Gardening Good Taste…according to The Studio

Some people [including me] are lucky enough to have found a second career after retirement by turning their hobbies into work or at least almost full time voluntary activity.   One such was Charles Holme who, after a successful career  in textiles, took early retirement and founded The Studio: an illustrated magazine of fine and applied art, which first appeared in  April 1893.  

One of the applied arts he and the magazine  took an interest in was gardening, and in the years between 1907 and 1911 there were three special editions devoted to English gardens which amount to a summary catalogue of  what Holme thought was horticultural good taste at the time.  He was, as you will see, a man of decided views!

Holme was born in Derby in 1848 where his family were involved in the silk trade. He too became a textile merchant and specialised  in Asian fabrics, travelling widely to buy them  for the English market.  He was a friend of Arthur Liberty, founder of the famous department store and travelled to Japan  with him. He clearly fell in love with the country and set up an office there and became involved with  Anglo-Japanese cultural groups.   Holme was a firm believer in the strength of cross-cultural ties  and conceived the idea of a magazine because of  “the chief barrier between countries was language, and his belief that the more the culture of one part of the world could be brought “visually” to the attention of another, the greater the chance of international understanding and peace.”

Dealing in exotic textiles was clearly a profitable business and so Holme was able to take early retirement  aged 44 in 1892 and concentrate on  his other interests which included book collecting and publishing: he was for example a member of the exclusive Sette of Odd Volumes.  Apart from being the founder Holme soon took over the editorial chair at   The Studio too, and it quickly became a key voice in forming critical taste. 


In addition to its normal monthly magazine, The Studio published an annual, The Studio Year-Book of Decorative Art, which was later to be influential in the rise of Modernism, and a regular series of special issues. These came out about  3 times a year and were more in-depth studies of particular subjects.    [There is a full list at the onlinelibrary and most are available at]

The three special issues on English Gardens divided the country into 3 sections: the Southern and Western Counties which came out in 1907, the Midland and Eastern Counties in 1908 and finally the Northern Counties in 1911. Each was edited by Holme himself and consisted of one or two introductory essays with the bulk of the magazine taken up with illustrations.  There were a small number of colour  images by leading artists and then a large number of black and white photographs. I’m going to look at one issue today and the other two in another post soon.

For a magazine that became renowned for promoting  the work of contemporary architects, designers and artists such as  Charles Voysey and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and that was important too  in the  the development of  both the Arts and Crafts movement and  Art Nouveau, its taste in garden design and horticulture was much more traditional.  The gardens featured were very much in the same spirit as the “Golden Afternoon” of garden painting that the Gardens Trust is featuring in a series of lectures next month.  

The Southern and Western Counties volume opens with an essay on  “The History of Garden-Making”, which  does a rapid but fairly comprehensive chronological romp from antiquity to  Reginald Blomfield and Inigo Thomas  who together wrote “the admirable book The Formal Garden in England“, and Thomas Mawson.  If you’ve read a previous post “Hard and Soft” you’ll remember the  great debate about the relative importance of the formal hard landscaping of architects led by Blomfield and the informal soft landscaping of  plantsmen like William Robinson. Holme  was  fairly and squarely [to put it mildly] on the side of formality and architects.

Holme’s essay was  also pretty scathing of anyone who had veered far from the formal.  William Kent, for example,  “lacked breadth and distinction, and instead of the dignified quaintness of the old arrangements, had a quite unnecessary restlessness and want of harmony. He committed many absurdities too”  while his “great system” was “a piece of artificiality”.   Yet Kent, despite “his destruction of many interesting examples of the work of his predecessors, and despite, also, the unsoundness of his artistic principle, must be ranked as a most conservative person and as a most enlightened designer beside the designers who succeeded him.”  Poor Capability Brown “was not even a man of culture or educated conviction. Ignorant and untrained, he was by interest advanced from the charge of Lord Cobham’s kitchen garden to be gardener at Hampton Court and Windsor, and on the strength of this appointment he was able to pose as an authority on garden designing.” It gets worse: “he knew practically nothing of his subject, and … moreover, he prided himself on knowing nothing.” And much more in the same vein about other landscape designers. [Of course Holme wasn’t  the only writer with a grudge against Brown – see an earlier post on the Rev Peter Ditchfield]

Luckily “within the last fifty years there has sprung up a quite considerable school of garden-makers, including many architects of distinction, who treat the earlier traditions with intelligence and discretion”. Their intention “is to reintroduce into modern gardens the quiet dignity and the sober richness of the seventeenth century design, without closing the way to those ingenious designers who can give a new meaning and an increased significance to their combinations of the materials used by their predecessors.”   To be fair  Holme goes on to say that, “The reign of the faddists may fairly be said to be over at last, and the different schools of gardeners are now wisely tolerant of one another.”  However  there is no mention of William Robinson or his ideas so toleration only went so far.

