Landscape Gardeners – garden walls
by Claude Hitching
For some time now, I have been researching the lives and work of James Pulham and Son, the eminent firm of Victorian landscape gardeners who specialised in the construction of picturesque rock gardens, ferneries, garden walls, follies and grottoes, and also manufactured a wide range of fine quality and much sought-after terracotta garden ornaments, such as vases, urns, fountains, seats and balustrading etc. My interest in this firm stems from the fact that no fewer than five of my ancestors used to work for them as ‘rock builders’.
Rock gardens came into fashion in the wake of the increasing number of people who went off on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, and came home with wonderful memories of the Alpine scenery, and with stories of a whole new range of exotic Alpine plants that they had seen – and sometimes collected – in their travels. They wanted to plant some in their own gardens, but needed a rocky habitat in which to do so. Many imported quantities of large natural rocks, but this was expensive, and often created a quite unnatural effect. This is where Pulhams had the perfect answer to the problem.
Left: James 2’s sample for the garden walls he proposed to build at Highnam Court
James 1 was apprenticed as a stone modeller with J & W Lockwood, a building firm in Woodbridge, Suffolk. William Lockwood invented Portland Stone Cement, which created a far more natural stone-coloured finish than the Roman cement that was used hitherto. The firm expanded to London, but Lockwood retired back to Woodbridge a few years later, and James 1 – with his brother Obadiah – took over the London end of the business. They were responsible for a lot of ornamental stonework around many buildings in the City and elsewhere.
Sadly, James 1 died at an early age, and his son, James 2, took over the reins of the business. Even at the tender age of 20, he had already inherited many of his father’s natural artistic and modelling skills, and was well versed in the use of cements. He moved the firm out to Hoddesdon and Broxbourne, in Hertfordshire, where he had a number of connections.
Above: Part of the completed wall alongside the ‘Ladies Walk’
One of these – John Warner, a City bell founder who was responsible for the casting of Big Ben – engaged him to do some stucco work on one of his houses, and then asked him to help construct a garden at his new home, in which he wanted to create an artificial lake, complete with rock gardens and fountains etc.
Rather than use heavy natural blocks of rock, James literally ‘built his own’ by creating large heaps of rubble and old bricks etc, which he then coated with his own proprietary cement. This is how the trade of ‘rock builder’ was born, and their true craftsmanship lay in their ability to sculpt the cement surface to simulate the colour and texture of natural stone. They were able to create areas of natural, picturesque scenic beauty, with lakes, streams, cascades and other water features, and it wasn’t long before their trademark stonework became popularly known as Pulhamite.
Having been bitten by the horticultural bug, James 2 decided that this was an area of the business on which he wanted to focus his attention. He built himself a new home and a factory in Broxbourne, where he began to create his range of terracotta ornaments, for which he won several medals at the Great Exhibitions of the 1850s and ‘60s. He soon built up a very select and influential list of clients, and the firm was awarded two Royal Warrants for their work at Sandringham and Buckingham Palace.
James 3 took over the business on the death of his father in 1898, when fashions in country house garden design were gradually changing in the direction of more formal and flamboyant balustraded terraces and ornamentation. This was no problem for the Pulham craftsmen, and they were also able to cater for the next ‘must have’ styles. As access to travel facilities gradually improved, people gradually ventured further and further afield – once again returning home with stories and samples of new exotic plants. This time, they were from the Orient, and garden enthusiasts wanted to emulate the styles of Chinese and Japanese gardens. Some people even brought over teams of skilled Japanese gardeners to landscape their gardens, but I am certain that, in a number of cases, the Pulhams had more than just a casual involvement – even if they often worked in collaboration with the foreign teams.
James Pulham and the Walled Garden
As far as is known, James Pulham and Son had very little involvement with the interior planting arrangements of walled gardens, although they were occasionally involved in the construction and external decoration of the walls themselves. Like Highnam Court, in Gloucestershire, for example, which was one of the first garden projects undertaken by James 2.
Highnam Court was the home of Thomas Gambier Parry – a man of fine artistic taste, and father of Sir Hubert Parry, composer of ‘Jerusalem’. He bestowed much loving care on his garden, and was undoubtedly impressed and intrigued by what he saw in the gardens of his brother-in-law, William Baker, who lived at Bayfordbury, near Hertford, in Hertfordshire. This was one of James 2’s first landscaping assignments, where he constructed a rose garden and rock garden.
