Solomon de Caus in England

Design for a grand figure representing Mount Imolus, from De Caus Raisons des Forces mouvantes 1615

Roy Strong in The Renaissance Garden asserts, quite rightly, that early writers on garden history seem to have overlooked the huge part played in garden design in the late 15th to early 17thc by engineers.  The Renaissance humanist mind saw no boundaries  between academic and practical disciplines of any kind, and proof of that can be seen perfectly in the life and career of Salomon de Caus.

De Caus was an engineer, architect, mathematician and musical theorist who also studied hydraulics and optics amongst many other things. He combined broad practical skill with theoretical understanding  in all these fields, and also had a significant role in early modern garden design. 

De Caus worked on several important sites in Jacobean Britain, as well as others in mainland Europe, most famously at Heidelberg.  He also wrote a series of books which show his breadth of intellect and interests, and which, particularly because of their wonderful illustrations, continue to be a major source of information notably on early modern engineering and gardens.  
Today’s post is a look at his impact on gardens in England

As far as I know this is the only portrait of de Caus, reproduced from an anonymous engraving of 1619 in Le Magasin pittoresque, Vol. 21, , 1850.

De Caus was born in 1576 at Dieppe in the Pays de Caux, which is part of Normandy.  Although we know little about his upbringing we do know that in the late 1590s he travelled to Italy where he saw the great gardens at Pratolino outside Florence, the Villa d’Este and Frascati.  This was to have a huge impact on his approach to both to style and the practicalities of  garden design.  By 1601 at the latest he was working at the Brussels court of the Archduke Albert, the governor of the Spanish Netherlands and was involved in designing aristocratic gardens there, including that of Albert himself at the Coudenberg Palace. He clearly impressed his employers and  in 1605 was appointed ‘fountain engineer’ [“ingéniaire à la fontaine artificielle], but it seems they weren’t impressed enough to pay him promptly or fully and he is known to have left a large grotto/fountain complex unfinished as a result.

Around 1608 he began visiting  London where it’s possible he had family connections, because there are several de Caus/Caux listed  in the registers of the French Protestant Church, and by late 1610 he was probably there permanently acting a tutor to Henry, Prince of Wales, teaching him mathematics and drawing.

In the preface to his book La Perspective avec la raison des ombres et Miroirs published in London in 1612 the first part of which was dedicated to Henry he says he had also been appointed “Ingenieur du Serennissime Princes des Galles” in 1610.


This appointment was for his work in and on the gardens at Henry’s  residence at Richmond,  which were to be designed by Constantino de Servi, a Florentine architect, and supervised by Inigo Jones, the prince’s surveyor.

Sketch by Inigo Jones, 30th June 1611, National Archives. Image taken from Luke Morgan, Nature as Model [full ref at end]

There is a surviving sketch by Jones which shows the earliest major works  probably mostly carried out before de Servi arrived in England.  De Caus was responsible for building “a great Cesterne for waterworks” at a cost of £504,  which is marked on both Jones’ sketch and de Servi’s later plans,  and also for designing some uncosted  “devices”.  The cistern [top left on the sketch] was connected, probably along the line of the old moat, which it is thought Jones drained and filled, to another much larger construction on the bank of the Thames itself.   This was “intended for a waterhouse called the Rockhouse but never finished.” On de Servi’s plan this building is referred to as “la grotta cominciata”.  Although there is no direct attribution to de Caus, logic and precedent suggests that it is also his work, and would have served as the base for a large fountain/grotto.

Designs for Richmond thought to be by Constantino de Servi. .  From The Guardian 26th Sept 2016





De Servi’s  plans incorporate de Caus’s great cistern [ small blue square on the top left of the garden] , and the grotto [brown square bottom left]. Elsewhere  elaborate formal water gardens surround the palace, with associated fountains, galleries and summerhouses etc on the banks of the Thames which Jones had straightened.

