When Rupert Murdoch bought a new house for his [apparently soon-to-be-ex-] wife Jerry Hall in 2019 I wonder if he knew much about its history. Holmwood in the village of Binfield Heath near Henley cost over £11 million which might have surprised the person who lived there in the late 18thc/early 19thc, Mark Kerr.
Apart from being the son of a marquis and having a distinguished naval career Kerr was also a talented amateur artist and seems to have had a particular interest in sketching gardens and landscapes including his own at Holmwood. While his work isn’t as colourful or witty as that of his contemporary Diana Sperling who I wrote about recently they still give a real insight in to a garden of the time.
Lord Mark Robert Kerr (pronounced ‘Carr’) was born in 1776 the third son of the fifth Marquis of Lothian, a general in the army and a minor Georgian courtier. The family’s English seat was Charlton House, a grand Jacobean house near Greenwich, which may help explain why Lord Mark joined the navy at an early age. Aged 16 he was a Midshipman on the Lion, which went with Lord Macartney on his famously unsuccessful mission to China. between 1792 and 1794. Kerr went on to have a distinguished career during the Napoleonic Wars finally being made a vice-admiral in 1821.
In 1799 he married Charlotte, the younger daughter of the last Marquis of Antrim, who had inherited half of her family’s vast estate in Ulster, and later the title of Countess of Antrim in her own right. They had a large family, two of their sons succeeding as 4th and 5th Earls of Antrim. Kerr is known to have taken a great interest in his wife’s estate and a book has been published of his Irish drawings.
So where did he learn to paint and draw so well? That may have been to do with his time on the Lion. So many groups wanted to know more about China that the mission included all sorts of scientists, linguists, musicians, and at least 4 artists as well, incidentally, as people sent to look for plants. Prominent amongst them was William Alexander who left hundreds of drawing and engravings of his time in China. It seems clear that Kerr took lessons from them because there are a lot of topographical drawings – no people at all – done by Kerr from on board the Lion when it was left behind when Macartney himself went onto Beijing. Others survive from the voyage home.
As he rose through the ranks drawing must have become his relaxation for there are sketches of shipboard life and views from the deck. I dont know enough about the training of a naval officer, but I suspect most off it was “learnt on the job” unlike officer training for the army which included training in surveying and drawing at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich by artists as talented as Paul Sandby and his brother Thomas.
Later both he and Charlotte, who was also a talented amateur, took lessons from William Payne who was the most fashionable drawing-master in London and inventor of a new approach to watercolour painting which is evident in Kerr’s work. Among the innovations with which he is credited included abandoning the use of an initial pen outline which was then filled in, dragging colour with the side of the brush, reinforced by striations (parallel lines), to denote broken ground, and vigorously drawn loops of foliage. The invention by which he is best known is a neutral tint composed of indigo, raw sienna, and lake still called Payne’s grey.
During the brief periods of peace, particularly after the Treaty of Amiens, the couple travelled round their friends country houses and he would entertain his hosts and their children with not just “standard” landscapes but caricatures. He started with a series of drawings of monsters originally inspired by the Gorleston Psalter, then owned by his friend Lord Cornwallis. These were highly original and in the same vein as the work of Blake, Fuseli and later Edward Lear. Unfortunately apart from an album in the Metropolitan Museum in New York these are almost all in private hands and as far as I can see none have been digitised.
According to art historian Hector McDonnell, Kerr then went on to create 3D versions of them which he hung in the trees in their gardens and estates. [For more on this see Hector McDonnell, The strange, strange world of Admiral Lord Mark Kerr: Nelson’s surrealist captain at the time of Trafalgar in The British Art Journal [vol.6 2005]
I dont know when Kerr moved to Holmwood and many of the drawings are undated but those that are suggest it was near the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The earliest dated sketch I’ve found is 1813 – then they run through the 1820s and 1830s until just before his death in 1840.
What they show is a fairly plain house, partly according to Historic England from the early 1700s but then modified and extended in later part of the 18thc. It is set in open parkland with a well planted formal circular carriage approach on the north side, a great sweep of lawn on the rear, southern side, and trees close in on the sides.
There are impressive avenues leading away from the house, which from the size of the trees were probably planted when the original house was built. [I love the way that what appears to be “domestic” furniture is dotted about in the shade too.] Kerr also drew several specimen trees and clumps as well more general woodland and landscapes scenes.
Further away the woodland quickly turns into rough country in a more “picturesque” way, although there are sketches which show simple fencing in place as well.
The Kerrs must have decided to join the rank of those carrying out landscape and garden improvements and there is, for example, a sketch showing a proposed formal terrace along the south front, lined with urns and well planted, with a flight of stone steps down to a lawn. All vaguely reminiscent of Repton. This resembles the garden in place today so presumably was completed.
There are a few signs of shrubs close to the house on the south side in the earlier images above but by 1831, as you can see from the image below, things appear much more “garden-like” with island beds and a specimen tree or two, perhaps a little akin to John Claudius Loudon’s “gardenesque” style.
There are a small number of of garden buildings including a thatched rustic Hermitage, which is quite open on one side.
There are also several other primitive structures dotted around the grounds, perhaps the equivalent of playhouses for the Kerrs children.
There’s an ice house and rustic bridges
and finally a greenhouse of an old fashioned kind [ie with a solid roof and large but still partial sash glazing] standing in what I’d guess is a flower garden, and perhaps with the gardener’s house behind. There are two paintings which show the evolution of his style under Payne’s tutoring. The first is a pen and ink sketch, the second a more fluid watercolour.
There’s also this nice little sketch of what I ‘d guess is a working corner of the kitchen garden with what looks like a watering can, pump and sink.
Kerr did not confine his garden sketches to Holmwood and seems to have sketched everywhere he went. From grand houses like Brykinalt Hall near Chirk,
and Audley End, seen here before the installation of William Sawyer Gilpin’s grand parterre…
or Cirencester Park with its shrubbery running close to the house
and the wonderfully rustic entrance to the chatelaine’s flower garden
or the old mansion and its grounds at Keele before they were replaced by a Jacobethan heap by Salvin in the 1850s….
to much more modest residences such as the Old Rectory at Albury with its wonderful rustic summerhouse, resembling the one at Holmwood
or the equally rustic Woodend House, which has a believable working garden
or Mrs Wight’s Lodge with its rather strange method for displaying or maybe just protecting new trees
or smaller scale versions of grand features like the conservatory at Danesfield.
There are also signs that gardens aren’t always as perfect as they are sometimes cracked up to be in prints and paintings. What, for example, is one to make of this rather ramshackle boundary fence at Admaston?
It reminds me of the “before” sketch of Repton’s work at Brondesbury Park and would certainly be improved by Repton’s proposed alterations…
But I think what I like most about the admiral’s work is it’s capturing of little details, of everyday life in the garden and the way it was used, which give the sense of a man with a real sense of humour.
There are games and sports such as bowls at Fettercairn, archery at Sandhurst and a lawn game and swing seen at St Leonards at Clewer in Oxfordshire.
Apart from his naval career which is reasonably well documented in official sources there is very little evidence in the obvious public domain for the life of Mark Kerr. Yet there are definitely a lot more of his works in private hands. If you’ve liked what you’ve seen there are 772 sketches and paintings, covering subjects of all kinds including many seascapes and naval surveys as well as topographical at Watercolour World. And, as always, if anyone has more information about Kerr and his work please do get in touch.