Another Swan Song

Way back in March 2021 I wrote a piece about swans,  which concentrated on their  history in parks and gardens in Britain from the mediaeval period through to the  17thc. Then  they were probably regarded as high status food as much as anything more aesthetic. I’ve been meaning to continue it ever since and today I’ve finally managed to get round to it!

From the 18thc onwards swans  were rarely eaten and so presumably kept, or encouraged to stay, simply because they are beautiful and ornamental. They  make the occasional  appearance in paintings of 18thc gardens, never centre stage, but  more  generally on water in the wider estate.

Whatever the reason that’s a good excuse to include a lot of nice images!

But swans didn’t  just grace the scene as living creatures,  they can be seen in statues, ornaments and decor both in interiors and gardens  including a recent rediscovery about one of England’s greatest lost gardens.

View of a Park with Swans and Ducks
Melchior de Hondecoeter (1636–1695).

Although as I’ve shown in several previous posts garden buildings for animal and bird keeping were known from mediaeval times onwards and became increasingly popular from the later 16th century,  it wasn’t until the later 17thc  and that the collecting exotic fauna of all kinds  – including birds – began to become really fashionable. One artist in particular captured this fascination with birds, the Dutchman Melchior de Hondecoeter, and although he never came to Britain, he did work for William III at Het Loo.    His painting often show birds, common as well as exotic, in garden and parkland settings.

The settings in those two paintings of Hondecoeter are rather grander than I suspect than the garden of  Charles II’s widow, Catherine of Braganza.  After Charles died, as a Catholic she became the subject of anti-Catholic abuse and retreated to an unpretentious riverside house at Hammersmith which didn’t  attract the attention of any contemporary artists  but it can be seen behind the trees on the left side of this later painting.

Catherine had a new garden laid out but seems to have been much more interested in animals and birds than plants and had at least two aviaries constructed. One was a pheasantry, and a second  for the “ruffs”, “knots”, lapwings, a “guinea hen” and even a pet rook, whilst “indian larkes” lived “before her Majties Windows in the Greene house.”  Swans were amongst the other birds she is known to have kept, along with  “sea-pyes” (oyster catchers).  Her accounts show that she employed special uniformed staff to look after them – in the 1670s she had even employed a parrot keeper at £36 a year – and the aviaries were decorated with “green boughs” and set in their own grounds with topiary bay trees set around them.



In fact we have very little evidence of swans being kept or domesticated in any way, but it’s interesting how many painters considered them a useful addition to a view of a house or landscape. So here are a few images of swans at less well-known sites.

Billingbear House in Berkshire , for example,  burned down in 1924 and the ruins demolished. The site is now a golf course. Luckily we have a couple of images of it as was visited by Cosimo Medici, later the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Lorenzo Magalotti in 1669, and sketched by Cosimo’s artist [left].  He didn’t include any swans, unlike the later view by Griffier.

The swans certainly look at home on one of the ornamental fishponds at Steane Park.  The original manor house  passed by marriage c1590 to Sir Thomas Crewe, Speaker of the House of Commons, at the end of James I’s reign. He remodelled the house but in the mid-18thc two thirds of it was demolished. According to the current owners who acquired the house in 1990 the gardens were overgrown and  the lake had been filled with rubbish and the fishponds were hardly visible. They have now been restored and the grounds are open to visitors. Lets hope that includes swans!

Swans look at home too in one of the early 18thc embroidered views of gardens known as the Stoke Edith hangings, which I’ve written about before.   What I hadn’t noticed, even then, was that there are a pair of swans swimming in the ornamental rectangular basin on the right hand side.

There’s a similar peaceful scene at Tong Castle in Shropshire, although you wouldn’t find much tranquility at the site now as the castle was famously blown up by its owner, Lord Newport in 1954 and most of it now lies under the M54 motorway.  Some of the garden buildings at Tong also appear in an earlier post.



Although the  garden below was definitely grand enough to be drawn  its whereabouts are unknown. Is it even English?  The Yale Centre for British Art evidently assumes so but offers no further information. In front of the mansion is  a formal terrace with a line of a lot of fastigiate trees – cypress? poplars? – with more  forming an avenue behind the elaborate fountain. Classical statues and urns line the pool, with a small building on the  far side.

Could that be a house for all those many waterbirds ?   If it is its unlikely the swans would nest there because, according to Swanlife  their nests are huge with a diameter measured in feet rather than centimetres or inches, as is the case for most birds in the world. Mute Swan nests of two to three metres are not unusual.

And of course there were swans at more famous gardens too…

Copplestone Warre Bampfylde’s  painting  of the Grotto at Stourhead, has swans on the pool in front but as far as I’m aware there was no aviary or menagerie here. However as Kate Felus points out in her very readable Secret Life of the Georgian Garden there were plenty of grand houses and gardens that did have collections of birds.  Sir John Griffin at Audley End for example, had one built in 1774 that not only had housing for songbirds but also an adjacent kitchen and tea rooms as well as a room for the keeper. Outside was a large enclosure for large birds such as gold and silver pheasants and other “exotic fowl” but sadly as far as I can see nothing specific for swans or other water birds. Yet there they are on the river below the cascade.