In an interesting aside Davide Martino, a Cambridge PhD student was recently working on a life of de Servi and had a real coup when working  in the archives in Florence recently because he discovered that not only was Richmond  the only garden de Servi designed but also that he was probably operating as a kind of informal diplomatic agent, and may well have been involved in plans to arrange the marriage of a Medici princess to Henry as much as lay out the palace grounds.

Work at Richmond ceased on Henry’s early death from typhus in 1612 so the bulk of the gardens were never completed.  However the grotto base was so substantial that it  was still there in 1653 when a parliamentary survey described it as “That modell of building intended for a waterhouse called the Rockhouse but never finished, situate and being on the aforesaid parcel of ground called the Wharf, being raised with a brick wall one storey high and not covered.”  It can be seen in Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1638 engraving of the palace.   The engine to pump water out of the river can be seen on the far left of Hollar’s print.

It’s known that a huge quantity – 14 cartloads of “glass stuffe” – perhaps intended to decorate the grotto was delivered but after Henry’s death  “maie be delivered backe againe”. There is also a mention that some of the images in de Caus’s magnum opus  Raisons des Forces mouvantes were designs to “ornament” the princes garden, and “others to satisfy his gentle curiosity”.

What the rest of de Caus’ work would have been like we can only guess at but John Dixon Hunt thinks it’s pretty clear that both he and de Servi were thinking on a very grand scale indeed.  probably employing some of the ideas illustrated in his books.

However apart from the obvious grand classically inspired features there were  also  “natural areas”, probably derived from Pliny’s ideas of imitatio ruris – imitating the countryside. A view of what this might have been like can be glimpse in the background of a 1610 portrait of Henry by Robert Peake.

sketch of de Caus’ suggestions for the East garden at Hatfield 25th Nov 1611, National Archives, image taken from Luke Morgan, Nature as Model

De Caus’ work for Henry must have attracted the attention of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury because in late 1611 and early 1612 he was  working in parallel at Hatfield as well. The gardens there had already been  planned in outline but de Caus appears in the accounts  for adjustments to the existing water system and with proposals for 3 additional fountains with the associated works, although probably only one extra was actually installed. He also used “naturalism” in his work on the terraces, prospects and associated waterworks and  these were still largely intact  post-Restoration.

De Caus also worked for Henry’s mother, the queen, Anne of Denmark who spent lavishly and commissioned him to embellish the gardens at both Greenwich and Somerset House between March 1612 and February the following year, when he received a last payment “in full for Somerset and Greenwiche gardens.”

Robert Smythson drew a plan of the grounds of Denmark House [as Somerset House was then known]  somewhen between 1609 and 1612 while work was still taking place.  The accounts show payments of the new Terrass…with railes and balusters of stone.”  and for “the making of a Force with divers brass workes to bring water into the garden.” 

Someone called Richard Barnwell  was paid for “makinge and settinge upp an Engine to force water up from a well at the end of the Terrasse in the garden to the Great Cesterne over the Strand lane which serveth the new ffountaine with water.The said Engine consisting of diverse wheles pipes of Timber and Ironwoorkes”. This was probably for de Caus because the accounts also note payment for “works about the fountaine in the Garden and building a house towardes the Thames for Mounzer to Coie to make the Rocke for the ffountaine.”

The cistern can still be seen in Strand Lane, which is now just a  tiny alleyway behind King’s College. It was  long thought to be a Roman bath, and indeed it is still  usually described as that. Later it was thought to be connected with the water supply for Arundel House, the Thameside mansion of the Howard family – Dukes of Norfolk and Earls of Arundel, forgotten about when the house was demolished.  However, a 2012  article by Michael Trapp  makes a clear case  that it was neither of these and was  almost certainly built as  part of the the reservoir for de Caus’s  “Rocke” and its associated fountains. It is now owned by the National Trust.

“The Rocke” was described by a member of the entourage of the the Duke of Saxony who visited in 1613: “Farther your Grace came down into the garden. It is next to the palace and extends down to the river. It is very well laid out, and is divided into diverse beautiful plats of curious shapes…To one side stands a Mount Parnassus: the mountain or rock is made of sea-stones, all sorts of mussels, snails and other curious plants put together: all kinds of herbs and flowers grow out of the rock which are a great pleasure to behold.”   Mount Parnassus was a well-known classical subject,  but rather than merely reproduce what he had seen on his travels de Caus decided to elaborate the construction further.

