We left the story of Holkham last week in the middle of all the activity that was taking place at the end of the 18thc under the aegis of Thomas Coke, the reforming MP and agricultural improver. He continued his development of the landscape and the estate with the help of Humphry Repton, and the architect Samuel Wyatt until his death in 1842.
Later in the 19thc another major transformation of the landscape took place which reinstated much of the formality around the mansion, and which proved that completely contradictory approaches to garden design can work stunningly well.
Photos are mine unless otherwise acknowledged.
Let’s start with the work of Wyatt who was employed by Coke from the early 1780s until his death in 1807. Unfortunately no correspondence designs or accounts survive to show precisely what was done or when. However there were several new farmhouses as well as farm buildings in a simple classical style, and a series of lodges, probably all attributable to him.
Improvement in the building stock went alongside the granting of longer leases as part of Coke’s campaign to attract and retain the best tenant farmers he could find who would “take into their own hands that improvement of his farms which he could not accomplish himself … As opportunities arose he offered his farms to men of capital and intelligence” [Sir James Caird, English Agriculture 1850-51, 1852)] He also laid down what had to be grown and tenants had to have specific permission to sow crops out of rotation. By the time of Coke’s death Holkham had 70 farms spread over 26 Norfolk parishes and covering 42,000 acres.
For more on the estate and its agriculture see: Susanna Wade Martins, A Great Estate At Work: The Holkham Estate and its Inhabitants in the Nineteenth Century, 2008; and Geoff Monks, PhD thesis “Land Management: Welbeck and Holkham in the Long Nineteenth Century”, 2015 which is available online via The British Library.
Wyatt’s greatest contribution was probably was a showpiece home farm which included an extraordinary Great Barn built in the early 1790s which was planned as a venue for Shearings – the forerunner of county agricultural shows.
The kitchen gardens were moved to a new and much larger site on the other side of the lake to the house, at a cost of some £10,000. Normally we’d assume that this was to keep them out of sight but in fact as Christine Hiskey, the estate archivist points out in her wonderful book on Holkham, it was planned to have walks and a flower garden stretching most of the half mile or so between the two sites. These may have been derived from ideas proposed by Humphry Repton who produced his first Red Book [except it was orangey-brown] for Holkham in 1789. Repton was local and a protégée of William Wyndham, Coke’s political ally and neighbour at Felbrigg.
Repton had visited Holkham and the red book was a gift to Mrs Coke in return for her hospitality before he took up his new career in landscape gardening. He had carried out a preliminary survey but then visited Shropshire on another commission and met with both Uvedale Price and Payne Knight, strong advocates of the picturesque. The result was his ideas for Holkham were very much in that tradition, normally associated with more rugged country than Norfolk , rather than anything more local. The Red Book is still at Holkham and hasn’t been digitised but there is an article about it on estate’s blog. In his introductory remarks Repton wrote of the ‘magnificence’ that Holkham possessed: ‘a vast expanse of lawn, an immense sheet of water, and woods…too large for painting to express’.
Repton proposed further work around the lake, including a ‘shelter’d dry walk within those woods, or along the banks of that water’, with others walks leading to a ‘romantically bold’ chalk pit, which would be ‘a scene of pleasing gloom’, or to the stable block or the parish church. Because the estate was home to large numbers of sheep and cattle he pointed out these walks would need to fenced against them so there will be “a luxuriance of foliage happily contrasted with the naked stems of those trees which are seen on the lawn.”
Of course there’d be a boathouse, and a ferry ‘so contrived as to be navigated with the greatest ease by any lady’, ‘an elegant pavilion’, and even a tunnel, completely covered with creeping plants: ‘this sort of surprise…will appear a perfect wonder in Norfolk’.
In the woods would be a thatched cottage modelled on a Severn-side fisherman’s hut which ‘being unlike the usual cottages in Norfolk, it will appear the habitation of industry with an affectation, rather than the reality of penury’. All this was part of his suggestion for making pleasure grounds which were an ‘essential part of a perfect place being peculiar to the Ladies’.
Unfortunately there no way of knowing how much of Repton’s planned was carried out, but it would appear from his descriptions, from guidebooks, and some much later entries in the Holkham accounts that at least some of his ideas were put eventually into effect albeit perhaps not immediately.
