Last week’s post gave an introduction to Friar Park at Henley, the madcap garden project of Sir Frank Crisp. Crisp was not only rich he was also imaginative and ambitious – a good combination for someone never satisfied with what he had achieved in his garden. As Gardeners Chronicle said in 1899 “small wonder… Mr Crisp.. is ever making such alterations and additions as shall render it ever more interesting and beautiful.”
The whole site was eclectic, drawing on his interest in medieval and Tudor history, but also his openness to new ideas and directions such as the fashion for the Japanese. But it’s his Alpine garden which really bought the garden to public attention. It might make you want to giggle as much as admire but there’s no doubt that Frank Crisp had panache and a pronounced sense of humour… as well as a collection of gnomes.
The image above and all the similar ones in this post come from Alan Tabor’s fold-up guide published around 1914
Apart from Sir Frank’s own guidebook, there are two descriptive articles in Gardeners Chronicle about the rockery , one in 1899 and a second in 1911 [GC 3.9.1911] by Charles Drury. The garden was described in Country Life in June 1903 and Irish Gardening in 1915. It was also used as an exemplar in a 1903 article in The Garden. [The quotes come from these sources unless otherwise stated.
In 1899 readers were told “This is no ordinary rock garden with a path down the centre and banks on either side; it is more like a model Alps; it stretches over a great space of ground, and there are represented in it mountains of greater and lesser height, valleys, mountain passes… Alpine bridges, overlooking quite formidable precipices; a waterfall [which] commences at the highest point in the rockery, and after winding and twisting in innumerable corrections, for a moment conspicuous, then hidden for a time, at last runs into a small pool surrounded by a little greensward at the lowest point.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. It stood between 30 and 40 ft high and was constructed from more than 7,000 tons of Yorkshire millstone grit transported down from Yorkshire by Backhouse & Sons of York. Some of the rocks were enormous, with many of 6 or 7 tons and “an immense excavation was necessary to form a veritable valley whose sides were destined to be walled in and diversified on natural lines … Over and over again these unwieldy masses had to be shifted and rearranged to satisfy the fastidious taste of the owner … It was not a mere question of picturesque massing, but also of contriving the myriad congenial nooks, recesses, pockets and tiny platforms, in and on which alpine plants could thrive, and make themselves truly at home.”
What becomes clear is that Crisp had done his homework. “None, however, but the controller and his fabled assistant, his head gardener, Mr Knowles, can grasp the amount of careful study of geological conditions, and the needs of alpine plants, destined to occupy it, together.”
“Bit by bit, however, the desired end was accomplished and, finally, as a crowning touch to the whole, the bold idea was conceived of creating the Matterhorn on the highest point” finished with a piece taken from the top of the real thing. And why The Matterhorn ? Perhaps because it was a mountain with a long and mythical history, as well as a distinctive shape, which had only been climbed as late at 1865 by Edward Whymper.
At the base of the mountain was a miniature Swiss chalet, “where one may sit and enjoy the scene, comparing all the main features with a little bronze model of the Matterhorn which Sir Frank had made for the entertainment of his guests.” From there “we now gaze up a tortuous ravine, traversed by a stream which forms a series of cascades and still pools in which the trout are entirely at home.”
There was a glacier containing “an ice grotto” based on the ice caves at Grindelwald, as well as “some choice waterlilies and a number of rare aquatic plants, while here and there on the slopes, near the pools, water turtles may be seen basking in the sun.” Crisp also noted that some green tree frogs had escaped from one of the greenhouses and colonised one of the ponds despite the winters, and their noise was he said often mistaken by visitors for that of nightingales!
There were more than 2500 varieties of plants growing on the mountain, generally en masse but also in carefully planned ‘pockets’. Backhouse supplied around 500 varieties with the rest from the Guildford Hardy Plant company, “all under the direction of Mr Knowles”.
“Innumerable mountain paths and stepping-stones permit of easy access to the botanical treasures” that were “everywhere from minute chinks and crannies [to] the larger recesses beneath the sheltering rocks.” They “sweep in veritable sheets of intermingled flower and foliage over the rocky slopes, or tower upwards as shrubs or even trees where the circumstances permit bolder growth, the former background”. If you want to know more there is a fuller description in Henry Correvon’s 1911 Alpine Flora.
But the alpine garden, imposing and impressive as it was would not have been complete without some humorous twists.
Crisp’s guidebook contains a mock mountaineer’s route of the ascent … explaining how to cross the snowfield, where to use the ropes, and even where previous climbers had fallen!
A later joke is played “by the loan of an opera glass through which we not merely see the Matterhorn in detail, but even a group of chamois on the heights below the snow field, at its foot, these, of course, consisting of tiny models placed there to enhance the illusion, but often the source of considerable amusement to puzzled visitors who do not suspect a joke.”
