The 9th son and the 14th child of the 6th Earl of Abercorn, Charles Hamilton couldn’t help himself. He had a dream and he dreamed BIG. His desire to create a different kind of garden on 200 acres in 1738, broke the bank. He went into debt, sold the garden and moved to Bath.
On Wednesday night, the Royal Oak Foundation sponsored a lecture on Painshill
Park and the Georgian Landscape presented by Cherrill Sands, Garden Historian. She was introduced by Lady Alexander of Weedon, Chairwoman of Painshill Park Trust. If you are going to be introduced by somebody, I would always go with British royalty. I don’t know if it’s the flawless accent or graciousness, that gets me every time.
It was up to Cherrill to give us a virtual tour of the garden. During my 3-month gig in the UK, I never went to Painshill Park. None of my colleagues at the National Trust suggested that a visit might be warranted. When I signed up for the lecture, I thought, I might have overlooked an important garden.
The garden has a place in garden history. If you are a scholar, Painshill Park is a turning point. It marks a critical break with the past. Charles Hamilton was part of the naturalistic landscape design movement. From Grotto to Temple of Bacchus to Elysian Plains to Gothic Tower to Hermitage to Ruined Abbey to Chinese Bridge, this property has enough follies to please just about anyone. Or I should say did have.
Cherrill used the words recreation and restoration interchangeably. This was the
moment when I started to have problems with Painshill and understood why no one I knew recommended a visit. Hamilton had great ambitions, but not enough funds, unlike his competitors, he built his follies out of timber and plaster instead of stone. By the time the Painshill Trust took over the property, most of the follies were a pile of rubble. Bringing back plants or pruning trees and shrubs to retain the view or restore the garden is possible. Rebuilding a dozen follies is an entirely different matter. If every single folly has been constructed in the last 20 years, what is the viewer really seeing? It seemed to me a kind of Disneyland.
I am sure this photograph may not truly capture the inside of the grotto at Painshill. In a brilliant, segue Cherrill compared the atmosphere of grotto at Painshill to Leonardo Di Vinci’s quote about the caves.
“Drawn by my eager desire I wandered some way among gloomy rocks, coming to the entrance of a great cavern, in front of which I stood for some time, stupefied and uncomprehending such a thing…Suddenly two things arose in me, fear and desire: fear of the menacing darkness of the cavern; desire to see if there was any marvellous thing within.”
I am not one to argue with Di Vinci. I cave is a place of fear and desire. And perhaps Charles Hamilton created such a vision. I just don’t think the current incarnation comes close.