Reimagining Kirby

Gardens are ephemeral creations and surely impossible to recreate once they’ve gone. That hasn’t stopped a lot of people trying.  This is a trend that’s first noticeable in the early 19thc when it  tended to be a romanticised view of  past gardens that were installed.  But the first real evidence-based attempt happened at Kirby, the great Elizabethan mansion in Northants, when in the 1930s  archaeological techniques were used to discover and then try to recreate the early 17thc garden.

That wouldn’t have been necessary of course if Kirby hadn’t fallen first  into decline and then ruin, so let’s begin the story of how Kirby has been re-imagined with and why it had to be done in the first place!

Northampton Mercury 23rd March 1934

The last post  looked at the garden in its heyday as one of the greatest in Britain but in 1706 its chief creator Christopher, Viscount Hatton died.  The estate was inherited by his son William who was only 16. He went on the Grand Tour and became a great collector of paintings sculptures and artwork,  but  wasn’t terribly interested in the estate,  mortgaging it for £10,000 to fund his collecting and his London lifestyle. When he died in 1760 he was unmarried and childless and the title and estate passed to his brother Henry who died two years later also unmarried and childless, at which point the viscountcy became extinct.

Kirby now passed to the heir of their aunt Ann, one of the children who was saved when Castle Cornet blew up. She had married Daniel Finch, the  Earl of Nottingham and their family name was altered to Finch-Hatton. It was their son Edward Finch-Hatton who inherited Kirby in 1762.  Edward seems to have used the house quite a bit but in 1769 he also  inherited Eastwell Park another large mansion near Ashford in Kent. When he died two years later his son George came into a handsome double inheritance.  However both Eastwell and Kirby were 16th century houses which, although they had been modernised towards the end of the 17th century, were now thought quite unsuitable  for life in the late 18th century.

Eastwell Park

George Finch-Hatton decided to rebuild Eastwell in the neo-classical style to designs by Joseph Bonomi, but merely to update the interior of Kirby. To fund this work, because much of the contents of Kirby was considered old-fashioned, there was a huge auction sale there in 1772 which sold off  almost everything including  paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck.

George was like his great great grandfather a member of the Royal Society and an erudite and literary and scientific figure.    He saw Kirby as an antiquarian ancestral seat whose external appearance was worthy of preservation but he radically modernised the interiors, taking out the panelling and having the plain plastered walls wallpapered.

The two water colours by Samuel Ireland from this period suggest that the formality of the gardens had long been lost. There is an awful lot of tree growth particularly in the north courtyard while the Privy Garden has vanished.  The stream which had been canalised in the late 17thc now looks to have been “naturalised” again and  formed into linear ponds, with a dam that also acted as bridge.

There is one strange, probably anachronistic, element on the left of the image below which appears to show the  garden wall that was demolished, and the gateway that was moved,  in the 1690s.


Having auctioned  off the contents Kirby then had to be refurnished in a hurry when George  gave Kirby to his own son George William Finch-Hatton when he got married in 1814.   That turned out to be a bit of a waste of money because it wasn’t long before George William and his wife inherited Eastwell as well. They decided to move there and so all the new furniture they’ve been bought was put up for sale again in 1824. Three years later on the death of his cousin George William  inherited two titles becoming not only the 10th earl of Winchelsea but 5th earl of Nottingham too, and from this point onwards Kirby seems to be regularly uninhabited.

from The Graphic 4th Feb 1882

The house soon began to be neglected and of course the gardens went into rapid decline as well. Soon after the 1824 sale of  contents visitors apparently noticed the air of decay and melancholy. A tenant farmer moved into the hall and by 1857 and the courtyard seems to have become an annexe of the farmyard.   Visitors saw “the very action of decomposition going on, the crumbling stucco of the ceiling feeding the vampire ivy, the tattered tapestry yet hanging on the wall, the picture flapping in its broken frame.”

from The Graphic 4th Feb 1882

From the mid-century onwards the newspapers are full of accounts of   picnics and days out amidst the “romantic” ruins, although not always encouraged by the caretaker. This echoes what was happening at similar “ruinous” sites.