Gambier Parry invited James 2 down to Highnam in 1847 to suggest what he might do for him there. Fortunately, the gardens still exist today, and are in remarkably good order, so this is where one can find the earliest surviving complete example of a Pulham garden.
Part of his specification was to build or replace the high wall around the Walled Garden, but it is quite clear that James 2 was not invited down to Highnam with a carte blanche offer to come in and do just as he liked. Thomas Gambier Parry obviously had some very definite ideas about the way certain things should be done, and asked James 2 to prepare a sample of the finish and copings that he suggested would be appropriate for the main wall. As can be seen from Fig 1, this sample still stands near the house, complete with a new statue that stands on top of it. Fig 2 shows a section of the final wall, with its ornamental pre-cast pillars – the statues alongside the path are all recent additions or replacements.
The view above illustrates the ‘Ladies Walk’ taken from the west end, and shows quite clearly that Pulham’s wall sample was approved. The ornamental pillars were almost certainly built from pre-cast hollow sections, and I found a close relative of these in Dunorlan Park, Tunbridge Wells – pictured below. In this case, the section was used as a plinth for one of a series of statues that lined the Avenue leading down from the ‘Temple’ to the magnificent ‘Hebe Fountain’ – for which Pulhams were awarded a special commendation – at the bottom.
There are two more features of interest in the proximity of the Walled Garden at Highnam Court. Just at the end of the Ladies Walk, there is the Owl Cave Grotto which rather typifies Pulhams’ normal ‘rock building’ work, and is still in excellent condition today. Just beyond here is another feature of note – the gigantic ‘rock’ construction. The first sight of it is quite awe-inspiring – is it a natural feature, and how on earth did it get here? If it is artificial, how were these gargantuan rocks ever put in place?
The answer is actually quite simple. The whole structure is man-made, as can be seen when one walks around to view the opposite side, as shown left. It was either built onto an old wall that had partly collapsed – perhaps even the old wall to the Walled Garden – or the supporting wall was especially built to support the artificial ‘rocks’.
The far side of the rock feature at Highnam Court
A set of wall terminals along the top of a garden wall.
There is another garden wall in the Midlands that I believe was built by Pulhams, although I have no documentary proof of this. This was built during the 1860s, and a close study of the photograph below suggests a number of similarities with the one at Highnam – I cannot reveal the actual location in this case, in case the adornments attract the unwelcome attention of garden trophy hunters – there are even stories of helicopters being used by certain members of the thieving community to remove attractive and valuable garden ornaments!
Apart from the wall itself in this case, the items of interest to me are the pineapple and ball terminals on top of the pillars. I know that Pulhams were involved on this site in some ways, and these ornaments come straight out of their Catalogue.
Masking the View
Finally, there is a rather unique Walled Garden at Bedwell Park, Essendon, Hertfordshire. Bedwell was the home of Robert Hanbury, although not everything in the garden was entirely to his liking when he first moved in.
<em>The ‘cliffs’ along the outside of the Walled Garden wall at Bedwell Park</em>
There was a walled garden about 80 yards from the house, just on the other side of the tennis courts, and he wanted something done to screen the view of the long, blank wall that met his eye every time he looked out of his dining room window.
Robert Hanbury engaged James Pulham to build a line of ‘cliffs’ along it, together with a fernery and root house ‘for ferns and shrubs’. The ‘cliffs’ are still in very good condition, and reasonably maintained, as can be seen above. There are planting pockets all along the wall, which is about 50 yards long, and the ‘cliff’ extends a short way round the corners at each end.
There is a small tunnel concealed in the wall that leads to what was probably the ‘root house’ – or it might have served as the gardeners’ bothy’ – shown left and there is also a small grotto, or dropping well, at the left end of the wall, shown below.
These features are very typical of the work on which James Pulham and Son built their main reputation. The instances cited here are only small examples of the many rock features for which they were responsible around the country estates of England. Wales, Scotland, Ireland – and even Denmark. Some have sadly been lost or destroyed over time, but several remain in remarkably good condition, and can still be viewed and enjoyed today. Some have been restored by enthusiastic owners or local groups of people – often with the valuable help of a Heritage Lottery Grant – and there are doubtless others that have yet to be rediscovered.
I am working hard to produce a book about this firm, that I hope will be of interest to a wide range of readers, but, in the meantime, readers may care to whet their appetite further by visiting www.pulham.org.uk, where there is a lot more information, including a list of sites on which they are known to have worked; a short history of the firm; contact information, and copies of articles that have been published either by myself or other interested authors in newspapers or magazines. All visitors to the site are welcome . . .