
Away from the house the Du Canes had used the existing features such as old apple trees, as the basis for the planting and added other things in clumps and drifts melding them together to create a single unified canvas.
Hussey concludes his article on Mountains by saying the photos ” pay a far more eloquent tribute than could the pen to the care and thought expended …every inch of earth has been put to the fullest possible use consonant with unity and repose of purpose.” Lady Du Cane died the year after this article appeared by the garden was then taken over for the next three decades by Florence who ran it until her own death in 1955.
Meanwhile just down the road Ella “who has a justly high reputation as a painter of gardens” was working on her own new grounds at Beacon Hill House. Once again Hussey, in his article of 2nd May 1925, is unstinting in his praise, but once again he makes the size of her garden the centrepiece of his description.
The house was “nothing but a cottage” when Ella arrived, although the small high turret had probably served as a beacon for ships navigating the Blackwater estuary. Probably the home of a yeoman farmer, the earliest part was early 17thc, and had very low headroom. She called in Sydney Gambier Parry, better known as a church architect, to help redesign and then extend the house.
The existing garden with its “clumps of yews and lavender and some aged apple trees…and something of an avenue that stretched away westwards” was largely left untouched. South of the house however she had an untouched acre or so of “brown and sandy meadow, over which, through a fringe of trees beyond, lay the vast landscape of the marshes.” There is no mention of anything Japanese at all, but see if you can spot the Japanese lantern that appears in a couple of the images.
Hussey had clearly formed a very favourable impression of Ella’s design skills. Not only had she “found what plants will thrive in her soil and contents herself with them”, but “the arrangement.. is most instructive in the relation between the formal and the picturesque or wild.”
This new southern section of the garden was divided into four by stone pathways. The first, near the house was wholly formal with a small pool, while the next included “grass and low herbaceous plants” but retained other formal features. In the remaining two, by contrast, only the framework was formal and “within them great herbaceous beds and arches of ramblers are let loose.”
This area was bounded to the south by a retaining wall which overlooked a true “wild” garden beyond. In that “architectural features such a flight of steps and a well-head are overwhelmed in a flood of luxuriant blossom that melts imperceptibly into shrubs, ramblers that really ramble, and beyond the natural broom and gorse of the soil.”
Plants were allowed to make themselves at home and “do not seem to have been planted at all. It all showed that Miss Du Cane has a real understanding of the limitations of her garden,” and made Beacon Hill an example of the “perfect form of gardening for those who are not specialists.”
And to round things off, Ella was able to paint the results. “Few can create for themselves such a charmed circle or hope from their plot of earth to gather so endless a harvest of content.”
In the years following the article Ella, like many similar painters of her kind, seems largely to have faded into obscurity, her slightly sentimental almost chocolate-boxy images were no longer really fashionable, although she apparently carried on painting up until her death in 1943. It didn’t help, of course, that she was best known for paintings of Japan which was increasingly unpopular following its imperial expansion in China in the 1920s and 30s and then the horrors of war.
Some of her pictures continued to be used to illustrate books. Some appeared in Japan by Walter Weston in 1926, and a couple more in The Complete Book of Gardening by John Coutts et al in 1930 [alongside others by Beatrice Parsons, and George Elgood who were similarly to disappear from public consciousness]
Florence did not suffer in the same way, and developed a career as a garden designer. She became well-known enough to have an obituary in The Times on 8th July 1955. This said that “it is as a great gardener, perhaps a successor to Gertrude Jekyll, she will be chiefly remembered. She became adviser on the planning and planting of gardens to many well-known people but more than this, she made gardeners of many humbler folk who, inspired by her own beautiful garden at Mountains, fatally contracted the disease.”It would seem from Google Earth images that little survives of either garden in its original form and until 2011 when Alison Redfoot wrote an MA thesis on Ella I cannot find any sign of a critical study of their work either. Searches of newspapers, academic research and archival databases have also yielded virtually nothing, so anyone with more information on these intriguing and talented sisters please get in touch.