Crackerbox Palace

Guess who…
from darkhorserecords

You probably recognize the title of this post and  know where it comes from. If you do you probably  recognize the man in the boater too. But anyone who knows me will be amazed  that I’ve used it because I have very little knowledge and even less interest in “modern popular music” and never have had.  So why have I been reading the lyrics of a couple of Beatles songs as well as the biography of one of the Fab Four?  And why am I writing about it on a blog about garden history?

The clue is in the  last 2 posts which  have looked at the extraordinary garden at Friar Park in Oxfordshire created  by Sir Frank Crisp between 1889 and his death thirty years later. Today I want to conclude the story with the story of  what happened to the estate after his death in 1919, before finishing  up [for a change] with some good news.  Because  Friar Park and its amazing alpine garden was saved by the man in the boater. It became “Crackerbox Palace” and then  paid its benefactor  back by showing him how wonderful gardening is and  making it his overwhelming passion.

Sir Frank was, as I’m sure you will have realised from previous posts, a jovial and generous man with a great sense of fun…

Instructions to the visitor from Sir Frank’s guide book to Friar Park

but he also had a sense of of the immense responsibility that went with immense wealth. It’s clear that he thought his pleasure and enjoyment of Friar Park should be shared as far and wide as possible.

The Three Graces from the guide book – on the left “after Canova”, in the centre “after Peter Robinson”, and on the right “after all”

So, in 1891 almost before the garden was properly started he opened it to the public for special occasions  and  then in 1898 when it was still under construction, and well before it was finished he began opening not just for a range of charity events  but on a regular weekly basis.   This provoked considerable reaction both locally from his neighbours who were horrified and even nationally.  He even had to write to the Times in 1913 rejecting complaints that visitors caused damage.

Frances and the Leaping Fairy, the third of the five Cottingley Fairy photographs

But even Sir Frank had his foibles.

Not only was he a republican but like Sir Charles Isham, the introducer of the garden gnome,  Crisp was also a spiritualist, and like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle he was one of those fooled by the Cottingley garden fairies scandal in 1917, when a series of photographs  supposedly captured real fairies dancing around two sisters in a garden in Yorkshire. It was perhaps the first ever case of deliberate photographic manipulation.

The return of the Israelite spies from Eshcol showing the bounty available in the Promised Land , from Speculum Humane Salvationis 1435.


Yet he revelled in creating such illusions himself, including photographic ones, most famously the one below which is based on a medieval woodcut. He wrote in the guide:”The photograph is a spoof of The Return of the Spies from Eshcol…and is exactly came out of the camera, taken on one and the same plate, at one and the same time, and with no subsequent retouching or ‘faking'”.


Crisp’s version of the same story from Friar Park: A Pictorial History

Sir Frank died at Friar Park on April 29th 1919, and  his wife clearly did not want to stay. The estate was on the market within just a few weeks, and Sir Frank’s extensive  library including many  historic gardening and botany books and most of the contents of the house were quickly auctioned off.   The furniture alone fetched £22,000. There is a “good” obituary in the Linnean Society Proceedings.There is also a small personal archive in London Metropolitan Archives, including one private account book which covers some of the garden expenditure.

Plan of the estate from the sales particulars, 1919

Friar Park was bought for £46,500 by Percival David, a member of the Baghdadi Jewish diaspora, whose father  Sir Sassoon David, founded the Bank of India. Immensely wealthy and newly married Percival David had also began to study Chinese culture and collect Chinese art, and was to devote most of the rest of his life to this end, building up a huge collection, a large part of which is now in the British Museum.  Sir Percival as he was to become in 1926 continued to open the garden on Wednesday afternoons until at least 1930, and visitor numbers continued to increase because  in 1922, for example, he handed over £457 to charity, the equivalent of more than 18,000 sixpenny entry fees.

from The Sphere, 28th May 1921

I can find very little information about the garden at this time – although it featured on the gardening pages of The Sphere in 1921 – but I’d guess that it was at least reasonably well  maintained.

from The Sphere, 28th May 1921




From September 1939 the house was offered by the Percivals for use by  evacuees and I’ve found a lovely account of the garden by one of them.

from West Middlesex Gazette, 30th Sept 1939

Sir Percival  remained at Friar Park until 1953 when he  and his wife divorced, then she  stayed on at ‘Friar Park End’, remodelled from the coach house and stable courtyard, whilst the  the mansion and grounds were  sold separately.

Friar Park was acquired by a teaching order of nuns, the Salesian Sisters of St John Bosco, who used it as a training centre. However the sisters’ ambitions were greater than their pockets, because they had clearly not reckoned the upkeep costs. Without proper maintenance  the building and grounds quickly began to suffer from neglect so, to keep some money coming in, the nuns let local builders use the grounds and even the lakes as a tip.  As  a result all that was visible was, according to the current owner  “the peak of the Matterhorn, poking through a net of undergrowth and seedling trees… It had a Planet of the Apes aesthetic.”

