Kensington goes Italian

Last week I wrote the background story of the Royal Horticultural Society’s magnificent but short-lived gardens in South Kensington, and today I want to follow up with an account of the gardens themselves designed by William Andrews Nesfield.

When I sat down to write this I wasn’t sure where to start or how to go about describing such an enormous space that was at once doubly simple and complex. Simple in that the overall design is visible almost  in a glance, but complex in that each section is very elaborate in detail,  and while simple in terms of planting  it is complex in its overall content.

Uncaptioned images below come from The Book of the Royal Horticultural Society by Andrew Murray published in 1863

That the gardens were Italianate in style is only partly due to Nesfield, although he was already adept in that form.  It was Prince Albert who had decided very early on that both the architecture of the South Kensington museums and exhibition centre together with its garden setting should  be Italianate and based on real historical precedent. By the time Nesfield was called in most of the underlying architectural and design principles had been established and he merely had to plan gardens to fit its surroundings.

Looking north from the Exhibition buildings[where the Natural History Museum now stands]  towards the Conservatory. [The Albert Hall now stands just behind that] from Murray’s Royal Horticultural Society, 1863

Using Renaissance Italy as a starting place for architecture and garden design had been fashionable for about half a century.  It was our old friend John  Claudius Loudon who pioneered the trend to adopting and adapting it to the English scene, not by using it himself but by writing about it and influencing others. The first great Italiante house and garden  was started at Deepdene in Surrey for Thomas Hope [who was a member of the RHS council] in 1825, and it came  complete with  several garden terraces at different levels, balustrades, flights of steps, repeated urns, alcoves and sculpture which all  served as a formal transition to the surrounding countryside.


But the man who did most to promote Italiante architecture and garden design was Charles Barry who had also travelled extensively  and even written for Loudon’s Architectural Magazine.   Nesfield had worked with Barry at Trentham where in 1834 Barry started a fashion for adding Italian-inspired terraces  to the houses in Brownian landscapes. Italianate was also the style chosen by Prince Albert when he and Victoria commissioned their new “private” residence at Osborne in the 1840s.

Nor was it  just in gardening and architecture that  early Renaissance Italy was the predominant source of inspiration. It was in the art world too. Henry Cole, who headed the new South Kensington museum,  travelled to Italy and visited historic sites, and where the famous Cast Court was soon to be created with replicas of mainly Italian architectural features and  statues .

Cole’s colleague Francis Fowke the engineer and architect used photos and drawings of surviving Italian Renaissance buildings as the basis for his designs for the exhibition buildings and the hard landscaping of the central gardens.  It was Fowke too who overcame one of the major problems of creating an Italian garden at Kensington, where because the site – some 1200 ft x 800 ft – was  only on a very gentle slope  it was not really possible to conceive cascades tumbling down a steep hillside or taking in views from a series of wide terraces. Fowke landscaped the site to create a much scaled-down version of an Italian hillside. His earth moving created three principal levels, broken by terraces which were connected by both short flights of steps and slopes.


He certainly succeeded. Building News  reported  the architecture was “pure Italian style—the very Italian of Italy itself.”  Indeed “The Horticultural Society’s arcades might have stood as consistently near the Tiber as near the Thames” .


When Nesfield was commissioned to work at Kensington he must have had quite a shock with how the project was being tackled. He was used to working for a single patron and being given a fairly free and unfettered hand,  often even appoint or overseeing the gardeners who were to plant and maintain his designs. Now he found himself working for a wide range of clients -the RHS, the Commissioners of the Exhibition and the team responsible for the oversight of the whole site which of course included the South Kensington museum.  Nor was he one of a team of equals because everything was  dominated from a distance by Albert,  and very much under the day to day oversight of Henry Cole who seemed to have a finger in every part of the site with Fowke and Sydney Smirke the architects also often  intervening.

The garden’s history can, in theory, be traced through coverage in the gardening press, particularly Gardeners’ Chronicle. On 31st March 1860 they reported that “a general plan” had “been finally  accepted” and went on to say “as soon as the levels are complete Mr Eyles will begin to execute the principal groundworks.  In the meanwhile Mr Nesfield is occupied in working out the minute details of his plan.”

