After last week’s rather serious post about emblematic gardens perhaps its time for something lighter so here’s the story of the surprise I had last Thursday afternoon. I’m still not quite sure if it was one that caused more amusement than shock and horror, but you can judge that for yourself when I tell you I met Barbie and Ken and several of their friends.
Part of the surprise was because I was in the gardens of a beautiful 19thc villa in southern Spain, and part was because no-one else seemed to think it the slightest bit odd to have an iconic American toy used to interpret an historic Andalusian landscape.
I was at La Concepcion, on the outskirts of Malaga. [Photos by me unless otherwise stated] Once simply farmland with a typical collection of terraced small fields and citrus groves in 1855 it was bought by Jorge Loring Oyarzabal and his wife Amalia Heredia Livermore. The following year they were ennobled, for their charitable work, as the Marquis and Marquesa of Casa Loring.
[A word about their names, which follow the Spanish pattern of a double surname, where the paternal family name is followed by the maternal. She was the granddaughter of an English merchant who had settled in Spain, whilst he was the son of an American merchant who had done the same thing.]
Jorge and Amalia were scions of two of the city’s wealthiest and most influential business families and after their marriage in 1850 they went on a six month honeymoon touring France, Germany Switzerland and Italy and visiting lots of great gardens. On their return they decided to create their own.
[All the historical photos, unless otherwise stated come from a Ph.D thesis by Blanca Lasso de la Vega Westendorp. Full reference at at the end]
While Jorge was busy building railways and becoming an MP Amalia took charge in the garden, employing a French gardener, Jacinto Chamoussent, to help. He was apparently skilled at aclimatizing newly imported exotic plants, although unfortunately I can’t find more information about him. The estate archives show they scoured not just Spain but the leading nurseries in Britain, France, Holland and Belgium for new introduction from all round the world.
The estate occupies one side of a valley, and is long and quite narrow, but extends over 24 hectares. High up on the hillside in the central section, but still well below the ridge they commissioned a German architect August Orth to design a large courtyard villa but with a classical facade. It’s hidden in the dark green woodland on the right of the aerial photo. A motorway was sliced past the estate in the 1980s.
When built the house had views over much of the estate as well as of Malaga and the Mediterranean, although now the trees have reached maturity those vistas have largely gone – perhaps given the sprawl of Malaga’s suburbs not a totally bad thing.
The Casa Lorings not only gardened but collected art and antiquities, and they built up a magnificent collection of archaeological remains, many of which were housed in the small temple-like Loring Museum built in the grounds in 1859. Their collection now forms a major part of the local museum.
On one side of the house is a large wisteria covered arbour, originally thickly underplanted, now lined with pots.
Spain was, in the mid-19thc gripped by continual political unrest, which was to lead to civil war and the deposition of the monarch, Isabella II. It also caused the financial decline of the Lorings.
In 1911, La Concepcion was sold by their children to another wealthy business magnate and his wife, this time from the Basque country, who used it as their summer retreat. Rafael Echevarria and his wife Amalia Echevarrieta immediately began expanding the garden out along along the hillside, particularly to the south, which had previously been woodland or citrus groves.
They added new features including the Nymph’s Spring and Pool, as well as the Palm Tree Avenue which a hundred or so years later is now very impressive.
They also added the mirador or viewing point at the southern end of the garden which overlooks the city.
Malaga was on the Republic side during the Spanish Civil War and was attacked by Franco’s Fascist forces. La Conception took in refugees both in the house and the grounds but after Franco’s victory it was taken over by the military and served as a training school run by German and Italian officers. Once the Civil War was over it switched to being a political training centre for the Falange.
The estate’s history is still being uncovered, but the family were liberal republicans and much of their property was confiscated or requisitioned.
Later La Concepcion was taken over by Amalia’s brother, Horacio Echevarrieta, the founder of what is now Iberia Airlines, who maintained it to the best of his ability until his death in 1963. After that decline set in, as his heirs were not interested and effectively abandoned the buildings and gardens, even although it had been declared a Garden of Historical and Artistic Interest as early as 1943.
In the end Malaga City Council stepped in in 1990, paying 600 million pesetas for the estate, and after infrastructure and adaptation work had been carried out, opened it to the public in 1994. They have conserved and restored the central and most historically important parts of the Garden but, in parallel, are using the rest of the estate to develop a botanical garden with plant collections that can be used for scientific and educational purposes. They have, within the means at their disposal, done a pretty good job on both counts.
The garden areas around the house would not be out of place in a semi-tropical rain forest. There are large stands of trees including a number of hundred-year-old specimens of ficuses particularly Ficus microcarpa, Norfolk Island pines, casuarinas, magnolias, pines, cypresses and cedars. Perhaps the most magnificent is a towering Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla).
Together they create quite a dense shade canopy, even in winter, and are underplanted by huge areas of what most of us would consider house plants such as clivias, monstera [swiss cheese plants] and philodendron. In amongst them are mass plantings of cycads, strelitzia and bamboos.
Surrounding the historic core is the more recent botanical garden. There are collections of aquatic plants, a rockery highlighting biodiversity, a greenhouse of insectivorous plants, bromeliads and orchids, as well as collections of plants from the various mediterranean climatic zones of the world. To the north lies a walk known as “Around the World in 80 Trees”, and a large collection of palm trees as well as collections of local indigenous plants and fruit crops and vines. The southernmost point of the garden has a collection of the cacti and succulents, as well as the remnants of an historical lemon grove.
Other estate buildings have now mostly been repurposed. The estate manager’s house which included carriage housing and stables, in what the Spanish call the Swiss-style, is now home to the research laboratories, library, archives and exhibition space. There was also a school for the children of estate workers
But it was in the Gardener’s Shed that I got my surprise. The thought rather naughtily crossed my mind later of the famous line from Cold Comfort farm that there was “something nasty in the woodshed.” Its a small simple structure erected during the Echevarria-Echevarrieta family’s time here as a tool store.
But now the Friends of La Concepcion has acquired it for educational purposes…. or rather for interpretative purposes. They had access to a large collection of Echevarria family photographs and the services of Alberto Martin, a hairdresser from Torremolinos. If that sounds a bit strange it gets stranger. His hobby was collecting Barbie dolls, and he decided to recreate the history of the gardens in the era of the Lorings using 222 Barbie and Ken dolls, with some Action Men thrown in for good measure, all, of course dressed up in appropriate costumes.
They are unfortunately difficult to photograph as they are behind glass, but here are a few shots which show the general effect.
The results are “interesting” to say the least, but whether they would turn Barbie fans into potential garden historians is perhaps debateable!
Despite the noise from the motorway that now runs past the estate, and the intrusion of suburbia into the long views La Concepcion is still a wonderful garden. The historic core has been well-maintained and the new botanic areas, particularly those of the Mediterranean regions of the world and the cactus and succulent sections are impressive. It would be nice to think that one day its story will be properly told and the estate will find a future as impressive as its past.
There is unfortunately no guide book to La Concepcion in English, and it would seem that little archival work has been done yet [or at least published]. However there was a PhD awarded by the University of Malaga in 2014 to Blanca Lasso de la Vega Westerdorp for a thesis about the garden. This is available online as a pdf, although only in Spanish. [Go to the link and scroll down the page find how to download] I have also used the English version website of the gardens themselves which have a limited amount of information as well as the online archives of Malaga City Council and the local newspapers, Hoy Malaga and El Sur.