This is followed by an essay on “The Principles of Garden-making” which is in much the same vein. I was tempted to include more vituperative quotes but that’s a bit too close to trolling on social media today, so read the essay if you want to know how sharp Holme’s tongue could be.

The photographs which followed were by William Day and  were chosen to capture “the best type of gardening” which was about “controlling nature intelligently” rather than “those extravagances of manner which are to be condemned as foolish travesties of nature.” Accompanying notes by art critic Alfred Baldry were less judgemental,  although his language can be convoluted and sometimes impenetrable. 

Baldry points out a number of deliberate comparisons that he makes in his choice of photographs.  For example “what better contrast could be desired than that which can be made between the stately pleasure grounds at Wilton House  and the quaint, precise, and studied garden at Old Place, Lindfield”

“Both are formal in the sense that they owe their beauties to deliberate contrivance ; but while Wilton is a typical example of classic design, and has many of the finer characteristics of the Renaissance manner, Old Place is essentially illustrative of the methods of the English designer who had learned to combine into a harmonious whole the best features of English and Dutch gardening.”


 The reader should  also compare “the sumptuous and careful elaboration of the formal gardens of Blenheim Palace with the not less careful but more quietly effective completeness of Brockenhurst Park.”  




Sedgwick Park “shows how formality can be made fantastic and how a strict formula can be modified to satisfy a desire for a fanciful effect…”

“…To compare the arrangement of clipped hedges and an artificial sheet of water at Sedgwick with the management of similar features at Brockenhurst Park, for example, is decidedly instructive, for by this comparison it can be realised how little justified the opponents of formal gardening are in their contention that acceptance of certain principles of design must necessarily lead to unnatural regularity and repetition of conventional forms.”

But the landscape school isn’t entirely condemned especially where it merely plays part of the whole.  Some gardens  including Dropmore, Bridge Castle, and Embley Park manage to “combine formality and freedom in about equal proportions, and present a well-planned commingling of features which belong to both formal and landscape gardening.”

It was even possible to have success where “Nature has not been unduly chastened [and] to a large extent…has had her own way and the gardener has worked at her dictation and under her guidance.”  His examples includes Chaddlewood, Eggesford House, Greenway House and Killerton in Devon and Pentillie Castle in Cornwall “all of which derive much of their specific character from the help which nature has given to the designer.”

Equally the process could be stood on its head and nature used  “to complete an entirely definite plan [where] the effects have been prearranged, and what seems to be accidental wildness has been led up to by human ingenuity.”  

Here Baldry cites the examples of the apparently “natural” gardens at Abbotsbury Castle  which were  “as much a composition as the most precise of the formal designs” , and Swaylands House in the Weald.  There  “one of the most elaborate rock gardens in England — has been built up laboriously with a purely pictorial intention.”

The two gardens showed how well “an illusion can be obtained by clever artifice, and how the naturalistic suggestion is possible in what is in principle formal gardening.”

But of course he adds  everything still needs to be planned in  a formal way to produce such a successful informal result, because  “it is only by the preliminary precision that the subsequent informality can be made credible.”

But there’s no doubt where Baldry’s sympathies lie:  “a class of gardens that is particularly English in its main characteristics.”

The Forecourt, Great Tangley Manor, Surrey after George Elgood,

The exemplars he uses range from  Ven Hall and  Great Tangley Manor to  the bishop’s gardens at both Farnham Castle and Salisbury Palace via the gardens of Oxford colleges.   “They have a certain savour of antiquity, a solid dignity which comes partly from their associations and partly from the glamour which age has given them. Their charm is scarcely dependent upon subtleties of design ; it results rather from an element of unexpectedness, from more or less surprising departures from rule which have come about accidentally during the lapse of years.”







Of  course it’s possible this English charm can be can  be stretched a little further.  At  Stratton Park for example “the distinguishing note is a kind of intentional wildness, a prearranged confusion which is quite happily unconventional.” Perhaps an untidy jumble might seem a more apt description?

“A touch of the same deliberate carelessness can be seen in the garden at Hartham Park where the severe lines of the architectural laying-out — an excellent piece of modern work — have been softened by what seems at first sight to be the accidental growth of vegetation in unexpected places…”


“Whether this device is entirely legitimate is a question for discussion by experts ; it gives, perhaps, a hint of neglect which has produced effects not really allowable in formal gardening. It would certainly be out of place in such gardens as those at Ashridge Park where the dominant note is strict precision ; and it would spoil the trimness of such places as Moor Park  or Taplow Court , both of which are interesting examples ot laying-out in the strictly correct manner.”


“It seems more appropriate at Corsham Court  and at Paulton’s Park , where variations from the exact design have apparently been contemplated and prepared for in the original plan ; and it does not clash with the domestic charm.”





 Luckily the photos speak for themselves and you don’t need Holme’s essay or Baldry’s commentaries to enjoy them.    

I’ll try and look at the two other volumes in another post soon.

Groombridge House, Sussex


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