I’ve been meaning to write about the gardens of Arundel Castle since I visited last summer with friends from the Birkbeck Garden History Group and discovered the new[ish] Collector Earl’s Garden with [amongst other things] Oberon’s Palace, a floating crown, and an amazing stumpery. I added it to the long list of possible future posts but something else always got in the way. However, my memory was jogged sharply when I discovered an account of the castle’s grounds – rather less than flattering – by John Claudius Loudon in 1829.
The main question now is whether to start with the good or the bad review…
Loudon was, as regular readers will know, a prolific writer and a man of very determined opinions. In 1826 he began publishing The Gardener’s Magazine, the first real piece of horticultural journalism in Britain. One regular feature was Garden Calls, a critical account of the lengthy tours he undertook around the country visiting nurseries, public and private gardens, although sadly there are very few illustrations. On 22nd July 1829 he set off from his villa in Bayswater heading north to Woburn Abbey, then turning back south and west through Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex – and finally arriving at Arundel on August 13th.
The visit did not go well from the very start. Arundel had “one of the worst town-entrances in Britain”. It was “dangerous and creates a prejudice against the nobleman who has… the power of removing the evil.” The poor Duke of Norfolk, who even then allowed visitors to the castle and its grounds, seems to have given the right of issuing tickets to just one of the town’s three inns, the Norfolk Arms.
“We hate,” fulminated Loudon, “monopolies of every kind and cannot approve of this seeming preference.” Luckily the landlady of the Norfolk Arms, Mrs Flood, was “much attached to natural history”, and amongst other things she collected and bred insects to kill and frame for decorating the inn’s walls. This appealed to Loudon and she was, he decided, “a woman of very superior mind.” To encourage her endeavours further he sent her complimentary copies of both the Gardener’s Magazine and his Magazine of Natural History.
The following day, August 14th 1829, Loudon set off to inspect the Castle and its gardens, which had been restored and extended by the 11th Duke, acting as his own architect.
It was, Loudon said, “an excellent place for a critic, since there is much to condemn”. To be fair he then added that there was also “something to admire and a great deal to anticipate”, although you would be forgiven for not knowing that reading the opening lines of his description.
“The only thing that came up to our expectations was the situation of the castle… there is not a single good architectural feature… and the interior did not contain a single room worthy of such a residence.” Indeed the details were “designed or copied with very little taste or judgement” and so the whole process had been “bungled.”
Loudon of course fancied himself as both architect and designer, had written, or was to write, a whole shelf-full of books on the subject and had a high opinion of his own taste.
It could hardly get worse… or could it? Unfortunately it could. “What has been done in landscape architecture is not better than what has been done in architecture. The place is frittered into details without connection and without any pervading principle… in all that relates to plan there could not be anything worse.”
The one saving grace was that the Duke had an excellent, but recently retired, head gardener who bestowed “most extraordinary and successful care” on trees and shrubs. The Duke comes in for praise for acting as an exemplary employer and his generous care of the old man, allowing him to retire on full salary. He had been replaced by “a young man of great merit” but Loudon was adamant that however good he was doomed to failure until ” a general system of arrangement very different from the present is fixed upon”.
There were “three or four kitchen gardens and three or four places that could be called flower gardens but not one grand leading walk to show either these or anything else” Luckily there were plenty of fine trees, although some in the park were completely choked with ivy to the point where its effects were like “a petrifying spring to objects immersed in it.” The ancient inner garden contained a large spreading apricot tree, several sweet bays and five massive fig trees, one of which Loudon measured as being 20 ft high, 22 in diameter and with a trunk 6ft in circumference. But there were also “an abundance of modern trees and shrubs, mixed up with fruit trees and roses in such a manner as to destroy all distinctive character.”
Having criticized it was time for Loudon to suggest, at great length, improvements so that the grounds at Arundel “may be rendered amongst the finest in England.”
He’d be pleased to know that is exactly what they now are.
Although Loudon mentions 3 or 4 vegetable gardens, as in most other grand estates, Arundel had just one huge walled kitchen garden which, as you can see from the aerial view was well away from the castle itself. It gradually fell into decline after the second world war and, like so many others, by the 1970s was virtually abandoned. A large part of it was then turned into a visitors car park.
A major rethink began when the present Duke and Duchess, together with the castle’s trustees, began a programme of restoration and enhancement of the whole castle and grounds. At this point the gardens did not really figure on the visitors attraction list but given the way that other stately homes have used their gardens to draw in the crowds the Duke and Duchess must have realised that was an important next step. They began by reclaiming a large part of the walled garden for use as an organic kitchen garden, whilst about a third was set aside for another new project: the Collector Earls Garden. The two gardens are now fairly seamlessly joined.
The Collector Earl was Thomas Howard, the 14th Earl of Arundel, who managed to restore the family titles and wealth after many of his ancestors had been executed or disgraced. Howard was also the patron of Inigo Jones, and travelled to Italy with him where he began to amass his famous collection of art works. Much of this can still be seen at Arundel, although a large number of his classical marble sculptures are now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and his portfolios of drawings by Leonardo are now in the Royal Collection.
As a prominent Catholic the earl later went into self-imposed exile in Italy dying in Padua in 1646. His remains were returned home and interred in the FitzAlan Chapel at the castle.
