Percy Cane

Last week’s introductory post about Percy Cane –  An Unsung Hero?  – looked at his work pre-war, while today’s is going to discuss some of his later commissions. Like much of the architecture and most of the  designed landscapes and  gardens of the second half of the 20thc these have not always been well recorded.  I’m pleased to say that  attitudes are beginning to change in part at least thanks to an initiative by the Gardens Trust and supported by Historic England: Compiling the Record.  Although many of Cane’s designs  (including the three covered in today’s post) are   obviously appreciated and well-cared for, others are not, and have suffered from ignorance and neglect and his involvement in their design is often not even mentioned in associated websites.

We saw last week  how Percy Cane  was inspired by Harold Peto’s Italianate gardens, often scaling them down to suit smaller estates and the suburban gardens of the mid-20thc. But he was also inventive in his own right, and  as an alternative to pre-1914 labour-intensive bedding schemes designed gardens that were centred around shrubs and trees laid out in an informal  way, often with long curving borders that created woodland or semi-woodland glades. Indeed glade was a term he coined in this context. “No part of the garden is easier to make and to maintain, nor lovelier, than a well-designed and carefully planted glade of trees and shrubs.”

“A Glade of trees and shrubs with groups of perennials for summer colour” from  Cane’s article “Post War Gardens” in  Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 91, No. 4629 (Dec 25th, 1942)

He believed that harmony and appeal in garden design resulted from the “simplest arrangement of walk or lawn or flowers … far better to be satisfied with the severest simplicity than to admit one particle of over-ornamentation, sham or fakeness.”

Perhaps the most famous of all of his post-war work was at Dartington Hall in Devon. The manor house was originally built in 1390 and had been  in the same family from 1559 until it was bought  by Dorothy and  Leonard Elmhirst in 1925.   Dorothy, a wealthy American heiress, was the driving force behind the transformation of the gardens there and she worked with a succession of garden designers – notably Avery Tipping and Beatrix Farrand as well as Percy.

The Outer Courtyardf with the archway through to the Inner Court from The creative art of garden design.

The Inner Court and principal entrance, from The creative art of garden design.

While the hall was being rescued from dilapidation both Tipping [1925-30]and later Farrand  [1930s] advised on the garden, which had been heavily Victorianised.  Percy arrived immediately post-war at the suggestion of mutual friend Constance Spry and remained involved with Dartington until his death, paying more than 50 visits. He was to write about it extensively, notably in Garden Design of Today.

Taxodium distichum in a corner of the inner courtyard from The creative art of garden design.

When he first saw the Hall he wrote that “its grey stone lit by the soft rays of the setting sun and its lawns chequered by the shadows cast by giant trees I wondered if its gardens could be made more beautiful than they already were. But on a second tour which I made the following morning, I realised that, lovely and unusual as the setting for the Hall was, its wonderful possibilities had not been fully appreciated.”

Dorothy explained the problem. That despite everything that had been done so far ‘the whole place was shut in. We had to discover a thread of relationship that could tie the immediate intimacy to the distant aspect in a natural harmonious manner.’

Cane’s response was simple and straightforward. The  garden needed to be connected up to the wider landscape and the best way of doing this was by opening  a series of vistas  to create a visual relationship with the scenery beyond.  He even put a ha-ha at the end of the Valley Field, so the garden ‘never ends’. Some of these  vistas have been lost as planting has become overgrown but plans are afoot to recreate them and creating  a series of  what could become ‘Protected Views’.

View from the upper terrace at Dartington, from The creative art of garden design.

At the same time  as opening up views he  endeavoured to create strong links between the various existing parts of the garden, using paving and pathways and circles of York stone slabs as plinths or round seats.  Most of these are so integrated and “right” that they are hardly noticed, but its difficult not to take notice of this  imposing flight  of York stone steps – the Magnolia Steps – which links the Upper Glade with the lower lawn.  which is, in fact, essential to one of the longest vistas’

“The great stairway which connects the upper glade to the lower lawn” from The creative art of garden design.

