An unsung hero?

Welcome to our 300th post!

Hands up if you recognize the man in the photo. As  a clue he  wrote: “Designing gardens is an art… As in all the arts there are periods of growth and changing fashion, but the principles remain constant. To make  a beautiful garden the garden-maker must not only know what he is going to do, but also why he is doing it.”

So congratulate yourself if you do know but, if like most people outside the very small world of garden design and garden history you don’t, read on and maybe you can see why Anna Pavord called him   “the Thirties’ answer to Edwin Lutyens,”  although “he  has yet to find a champion to set him up in the garden designer’s pantheon where he belongs.”


Those opening words come from the introduction to The Creative Art of Garden Design written by Percy Cane, and I’d guess that for most people even giving you his name still doesn’t mean much, but he is one of the great unsung garden writers and designers of the 20thc.  This post is about his early life and some early commissions with another post following shortly about some of  his later work.

Born in 1881 in  Essex, Stephen Percival Cane was bought up  at Bocking Mill where he was given his own garden plot and worked alongside his mother who was a keen Victorian bedding-style gardener.   His first job had little to do with gardens, because at school he had been friends with the son of the owners of Crittall Windows, and he worked for them from 1903 to 1908.

However his ambitions changed dramatically after a visit to Harold Peto’s recently finished garden at Easton Lodge, designed for Daisy, Countess of Warwick.  Peto’s transformation of the landscape and grounds in an Italianate style was written up by Avery Tipping in Country Life on 23rd November 1907.  It inspired Cane to rethink his career.

Cover of the first issue of My Gardens, Illustrated, June 1914

He left Crittalls and began studying art at Chelmsford College of Science and Art, but at around the same time began offering advice to friends about their gardens. His  talent was recognized by the college principal who introduced him to the secretary of the Architectural Association. This led to him studying architecture with Stephen Pierce who was to become vice-president of the RIBA.

Around this time too he met Charles Holme founder and  editor of The Studio, as well as Katherine and Bernard Martin who owned My Garden, Illustrated which launched its first issue in June 1914 [not exactly the most auspicious timing for a new enterprise]. Nevertheless these  introductions set him up in another new but parallel career in  garden journalism.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 Cane went to   work for the Food Production Department at the Board of Agriculture, but it did not stop him him trying to get his writing off the ground.  His pen and ink drawings, and then a few articles began to appear in My Gardens Illustrated, then under the editorship of Donald Macdonald,  although the magazine only appeared erratically because of paper shortages.  Then in November 1917 Macdonald’s name disappears and more articles with Cane’s byline  appear.

Cover Plan for a vegetable garden

Cane may well have been the unofficial editor after that, although his name does not appear on the masthead until July 1918. There is an instant and noticeable  shift in emphasis to food production, using material produced by the Board of Agriculture where he was still working, with even the covers converted to the cause.  He even wrote practical articles on growing basic vegetables since  “No work in the garden can, at the present time, be of greater importance than the care bestowed on the potato, as a plentiful supply of the tubers will go far to lessen the consumption of bread.

Cane’s own illustration to his article on diseases and pests in potatoes

The magazine was smaller, still appearing erratically and  probably losing money so the Martins offered it to Cane and  he became owner as well as editor.

He made some changes and shifted the focus  away from grand gardens to deal more with “domestic and garden architecture and garden making for small and large gardens… and the problems of reconstruction”. At the same time, at the age of nearly 40,  he enrolled on a basic horticulture course at the Chelmsford County School of Horticulture, which has evolved over the years into Writtle University College.

One of Cane’s illustrations from My Gardens Illustrated 1916

Katherine Martin encouraged Cane in another way as well.  His biographer tells the story of how one day she told him she and her husband were going away for a while and asked if he would like to come and alter anything in their garden that he felt needed changing. He set to work with enthusiasm, perhaps he thought over-enthusiastically, and  altered about half of the garden completely. He then got worried that he’d overstepped the mark, especially when on their return the Martins did not mention what he’d done. Eventually, and obviously somewhat nervously, he was forced to ask. The reply was enigmatic at first: “she didn’t know whether she liked the alterations or not” , before adding, one suspects with a grin, “but she did know that the other half must be similarly altered the following autumn.”

