Harlaxton: “Beyond your imagination”

Unfortunately I haven’t had a single answer to the question -“Why did he do it?” – that I posed at the end of last week’s post about Harlaxton the “Jacobethan” marvel dreamed up and then lovingly built by Gregory Gregory.  But even if I had I doubt they’d have been as straightforward as what he told a visitor,  in 1839 during the construction of the house.

Charles Greville noted in his memoirs that Gregory told him candidly  that  “as he is not married, has no children, and dislikes the heir on whom his property is entailed, it is the means and not the end to which he looks for gratification. He says that it is his amusement, as hunting or shooting or feasting may be the objects of other people.”  So Harlaxton is essentially a rich man’s whim that was designed to occupy almost his entire lifetime. Thanks to several lucky breaks and against all the odds it has survived, inspired John Piper,  and is  still a place that the present owners rightly describe as “beyond your imagination.”

The photos are mine unless otherwise acknowledged. 

Creating the house and gardens did indeed occupy virtually all of Gregory’s entire lifetime because it had hardly been finished when he died of “gout exhaustion” in 1854. As he was unmarried and childless Harlaxton passed, under the terms of his uncle’s will to the cousin, George, who he didn’t like.  He tried to circumvent  this  and leave the estate and  his  entire art collection  to a friend  and neighbour, but that simply was not possible because he was only a life tenant of the house and estate. The collection, however, was a different matter and  it led to a huge legal dispute that lasted for years  about what items were fixtures of the house and garden, and thus governed by his uncle’s will, and what were mere chattels and so governed by his.

As part of the legal case the contents of the house,  were inventoried. In the legal report and eventual ruling of D’Eyncourt v Gregory in 1866 specific mention was made of a pair of 3ft high stone lions at the head of a flight of garden steps and sixteen ornamental stone garden seats.

Although they were theoretically movable they were held to be a part of the architectural design of the garden, as evidenced by drawings, and so they were declared fixtures. Other garden features which were not provable to be part of the design in the same way were held to be chattels.  The effect of this ruling still holds force today.


However by the time the  ruling came through  cousin George had long been dead. Since he too was childless the estate had  passed under the terms of his uncle’s will to the family solicitor, and distant relative, John Sherwin. To confuse matters he then changed his name to Gregory.

But it was a difficult inheritance because  the court’s decision meant that Sherwin was left with  a virtually empty 150 roomed mansion. Despite some interior items such as  tapestries and mirrors being held to be fixtures,  everything movable  was taken  away and much of it sold in the Gregory Heirloom Sale.

Although his widow Catherine then  “laboured to restore, refurnish, and redecorate” the house for years after she inherited in 1869 the result was, according to an article in the Journal of Horticulture in 1875,  that  “Harlaxton, if a kingly mansion once, is a princely residence now”.

The Journal  is clear that most of the garden statues had gone and that  “only a fine marble bust of Mr. Gregory remains in the gardens”.  Its whereabouts are now unknown but it can be glimpsed in the photo below.

The Journal article also provided an insight into an essential part of the working estate which hadn’t been mentioned by earlier visitors: the walled kitchen garden which it said was  “unlike any others to be found in Britain.” Even a quick glance at the Ordnance Survey map for 1886 will show that’s true for shape alone if nothing else.

It stretches to six and a half acres  and lies halfway down the drive  hidden behind trees and an elaborate brick wall that the Journal tells us that “the walls alone cost £10,000, and are extraordinary examples of masonry. They are built of brick with very substantial copings and elaborate stone dressings, and have niches at intervals which had been intended for statuary. The walks are paved with bricks, and are flanked by flower borders bordered by marginal lines of the beautiful blue Gentian.”

Inside the walled garden c1920s [image from the guidebook]

“The main walks converge to the point of entrance, and the visitor is almost startled by the extreme novelty of this garden…when taking his first view.” Whether that’s the unusual shape of the various sections, the extensive ranges of heated glasshouses, or the sheer scale of site “none can pass without an admiring glance.” Like the conservatory and other garden buildings it was  designed by William Burn.

