Last week’s post told the first part of the story of Park Hill, a Victorian estate in Streatham in what is now south London. In 1873 the house was put up for sale after the death of its builder William Leaf, although there was little interest, and it was not until in 1880 it was finally sold.
The new owner was Henry Tate, sugar magnate and the man behind the foundation of the Tate Gallery.
Tate was a self-made man from Lancashire and still largely based there when he bought Park Hill, but it was to become home to him, his family and his growing art collection until his death in 1899.
Tate did not move to Streatham immediately – the 1881 census shows him still in Lancashire – but no sooner had he bought Park Hill than he set about enlarging the house still further. First there was a huge billiard room that doubled as an art gallery, and then he replaced Papworth’s large conservatory with an even larger rectangular one. He also called in Robert Marnock, who at the age of 80 must have been semi-retired at least, to advise on the gardens. In June 1886 the grounds were described by William Goldring, himself a landscape designer, in an article in William Robinson’s magazine The Garden.
Goldring described the house as “one of the finest in the suburbs of London”, and the gardens as “charmingly natural” – which, when you read on, just goes to show what a strange notion of “natural” Victorian writers however talented must have had!
Next to the house the geometric beds on the terrace had the only display of bedding “which does not in the least mar the natural aspect of the other part”. Elsewhere the borders were “gay with showy bedding and carpet plants…and these will produce a brilliant effect.” There were lots of dahlias too, already in full flower because they had been started in the greenhouses. An old wisteria planted at one end was wound along the balustrade, and round each of the the vases.
The front lawn was “one of the prettiest examples of garden landscape that could be seen about London.” It sloped down to the small lake and a stands of ornamental trees, as well as pampas grass, and water iris and other aquatic plants. Around the lawn were borders full of rhododendrons and azaleas, with hundreds of scarlet oriental poppies planted between them to create “a very fine effect”. It might sound an unlikely combination but as Goldring observed “the poppy has an untidy look after flowering but the azaleas … hide all this and the two plants grown harmoniously together.” He goes on to cite other examples of effective companion planting .
Moving beyond the more ornamental garden areas to the “broad stretch of lawn” beyond “uninterrupted except by fine trees, some of which are remarkable by size” Goldring notes the problems already being caused by air pollution. In particular all the conifers were showing “signs of distress” from “the effects of the great town stretching outwards.”
Goldring concludes “the rest of the garden here is in keeping with the importance of the place” before going to extol the virtues of the kitchen garden and in particular its vineries.
However there is one area of potential controversy. Not for Goldring but for garden historians: the dating and attribution of some of the surviving features.
One boundary was described as “a rocky ravine” which presumably is the same one described in Beauties of Surrey in 1842. I assume this is the boundary to the west of the lake and rockery. Goldring seems to ascribe it to the famous firm of James Pulham of Broxburne “years ago.” Marnock had previously worked with Pulhams at Berry Hill, Taplow, and Danesbury Park, Welwyn so his choice would have been unsurprising. However Goldring’s description implies a not very high opinion of the overall effect of Pulham’s work. So what relationship, if any, does what Pulham did, have to what William Keane described in 1849. “a deep dell arched with massive rockwork formed into caverns and planted with arbutus and other evergreen shrubs“.
Certainly in the sales particulars shown last week there are mentions of “massive rockworks”, “cleverly designed grotto and rockery formed at great expense leading to a Gothic Tower” with great views, but there is no attribution. Next I went to Sally Festing’s article for Garden History in 1988 about Pulham & Co and their artificial rock known as Pulhamite. She doesn’t mention the 1842 description but includes Park Hill as a site where the firm worked for Henry Tate in the late 1870s or early 1880s.
But what did the most recent study Claude Hitchings & Jenny Lilly: Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy  say? Park Hill isn’t one of the gardens featured but its listed in the gazeteer as work carried out for “J.Leaf Esq” between 1873 and 1880 and citing the company’s promotional booklet, Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery (1876-7). However Claude Hitchings has also written separately about Park Hill on his Pulhamite blog.
Since, as we saw last week, the family had clearly decided to sell Park Hill after William Leaf’s death it seems reasonable to assume that any commission to Pulhams to work at Park Hill must have come from William before his demise in July 1874 rather than his heirs, although J.Leaf may well have ended up paying the bill.
The existence of “a deep dell arched with massive rockwork” by 1849 leads me to wonder whether what Pulham did was merely to develop or adapt this much earlier work. Certainly English Heritage have ascribed the bridge over the ‘ravine’ to Papworth and dated it c.1835.
