Way back in March 2017 I wrote about gnome-loving eccentric, Sir Charles Isham, and at the time thought there couldn’t be anyone else quite as besotted with the little men in red hats. But I was wrong! Don’t be fooled by this serious photo into thinking Sir Frank Crisp, a wealthy London lawyer, was another dull and boring worthy. He was actually a wealthy London lawyer with a difference, because he was also a jovial prankster, who built a Gothic revival palace near Henley and then added a vast alpine/mountain garden to complement it, despite the fact that there aren’t any mountains near Henley. To make matters more interesting he then decided to people it.
So today’s and next week’s posts are going to be about this philanthropic eccentric who died 100 years ago on April 29th 1919,and his garden
all quotes are from Gardeners Chronicle unless otherwise stated
A lifelong Liberal, Crisp became legal adviser to the Liberal Party, was knighted in 1907 and received a baronetcy in 1913. He was an enthusiastic historian of mediaeval England and his magnificent book on Mediaeval Gardens was published posthumously in 1924.
He was also a collector of, and authority on, microscopes, serving as secretary of the Royal Microscopical Society founded in 1839 and still going strong today, although there is no mention of Crisp on their website http://www.rms.org.uk
More importantly Sir Frank was a serious gardener, and became “the genial and popular ” Treasurer of the Linnean Society. He was awarded the Victoria Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1919. But this was in the days when the RHS hadn’t banned gnomes or maybe he wouldn’t have accepted it, because, as you’ve probably guessed, Frank Crisp was another gnomaholic but on an even grander scale than Sir Charles… and he had a wonderful quirky sense of humour.
In 1889 Frank Crisp bought two villas on the edge of Henley, Friar Park and Friar’s Field for a total of £18,000 and merged their grounds into a 62 acre estate. He then commissioned a little-known architect Robert Clarke Edwards to help him rebuild Friar Park as a weekend retreat. Given the scale this was some retreat! Friars Field was initially left standing but in November 1895 was sold at auction for building material for £240 and demolished. [Henley Advertiser 16.11..1895]
The new house, although perhaps palace would be a more appropriate description, is “a colourful and eccentric mélange of French Flamboyant Gothic in brick, stone and terracotta, incorporating towers, pinnacles, and large traceried windows” (Victoria County History).
Despite the fact that the name of the house has no historical religious connections Frank Crisp filled it with images of friars, in stone, terracotta and even paintings inside the house which are often, as he put in his guidebook, “optical delusions.”
At the same time he called in Ernest Milner [son of Edward Milner who worked with Paxton] to help him start laying out extraordinarily extravagant gardens and grounds which, as he continued to buy surrounding land, eventually extended to 90 acres.
An engraving of proposals for Friar Park was included in Milner’s The Art and Practice of Landscape Gardening which was published just a year later in 1890, there were also designs for parterres, steps and terraces which may have been intended for Friar Park too, although the terrace garden wasn’t completed at the time of publication, and work was to continue over the next twenty years or so.
Ten years later Gardeners’ Chronicle, in an article that ran to over three full pages, described the garden at Friar Park as “one of the most remarkable in the country.” [28th October 1899] The key phrase in the description, and which underlies everything about Friar Park is, “the proprietor … is nothing if not thorough. He is not content with any second-rate production.”
And this top-notch production was there to be shared. Frank Crisp was so keen to include others in his enjoyment of the garden that, I suspect to the surprise, if not shock of many of his wealthy contemporaries, he opened the whole garden to the public. But he did not stop there. He also wanted his visitors to be well informed, so wrote a very lengthy illustrated guide book for “the I.V”
It was no ordinary guidebook either. Wittily written, full of images of the mediaeval and Elizabethan gardens which had inspired him, and with lots of visual and verbal puns. The 1910 edition ran to 276 pages and included a long section of plant anatomy and plant families in addition to the more obvious sections describing the house and garden. It sold for 6d.
But realising that a large volume wasn’t necessarily right for everyone, in about 1914, he commissioned Alan Tabor, a young Manchester-based calligrapher and book illustrator to produce a fold-up map of the estate to serve as a simple visual guide. Unfortunately only a few snippets of it are available on-line, and they are uncredited so I hunted it down in the map room of the British Library.When I took it to my desk I almost shattered the hallowed silence of the Map Room by laughing out loud. I’m going to use details from it throughout the rest of my comments on Friar Park & hope you’ll find it as amusing as I presume Frank Crisp did.
So now lets take a stroll around the estate, courtesy of the article in Gardeners Chronicle and using Tabor’s map …
To reach Friar Park the Chronicle writer walked the half mile or so uphill from Henley station until he reached “some well coloured specimens of Golden Privet” behind which was an imposing lodge – one of the prettiest from an architectural point of view that we have seen.”
“This handsome little house is occupied by Mr Crisp’s steward and gardener (Mr Philip O. Knowles).” It cost £3000! Knowles was appointed when Crisp bought Friars Park and it was “his first responsible charge”. It must have been a risk to take on such an inexperienced gardener but it certainly seems to have paid off.
