I was lecturing in Suffolk recently and took the opportunity to call in at Ickworth, for the first time in many years. What a revelation that was. Not the grand rotunda of the house, splendid on the outside but rather dark and dreary inside, despite its magnificent contents. Nor its grand wings, one now a hotel and the other, never properly finished, now the inevitable cafe.
No: the revelation came outside in the grounds. The grand sweep of lawn facing the building, and backed by a woodland with specimen trees, and a splendid herbaceous border backing up against the terrace. The rather un-Italian Italian garden with its encircling terrace overlooking the parkland and its modern stumpery, now being extended through the Victorian shrubbery. And further away across the rolling parkland and woodland, and tucked down towards the lake the magnificent walled kitchen garden which is slowly, slowly being restored by the garden team.
So it obviously merited a blog post...[photos by me unless otherwise stated]
Of course writing a blog post involves reasearch rather more than just aimless comments, and where better to start than Shades of Green, John Sales’ recent biographical account of National Trust gardens. [Highly recommended!] He has a whole chapter on Ickworth which begins by pointing out the often forgotten truth that when, in 1956, the National Trust accepted Ickworth from the Treasury [who had accepted it from the family in lieu of death duties] it was for the house and its contents rather than anything to do with the fact that Capability Brown had worked there or that there were the remains of some very impressive 19thc gardens.
What I hadn’t properly understood until that point is quite how complete was the undervaluation by the Trust, [and I’d guess most others at the time] of 19thc gardens and landscapes, which only began to be turned around after Brent Elliott published Victorian Gardens in 1986. Nor had I quite understood the machinations of the decision-making processes that went on within the National Trust, between its central offices, its regional committees and its professional advisory staff, and how much the interplay and politics and ultimate choices made depended very much on the personalities involved. In East Anglia the Duke of Grafton from nearby Euston, who chaired the regional committee would apparently happily visit properties on his own and would often give orders based on his personal opinions and regardless of already agreed decisions and policies.
The original Tudor Ickworth Hall stood by the church which now stands isolated within the park. The Hall was demolished around 1701-03 by John Hervey, the 1st earl of Bristol, along with the entire village, shortly after he inherited. He moved the inhabitants into a new village at Horringer outside the park, and his family into temporary accommodation at an estate farmhouse [marked as Ickworth House on the map above but usually called Ickworth Lodge] while he planned the replacement house on site of the old hall.
100 years later they were still in the farmhouse!
Despite that work did take place on the gardens and parkland. Indeed Capability Brown worked at Ickworth between 1769 and 1773 for the 2nd Earl. Brown’s surviving account book shows receipt of £581 8 shillings although there is no record of what he actually did. However his later design for a new house wasn’t carried through, although its likely that his son-in-law the architect Henry Holland did modify the farmhouse around the same time. [For more about Brown at Ickworth see Sarah Rutherfords’s paper for the National Trust]
In 1793 the 4th Earl, [ known as the Earl Bishop as he was also Bishop of Derry although rather a godless and absentee one] eventually chose the revolutionary [for Britain] designs of Italian architect Mario Asprucci who had worked on the Villa Borghese in Rome. These were freely adapted by the local builders Francis and Joseph Sandys from Bury St Edmunds.
It has a huge central rotunda with 2 wings which his wife referred to as a ‘stupendous monument of folly’. Work began on the house in 1795 but stopped when the Earl Bishop died abroad in 1803 and it was nearly twenty years before it was restarted by his son, Frederick the 5th Earl/1st Marquess.
The family finally moved into the east wing in 1829, but the west wing remained an incomplete empty shell until recently.
Unlike many other grand houses Ickworth isn’t immediately visible from its main approach. This is because apparently the Marquess got fed up with seeing a building site so planted a great belt of woodland between the entrance drive and the half-constructed house. This had the additional advantage of breaking the force of strong cold winds from the east and north.
Nowadays the visitor arrives at an oblique angle to the north front, on a curved gravel path that sweeps round echoing the shape of the Rotunda, and at the corner of a large sweep of lawn backed by well wooded pleasure grounds. Unfortunately the area has a high water table so the trees there were often waterlogged and unable to root deeply and the great storm of 1987 felled or destabilised many of the older firs, cedars and deodars which had been planted by the 1st Marquess. The woodland was replanted using the 19thc technique of mound planting to try and overcome this problem for the future.
The house stands on a slight rise above the north lawn with a balustrade along the boundary. In front of it is a large and generously planted colourful herbaceous border designed by Graham Thomas, John Sales predecessor as head of gardens for the NT. Unfortunately despite its grandeur it still seems rather lost given the overall scale of the site. When I was there large shrubs that had extended the border round the edge of the lawn and blocked the view from the approach were being removed.
The 1st Marquess was a very keen gardener and designed the South pleasure grounds on the other side of the Rotunda, with the help of his son and great nephew. They were based on sites he had seen in Italy and the National Trust now think they are probably the oldest Italianate gardens in the country, predating other semi-formal Italianate planting by as much as 50 years. Although the family didn’t move into the house until 1829 their accounts show that most of the expenditure on these pleasure grounds took place in the 10 years before that, at the same time as the house was being constructed. The whole area mirrors the shape of the Rotunda and is edged by a raised terraced walkway that looks over Capability Brown’s parkland.
