If you’re someone who reads this blog regularly then you can probably name many of Britain’s great garden designers, but who is/was the most prolific? Was it Capability Brown with more than 200 major projects? Gertrude Jekyll who is now thought to have had a hand in over 400? Humphry Repton? William Sawrey Gilpin? Percy Cane? Whoever you’ve guessed I doubt it was today’s subject, or that they would even have figured on your shortlist.
Here’s a clue. This year marks the centenary of his death which followed a long career that spanned journalism, designing the grounds at the new exhibition centre at Earls Court, and laying out the gardens of vast new palaces in India as well as many parks and gardens in Britain. Yet nowadays his name is virtually unknown.
So who was this horticultural workaholic?
Here’s what the Journal of Kew Guild said about him: “In landscape art the English practitioner has always held a prominent place; and since Bridgeman and Brown broke away from the Le Notre tradition usually the leading place. Mr X worthily carries on the work done by those two men, by Kent and Repton, and in recent times by Downing and Marnock. Since France lost Andre Le Notre and the United States Olmsted, Mr X has stood an easy first in his profession.”
Normally I start a biographical post by checking with the Dictionary of National Biography – but there is no entry. Luckily Ray Desmond’s comprehensive Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturists does have a short mention, as does the Parks and Gardens UK database. The biographical part of both is brief but the list of gardens where he worked was quite substantial – and impressive. It transpires that he was associated in some way with over 700 projects although I can’t find a comprehensive list anywhere so I don’t know who arrived at this figure or how. Perhaps one reason he is not better known is that many of them are public parks and the grounds of institutions such as hospitals and asylums, while others were abroad.
His name was William Goldring and he was born in May 1854 at West Dean, near Chichester. One of 12 siblings of an agricultural/estate worker he seems to have begun his horticultural career as an apprentice or garden boy at Dangstein, the Hampshire estate of Lady Dorothy Neville, before going on in 1875 to work at Kew. His ability and skill were soon recognized and he was given charge of the herbaceous department. His brother Charles was also interested in horticulture, and ended his career as head gardener at Ely Grange at Frant in Kent.
In 1879 Goldring went to work for William Robinson as assistant editor on his magazine The Garden and editor of a subsidiary journal, Woods and Forests a separate short-lived journal in 1885-86 which merged back into The Garden after a few months. There is little sign of Goldring’s presence except for a series of articles initialled WG.
At the same he was obviously considering other career options, and continued to practise horticulture while writing about it. Finally the right opportunity turned up and in 1887 he gave up journalism to help turn a patch of farmland and market gardens in west London into the Earl’s Court Exhibition Grounds.
This was the time when London’s railways and the Underground network were expanding fast. Three lines cut through Earl’s Court cutting off a triangle of land where they crossed. This was bought by John Robinson Whitley, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who decided to turn it a space for permanent exhibitions. The first to be held there was an American Exhibition in partnership with “Buffalo Bill” [ William Cody] and Nate Salsbury. The grounds were to provide a setting for temporary pavilions but also to be a draw in their own right, and had to be adaptable for future events. “with a view of embracing as much variety as possible and also make the most effective display.”
The catalogue for the American Exhibition explains what Goldring, who was described as “Chief of the Horticultural Department”, actually organized. “The central garden, or that immediately contiguous to the exhibition building, is laid out in a rigidly formal style, which tends to heighten the effect of the north facade of the building, while the arrangement of broad and straight walks allow ample space for the free circulation of large masses of people.”
“The West Garden on the other hand, is designed in a more natural style, the walks traversing the whole garden being graceful. Curving at one point they wind through a picturesque grove of old trees, while others lead to the principal points of attraction. The old trees near the band-stand happily existed previous to the formation of the present gardens, and the visitor may see how charmingly they harmonize with the surroundings.”
The planting was entirely of North American plants, “to show how singularly American all English gardens are” particularly as “fully two third-thirds of the open air trees and flowers in England are natives of North America.”In particular he included plants from California including everything from annuals to redwoods, and “has endeavoured to create a perennial glow of colour throughout the whole period of the exhibition” A full description of the planting can be found here]
Goldring gained such recognition for this work that he was recommended by Kew to undertake some commissions in India, notably for the ludicrously wealthy Gaekwar of Baroda in Gujarat.
He made three visits to India, each of three months being paid £1000, with free passage out and back each year, a furnished house, carriage, horse and servants. He was helped by former Kew colleagues who he left in charge to carry forward the work until his next return trip
Goldring wrote to Sir William Thistleton Dyer, the Director of Kew in 1888 that he found the Gaekwar “a most affable and intelligent man” with a great interest in horticulture, and that he been asked to establish a training school for new gardeners.