There are two other ornate lodges in similar styles…
A long drive – Ye Rode for Ye Qualitie -curved its way up the hill passing flower beds, the paddock [although probably without real centaurs], “the house for ye goodlie views”, a leper squint , and finally a prospect seat before reaching the house.
Milner, like William Sawrey Gilpin from an earlier post, was keen to bring back strong formal links between the house and garden and laid out a long broad terrace along the principal facade to do this. Below it was a large formal parterre.
It was one of the few areas of the garden which didn’t meet with total approval from Gardeners Chronicle. It was “primly-designed” although “being contiguous to the architecture of the magnificent building, there is less reason to criticise its pronounced artificial characteristics. The geometrical flower-beds, each edged with Box, and the walks red with finely-broken bricks, may be less tasteful to some of us than the herbaceous garden…”
“During the summer the beds have been bright with showy, neat-habited, flowering plants that Mr Knowles is attended to exceedingly well. In this garden there is a very beautiful Fountain carved out of Portland stone; while the East front is further decorated with two great copper cranes.” I think Crisp’s own description of it as the Fountain of Perpetual Mirth much more appropriate!
“Presently the bog-garden comes into view” largely planted with iris and ferns although it was still being extended. It was next to the lake,”a pretty piece of water, containing an island that adds considerably to the charms of the scene.
The lake was entirely artificial and was constructed by Pulhams of Broxbourne on the site of the house that had been demolished. Amongst other features they made were a tunnel and a rocking stone.
Crisp, in his guide book, says that he was often told that he should not have made ponds and pools on the side of a hill, and cites Humphry Repton at length about this being a frequent fault of Capability Brown. However he was unrepentant: “it requires a degree of refinement in taste bordering on the fastidious to remove what is cheerful and pleasing to the eye, merely because it cannot be accounted for by the laws of Nature.”
Next to the lake was also “a charming flower garden, followed by another, not prim or formal ones, but gardens of herbaceous perennials” with “beds full of Roses, lavender, tritomas, Lupin’s and other hardy plants. Very narrow gravel walks intersect some of these beds, and they are edged with Box, a somewhat curious feature in so a charming garden. The site was evidently at one time a fruit garden, and some of the fruit trees have been wisely left, for it is absurd to suppose that where usefulness exists there can be no beauty.”
One of these gardens contained the interconnected arches in the photograph, which were only put up in 1896 but which were “now nicely covered with honeysuckle, clematis Montano, roses (especially the variety William Allen Richardson, a favourite rose of Mr Crisp’s ), and Turner’s Crimson Rambler…[which gives] a prodigal display of crimson bloom… not easily forgotten.”
Turner’s ‘Crimson Rambler’, was a rose of Japanese origin, closely related to R. multiflora, that was only introduced in 1893 but took the gardening garden world by storm, for its easy cultivation, great speed of growth, and its masses of showy crimson bloom.
Then just round the corner was “the old English garden” which was despite its name “full of conifers and other trees trained in imitative and grotesque shapes, and interspersed with old and curious sundials.” The oldest of these was dated 1657 whilst another was supposed to be made of a piece of the old London Bridge. These sundials “are perhaps more remarkable than the trees, for it is doubtful if a larger collection exists.” The photograph shows “not more than a fifth part of the collection of clipped trees.”
There were also “afternoon tea tables, peacocks, presentation cups, columns, pyramids, ovals… [and] umbrellas” This topiary garden was one of a large number of such being created in the wake of the “rediscovery”, of topiary work at Levens Hall or Elvaston Castle – “a feature that was one time exceedingly popular, but that was subsequently the object of almost universal ridicule.” Later it was renamed “The Dial Garden”.
Towards the northern side Crisp planted a pinetum with about 100 variety of conifers, including “some choice specimens which will make the collection remarkable and from the top of the pinetum there runs a pine walk, dividing this from the herbaceous garden. The path between these hardy old Pines is only about 6 feet wide, and the walk is near upon 200 yards long. What a glorious retreat from a Midsummer’s glaring sun!”
Nearby a Rhododendron garden “forms a pretty bank on one side of the Dell, and had a path that wound backwards and forwards down the slope”. With the plants laid out on either side so they could be inspected individually, and the whole effect seen from top or bottom.”
There were about 20 glasshouses for tender fruit and collections of orchids, cacti and other decorative flowering species “all these are cultivated in a manner creditable to Mr Knowles… The kitchen garden and its fruit trees have the same satisfactory appearance.”
The writer concludes: “We are full of appreciation of the liberality and enthusiasm that Mr Crisp has displayed in the development of an establishment that today promises to be a place of horticultural interest to an unusal degree.”
In the brief description of the garden above I have deliberately overlooked the one part that gives Friar Park, even today, more than just a degree of interest, and which is, of course, the one bit of the garden that you probably want to know about – the bit where the gnomes lived – his Alpine Garden which was built on a scale that made Sir Charles’ Isham’s look like a child’s sandcastle on the beach! But unfortunately I’ve run out of space so I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until next week’s episode although there is a glimpse of it in the photos above and below.