As a result the nuns tried to turn property developer and over a 5 year period put in seven different proposals ranging from small developments or a block of flats on part of the estate to a scheme for complete demolition and  221 houses. All were refused, and refused again on appeal. Henley Council tried to buy the estate for community use but their move  failed.  What is interesting, indeed salutary, is that at no point as far as I can see was any mention made of the quality and significance of the house or its garden.

from Reading Evening Post – Friday 04 October 1968

Then while a dismal decline and eventual  demolition seemed likely, out of the blue  a knight in shining armour stepped in and bought the estate in January 1970 for £140,000 . This was none other than the Beatles star George Harrison, then just 27.

from Olivia Harrison’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, 2011

Harrison and his wife Pattie Boyd bought the mansion, the lodges and 32 acres of ground. It was explained by their press officer “a dream on a hill and it came, not by chance, to the right man at the right time.”

However Harrison’s  sister-in-law Irene recorded her first impressions. “My God! What’s he done? People had dumped cars in the garden and brambles had grown over them. You didn’t go for a walk without a machete in your hand to cut your way through… there was grass growing up through some of the wooden floors” but she added “somehow he had the foresight to look at for what it was – and do it.”

from Olivia Harrison’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, 2011

They moved temporarily  into one of the lodges while contemplating what to do with the rattlingly empty 120 room mansion.  Within weeks they had decided. A 16-track recording studio  [known as FPSHOT – Friar Park Studio, Henley-on-Thames] was installed and a slow but steady restoration programme was begun, with Harrison saying  he was happy to live in one room of the mansion and take on what he needed when he needed it.  However he also offered a wing of the house  to the Hare Krishna movement.


He was later to write: “Friar Park …is really incredible. It was all rotting and nobody was interested. They were trying to pull it down and destroy it. Now it’s a listed building. They even sent me certificates of historical value for the railings and restorations which I installed! All the historic societies want to come and look at it now, but nobody was interested when I got it, it was just unloved.”

from Olivia Harrison’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, 2011

from Olivia Harrison’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, 2011

Harrison and Boyd were divorced in 1977 and Harrison later married Olivia Arias, an American writer and producer.  By then he had fallen in love with gardening, and it was to become a major passion for the rest of his life.

Dan Pearson interviewed Olivia Harrison for the Guardian in 2008 and she explained how at first it was “amateur hour” , a process of  trial and error:  as they battled with overgrown shrubberies and self-sown trees. ‘We never set out to make the garden a restoration, we were just doing it for the joy of it,’ Friends came to help   clear undergrowth and weeds with a flamethrower, then  lawns  were gradually brought  under control, then the fountain was fixed, and they even put two goats on the Matterhorn to clear the brambles.

from Olivia Harrison’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, 2011

When that was done he was amazed to discover the caves and the underground and underwater worlds by lowering himself down into them on a rope .  He was hooked and “the grand project had found a new custodian.” Harrison soon nicknamed Friar Park Crackerbox Palace.

Things took a substantial step forward, in terms of confidence and success when  Beth Chatto  visited Friar Park and  said: ‘You know, George, if you had an old sofa in your house that you didn’t like you’d throw it out!’ He took her comments to be not a licence to wantonly destroy but instead encouragement to be newly creative within an existing framework rather than trying to recreate Crisp’s elaborate scheme.

from Olivia Harrison’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, 2011

The result was  “a new layer of planting” which according to Pearson “began to unroll in confident swathes…of considerable size” and which were not “precious”.    Like Crisp before him Harrison became a  something of a plant collector himself, and began visiting gardens and nurseries on the lookout for plants that took his fancy. However whereas Crisp planned everything with careful historical precedent in mind, even if with a non-traditional twist, and a sense of fun Harrison preferred to be spontaneous and to get the plants in the ground quickly to keep everything moving.

from Olivia Harrison’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, 2011

Harrison’s  approach to the garden was his way of coping with the events in his life. ‘He preferred not to think too much beyond the here and the now for fear of being overwhelmed by the scale of what lay around him. Gardening was the ideal antidote and the title of his song ‘Be Here Now’ described that perfectly.’

As time went by and the Harrisons uncovered Crisp’s legacy in the house where much of the irreverent carving  had been covered or painted over by the good sisters, so they began to appreciate how knowledgable, clever and far-sighted  Sir Frank had been. George’s  sister-in-law Irene  said he pointed out a group of blue firs saying “do you realise that when Frank Crisp planted those he was never going to see them…he knew by the time he was an old gentleman he wasn’t going to see this garden looking as he’d planned it” and he felt the same way.

from Olivia Harrison’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, 2011

Harrison admired Crisp’s  creativity and  humour describing  him as a cross between Walt Disney and Lewis Carroll, and he tried to add things in keeping with the same spirit.  To mark his  son Dhani’s 21st birthday he installed a boat in a tree – as mad a feature as Sir Frank’s  stone crocodile or the  sign, put up after losing many many goldfish:   ‘Herons will be prosecuted!’