In fact this was far from being the final scheme although it may have been the one above which was widely published in May 1860.    The alterations were commented on, not always favourably  in several articles including one by Donald Beaton in the Journal of Horticulture 13th August 1861.  To add to the mix, in addition to Nesfield’s published plan, the images published by Murray in 1863, and the written descriptions  there are Ordnance Survey maps at  6″ and 25″   surveyed between 1863 and 1867, and  quite a few photos [many commissioned by the South Kensington Museum] and contemporary engravings.

The garden was geometric and highly formal in layout.  There was a broad central walk that crossed the entire site from north to south, which when it reached the second terrace passed around a large circular parterre/compartment – some 125 ft across, and behind which was an almost square basin and substantial cascade.  Other paths ran across east-west connecting the broad terraces that ran round in front of the arcade buildings. The paths were gravelled and depending on their importance from 26-40 feet wide and of  “a noble and striking appearance”.   The surrounding terraces were largely laid to lawn – and in all there was nearly 10 acres of grass.

At the southern end were what Nesfield called the ante-garden – 4 similar sized plots, two of which had been partially lowered. As you can see depictions vary but one was for rhododendrons and “American plants” while a second was filled with specimen trees. Another was earmarked for floral exhibitions, and the final one planted as  a maze. In the centre where Nesfield originally planned  a grand fountain there was under the revised scheme a statue of Charles Albert King of Sardinia.  [Remember this was the era of the Risorgimento and the creation of Italy].




Moving into the centre of the garden there were four long narrow canals, slightly lower than their surroundings, with a sloping glacis on one side of each with  box and scrollwork. [one on each side in the extract above]  They had bridges over and smaller cascades.  Statues and urns abound here too.


Also prominent were 2 massive French  fountains, the larger of which had to be drastically altered in order not to overshadow its surroundings or its opposite number.

from Illustrated London News 10th July 1862




What strikes me most though from looking at all the images, and particularly the one below is what a strange combination of land forms, planting styles and indeed planting Nesfield used. Apart from the planted mounds, and specimen trees dotted around just look at  the number  of sunken areas, with sloped or sculpted edges,  and intricate planting  at the bottom.

from Illustrated London News 13th July 1861


from Nesfield’s published plan May 1860

The rest of Nesfield’s “general plan” had more than a touch of historical revivalism  about it.  In particular he used  ‘box-embroidery’ panels which echoed the mediaeval or early modern use of coloured gravels, sands crushed brick or glass rather than plants and flowers. Some of these were enormous.  Notably the two triangular panels on the first terrace down from the conservatory, which were each  a quarter acre in extent.

At the “lower end of each…are spaces laid down in different coloured gravels, and out of these spring what are termed volutes in the shape of closely planted double lines of box, holding in their graceful and beautiful convolutions gravel walks, measuring 2-3 feet in width and flower beds of handsome shape trying all together in an intricate scroll work, more easily conceived than described.”    These large triangles were not alone. Murray says there are “a good many (some think too many)” others.   There was more scroll work including two on each side of the garden on sloping banks…to laid down in Box, so as to represent the Rose, Shamrock, Thistle and Leek, and judging from what is finished the effect is excellent, even before the different coloured gravels have been applied.”

Nesfield wrote an article about his design in Gardeners Chronicle, in which he justified this return to the use of mineral infills for parterres by arguing  that “baldness which resulted in monotony should be avoided in the flower garden.”  Despite allowing that evergreens such as holly, aucuba and laurel if kept dwarf [hard work!] worked well as an alternative in winter it was easier and [less work] to use them intermixed  with coloured mineral materials.

The garden supervisor George Eyles who actually did the laying out even wrote an accompanying in the same issue of GC explaining how this could be replicated at home!

Murray believed these elaborate patterns made  ‘charming horticultural pictures’ and were compared to ‘the mosaic pavements of the finest Italian churches’.  They  must also have been colourful to put it mildly.  In 1861, for example, after the initial display of spring bulbs,  the planting in one of them consisted of masses of scarlet geraniums, surrounded with purple verbena and then orange nasturtiums. It was not universally popular with one correspondent writing to the GC to complain [amongst other things]  that there was undoubtedly a “blaze of colour but a great want of harmony.”