John Blome’s 1826 guidebook for example describes the flower garden at length and in rather poetic language with its conservatory and “many objects of ornament or convenience” From the flower garden and lake paths led “through a fine open walk to the Vinery which is perhaps the finest in England.” This a large freestanding building which stood opposite the main entrance to the new walled garden, and was made of the same white brick as the house with added Coade stone embellishments.
The new kitchen gardens extended over 15 acres including some 7 acres enclosed by 14 ft high red brick walls and an orchard that covered a further 3 acres. A 100ft long range of glasshouses – for figs peaches grapes and other fruits were added inside. It was, said a visitor just after they were finished, “the most elegant thing I ever saw in my life… a peaceful little Paradise” where people gathered “in the cool of the evening, when all the glass are open, to drink tea.” Blome’s guidebook agreed claiming the “art here amply supplies the want of a warmer sky”.
All through this period and continuing right through into the first half of the 19thc work was going on planting trees in large numbers all round the parkland. In 1833 work then started on the mammoth task of walling the estate in. It took 6 years to complete the 9 mile circumference. In turn that meant that the roads to the old village and the farmhouses could be obliterated too.
Blome summed it all up beautifully: “Let it however be observed that at Holkham the ferme ornèe is combined with the magnificent Park. In one quarter the eye is delighted with the sight of waving corn, in another with green paddocks that invite the scythe: and buildings dedicated to agricultural purposes, or raised for the accommodation of the necessary officers. Flocks of sheep, and sometimes animals native and foreign graze in social peace. All is a picture of rural life in its most agreeable colours in its happiest avocations: it presents cheerful activity or tranquil repose. Arcadian scenes divested of fable and real wealth without glitter!”
But there were downsides. Despite all his success in maximising estate income Coke was a big spender and by the early 1820s he had accumulated debts of nearly a quarter of a million pounds, some 8 times his annual income. Furthermore, while his agricultural improvement scheme may have attracted a lot of positive attention it also made him the object of some satire, especially when he remarried at the age of 68. His new bride was the 19 year old Lady Anne Keppell. She bore him 5 children including his heir, yet another Thomas, who was to become the 2nd Earl. Although the humour in many 18thc cartoons is lost on us today in this one it is very obvious. [If you can’t make out the detail just follow the link to the British Museum website where it is explained]
After Thomas Coke died in 1842 a public committee was established to organise and finance create a suitable tribute. It was decided to replace the north lodge which stood at the end of the long axis across the estate with the Leicester Monument. Designed by William Donthorne and paid for by Coke’s tenants and friends it is a Corinthian column standing on a large square plinth with an inscription on one side and bas-reliefs inspired by some of the earl’s work on the other three.
His good relations with tenants were marked an image of him granting a lease, while the other two sides show a land reclamation scheme and sheep being sheared.
The corners are also sculpted with agricultural themes including an ox, sheep, a plough and a seed-drill. Normally such monuments are topped by a statue of the person being honoured, but not in this case, instead the 37m high column is surmounted by a sheaf of corn.
London Illustrated News carried a lengthy description of the procession to mark the laying of the first stone in August 1845. I wish I had room to include it all because it sums up the popularity of the late earl and the wealth of the estate. It entered stretched for a mile and a half across the park and was led by the Norwich Band of Musicians followed by 150 stone masons “dressed in new flannel jackets…aprons and straw hats” then “an immense cavalcade of gentlemen on horseback… the committee and subscribers… the Fakenham Band, a numerous body of Bricklayers and labourers in new flannel jackets …and wearing red caps to distinguish them from the masons” and then its thought some 10-12,000 other people. After the stone laying itself some 1500 people were entertained to dinner with champagne, [and pineapples!] in 8 marquees. “As soon as the elite of the company had concluded their dejeunee ..[in relays] .the whole of them assembled in the park were admitted to the tables, and farmers, yeomen, peasants with their wives, daughters and sweethearts were regaled to their hearts content on the best and most ample supply of viands.”
The second earl succeeded as a minor. He avoided party politics but was Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk for 60 years and a member of the household of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and regularly entertained him at Holkham after the Prince had purchased Sandringham.
He continued his father’s enthusiasm for agriculture and the improvement of his vast estate. This included building more than 200 new cottages and reclaiming hundreds of acres of salt marsh.
Architect George Dean dedicating a book to the earl in 1867 wrote: “There is no nobleman better acquainted with rural economy than yourself ; neither is there anyone more zealous in promoting the prosperity of tenants or the comfort of labourers . The result is that your Estate is one of the most highly cultivated in the kingdom , your tenantry some of the most skilful , enterprising , and wealthy ; and your labourers among the best cared for.”