Unfortunately the walled garden  wasn’t part of the open day, although one could peer through the railings. However An article about it was posted on-line in 2017 which shows that  although the glasshouses were said to be in disrepair at least one of the vines survives. The main area has been laid out with rose beds and the orchard area replanted.




The Journal also gave the conservatory  special praise. It “is an elaborately finished structure, the stone dressings being especially ornate, and full of costly and superior workmanship. The edifice is in five compartments, the interior dressings being of marble. It is heated so that some portions are devoted to tropical plants planted out and some as cool conservatories. It is filled with good plants in an excellent state of health, and by Mr. Vinden’s  care is alike interesting and attractive.” Mr Vinden had been appointed head gardener 1860 and his two sons ended up succeeding him, running the garden until the second of them, Frank, retired in 1938.

Another important feature noted by the Journal were extensive yew hedges together with  “isolated pillars of this evergreen…  interspersed with vases in different parts of the grounds.”   Yew hedges and clipped specimens of evergreens remain a key element of the garden, lining and  terraces and walkways and forming a link to the surrounding woodland.


Elsewhere  the Journal noted that “the flower beds are skilfully managed , and last year, although in one of the driest spots of Britain, they were filled with the best varieties of bedding plants, and (it could only be by unremitting care and labour) presented a mass of beauty quite worthy of this establishment.”   Unfortunately lately there don’t seem to be any contemporary images of this but there are a few photographs thought to be from the 1920s.

There is, unsurprisingly, little bedding now but the more permanent planting is still very much in keeping withe the formality of the site.

After Catherine Sherwin Gregory’s death in 1892 Harlaxton passed to her godson, Thomas Sherwin Pearson, who was no relation but the son of a friend. However you won’t be surprised to hear that he too changed his name to Gregory.  By then the internal fittings were a little outdated but he refused to modernise or install electricity or the telephone so for the next 40 years or so the house remained firmly in the 19thc!

During the First Wold War  the estate was used for military training and became the home of the Machine Gun Corps who practiced in Harlaxton Park while the Royal Flying Corps [later the RAF] opened a training aerodrome nearby in December 1916.

The Times 28th June 1937

In 1935 for the first since the manor was built it passed from father to son on the  death of Thomas Sherwin Pearson Gregory. But the joy was short-lived because the son, Major Philip Pearson Gregory decided he did not want to live at Harlaxton and put it up for sale by auction in 1937.  The contents of the house and garden took 3 days to sell that June and included hundreds of plants, mainly I’d guess from the brief catalogue descriptions that they were mainly from the conservatory.   There was however little by way of statuary or ornaments, apart from the lions which had been classed as fixtures in the earlier legal dispute.

Although the farms, estate and village cottages and land sold easily at auction later that year  the house didn’t. It had to be re-advertised with the warning that unless sold   it was likely to have been demolished. Arthur Oswald writing in Country Life on October 9, 1937, didn’t like the building but recognised its quality  arguing  it was ‘a tour de force’ and a ‘landmark in 19th-century architecture…for that reason and no other, its destruction would be regrettable.’

The Times 4th October 1937


Luckily the adverts in Country Life and The Times caught the attention of an unlikely heroine, the larger than life Violet Van Der Elst. Born Violet Dodge she was the daughter of a coal porter and a washerwoman, and had worked as a scullery maid before she married well. She then made a fortune in beauty products  for both women and men including ‘Shavex’, the first shaving cream which did not require a brush.  She put things sightly differently later  saying “I have made three fortunes and lost five.”  After her husband’s death she married her business manager Jean Van der Elst.  A spiritualist, occultist, writer of ghost and horror stories and fierce campaigner against capital punishment she was flamboyant and probably considered rather over the top.  She was also passionate about beautiful things and fell in love with Harlaxton paying £78,000 for it before renaming it Grantham Castle.