The Duke’s secretary went on: “On the side facing the palace it is made like a cavern. Inside it sit the Muses, and have all sorts of instruments in their hands. Uppermost at the top stands Pegasus, a golden horse with wings. On the mountain are four small arches, in each rests a naked statue of marble. They have cornucopia in their hands and under their arms jugs from which water flows into the basin about four good paces wide, and is all around the mountain. They are supposed to represent four rivers. Among others there stands above such a female figure in black marble in gold letters Tamesis. It is the river on which London lies and flows next to this garden.”

From other descriptions we know that the four rivers were Thames, Humber, Trent and Severn and each was accompanied by a Latin inscription. That for the Thames translates roughly as In my sway are empire, trade fleet and arts, and a seat of learning, with my gentle flow I water flowery meads.”

The description concluded by explaining how “the water was let play. Above at the very top of the crag it sprang up as thick as an arm, and to and fro out of the mountain as well.  It is thus a very beautiful work and far surpasses the Mount Parnassus in the Pratolino near Florence.”

So its  pretty clear that Anne’s Mount Parnassus was very similar in its general structure and composition to other known Italian versions, and was derived from the just reissued works of Hero of Alexandria (first century A.D.) However  hers seems to have more elaborate decoration and hydraulics.   Unfortunately it  did not last long and was demolished by the 1640s, and there are no illustrations of it in place.

The palace at Greenwich, the former Tudor hunting lodge that  James I  gave to Anne was redesigned. Amongst other things de Caus laid out  new parterres around a fountain, all again on a grand scale.  Elsewhere in the grounds  he once again elaborated on a simple design and created a combined grotto and “bird house”. Knowledge of what was included comes almost entirely from visitors accounts.

The Duke of Saxony also visited Greenwich and his secretary described it in considerable detail: “ Your Grace was shown the garden: in the middle of the same is a large fountain. It is a female figure which gives water out of a cornucopia and was gilded all over. It has several lovely garden plats around… Farther on one comes to a grotto. It is a small house from the front, and on both sides mostly open, with great iron railings there. On the wall there are three different arches, thus along with the whole wall embellished with snails, mussels, mother-of-pearl and all kinds of all curious sea-plants; in some places flowers, grass and all sorts of lovely herbs grow out. In the middle arch stands a figure half a man and half a horse in the right size, also made of shells and mussels; it gave water from itself unto the ground.

In the other two arches were other figures from which water also sprang: on the ground sea stones were put together like rock. in some places there grew also flowers and small shrubs out of wood. There was also something of grass therein: on the wall sat on a branch a cuckoo, such a cry the gardener makes calling across the water. This house was also in the roof open in several places, although protected by wire grating, so that the birds, of which a great number were flying around inside, could not get out.”

The shellwork and the mix of natural and artificial in the grotto are familiar elements but keeping birds inside as well is I think unknown elsewhere [I am sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong]. John Dixon Hunt wondered if this was an attempt to recreate the decorative aviary described by Varro in Rerum rusticarum which had an open  colonnade hung with netting. You can check that for yourself but be warned Varro also describes the farming – and eating – of songbirds such as fieldfares in great and gruesome detail.

De Caus’  tutoring of Prince Henry had lead to a similar role with Princess Elisabeth, his sister, and although the world changed  dramatically when Prince Henry caught typhus and died, aged only 18 in November 1612 it was not the end of de Caus’ connection with the royal family.  The following February Elizabeth married Frederick, the Elector Palatine, and in April left for Heidelberg. De Caus soon followed and there created his masterpiece, often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. And more of that next week.






For more information see Luke Morgan,Nature as Model: Salomon de Caus and Early Seventeenth-Century Landscape Design, University of Pennyslvania Press, 2006

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