He was clear that some things like the terraces, which probably constructed in the 14thc by “a master planner” should not be altered.  Other areas were adapted or simplified. Soon after he started advising,  for example, a cutting garden gave way to a quiet area of lawn enclosed by trees with views to the hall, with  sweeping herbaceous borders backed by flowering trees and shrubs. One suspects he knew what would happen as over  the next 15 years or so as the trees – Malus hupehensis and M.sieboldii. – matured they shaded out the herbaceous plants which were then replaced by ground-cover.

The azalea dell from The creative art of garden design.

Elsewhere an azalea dell was enhanced with ornamental trees, such as  various Junipers, Acers. and Azaleas, to balance the existing mature native specimens.

The Azalea dell from The creative art of garden design.







The Glade© Copyright Derek Harper 2008

There were also a  number of new features, including  The Glade which was started in 1954 and which respected the existing planting: ‘If you have Oaks, Beeches or other large trees, they should be kept and the garden should be subservient to them. This was essentially the case at Dartington Hall where the trees are quite unusually fine.’  This was underplanted with a  range of plants including many Mediterranean species, which have had to be replaced as the trees matured and gave increased shade.

However Percy was pleased with the initial result:  ‘Looking down the length of the glade, we see over the lower gardens and on to the rising hills in the distance. Always superb, this view of trees, rising group behind group and with misty shadows, shot in certain lights with silvery pink, violet or purple between them, has all the loveliness of a Chinese painting of landscape on silk’

Upper Glade showing views cut through trees to distant hills” from The creative art of garden design.

Percy could be a bit of  a perfectionist too. In  1959 Robert Hening designed a temple based on the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome  as a tribute to the Elmhirsts and harmonious way they related to the  trustees of the settlement that they set up to preserve Dartington Hall in perpetuity. After work  had begun, Percy suggested that the building should be moved one foot to the left and the base twisted round slightly.

“The paved terrace overlooking the tiltyard”

On another occasion he had persuaded Leonard Elmhirst to agree to  ball finials on a pair of stone pilers flanking the entrance to the Hamamelis Walk.  They had, he said, to be exactly 23″ inches in diameter. The suppliers were taken aback by that size arguing that that a diameter of 17″ was the maximum possible using machinery. Anything larger would be far too expensive as it would  have to be hand carved. Percy did not budge. The extra 6″ would make all the difference to the scale and effect, and in the end he got his way. The finials  were carved  from solid half-ton blocks of York stone by specialist masons and damn the expense.

View Through The Glade, 1957 postcard

Dorothy Elmhirst made the following comment on Percy’s work: “In his planting scheme, Mr Cane adhered to his own basic principles of design – massing shrubs of the same sort together and arranging colour combinations that help to emphasise, and not detract from the essential form of planting.  He has tried to give full value to the architectural features of the garden, believing in the importance of space and of relating lawn and trees and shrubs to each other in a formal composition.”

For more on his work at Dartington see his chapter in  The creative art of garden design of 1967, the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 1954 pp 246-56 and the Historical Report on Dartington Gardens compiled in 2016. These have been the basis of my account. You might also be interested in future plans for the gardens development by Dan Pearson which were unveiled recently.

from Garden Design of Today

At the same time as beginning his association with the Elmhirsts Cane was working at several other major sites including Falkland Palace in Scotland. The buildings date back to the 12thc but were rebuilt in the first half of the 16thc by James IV and his son James V who were  inspired by the grand Renaissance châteaux of France.  The palace fell into decline following the Civil War and by the mid-19thc was in ruins.  It found a saviour in the 3rd Marquess of Bute, one of the country’s wealthiest men who had already transformed Cardiff Castle.

The Lower Garden at Falkland Palace from Garden Design of Today

The Lower Garden from Garden Design of Today

Although the grounds were derelict there were the remains of the 16thc terraces and  the tennis court. Bute created a formal Victorian version of the earlier   gardens but these too vanished probably after the first world war and even the traces went during  the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign when they were dug over for growing potatoes.  Then salvation came again when after the war Major Michael Crichton Stuart commissioned Percy Cane to redesign the gardens.