For more on the earl’s agriculture and estate work see Henry Rew, Royal Agricultural Commission report on Norfolk, 1895
One of the second earl’s earliest changes was however not to do with agricultural improvement but a grand scheme for fashionable more formal Italianate gardens immediately around the Hall. Between 1849 and 1854 William Andrews Nesfield working with architect William Burn formalised a large area immediately outside the mansion, creating a series of grand terraces, parterres, steps, balustrades, complete with urns and tazzas – all focussed around a massive sculpted fountain of St George and the Dragon.
The earthworks alone took two years to complete and the whole project seven. There is a short article in Gardeners Chronicle for 1868 which gives a longer description.
The effects must have been magical: indeed it still is. A complete contrast to the rest of the “natural” landscaping but nonetheless a great success. The Norwich Mercury report [later copied into Gardeners’ Chronicle] thought “a fairy wand had waved over the well remembered scene… [and] the long green slope… is now fairy land.”
“The south front of the house is of a magnificent character, displaying to perfection the masterly design of its construction. The flower beds are all in sunk pannels, intersected by tracery and scroll-work, flanked by ” ribbon borders,” and ornamented with urns and vases filled with flowers ; two of the former of a large size, inscribed with the letters L. L. in bass-relief, being by Raymond Smith. Broad and extensive gravel walks, with stone borders, run in parallel and angular lines across its surface ; and at the bottom of the principal walk, leading from the centre of the building, is a grand characteristic fountain, by Raymond Smith, of St George and the Dragon, carved in the finest description of Portland stone.” This is the garden still seen today.
Brooke also describes the new layout on the northern side of the Hall. Nesfield and Burn laid out “a Terrace Garden, consisting of successive slopes and flats, in the centre of which, at the base, are several flower-beds of various forms, a scolloped shell, and the initials of the Earl of Leicester in box. The walks are laid down with red gravel. On each side, near the balustrade, are two specimens of Irish ivy, which very effectively supply the place of Portugal laurels, those plants not being hardy enough to stand the cold north winds ; they look well, and are quite a novelty in the features of the place.” All this has now disappeared and the open lawn restored.
To the east side of the Hall they added a new heated conservatory as a place for strolling amongst the plants rather than entertaining. It was much closer to the house than might normally be expected, but follows the fashion recommended by Repton of having such buildings linked to the house. [Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening  Unfortunately the windows had metal frames which over time began to rust and by the late 1950s was so serious that the glass began to break under the pressure and the decision was taken to remove them, perhaps intending to repair and replace. This did not happen and the building now stands as an elegant shell.
In front of it were walks “flanked by vases and beds of Rhododendron, similar to those in the large compartments nearer the House. At the end of this walk stands a very fine Roman Sarcophagus of marble, filled with flowers, and bearing a Latin inscription. There are three gates of bronze, partly gilt, and surmounted by the Earl’s coronet and initials. From the Terrace the walk continues to the Temple or Pavilion, and from thence it is bordered by cast- iron vases, filled with flowers ; which vases are all that remain of the old garden designed by Sir Francis Chantry. This walk is terminated by a small flower garden, which, with the whole range that look so beautiful and tempting, was executed from designs by Nesfield.”
In the nearby Pleasure-ground is a ” shell-house,” the entrance door being guarded, but very harmlessly so, by two shells from Sebastopol. A small fountain and sun-dial stand near, and we noticed a very fine specimen of the Corsican larch. The American garden, filled with plants of the best description, joins this, and its effect is considerably heightened by the variegated walks that intersect it. Further on, a walk of great extent winds amongst lines of standard roses, and beds of Bamboo, Arundo, and others, adjoining which is an old thorn, sixty-two yards in circumference.”
In other words it was a total transformation of the area around the house, that also extending out along some of the earlier and plainer walks and rides. Since then there has been little in the way of radical change. This is partly because of the great agricultural depression in the late 19thc which reduced the estate’s income by nearly 50%, and partly because of the austerity that followed two world wars, with the consequent shortage of labour and spare cash. It might also be because the whole effect is so impressive that there’s never been any need.
Once again I’ve run out of space to complete the job, so in a third and final post about Holkham in the next few weeks I’ll look at the estate today and especially the restoration programme that is taking place at the walled garden and vinery.