The magnificent portraits by Daniel Myttens of both Thomas and his wife, the formidable Aletheia Talbot, include [unfortunately at least partially imaginary] background views of Arundel House, their Thameside property in London. [now the site of a series of less than beautiful office and hotel buildings]. It was here that Howard displayed his vast collection of works of art, with the garden terraces lined with the statues he bought back from Italy.
These painted glimpses of the Arundel House gardens inspired the design of the new garden at the castle which was commissioned from Isabel and Julian Bannerman. They aimed to evoke the spirit of a grand Jacobean garden rather than attempt some form of accurate historic reconstruction: the scheme “aims to stand alone, to be pleasing, timeless and memorable’.
To begin with it was the built structures that were planned to stand out against a restrained background planting, perhaps unsurprisingly because of their scale. Indeed many commentators in the early years, including John Brookes, felt planting was thin and the whole seemed over designed. However as things began to bulk up, the balance changed, especially under the influence of the head gardener, Martin Duncan, who arrived in 2009 the year after the garden had been officially opened by Prince Charles on 14th May 2008.
The domed pergola and fountains were based on the Myttens portrait of the Countess, while the various gateways and pavilions are replicas of Inigo Jones’s original designs for Arundel House which survive in the RIBA archives.
There is one major difference with the original Jacobean garden. There the buildings would have been stone, but in the Bannerman’s scheme all the the structures together with their accompanying obelisks and urns are made from green oak, which took 13 months of carpentry to create, and give the whole scheme a very solid but rustic character despite its enormous scale.
Gradually nature has added to that feeling as the garden has evolved under the watchful eyes of both the head gardener and the Duchess. It helped that the sense of the exotic and new was enhanced as the palms, bamboos and other tropical-looking trees and shrubs grew. And, as Brookes said, while they “seem strangely alien, often against the cathedral backdrop – they do now help this whole fantastic extravaganza.”
Unfortunately I can’t find a plan of the site on-line but Google Earth, while I’d guess taken a long time ago, gives a reasonable appreciation of the layout. Entry to the Collector Earl’s garden is marked by the blue arrow, and the visitor enters into a open gravel court that leads down the side of a large canal-like pool with water flowing from a rocky grotto. This is an allegorical river Arun and has a shell pediment and flanking strapping caryatids. Huge urns, made of green oak, and topped with gilded agaves line the pool. More water spouts through the mouths of their gilded lions heads decoration before cascading gently over a giant shell into a smaller pool below.
The whole scene, when I saw it, was ornamented with large pots of scaevola, lobelia and agapanthus in shades of blue which were reflected in the water. Displays are changed seasonally and the photos I’ve seen of the pots of tulips during the new tulip festival look stunning too. It definitely has the WOW factor that visitors love, which I’m sure satisfies head gardener Martin Duncan who commented: “It has to look good, make people feel good and have general appeal. Presentation is foremost.”
Open courts with flowering trees lead to an expansive green space with a ‘rockwork mountain’ on the other side as a grand finale. On top stands Oberon’s Palace, a fantastic [literally] structure based on one of Inigo Jones’ set-designs for Prince Henry’s Masque on New Year’s Day 1611. The whole building is in green oak, like the nearby obelisks .
The ‘palace’ has a fish-scale domed roof and its interior is lined with cockleshells inset with a mosaic of vases and orange trees made of broken mussel shells.
Inside is a fountain in the form of stalagmites – in itself pretty amazing – and floating and dancing on top of the jet of water is a golden coronet!
This simple piece of water engineering is absolutely entrancing and I watched a crowd of children stand open open-mouthed as a member of staff carefully adjusted the water pressure causing the crown to almost literally fly up and down, before catching it and passing it around for them to look at.
While hydraulics doesn’t sound terribly exciting in itself, the early 17thc was prime time for elaborate water features, and the French engineer Saloman de Caus wrote and illustrated a fascinating text about them. [That calls for another post!] Such things featured in many elite gardens in 17th-century Europe and doubtless had the same effcet on observers then.
The whole set-up of Oberon’s Palace is simply magical and rendered more so by the wonderfully lush but almost un-Englsih planting of palms and ferns that covers and surrounds the approaches to the mountain.Martin Duncan, who took our group round himself, recognized the sparsity of the original planting scheme and over the past nine years has been adding to it.
He has also added a stumpery, but a stumpery unlike any any other that I have seen. [Its also difficult to do justice to in photographs]
Like everything else in the Collector Earl’s garden it is on a grand scale. Densely planted with an unusually wide range of species, it surprises at every turn, and shows what a sensitive and knowledgable plantsman he must be. Its no surprise to learn that he had won the prestigious Kew Guild Medal last year.
Nowadays there is much much more to the gardens than just this but unfortunately I dont have the words or space to explain it all in detail. There’s a temple crowned by antlers from red and fallow deer, a 17thc style grass labyrinth, hornbeam tunnel, wild flower garden, tropically-inspired herbacaeous borders, a rose garden, herb garden, thatched round house and the 1852 vine house.
There is also an annual tulip festival, probably the largest and most spectacular in the country which involved planting at least 60,000 bulbs in 120 variteies.
So, if you like what you see in these photos ….my best advice is to go and see it yourself as soon as you can! I think even John Claudius Loudon himself would be impressed!