This post is the result of a chance enquiry from a colleague who asked what I thought of the work of F.Inigo Thomas. If you’ve never heard of him don’t worry. Luckily I remembered being impressed by a visit to Athelhampton, one of the gardens he designed. Then I remembered he had provided most of the illustrations for Reginald Blomfield’s The Formal Garden in England in 1892, so could waffle a bit more, but after that I was a bit stumped, so it was off to do a bit more research. If you like formal gardens then I think you’ll be impressed too because, as Thomas himself said, “I think, as a nation, we are beginning once more to realise the charm of a formal garden.”
Francis Inigo Thomas was born on Xmas Day 1865. His father was a clergyman, a younger son in a very well-connected landed family whose family seat was at Ratton just outside Eastbourne in Sussex. After school at Haileybury College, [about ten years later than Reginald Blomfield] Thomas went on to Oxford, before joining the London office of the Gothic revival architects George Bodley and Thomas Garner. It was a high-powered practice and his fellow apprentices included C R Ashbee and Ninian Comper. Comper who was to become famous as an ecclesiastical architect later wrote that Thomas was “the pioneer of modern times in gardens.”
Perhaps it helped that while he was training he lived in Wimpole Street with his uncle, William Brodrick Thomas, a landscape and garden designer, then well-known but now largely forgotten. Inigo said Uncle William “gave up fox hunting for laying out the gardens of Country gentlefolk in the landscape manner.”
For more on Uncle William see Jonathan Pointer, ‘“A Gentleman Not to be Described as Inexpensive”: William Brodrick Thomas (1811–98), a forgotten Victorian landscape garden designer’, Garden History, 50/1 (2022), pp.3–23
There must have been a lot of heated discussion over breakfast about this because Inigo, like many others of his generation saw Elizabethan, Jacobean and Stuart architecture and garden design rather than Georgian classicism and landscape gardening as the epitome of good taste. Allying it with the ideals and principles of the arts and crafts movement, then at its height, Thomas set out to restore what he saw as the “native character and style of the smaller country house and its surroundings,” where architecture trumped planting in garden design.
One of the commissions that Bodley and Garner worked on while Thomas was training was the building of a new Jacobean style house at Hewell Grange in Worcestershire for Robert Windsor-Clive, later first Earl of Plymouth. It was to replace the old house which had burned during a firework display in honour of the Shah of Persia in July 1889, but was to be left as an eye-catcher ruin.
Hewell is surrounded by an immense park which had been landscaped firstly with advice from William Shenstone, then by Capability Brown with more modifications by Humphry Repton later. Windsor-Clive, now spared no expense in adding grand geometric gardens in Jacobean style designed by Garner to match the house. These took ten years to complete and Thomas learned a lot from the experience working on this project.
Now listed at Grade I Hewell is probably Bodley and Garner’s most significant country house and Pevsner argued “perhaps the last Victorian prodigy house”. This view was backed up rather sadly by CR Ashbee who visited in 1913 and called Hewell “a noble example of something now I suppose extinct”. After death duties forced the Windsor-Clives to sell up, the house was bought by the government for use first as a borstal and then an open prison. It was closed in 2020 and sold off probably to become an hotel and events venue.
After completing his training Inigo Thomas set off in 1889 on a series of continental tours – to France, Germany, the Netherlands and above all Italy – absorbing the spirit of historic houses and gardens, as he sketched and painted them. When he came back from the first of these trips his career really began to take off and the the early 1890s were crammed full of opportunities and two of his greatest achievements.
In 1891 his grandfather’s house at Ratton burned down and, aged only 26, he was asked to rebuild it. The work was completed in less than 2 years, just in time for the marriage of the owner, his cousin Freeman Freeman-Thomas who was later to become Governor-General of Canada, then Viceroy of India and Marquess of Willingdon.
The new house was not to everyone’s taste – and that unfortunately included the new Mrs Freeman-Thomas and there apparently a falling out. A sharp light is cast upon her taste by Edwin Lutyens when as Vicereine of India she complained about his design of the Viceregal Lodge in New Delhi and he responded that “if she possessed the Parthenon she would add bay-windows to it.” Unfortunately, like the earlier house, the new Ratton burned down in 1942, although there are plenty of photos and postcards of it.
It was probably through this family connection that the young Inigo met Reginald Blomfield, as in his memoirs Blomfield notes playing cricket with Freeman-Thomas.
The two men obviously hit it off and agreed to write what Blomfield described as “a book on the old English gardens, that is, gardens as they were before the incursion and ravages of the landscape gardener towards the end of the eighteenth century.”