She installed electricity and bathrooms but also began to collect more treasures to furnish the house and gardens – where there were still six gardeners to look after them. Some still remain notably  the bronze and stone lions  in the Front Circle and the large pair on what is now called the Lion Terrace to the rear. These are 18thc and came from Clumber Park. 

There is a very short Pathe News film made in 1939 about the house which is well worth a look.

Still from the  British Pathe film 1939

Soon after the second world war broke out in 1939 RAF Harlaxton reopened and the remains of some of the buildings can still see in the woods behind the Manor, while the house itself became home to parts of the First Airborne Division. Violet returned to London but lent the house to the military. Amazingly it would seem that little damage was done and Violet was able to resume possession when peace returned.

However, the costs of running a house like Harlaxton must have been crippling to all but the very richest and since she also spent a fortune standing for Parliament three times in the 1930s and 40s as an independent, and got involved in several slander cases,  even Mrs Van Der Elst couldn’t afford it.  In 1948 she auctioned off much of the contents in a 2 day sale .

Ten years later enough was enough and she sold the manor to the Jesuits in 1959 for just £43,000 plus £7000 for garden ornaments, and some of the fittings  ie about half what she’d paid for it.  She returned to her flat in London but soon ended up in Ticehurst House, a private assylum in Sussex where she died forgotten in 1966. [For more information about Violet see Charles Gattey’s 1972 biography The Incredible Mrs. Van der Elst.]

The Jesuits used the house as a noviciate training centre and home for elderly priests. They grew their own fruit and vegetables in the walled garden with the work being done by the novices although  they also employed three gardeners.

The one remaining sign of their occupancy is the the statue by the Dutch Canal  which is probably St. Stanislaus Kostka, a 16thc Jesuit who died during his noviciate  and has become the patron saint of the order’s novices. He stands on an original plinth from Gregory Gregorys day. The canal was designed to reflect the full height of the house along its length when viewed from the other end. The yews on the right were originally clipped into a hedge to allow views out over the Vale of Belvoir.


The Jesuits stay did not last long. The anticipated numbers of new recruits failed to materialise so, in 1965 they leased Harlaxton  to Stanford University in California  as a base for studies abroad.  Stanford  too quickly moved on but once again luck was on Harlaxton’s side. Dr Wallace Graves, President of the University of Evansville, Indiana,  saw an advert in Country Life in 1969 offering an English country house for institutional use. By the autumn of 1971 Evansville had taken over the lease and set up their own international studies centre at Harlaxton and the first 89 students were installed.

Around this time the artist John Piper was embarking on a project recording  what he called Victorian Dream Palaces and this obviously included Harlaxton. He did a series of photographs, paintings and prints of the house and was very supportive of the conservation work that Evansville had begun.  In 1980 when  the first stage of repairs  to  the conservatory was completed  the college mounted an exhibition of Piper’s work  and  raffled one of his prints to raise funds for further restoration.

Evansville’s tenure was finally made permanent when a generous trustee of the university Dr William Ridgway, bought the freehold and then in 1986  donated it to Evansville.   

They have proved admirable guardians and protectors of this amazing estate, with over 300 students passing through each year, and over 1000 attending summer schools, courses and conferences and more recently a series of open days – and,  even better,  it doesn’t really feel institutional.

If you get the chance go and see if it’s beyond your imagination too!

For the last ten years all the students have planted daffodils in the woodland above and behind the house creating a colourful daffodil walk. For more info follow this link


There is a wealth of material about Harlaxton  much of researched and written up by the college itself, and available via their website or via their  archive blog.  But in particular its worth pointing out the following articles:

Gardeners’ Chronicle 15th December 1855

Journal of Horticulture 30th April 1868

Mark Girouard, The Victorian Country House

Country Life, 17th May 2018

The low stone screen came from the original Elizabethan manor


About The Gardens Trust

Email - education@thegardenstrust.org Website - www.thegardenstrust.org
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