Transporting the deodars from Chiswick to Kensington from Illustrated London News

There were many complaints when the gardens first opened about  their “unumbrageous character” – ie that they did not contain enough trees to provide adequate shade.  But the site did contain a lot although most were little more than saplings. However some much bigger trees were planted  including some “fine deodars” up to 25ft tall and weighing some 8 tons each. These had been grown at  the RHS garden at Chiswick, then mechanically lifted and carted in to Kensington. Others were donations  from fellows of the society as, for example, were the long avenues of  lime trees which ran down in front of the arcades on the east and west sides, a gift from  William Gibbs of Tyntesfield, the guano magnate, while other limes came from Veitches Nursery.

However longer term the tree planting had the desired effect, or so it would seem from this photo taken during the construction of the Albert Hall  in the late 1860s.

Opening of the International Exhibition  – from a podium over the Grand Cascade                               from Illustrated London News 19th July 1862


In the middle of the garden was the Great Cascade and its large basin “undoubtedly” according to Murray “the finest and most attractive features of the garden.” At its head of the cascade  stood the memorial to the 1851 exhibition. The water was provided  by complicated hydraulic work carried out by Fowke and pumped up from artesian wells some 400 feet down. It was recycled though drains and culverts so big that a man could stand up in them.

The basin was full of large goldfish and carp supplied by Queen Victoria from the lake at Virginia water, and which were fed daily in front of the assembled crowds. Apparently, according to Murray, “big carp have enormous appetites; soft penny rolls being mere mouthfuls disappear with ostrich-like celerity.” He goes on to explain at great length how entertaining this could be for watchers.

What dominated the site was  of course the conservatory which “glowed with the brilliant colours of azaleas, orchids, roses and other distinguished members of the floral nation, relieved by a superb group of ferns.”   It was 70 feet high, 270 long and upwards of 100 in width with  a dome 45ft in diameter and cost about £15000 to build.  It  was heated using the latest scientific methods  [described at great length by Murray over 4 pages] and was used as a sculpture gallery as well as for flower shows and exhibitions of plants.


Its floor was made up of multi-coloured tesserae  in the “ancient style” by Minton who had, after a lot of effort, patented a modern method of making and laying them.  It had been  inspired by a similar floor laid at Deepdene for Thomas Hope.  There was a central dais supported and backed by terracotta columns and reliefs. The back wall and staircases etc were covered in creepers with urns and wall pots full of plants, and hanging baskets.

The dais and platform inside the conservatory, from Illustrated London News 14th Sept 1861


It was filled with a vast array of statues, urns and vases as well as exotics many given by fellows of the RHS from their own collections, including orange trees, tree ferns, American aloes, newly-introduced Norfolk Island pines and a large assembalge of succulents.

In addition it contained  “many objects nor strictly horticultural” including “the beautiful caterpillars of Bombyx cynthia, feeding and spinning their silken cocoons on the leaves of the Ailanthus glandulosa, sent by Lady Dorothy Neville… cactus covered with the cochineal insect and tree fogs.”  The frogs had been kept in Fern cases but some had escaped  and “established an independent colony in the conservatory.”

from Illustrated London News 13th July 1861


Outside on the wide terrace of the Upper Terrace was a lawn lined with Lime trees  planted to turn “those naked acres to a sheltered grove” and dotted with more sculpture.  These were popular places for visitors to stroll and sit, made doubly popular by the large bandstands sited at either end,  reminiscent of continental models. As you can see from the image below the terraces were also used for mass gatherings and events.

Choral Festival in the Gardens from Illustrated London News 10th July 1869


So what did the public think when they came into into this grand new space?  Well of course they were only admitted on payment – only RHS fellows were admitted freely – and then only on sufferance – but  I suspect most people were overwhelmed by the sheer scale and grandeur of it all.

The Athenaeum probably summed up the general mood:  “In these magnificent arcades we have something new to our country and our century—something exquisitely Italian, and shady and cool; that in these successions of terraces, in these artificial canals, in these highly ornamental flower-walks we have something of the taste and splendour of Louis Quatorze. It was of such a garden as this that Bacon must have dreamt.”

What a pity it only lasted about 40 years.


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