By the end of the 19th century the roof was dilapidated and leaking  and in places,  and  in 1896 the whole of the southeast corner of the mansion collapsed.

The earls of Winchelsea continue to farm the land around Kirby but rarely visited the house even after they sold off Eastwell and moved themselves to Lincolnshire.

Northampton Mercury 1913

The 12th earl wanted to preserve the remains of the hall as a ruin  but neither he, nor anyone else,  had sufficient money and the house continued to fall down.  This didn’t stop his heir, Lord Maidstone, holding his coming of age party there in 1906, when the tenantry were entertained in great style in the Great Hall.  Country Life featured Kirby in October that year but  apart from some short extracts from the 17thc records, there are no mentions of the grounds whatsoever.

When Lord Maidstone, like so many other aristocrats, married into an immensely wealthy American family [in his case the Drexler banking dynasty] it was suggested that they might like to restore Kirby rather than build a new house,  but nothing came of it. There were newspaper reports too of a mysterious wealthy buyer who wanted to restore the house but nothing came of that either and in 1913  it was put up for sale, but surprise surprise it didn’t sell.

There was a near miss during the First World War when a zeppelin dropped 15 high explosive and  incendiary bombs in the fields nearby, but even without that the deterioration continued more rapidly than ever and by 1919 the building was structurally unsound and the last internal fittings were removed. The kitchen wing later collapsed bringing down  100 tons of masonry.

Luckily by this stage the government had passed legislation allowing the protection of historic sites other than just ancient monuments  and Kirby came to its notice. It was an alarming and huge prospect because the house still covered 34,000 square ft.² [ well over 3000 m²]  but  in 1930 the Earl of Winchelsea signed a deed of guardianship and transferred the hall  and its immediate surroundings into government care. It was the first major house to be acquired by the Office of Works as most of their previous acquisitions were ruined abbeys and castles or ancient monuments.

There was one serious downside which I’ve written about before in discussing the fate of Farnham Castle: the Office of Works had a particular house style which it imposed on all its properties.  Their imperative was to present the monument in as near its original state as possible.  This meant stripping back to the original structure,  which in Kirby’s case they saw as Elizabethan, at the expense of all the later additions. As a result  all the 17th and 18th century phases of the interior modernisations were removed  to expose the late 16th century fabric whatever it took, and whatever it looked like afterwards.

from The Sphere

All this was taking place during a huge change in attitude to the care of what was increasingly seen as the “national heritage”.  Large numbers of historic ruins and monuments were being taken into guardianship. It was also the time of the Great Depression and some “restoration” projects – such as the clearing and redigging of moats – were undertaken to give work to the local unemployed.  [For more on this see Simon Thurley’s Men from the Ministry, 2013].  Given that this was the Office of Works first “house” rather than  mediaeval or earlier building its a pity Thurley doesn’t mention Kirby and the impact this background might have had on what happened.

Northampton Mercury 4th June 1937


Chettle from the above clipping

The Office of Works’ Inspector of Ancient Monuments  when Kirby was acquired was George Chettle.  Having decided to remove the later alterations to the mansion he also decided to do the same to the gardens, and to do so applying  the techniques of archaeology to a new field: the garden. By May 1931 work had begun with the  idea of discovering as much as possible about the original gardens  of the early 17th century  with a view to reconstructing them.  In doing so the Office of Works  pioneered the science of garden archaeology.

They were successful in finding evidence of the early 17th century Gardens but in order to do so they stripped away much of the later 17th-century garden removing large quantities of topsoil to reach what remained of the earlier layout. This spoil was then, I am reliably informed, dumped in the small lake that had been formed when the canalised stream was “naturalised”.

Northampton Mercury, 2nd Dec 1932

The early garden was revealed with some accuracy but once its design had been established that was it.  The reconstruction followed the same layout but used modern materials  – after all the garden was going to be open to the public so had to be robust.

The planting had to be equally robust and was based around structural yew with modern roses. It proved extremely popular and attracted large numbers of visitors. A new approach avenue of horse chestnuts was planted with money raised by local girl guides as part of Silver Jubilee celebrations for George V.