It led him to begin advertising for commissions in his own journal.

Cover images courtesy of Dr Peter Robinson

Unfortunately My Garden Illustrated still struggled financially and it finally closed in 1920. At that point Cane started writing  for Holme in The Studio before,  in 1930, he started up another journal of his own, the  quarterly Garden Design which ran until 1938.








Sharnden Manor

Nevertheless hat first advert paid off, with his first garden commission coming from readers Mr & Mrs Sam Dennis who had just bought Sharnden Manor at Mayfield Sussex.

The house had amazing views and so, instead of laying out plans that distracted from it,  he created gardens to the side of the house which did not block them.

His work was  described in The Studio (1924) as ‘a series of small country gardens…. and informal surroundings of trees and flower bordered glades’. Later illustrations show terraced gardens accessed by wide stone steps leading down from the house to lawns, a rose Garden,  two lily pools, and a Sundial Garden with a revolving summer house and pavilion.  In the late 1950s Sharnden was  divided into three, and a new house built on the site of Cane’s sundial garden.  As you can see from the recent estate agents photos there are only remnants of his work left, although some of the woodland glades lower down also survive.

By 1926 he was confident enough to write his first book which was published as a special edition of  The Studio.  In  Modern Gardens, British and Foreign  he spelled out his rationale for good design: “the inclusion of formal terraces and gardens suitable to the character of the house, and the relation and contrast of these with beautifully balanced glades and planting … It is the harmonious relation of the garden to the house, and of the gardens to the surrounding scenery.”

A similar problem over garden for a house with stunning views occurred when he was asked for advice by the owners of Llannerch Hall near St Asaph in north Wales.  Llannerch is one of the most famous Welsh historic gardens, originally an Italianate terraced garden created by Mutton Davies around 1660, and recorded in a well-known painting now at Yale.

Cane’s drawing for the Italian Terrace at Llanerch from Garden Design of Today, 1934

The house had been rebuilt and any historic elements of the garden had largely vanished when Captain and Mrs Piers Jones called in Cane in 1927  to alter and enlarge what survived. This he did by creating a series of  formal terraced gardens immediately around the mansion, linked together by long flights of steps. He also added a set of cloisters, a loggia, and a rose pergola.  Further away he laid out bulb-filled woodland gardens and converted  the old walled garden  into a pleasure garden.

Tennis Courts and a swimming pool were included without any major intrusion.

There is a fuller description of his work at Llanerch on the Denbighshire Monuments Record.  The house has now been converted into apartments while the parkland once housed a zoo and now has become a golf course.

In 1927 Sir William Berry, owner of the Daily Telegraph was the owner of 18thc St Ann’s Hill House at Chertsey, which was adjacent to the hill itself. He decided to donate the land  to the local council as a recreational space,  and commissioned Cane  to landscape the hilltop which was covered with mature trees.  Cane planned a formal balustraded terrace with temples at either end but they were replaced in the accepted scheme with  seats. Money presumably ruled the day even then.  The park was officially opened in 1928 by Neville Chamberlain. On a tangent Percy Cane took on an apprentice, Christopher Tunnard who was to become a great modernist landscape and garden designer. Tunnard’s partner, Gerald Schlesinger was later to buy Berry’s house, and in act of what would now probably be regarded as vandalism demolished it. However the pair then  commissioned Raymond McGrath, to build The Round House,  now considered one of the finest pieces of modernist architecture in the country.

Hascombe Park near Godalming was built in 1907 and in 1922 Sir John Jarvis employed  Gertrude Jekyll  to extend the original gardens.  In 1928-9 he then employed  Percy Cane to extend the garden further, and a plan of his survives.

The Rock Garden at Hascombe from Garden Designs of Today

Jarvis bought unemployed miners down from Jarrow to build  a Japanese style water and rock garden to Cane’s design.  Cane was very proud of his work at Hascombe and there are a series of photos  in Garden Designs of Today.

The Upper Terrace at Hascombe from Garden Designs of Today

Paved formal pond garden from Garden Designs of Today


from Country Life 1942

There are also a series of garden buildings by Cane, all now listed, as are several of his garden features. There is a very detailed description on the Parks and Gardens database.  Hascombe Court was bought in 2000 by Chris Evans, the radio presenter and after restoration later sold to Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky.