By the time of the NT’s takeover the South Pleasure Grounds had been neglected and had lost all their original layout although there were still a few specimen trees along and lots of overgrown evergreens. The Duke of Grafton who didn’t like 19thc garden design saw no problem in overruling attempts to recreate the structure if not the precise form and planting of the early formal Italianate garden. They were labelled, says Sales, as being in bad taste by senior people in the Trust who, like the Duke, prided themselves that they knew the difference between what was nice and what was nasty. Sales adds that in their eyes “gardeners, including garden advisers, did not have taste and were never likely to acquire it ” so their opinions counted for little.
It took quite a lot of intervention by the Earl of Rosse who was chair of the Trust’s Gardens Panel, to begin to challenge this attitude. But in the end he succeeded and gradually the original layout began to be reinstated after 150 years of decline. Of course, given low staffing levels, there was no way that the fashionable bedding schemes of the period could be replicated, so the head gardener in the 1980s began to implement smaller scale schemes in the spirit of Victorian gardens. He created a fern-filled stumpery, two small secret gardens and planted a range of uncommon shrubs as well as a collection of box species which later became a national collection.
John Sales gives an interesting account of the whole process, describing how different planting choices were made in order for the garden to be more resilient to weather and diseases, and more realistic in terms of maintenance. This has proved successful. The stumpery in particular has proved very popular and is currently being extended.
But the formal gardens are small in comparison with the size of the estate.
A few minutes walk away from the house, beyond the church, is the walled garden, built on a south facing slope, probably on the site of one associated with the Tudor house. It was built in the first years of the 18thc and extended again in the mid-century.
It now extends over more than 5 acres, and is unusual because it only has walls on 3 sides, the fourth being open to the lake at the bottom of the slope. This was created by adapting a medieval fishpond and diverting the river Linnett. Equally unusually there is no great gated entrance but a just modest doorway in the wall. The garden is divided into sections, with the central one having a small red-brick summer-house which originally overlooked a formal planted garden.
The 1st Marquess was a keen plantsman and friends with Thomas Knight, the President of what was to become the Royal Horticultural Society, who supplied Ickworth with exotic plants for the hothouses, the first of which was built in 1804. By the end of the 19thc there were 8 hothouses and a team of 15 gardeners.
Inevitably decline set in in the interwar years and by the 1950s almost everything had been grassed over, the glasshouses had collapsed or fallen into disrepair and it clearly was beyond the resources of the garden team to do much about it. Instead a vineyard was successfully established in 1995. But in 2009 the whole approach to the garden changed.
A gardener’s notebook was discovered, covering the years 1889-1927 which listed things being grown in the walled garden and how they were managed. Unsurprisingly this revived interest and spurred a plan to recreate at least some of the garden’s heyday planting. The vineyard was uprooted in 2013 and a wild flower meadow sown in its place to allow the soil to recover before the recreation begins in earnest.
Trained trees are now beginning to line the walls and some of the paths within the garden while other fruit and vegetables are being planted by volunteers and local children. The surviving 19thc glasshouses are awaiting restoration. It’s all a long-term venture but one that promises a very worthwhile outcome.
Around the house and the core of the estate stretches 1800 acres of parkland, which is approximately 10 miles round and includes 600 acres of woodland. Even as early as 1731 a visitor described the park as “by much the finest park I ever saw being about 1200 acres and above £25,000 exceeding fine oaks.” But the 1st Marquess organized more improvements enclosing the park with a perimeter belt of woodland and creating drives and paths to provide views of the house and other buildings and the surrounding landscape. These rides, drives and woodland areas were named after family members or estate workers. In 1810 he wrote to his sister “nothing ever was so much improved. The whole park is new laid down… The pleasure ground, walks etc all finished down to the valley, and the clumps growing as fast as they can.”
Included in the wider parkland are also the monument to the Earl Bishop. This is an obelisk in the middle of a field which occupies the second highest spot above sea level in Suffolk – the house itself apparently stands on the highest spot although you’d never guess.
The only significant changes to the park since the first Marquis’s time were made during the Second World War when much of it was turned over to agriculture and in order to do so effectively many of the grand trees were blasted out of the ground with dynamite but gradually much of the arable land nearest to the house will revert to parkland as the current tenancy arrangements come to an end.
As a family the Herveys [pronounced Harvey] were a fine mix of extravagant and eccentric, sadly it has to be said not always a good combination. The result has been wasted fortunes and disastrous personal relationships. Occasionally there have been exceptions and there is a current exhibition in the rotunda about Theodora the 4th Marchioness who was a wealthy railway heiress and whose money and happy marriage bought a period of stability and consolidation to the estate which was once again on the verge of insolvency. A thoroughly modern woman she preserved the house, installed electricity, new heating systems and an up-to-date kitchen and insisted the staff enjoy the same benefits too. Finally she and her husband safeguarded the estate’s future by giving Ickworth to the Treasury in lieu of death duties, probably knowing that it would pass to the National Trust. I’m sure they’d be pleased with their decision.