Northampton Mercury.  1st November 1936

While with hindsight  its easy to laugh  we must remember this was pioneering stuff, and nothing like it had ever been attempted before.  As John Sales perceptively remarked nearly 30 years ago, in his paper on the “Restoration of Gardens”, “however clever we may think we are, we should bear in mind that the gardens we are restoring today will be looked back on as products of our time, stamped with our values and assumptions.”  So Chettle’s brave attempts were as much a reflection on the times in which it was created as on the garden period which it was trying to recapture.

Northampton Mercury April x 1935

Chettle’s work certainly impressed Miles Hadfield, the pioneer garden historian, who wrote in Country Life in September 1957 that “much of the garden has been carefully reconstructed by the Ministry of Works, the original stone edging and other objects have been found just under the surface of the ground.… The brothers [Christopher and Charles Hatton] would today find the place scarcely altered in appearance.”

The ironstone heaps overshadowing a nearby farm,   1954

What Hadfield went on to say was that “the view from the whole would horrify them: the place is quite surrounded by Ironstone workings. Wellsian monsters of terrifying size and power wander over the wilderness and rip up the ground with dreadful efficiency.” Even today with the ironstone working levelled and returned to grass Kirby’s setting is nowhere near the quality it should be for a site of this importance.



just two small curved sections survived in the centre of one of the parterres   from Archaeological Journal 1995


In 1982 English Heritage took over responsibility for historic monuments from the Ministry [previously Office] of Works.  Unsurprisingly by then the results were considered, to quote the guidebook,  “rather misleading” and anachronistic “because it appeared earlier in date than the house in its current form”. Interestingly there was no comment about the  inappropriate materials and plantings.

It was decided to make another attempt to recover evidence of the historic design through archaeology, and then perhaps to recreate the gardens layout in its late 17thc heyday under Viscount Hatton. This was carried out between 1987 and 1995 by a team led by Brian Dix and written up in “Kirby Hall and its Gardens”, Archaeological Journal 1995.

Unfortunately Chettle’s team had been so efficient that there was almost nothing left –  just a few vestiges  of cutwork  which were not even enough to determine the pattern of parterre.  So the whole idea had to be rethought and this led to work being carried out in 1997 to create the garden you see today.


And what you see today is NOT a replica of what Lord Hatton created but a reimagining  – effectively a pastiche of what was known about late 17thc gardens at the time it was done.   The layout of the parterre is based on the design that George London did for Longleat but,  as the exhibition in the house shows, they had plenty of other choices, both from London’s known designs and from contemporary books.  


The statues are replicas of ones at Wrest, and I think but am not certain are early 18thc rather than late 17th.  It’s a pity, but perhaps understandable that there are no orange trees – although the story of how Hatton got his collection of citrus is a really good one.  The stove-house that would be needed has long gone, and the security, heating and gardening skills required would all be difficult and costly.  Nor, although we know many of the plants in use,  we don’t have much idea of what the planting style might have been like.  Would the borders have been like those in contemporary Privy garden at Hampton or Stoke Edith, or something more relaxed as is the case in the one border that has been planted?


So let me leave you with some more words of wisdom from John Sales: “most garden restorations are based largely on conjecture… we inevitably interpret evidence subjectively, according to our own values. If you add to this the unavoidable compromises involved in adapting gardens to mass visiting, plant availability, and limited resources, you have a large sum of discretion.” It’s also, as English Heritage have attempted at Bolsover, Audley End and Kenilworth, an attempt to capture just one phase of the garden’s history, albeit the most important one.  Judged on that basis the reimagining of Kirby is a success, and deservedly a popular one.  I wonder how long it will be before it needs to be re-imagined again?

For further information see Historic England’s Research Report:  Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire: the Garden and Settlement Remains Surrounding the Elizabethan Mansion House by Elaine Jamieson, 2013, which has an extensive bibliography.  John Sale’s article is in Garden History Volume 23 No 1 1995 and available to read at JSTOR.


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