They went travelling around the country, visiting historic houses and gardens and collecting material for the book which was published in 1892 as The Formal Garden in England. It was an illustrated historical survey that promoted traditional design and features, and became extremely influential for both architecture and garden design. Thomas wrote later that “the book was the result of a series of talks between Mr. Blomfield and himself”, although in the end Blomfield was responsible for the text, while Thomas contributed most of the line drawings. The book went through 3 editions in less than 10 years and, of course, inflamed the squabbles with William Robinson.
While this was going on Thomas was invited by the wealthy young antiquarian Alfred Cart de Lafontaine, who he probably knew from his Oxford days, to see the Dorset manor house he had just bought. Athelhampton had late mediaeval origins and still retained the feel of its earliest period boasting a Great Hall that dated to 1485. Its historical and aesthetic value had already been recognised, as you can see from the engraving in Nash’s Mansions of England of 1839.
There are a series of watercolours by Henry Moule in Dorset Museum which show the house just before Lafontaine bought it. However they do not show its gentle decay, captured in the engraving by Railton , that was caused by absent owners and a lack of interest by the tenant farmers who rented it.
Lady Dorothy Neville, herself a great gardener [and subject of her own post here], was bought up nearby and remembered Athelhampton as “a deserted and seemingly ruined building…the garden was a wilderness through which the cattle roamed right up to the door” [from Under Five Reigns] However there was one advantage to this neglect – it had not been “modernised” in the 18th or earlier 19thc and so retained many of its original features, although sadly the the chapel gatehouse, together with the enclosing walls of the two front quadrangles, and part of the house were pulled down in 1862 less than thirty years before Lafontaine bought it.
Lafontaine was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and an early member of the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings and so, working with Thomas, took a very sympathetic approach to the restoration and modernisation of the house.
Inigo arrived for that first visit in mid-winter with snow everywhere. On the south side the house was hidden by a thick forest of larches growing right up to the windows and no-where was there a trace of any gardens. What to do and where to start?
For inspiration he turned to Montacute which he had visited with Blomfield and illustrated in Formal Gardens, and drew up plans for new grand-scale Elizabethan-style gardens where the house and garden reflected one another in a harmonious whole.
Within a very short space of time the renaissance of Athelhampton was recognised as great success. The restoration and modernisation of the house was both sensitive and sympathetic. Lafontoaine filled the newly refurbished rooms with antique furniture of the same vintage as the house itself, rather than pieces which had been mocked up to suit Victorian fashion. His approach and taste was similar to that of Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life and that may well be why Athelhampton was one of the earliest houses to be featured in Hudson’s new magazine. In 1899 Country Life described it as “a beautiful ruin… transformed into a habitable house”.
As you might expect Thomas chose an architectural approach to designing the garden. His scheme is strongly axial with three main sections to the south of the house, and others to the west and north. In a later article, he argued “that the three chief characteristics of old gardens were enclosure, subdivision, and change of level”. The reason for this was simple “there is more left to the imagination where the whole cannot be seen at a glance.” It also reflected the different uses the garden might be put to: “As you have the dining room, library and gallery, so out of doors there was one court for guests to alight in, another for flowers and a third for the lawn game of the period.”
Its worth saying at this point that although most things Thomas proposed were constructed, not everything was. He joined the Imperial Yeomanry to fight in the Boer War, was taken prisoner and incarcerated for a short time. His absence may explain why Thomas Mawson was asked to prepare plans for a new entrance, drives, and gardens to the north of the Hall. although in the end few of his ideas were implemented.
The sketch below shows the additional garden areas created by later owners, notably the Cooke family who owned Athelhampton from 1957 until very recently. These have extended the garden into new ground, but have enhanced Thomas’s ideas rather than altering them.
Lets take a tour starting walking up the main drive to at the carriage circle: “the court for guests to alight in”.
Turning right there, and passing the venerable cedar you reach a stone Tudor-gothic arch which leads to where Thomas said “some errant fancy dictated a coronet in stone, a circle of pinnacles on ramps, with a sundial in the centre”.
Now known as the Corona, this circular space is enclosed by a stone wall with a scalloped top, and a series of obelisks. It is now backed by tall yew hedges, and has a border of flowers at its feet. Thomas’s proposed sundial was turned down in favour of a fountain.
The Corona is the focal point of the rest of his entire scheme. It was praised by Gertrude Jekyll in Gardens for small country houses as being “ambitious and very successful…and an admirable device”. It has four gateways leading to adjacent garden spaces and is the crossing point for two of his principal axes.
On the western side stone steps rise up to an elaborate wrought-iron gate which opens onto the Great Court. Sometimes referred to as the Upper Garden or the Pyramid Court this garden is square in plan with a central sunken lawn surrounded by a slightly raised gravel walk. Originally it had 64 intricate geometrical beds and Thomas planted a dozen small yews on the the edges around a central pool.