So what did visitors think? Gardeners Chronicle thought they “can hardly fail to be astounded at the natural result”. Many agreed. William Robinson called it “the best natural stone rock garden I have ever seen” and he was echoed by E. H. Jenkins: “the noblest example of a rock garden this or any other country has ever seen”. But others were not so certain. “As to the Matterhorn feature, English critics are divided. They do not quarrel with the Japanese for imitating Fuji, but there is no precedent in England for duplicating any particular mountain.” [Country Life In America, 1909]. It was called “pretentious” while others were more openly hostile. Charles Thonger in his Book of Rock and Water Gardens likened it to ” an Alpine peepshow, which might well serve as a sixpenny attraction at Earl’s Court”. It was, amongst other things, “an absurd range of beetling crags and frowning cliffs”and “horresco referens”, this “garden” is approached by rockwork tunnels, in which there is sufficient light to reveal rows of artificial stalactites!” For other comments, citical and otherwise, see the references in Brent Elliott’s 2011 Lindley Library Occasional Paper on Rock Gardens.
But this is not all. Crisp had designed much more than just a spectacular rock garden. Underneath “much of the natural scenery” were “labyrinthine caves, caverns, grottoes, and icy recesses, forming an underland as marvellous almost in its artificiality and humorous contents and contrivances as the overland.” Annoyingly Drury then adds “It is not, however, our province to deal with this section of the attractions of Friar Park. It would demand an article in itself, in which, with humour and a love for the grim and weird, would be exemplified quite outside our own special domain of horticulture.”
So we have to rely on Crisp’s own description and there are unfortunately almost no photos of what they were like. The Guide Book explained that there were 5 caves and over the entrance was inscribed “Cave” and “Time” – not references to a subterranean clock but Latin meaning “beware” and “fear” “words appropriate to the entrances of gloomy recesses.
The first was the Vine Cave “distinguished by the glass bunches of grapes of different colours holding electric lamps. (In this case it is “in vino non-Veritas!” It was lined with mirrors which offered various optical illusions including “withered and chained up hands… which may (or may not) be those of a walled up Friar of a long past age…”
Next came the Wishing Well cave which had a well “in which can be seen such male or female faces as the visitor may wish for…It should be remembered however that what is wished for will remain to be seen by others, so that some restraint should be imposed on the character of the wish. Thus a married lady should not wish to see her second husband nor a married man a future wife… All round are various kinds of bats and owls (with electric lamps), crocodiles, toads, frogs and other forms suitable such uncanny place.” After giving some erudite details of the legends about crocodiles, he concludes “if convenient it would be obliging if the illuminated eyes of the adjoining ghost owl were not poked out. Being of the glass, they will not bear a heavy knock with a stick or umbrella and much time has been lost in replacing them on different occasions.”
The third cave was the Skeleton cave, so-called from the representation of a skeleton which is reflected in an apparently inexplicable manner. It is ordinarily shut up in the cupboard, in which all respectable families usually endeavour to keep them.” There were also distorting mirrors and fungi growing on the walls.
Next came the Illusion cave which had “an optical illusion showing the upper part of a friar who instantaneously passes from life to death, after the manner of an American electrocution.”
Finally came the Gnome cave and here Sir Frank’s imagination almost runs away with him. There are gnomes everywhere including one taking snuff, another with toothache, and one alarmed by the explosion of the champagne bottle he is carrying. After another erudite discourse “a special mirror at the east end of the cave turns the visitor himself into an gnome the upper part consists of a plain glass which shows the head and distorted, while the lower glass being curved shortens and distorts the body, so the result is the figure of a gnome.”
“At this point we arrive again at the rock garden entrance of the caves but bypassing back through the gnome cave the greenhouses can be reached….”
But recreating the Matterhorn and adding subterranean adjuncts was only one part of Crisp’s great scheme. In 1906 he added a Japanese garden, in a small valley to the south of the house. It was based on the rules for “Hill Garden-finished style” suggested in Joseph Conder’s Landscape Gardening in Japan of 1893.
Crisp clearly had taken on board Conder’s attempts to outline many of the underlying principles of Japanese gardening, and in particular the significance of features such as the Snow-Scene lantern. He points out “That Japanese gardens are not Flower Gardens. While to us it seems impossible that a garden without flowers could be a thing of beauty, yet, strange as it may appear to Western idea, flowers for their own sake do not enter the scheme of Japanese gardening. The gardener in Japan is not a cultivator of flowers, but a Garden Artist.”
But of course Sir Frank couldn’t resist combining a joke with the seriousness. And it was a joke on a grand scale.
He had a lake next to the Japanese garden which, as can just be seen in the photo, enabled people to walk Christ-like on water. It is, of course, an optical illusion because in fact there are two lakes one slightly higher than the other with stepping-stones behind the retaining dam.
The creation of the garden was a long process with many of the additions and improvements shown on Tabor’s plan only being constructed in the run-up to the First World War.
Unfortunately, however, I’m running out of space, so I can’t tell you in detail about many of them, but I’ll add a few more extracts from the map to give you an inkling, and then next week we’ll finish off the story of the estate and see what happened to it after Sir Frank died in 1919.