The Makarpura summer palace designed by Robert Fellowes Chisholm had been built in 1870 in the Italianate Renaissance style with elaborate Italian style formal gardens containing pergolas, fountains, and grottoes, to match.
These apparently had not not a great horticultural success because of the arid climate in Gujarat so Goldring adapted them and then added a trellis-work summerhouse inspired by Victorian glass conservatories, a large Japanese Garden and most notably a large rock-garden which included a grotto and a waterfall.
Writing a description in 1891 in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society G.H.Carstensen, the Director of the Botanic Gardens in Bombay was still doubtful of its success: “it was no doubt a remarkable work , on which large sums and great labour ha been expended, and with which no similar work in India can be compared. But to anyone acquainted with Indian rock scenery or any of the Buddhist caves, it cannot fail to seem more like a beautiful toy than a work of art, which is the more regrettable as Mr Goldring has taken infinite pains in obtaining an effective result.”
Sadly I cannot find an image of the rock garden to make a judgement as to it ultimate success, and there is no sign of it on the images available via Google Earth.
The palace was then hardly ever used and is now a training centre for the Indian Air Force, with most of the grounds built over so that most signs of Goldring’s work appear to have been lost.
Goldring then worked on the commission for the gardens of another new palace which involved “an expenditure quite unprecedented in India”. The Lakshmi Vilas Palace, an extravagant building of the Indo-Saracenic school, designed by Major Charles Mant was built in 1890 at a cost of £180,000. Not only did that make it the most expensive building erected by a private individual in the 19th century, it was, at no less than four times the size of Buckingham Palace, the largest private dwelling in India.
The associated gardens were equally splendid – and expensive- with features not found in other Indian gardens including electric lighting. Perhaps the most unusual was another rock garden. That of course is a slight misnomer because, it actually involved the “embellishment of a nullah [ an artificial storm drain/watercourse] with artificial rocks, built in masonry and coated with a composition that gives them a natural colour.” Carstensen was equally dismissive, although he approved of the much more formal gardens in the interior courtyards because they were well watered with fountains, and were damp enough to be able to support lush planting of palms, ferns, colcasias and crotons. The surrounding 500 or so acres of the palace grounds around were flat and featureless although there were some fine stands of trees, notably tamarinds and Goldring enhanced these in the style of an English park.
But of course there were plenty of private commissions at home in the UK as well. It would be impossible to go through even a handful of them in any great detail, but here are some suggestions and links if you want to follow through and discover more about Goldring’s work.
Petwood in Lincolnshire was an Edwardian country house in 40 acres, now a hotel, built for the furniture heiress, Grace Maple, between 1905 -06. Goldring’s work was altered later by Harold Peto and the details were thought to be lost. However a series of photographs by John Wield have recently been rediscovered and show the garden between 1906 and 1909. There is a detailed account by Nicholas Duke-Cox in the Journal of the Kew Guild for December 2016.
Maureen Thomas has researched Goldring’s work in Wales, and published an article about it in the Bulletin of our sister organization, the the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust in 2009. At Bryn Estyn near Wrexham[now sadly probably better known as the infamous “care home”] Goldring was commissioned in 1903 by Fredrick Soames, a wealthy brewer, to design a garden for his new house, which he did combining formal elements such as a terrace and geometric beds with informal ones further away from the house. There was also a classical temple and a walled kitchen garden. Much of Goldring’s work has disappeared but there the kitchen garden is back in use as part of a training project.
Maureen Thomas also has comments on Derry Ormond, where some of the planting of a grand terraced gardens survives, as do some plans and plant lists, and Bodysgallen, where Goldring designed gardens in keeping with the largely Jacobean house. There is more detail in Richard Haslam’s article on the gardens in Garden History Vol. 34, No. 1 (Summer, 2006).
Other sites in which Goldring was involved include Cobham Hall in Kent in 1904 where he redesigned courtyards and terraces, Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire where laid out designed an “Elizabethan” garden to “match” the house, Beaudesert in Staffordshire, Lotherton Hall near Leeds, Crown Point on the Norfolk Broads, and Elvetham in Hampshire in 1911/12 when the house was being altered and designed a terrace, complex parterre beds for which the drawings survive, although the gardens themselves have gone, and an azalea garden.and he also provided plans for Kingston Lacy in 1899 and Lanhydrock in Cornwall in 1915, although it is unclear how much of the work was ever carried out.
And on top of all that he found time to publish a monograph on lilies…
More on Goldring and some of his public parks and asylums commissions soon.