These flower beds are long gone overshadowed by the yews which are now about 30ft tall and one of the iconic features of Athelhampton.
When Lafontaine arrived he found the ground level was higher outside than inside the house and this was causing major problems with damp . The area around the house had to be excavated meaning “there was a mass of soil to be moved” so Country Life noted that “the idea took shape of carting it towards the Blandford road to make an upper garden, with raised walks all round and a long terrace beyond, with a pavilion at either end.”
Thomas installed a long narrow pond below the terrace with waterspouts although this has now been replaced by a flower border. Everywhere the architectural detailing with obelisks, balustrading and stone benches is immaculate. The pavilions modelled on those at Montacute are known as the House of Joy and Summer and the House of Sorrow and Winter from the carvings over the doors.
Going south out of the Corona through another Tudor-gothic arch leads to what is now called the Lion’s Mouth. This is a small space totally enclosed by stone walls, with a semicircular pool and a wall fountain which lines up on the central axis running through the Corona to the forecourt. The Lion’s mouth itself is actually tiny.
The pool is flanked on each side by stone archways which lead to the Lime Walk outside which is not shown in Thomas’s aerial view.
The fourth and final gateway out of the Corona leads east into what is now called the Private Garden. Having cleared the larch trees away Thomas had what Country Life in 1899 described as “visions of a sunny court of green on the south front, with a long pool down the centre”. On the far side, and at the end of Thomas’s east-west axis, was a further gateway in the eastern wall which opened “into the gloom of a grove beyond, [only to] lose itself in the shady recesses of a summer-house.”
One part of Thomas’s scheme that does not seem to have been implemented was on the north side of the manor house when he proposed a long walled garden for tennis with, at the far end “a sculptured figure in the yew hedge by the river.” Instead a huge circular sweep of hedging planted in c1960 wraps round a large lawn and a large Elizabethan dovecot.
The restoration of the house and the creation of these gardens was long and complicated as Country Life reported in 1899. “There were cubic yards of excavation and rods of walling, cubic feet of ashlar, models and carving, piping per foot run, and all the jargon of the quantity surveyor. There were the felling, grubbing, and carting away of trees, the purchase and planting of yew and box, of turf and flowers and creepers. There were tons of gravel, twice sifted, and metalling for the garden paths. For many months waggons laden with russet stone from Ham Hill creaked down the Yeovil road. … It all left “the face of Nature scarred and seamed “: while “the outlook appeared almost hopeless to those who did not know the underlying scheme.” There were too “plenty of unforeseen catastrophes” and “the usual difficulties interposed by the stupidity of workmen. Rome was not built, nor was Athelhampton rebuilt, in a day.”
But at last the outside work was finished, and now, about 8 years after Lafonatine first invited Thomas down to survey it, Country Life reported “the garden’s bare form” was “overlaid with royal robes of clematis, roses and honeysuckle leaving just a hint here and there of architectural form, enough to show its value amongst growing things.” The unsigned article had some minor criticisms “but on the whole the garden seems to have followed take right direction.” That’s not a bad bit of understatement.
A second unsigned Country Life article followed in 1906, and like the earlier one concentrated minimally on the house and its contents, but this time Thomas and the garden gets not a mention at all. A third series of articles about Athelhampton appeared in 1984 written by Clive Aslett however, while again concentrating on the architecture also stresses Thomas’s role in the triumph of the formal garden as a setting.
Amazingly almost everything that Thomas did is still in place, and as Country Life said “On the whole Time and Nature seem to have dealt kindly with his work.” His work at Athelhampton is listed at Grade 1, the highest status possible, making it of international importance…. and all finished well before he was even 30 years of age. But, as we shall see in another post shortly its was merely the beginning of his success in garden design.
Not so long ago I was lucky enough to work as the contract gardener at the privately owned Barrow Court in Somerset, Thomas’s post Athelhampton commission. Still intact and featuring some astonishing architecture (not least Drury’s ‘Daughters of the Year’) Barrow Court inspired me to write my masters dissertation on Thomas, taking the opportunity to visit Athelhampton and the wonderful Chantmarle. His work reviving old English styles, the balance of evident design against nature, his major commissions still existing (though precariously at times) makes Thomas, for me, a hugely fascinating and important character in the history of gardens.
Thanks. Lucky you to have such an opportunity. I’m going to be writing another post about Thomas soon to cover his later works, so I’d be very interested to know more about your time at Barrow & maybe even read your dissertation . If that’s a possibility then drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org David