Hascombe  was sold again in 2009 and there are now proposals for  an ambitious  garden restoration plan by Tom Stuart-Smith, along with some new buildings.

from Country Life, 1942







Hascombe has survived largely intact unlike another of Cane’s  commissions,  Ivy House in Hampstead, for the great ballerina, Anna Pavlova.

Pavlova with Jack one of her pet swans in the gardens at Ivy House

There he probably laid out a small pond for her pet swans as well as flowers beds and borders to screen the garden from neighbouring properties.  The site has had a chequered history since death in 1931, and it is now a school. Most of the grounds have been developed, and what is left has been altered beyond recognition with even the pond having gone.

The swans’ pond


In the mid-1930s Percy Cane was called in by Geoffrey Bushby and his wife to redesign the gardens at Sibbersfield House at Churton-by-Farndon in Cheshire.   It seems to have already had a solid design structure in place but he redesigned the planting and added  a tree and shrub garden.

There are a series of photographs and an account of his work there on the excellent website of the Sibbersfield Historical Society, and I’m grateful for their permission to use some of them here.










His journalism and these early commission soon made his name and within a decade or so of starting out professionally Percy Cane was becoming one of the in-demand  landscape and garden designers of his day.  In 1921 he began exhibiting at Chelsea winning 8 gold medals between 1936 and 1952. Unlike most designers who showed their plans Cane used photographs of completed projects, which were all, according to William Robinson, “in excellent taste”.

Like other designers when he wrote about his principles he used his own commissions as examples.  One example of that  was  Taptonville Road in the Sheffield suburb of Broomhill, where, in the late 1920s, he designed a new garden around a Victorian villa for steel baron Arthur Samuel Lee. I am grateful to landscape historian, Jill Sinclair, for the following information and photographs.

from Garden Design Spring 1931

It was probably one of the smallest sites where Cane worked. Indeed he published four images of the completed rear garden in the Spring 1931 edition of Garden Design, in an effort to be ‘of real assistance to the owners of even quite small gardens.’

from Garden Design Spring 1931

The rear garden centred around a characteristic sunken stone terrace and lily pond (Cane called it a ‘pool garden’) surrounded by simple flower beds. Against the house was a garden shelter and to one side a large wooden pergola. A generous stone terrace and paths marked out the front garden, while a long sloping bank alongside the driveway became a rock garden with a lion’s head fountain almost identical to the one that Cane installed at Hascombe Court.

from Garden Design Spring 1931

The house became a public library in the 1950s and the gardens remained recognisably Cane’s design until the York stone slabs were stolen from the rear in 2003. For the past few years the library has been run by volunteers from the local community, and a charity – the Broomhill Community Trust – has been set up to organise and fund restoration of the gardens and development of the building.

Dr Jan Woudstra from the University of Sheffield, local landscape architects Urban Wilderness and others have been advising the library team. Volunteers, working with archaeologists, have found traces of the rear garden under 15 years of rampant weed growth, while funding from the Pocket Parks Plus initiative is currently being used to clear and replant the rock garden.

So check out  the two pre-war books Modern Gardens, British and Foreign (1926–7), and Garden Design of Today (1934), if you want to know more about his early work. Both are still available relatively cheaply via Next week’s post will be about Percy Cane’s later work.




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2 Responses to An unsung hero?

  1. Thanks for making your 300th post about Cane, who seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance. I’m advising a local community library on restoring a tiny garden he designed in Sheffield in the late 1920s. It’s only known through 4 images he published in Garden Design in Spring 1931 but survived in recognisable form until the York stone paving was stolen in 2003. It’s contemporaneous with his work at Hascombe Court and has an almost identical lion’s head fountain, although the garden is on a different scale. The main features are characteristically Cane, with a small sunken terrace, pergola, garden shelter and geometric flower beds. Good to see his work being celebrated once more.

    • Thank you. Good luck with the restoration and If you have any photos and would like to write a short piece about the garden and your plans then I’d be pleased to add them to the post.

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