A common idyll in full blossom


November 9, 2006

One park, one book, but two authors and two sharply contrasted ways into the analysis of that park result in a tense, ruthlessly revealing text. The two approaches are complementary, but there is an underlying rivalry between Tom Willamson's searching exegesis of Chatsworth's land surfaces, which he describes as "one of the richest fossilised archaeological landscapes in Britain", and John Barnatt's more conventionally enlightening use of the Chatsworth archives.

Everything reads smoothly enough until chapter six, when Williamson's archaeology comes storming in with a 100-year leap back in time to explain why Capability Brown had been only half successful in the 18th century and left Joseph Paxton the sensational Gardenesque opportunities that Barnatt has just been recording in chapter five. It is stimulating, like rewinding a film and seeing the same events through another eyewitness.

When Capability Brown descended on a mid-18th-century estate he usually broadened a stream into a lake, clumped a vast lawn with trees and circled the whole contrived elegance with a carefully graded carriage drive.

Chatsworth has no clumped lawn, and to create a lake Brown would have had to flood Edensor village. But if he had produced a circulatory drive, to take in the views from the heights east of Chatsworth House, the carriage folk would have found themselves in the middle of a coalfield with no fewer than 85 opencast coal mines, large and small, with attendant spoil heaps.

And why does the method of dating oak trees by measuring their girth not work in this seemingly idyllic park? Because the fumes from local lead smelting stunted their growth and the practice of "shredding" their bark to provide fodder for the deer left the trunks slimmer than they should have been.

The authors are refreshing with this technological honesty, and their dissection of the term "Franco-Dutch formalism" is intellectually so satisfying that no one will ever want to use it again. The formalism was either French or Dutch, and Chatsworth's 17th-century formal gardens were Dutch because they were compartmented, not axial. Even the exedra was planted with orange trees to flatter King William.

At the end of the book the reader knows almost too much. Chatsworth's garden rather than its park is gloriously memorable, but it is a compendium of failures.

William Kent had even less influence than Brown. An exquisite Kentian sketch in the Muniment Room, with waterfalls tumbling down a precipitous, wooded hill to a clearing with two pyramidal temples, illustrates Kent's longing to get his hands on that dramatic topography. You can sense him grinding his teeth because Thomas Archer with his Baroque Cascade House had got there before him with a much more formal theatricality.

In the next century an influx of wealth from a Staffordshire copper mine lured the very grand sixth Duke and Paxton into over-reaching themselves with the Great Stove, an acre of tropical forest lit by 14,000 lamps for Queen Victoria's visit in 1843 and requiring an industrial complex with a small railway to keep it heated. The same copper mine financed George Gilbert Scott's grossly ill-proportioned new parish church for Edensor.

But then Edensor village itself is a visual error. How wise those wicked 18th-century landowners such as the Walpoles at Houghton in Norfolk and Lord Milton at Milton Abbas, Dorset, were to sweep entire villages away from the environs of their houses and build simple model cottages somewhere safely out of sight. Being more moral and caring, the sixth Duke not only left Edensor on his main park entrance but rebuilt it to look like a sector of upper-middle-class North Oxford, with Scott's spire needling up out of it in inescapable suburban piety.

Williamson misses nothing in the way of lynchets, lost hedges, hollow-ways, pillow mounds and Bronze-Age burials. A kink in the trunk of an old sycamore proves that it once formed part of a lost hedge. Hairpin bends in a steep, grassy field are all that remains of that circumnavigatory viewing drive that the hyperactive sixth Duke laid out after Brown's failure to provide one 70 years earlier. The park was in essence a 19th-century composition shaped around the authoritative baroque core of the South Front; and it was the 19th century that responded to it.

Once the railway line reached Rowsley, the love affair between the aristocracy and the working classes blossomed. There were 2,000 visitors in just one group from Sheffield and 72,729 visitors in 1906. Warned that they might bring the floors of the house down, the ninth Duke nevertheless insisted that all should be welcomed. How can a class revolution possibly be launched on such a respectful harmony? The landscaped park is entertainment and education: the past justified by imaginative invention.

Timothy Mowl is reader in architectural and garden history, Bristol University.

Chatsworth: A Landscape History

Author - John Barnatt and Tom Williamson
Publisher - Windgather Press
Pages - 244
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 1 905119 01 1

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