Percy was very aware of the site’s history and  wrote that he wanted  “to retain and to throw into higher relief the palace as it is at present and also, because of their architectural and historic interest, to preserve and bring into the scheme those traces that remain of the earlier and more extensive, palace”.  So the gardens respected the ruins, and even used rows of trees or hedges to represent former walls and buildings which had completely vanished.

But it was the terrace garden to the east of the Palace which was  his master stroke. The design for what he called the Pleasure Ground was based on a 17thc engraving, and featured a central glade surrounded by six large island beds. These were planted in layers with small trees like Cherries and Maples in the middle, shrubs such as  Laburnum, Fothergilla monticola, Weigelia, and Philadelphus in the next layer all underplanted with ground cover.   A grass walk meanders around the terrace between the straight edges of the outer borders and curving lines of the inner islands.

The Long Flower Border from Garden Design of Today

Along the ‘Palace Dyke’ (the wall) lies the magnificent 590′ (180m) long herbaceous border planted for a succession of flowers with a central block of reds, yellows and oranges, at their best between July and September.   The National Trust for Scotland replanted these areas in the 1970s in the same spirit.


Also in Scotland but in the early 1960s   Cane worked for Peter Kerr, the 12th Marquess of Lothian at Monteviot. The house had been used as a hospital during the war and needed restoration and modernisation, but the grounds too needed attention even tho it was already an exceptional designed landscape with a renowned 19th-century arboretum.

Upper part of the River Garden at Monteviot from Garden Design of Today

“View of the river from the arched wall-shelter” from Garden Design of Today

Once again Percy concentrated on a mix of formal terraces and opening-up vistas, particularly in front of the house which overlooks the river Teviot. He began by adapting and remodelling the Victorian terraces, walks  and lawns with a good mix of  formal and informal elements.

It begins at the top of the a steep slope with an Italianate crescent-shaped wall . This has arches and an alcove containing a seat, which together with a yew hedge frame views down to the river.   A set of stone steps then runs down the hillside through grass and past  large herbaceous beds, before ending with more steps to the water’s edge.


He also added a rose garden inside the  Victorian walled garden,   probably the warmest and most sheltered part of the estate which  offers views of the river.

The current Marquess, the former Tory cabinet minister, Michael Ancram, said of Cane’s design:  “You keep coming across different views; the river always looks very different.”  He has adapted  Cane’s original design in a more informal style but in the same spirit, and incorporating  a new Japanese garden which I’m sure Cane would have approved as he was very interested in  the design principles and aesthetics of Japan.

I’m sure there’s plenty for a PhD waiting to be written about Cane who, Charlotte Johnson his biographer in the ODNB describes as  “A small, reserved, dapper man, …Modest and courteous in character, he allowed his social life to revolve round his career, and he never married.”  Cane was  awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch memorial medal in 1963,  and continued to take commissions until he suffered a stroke in 1972.  It was the end of his career and he ended  in a nursing home, paid for by a trust set up by his friends the Elmhirts which  made sure he was cared for until his death in 1976.

The best source for Cane’s work remains his own books, particularly Garden Design of Today  written in 1934,  The Earth is My Canvas, from 1956 and his final book, The Creative Art of Garden Design published in 1967.

Further information on some can also be  found at the Parks & Gardens database, on the Historic England website, or in the rather uninspiring biography by Ronald Webber Percy Cane: Garden Designer, 1975.   TheRoyal Horticultural Society’s  Lindley Library also has a collection of about 20 of  Cane’s original designs and plans listed on this link.

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2 Responses to Percy Cane

  1. Pingback: THE Concise British Flora…. | The Gardens Trust

  2. piningforthewest says:

    Thanks for that very interesting article. I live a hop and a skip from Falkland Palace and visit often, the tennis court is a real/royal court so isn’t really part of the garden. I haven’t visited Monteviot yet but might manage to do so before it closes at the end of this month.

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