Perhaps the most surprising thing is the way that Harrison also used Crisp and Friar Park as part of his muse both in the lyrics and the videos that went with his songs.  Most famously there was  ‘The Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp‘ or ‘Let it Roll’ on his 1970 album  All Things Must Pass.

This has references to the fountain of perpetual mirth, the maze and the caves. The record sleeve shows  Harrison in the garden with some of the gnomes  he had  salvaged. In 1976 he followed it up with  “Crackerbox Palace“, and then songs such as “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” and “The Answer’s at the End” all of which refer back to Crisp’s humourous carvings.

Of course this was seen by many as a “decidedly un-rock-star-ish pastime” but its clear that  Harrison loved gardening. Not only did he employ as many as  ten workers to maintain Friar Park but he enjoyed doing the physical work himself. His son Dhani said  “He’d garden at night-time until midnight. He’d be out there squinting because he could see, at midnight, the moonlight and shadows, and that was his way of not seeing the weeds or imperfections that would plague him during the day. He missed nearly every dinner because he was in the garden. He would be out there from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.” Harrison himself once said: “Sometimes I feel like I’m actually on the wrong planet, and it’s great when I’m in my garden. But the minute I go out the gate I think: ‘What the hell am I doing here?'”

Olivia Harrison and garden designer Yvonne Innes in the alpine garden, from Daily Mail 12th May 2008

Harrison rescued the surviving gnomes from their underground hideouts and was featured with them in publicity shots and on a record sleeve, so it was sad that when, after his death in 2001, and  a garden was created in his memory at  the Chelsea Flower Show, it did not include any of them since they of course are banned  by the RHS.

At the moment the gardens are strictly private and not open to the public [given the mania that still surrounds the Beatles probably unsurprisingly] but perhaps that will change one day and then we can all see how Crisp’s framework has been adapted and reshaped by Harrison’s passion.

For more on Friar Park the best and most easily accessible  place to start looking is Friar Park: A Pictorial History, by the Cardinals, who have also published a reprint of the 1919 Sales Catalogue.


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8 Responses to Crackerbox Palace

  1. Hannah Leamy says:

    I have really enjoyed reading this blog. I saw the gardens once when I was about eight years old and they were in a most dilapidated state. My mother and aunts had told me several stories of the their visits to the gardens when they were children in the 1920s on Sunday school trips and I so wanted to see the same. I have a vague memory of a nun showing us round the house but it’s the gardens I recall most. We could see the Matterhorn replica and found the caves with the underground stream but the wooden boat was rotten so we could not ride through as they had as children. It was possible to climb round the edges but even with torches it was a dismal sight. We did see one or two of the bunches of glass grapes that I’d heard used to be lit up as you went through the caves. It’s so nice that the garden has been restored and evolved for a new generation.
    Since I have never read it any where else, you may be interested in one small detail, my mother said the boat was a flat punt that could take quite a number of people and you pulled your way through the caves using ropes fixed to the walls.

  2. Tommy Dott says:

    Really well done website! I live on Cape Cod, MA and have had a fascination with Friar park for decades. I have a couple of books on the house and grounds and have always put “Tour Friar Park” at the #1 spot of my “bucket list” (for lack of a better term). Is there any talk of the park ever re-opening for private or public tours? I would book a trip to the UK for that opportunity alone 😉

  3. cboot says:

    Both Tim Mowl, compiling his ‘The Historic Gardens of England : Oxfordshire’ and Sarah Rutherford when compiling the entry for the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens for Historic England were lucky enough to make visits. I understand they were asked not discuss George Harrison’s additions. Both were I gather absolutely thrilled see the gardens, as who wouldn’t be. It remains high on my ‘wish list’.
    A copy of the ‘medieval’ plan is on display in the Museum of Rowing etc at Henley, though sadly rather hard to see close up.
    Thanks so much for this David.

  4. By coincidence I saw the Netflix film of George Harrison the day before your blog was posted. It makes sense of Crisp’s ‘Don’t keep off the grass’ sign. As usual, a great read – thank you.

    • Thanks for the flattery. I suspect Harrison and Crisp would have really hit it off despite their many differences. One of these days [or more likely someone else] should attempt a biography of Sir Frank because I’ve only been able to put in small aprt of the things I’ve discovered about him.

  5. SpikeJ says:

    Really great blog, thanks so much. Especially enjoyed Sir Frank’s word play 😉

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