And where is this garden?  The painting dates from a few years before William Chambers and Capability Brown got to work on it.  The lake was filled in – the swans presumably flying off to the nearby river – and the bridge has vanished but the little temple in the mid-distance is still there. [Answer at the end]


And finally for swans in garden settings, here’s an early 18thc drawing of the Long Water at Hampton Court.

As far as I’m aware, unlike St James’s Park there was never an aviary or menagerie at Hampton Court so the swans presumably are wild.  Also worth noticing are the high-backed garden bench, and the building in the right distance.  Does anyone know what it is?  Assuming that it’s the Long Water in the background can you identify the viewpoint where that drawing was done – because there doesn’t seem to be any water running at right angles to it on image of Hampton Court [below], unless of course its the large circular basin, and Bernard Lens has used a bit of artistic licence..



In fact I’ve only found one reference to any more recent deliberate introduction of swans, rather than just the capitalising on their natural arrival. At Nanteos nr Aberystwyth they  were introduced when a new lake was built in c1819, and the estate’s website records an incident shortly afterwards when they escaped and tried to make their way down to the sea. That would suggest they were pinioned or else they presumably would have simply have flown off.  A later story from 1880 tells of how during a severe winter one swan would walk up to the mansion to be fed and the owner thought of awarding it a silver collar like Lohengrin’s swan in Wagner’s Parsifal.









The Lohengrin legend drives from a long line of stories about about princes and swans- and indeed other royalty and swans, dating back to the early 13thc or before.  It continued to be a popular theme.  For example, Catherine of Braganza not only kept swans but she was painted in a chariot being pulled through the sky by a pair of  them towards a temple of virtue… talk about flights of fancy!


Let’s finish with some swan statuary.

The village of Mistley on the Stour estuary in  north east Essex  has several claims to fame, including the twin Mistley Towers the remains of a church designed by Robert Adam as part of an 18thc  project to turn the village into a saltwater spa.   One of the other survivals of the scheme  is the Swan Fountain in the village centre.

The most obvious group are sculptures of  Leda and the Swan, like the  one at Wrest that is the lead photo in this post. These vary in style from the prudish – the one at Brodsworth could almost be Leda and her pet parrot – to the  fairly explicit. They all show versions of the story of  Leda, Queen of Sparta and mother of Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Castor, and Pollux,  who  was much admired -and lusted after – by Zeus, the king of the Gods. He  eventually disguised himself as a swan and seduced her.

It became a popular story during the Renaissance when it was more acceptable to portray a woman and a swan having sex than a man and a woman.  Whether the seduction was consensual or violent has been a matter of controversy, so for  more on the story and its varying interpretations in art check out this comprehensive and well referenced article.






And finally, to finish off  I want to turn to the the probable rediscovery of a feature of  one of England’s greatest lost gardens.

This series of four alabaster swans is almost certainly by Nicholas Stone  and probably dates from the early 1630s.  Stone was the leading English mason and sculptor of his day and became Master Mason to Charles I in 1632.  Apart from his work for the crown he created the Water Gate of York House [now in Victoria Embankment Gardens]  in London and the grand gateways at Oxford Botanical Gardens and Kirby Hall. There is apparently another very similar pair of swans at Houghton in Norfolk, but I’ve been unable to track down an image.

Nicholas Stone  was also a prolific supplier of funeral monuments, and when these swans were auctioned at Christies 10 years ago it was thought they might have  been intended for tomb decoration.  However the figures  are large  for work in alabaster, [about 60cm high & long] and they have no fixing holes  perhaps suggesting  that was not actually their intended purpose. Instead, because of their provenance,  another more interesting theory has emerged.

The swans were acquired from a member of the Herbert family, the head of which is the earl of Pembroke and whose seat is Wilton House.  The art gallery that had them for sale believes the swans were  actually designed for use in a garden, but not as ordinary ornaments standing on pedestals or atop a wall but as part of a fountain or in a grotto.  This would fit with what was going on at Wilton in the 1630s when Isaac de Caus famously re-designed  the gardens  with French style  parterres and a complex system of fountains and waterworks that culminated in a celebrated grotto.

Stone had already worked on the construction and ornamentation of other grottoes at the Banqueting House in London, and at Woburn,  and we know from his account books that he had “designed & built many curious works for the Earle of Pembrock at his Hons. House att Wilton, near Salisbury & well paide”.  

The new gardens are captured in the engravings  in Hortus Penbrochianus or  The Wilton Garden of 1645,  and its a good thing they were because the whole elaborate set-up was swept away in the 1730s and the site then later landscaped by Capability Brown .  Unfortunately the book does not provide a comprehensive visual record either of all the statuary, or the grotto’s interior, although it is known to have had  spouting marine creatures, and hidden jets to shower unsuspecting visitors, with hydraulics to simulate ‘the singing and chirping of Birdes’.

Unfortunately without  documentary proof there is no way of being certain but with the Herbert family provenance and their survival at Wilton, together with the skill of their execution, strongly suggests that the swans should be attributed to Nicholas Stone with the  likelihood that they  formed part of the grotto’s ornamentation.  The buyer presumably thought so as Christies sold them for £229,975 in 2013.


The mystery garden in the painting above is Kew

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