What Pulham does seem to have built, in the final months of William Leaf’s life, is the folly known as the Gothic Tower or as it is described in the brief notes in Pulham’s promotional booklet: ‘Fernery and Artificial Ruin of Castle gateway and Tower for summer retreat and view.’
This is a wonderful two-storied octagonal tower over 7m high built of brick rendered in concrete to simulate ashlar. An arched doorway, lancet windows and arrow slits, as well as an ornamented arch supporting the approach stairs all add to its apparent ‘authenticity’. And it’s still there although as you can see it was in a bit of a state when the Folly Fellowship visited in 2008.
The Landscape Management Guidelines commissioned by English Heritage in 2012 reports a somewhat happier picture, because the residents of the new housing developments at Park Hill have done a lot of restoration work. They have also been advised to plan for regular maintenance to prevent a lapse into the decay-restoration-decay cycle.
The ravine, grotto and rockwork still survive largely intact, although it is difficult to know how much was originally built by Papworth and how much added or adapted by Pulham. It’s also thought that Marnock oversaw alterations to the lake and the creation of the stream that ran from there through the ravine.
And now back to the story…
Henry Tate gave £150,000 to build a gallery on Millbank and then donated the most significant parts of his art collection to fill it. In 1898 he reluctantly accepted a baronetcy for his philanthropy, having turned the title down at least once before. He died the following year, but his wife Amy remained at Park Hill until her own death in 1919. She left the Tate Gallery a book of photos of the house. The whole estate then went back on the market, with the agents stressing, even then, its significance since it “maintained much of the original design and plan as conceived by Papworth.”
But this post-war period was not a good time to be selling such a large and expensive to maintain property. Just as in 1875 it failed to reach reserve at auction. Eventually it was sold in 1923 to The Congregation of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God, an order of nuns founded in 1869, and became St Michael’s Convent.
The sisters added a chapel in 1939 and then in 1955 demolished Tate’s doubtless by then crumbling and high maintenance grand conservatory to make room for a new hostel. The large western field, beyond the ravine and the rockery, was also sold in the 1950s to become the site of a Catholic secondary school.
Eventually Park Hill became too big and costly for the nuns, and in 1998 was sold to Barrett’s for residential development. Luckily this was carried out under the beady eye of English Heritage.
The mansion itself was split into apartments, but with all the identifiable Papworth feature maintained. Tate’s billiard room /art gallery was so big that it could be converted into a single house. New housing was added around the grounds, wherever possible replacing the modern accretions and the whole estate was renamed Henry Tate Mews. For more on this see the article in The Independent 24th June 2003.
Historic’s England listings for Park Hill are unfortunately hopelessly out date. The site is still named St Michael’s Convent even tho the site was sold 20 years ago. It also has some errors, notably in dating and attribution. Luckily the Landscape Management Report they commissioned from Linden Groves is a thorough and comprehensive review of the history and the then  state of the grounds.
Congratulation to her & English Heritage because following her conclusion that Park Hill was “a garden of great national importance” in July 2015 Horticulture Week (the successor to Gardeners Chronicle) reported that residents had commissioned Bartholomew Landscaping to restore the gardens to “something of their former glory”.
The firm said: “Our intention is to use the report as a basis for the direction we take in choosing plants and deciding on the elements that would be most cost-effective and sensible to undertake.” After the terrace balustrade is renovated it will be draped in wisteria and the borders filled with plants described in the original plans. Overhanging branches will be cleared from the ravine and some trees removed to preserve historic faux rock structures. Rhododendrons and ferns, more in keeping with the original design, will also be reintroduced. The silt-clogged lake has been dredged and aquatic and marginal plants chosen to improve water quality and encourage wildlife. “We intend to introduce modern varieties of plants that would have been used in the 19th century that will have a better chance of thriving and establishing in the more challenging areas in the garden.”
Despite the various losses the site has sustained, and the recent enabling development what remains is a stunning survival of a 19th century pocket villa landscape with terrace, lawn, lake and boathouse, circuit walk, folly and impressive ravine. It is listed as Grade II.
As part of the planning consent it was agreed that there will be access to the grounds twice a year – to allow everyone to enjoy if only briefly this oasis in the bustling streets of south London. And if you fancy living there yourself check out Henry Tate Mews at the local estate agents, although you’ll need quite deep pockets!