Reimagining the lost formal gardens 

We’ve been working on a better understanding of the formal gardens between the house and Echo as they were first designed. We’ve explored them using a 3D computer modelling. This allows us us to integrate the modern topography of Kingsweston Hill with the known historic plans and illustrations of the garden, bringing a new perspective on their original appearance. Whilst it’s important to make sure that the plans and terrain are modelled to the correct scale,  an understanding of how the gardens evolved has been essential in recreating them.

An engraving of the garden side of the house in about 1720, with modern colourisation. Source unknown.

We know that in 1716, when Edward Southwell, Neddy, moved with his second wife into the new Kings Weston house for the first time, the gardens in which it sat were little changed from when his father had laid them out in the 1680s around the previous building. Sir Robert, his father, possibly following advice from his good friend John Evelyn, created a series of formal gardens that led up the side of Kings Weston Hill, terminating at the garden wall against Kings Weston Lane; the lane was later realigned but its earlier route passed directly behind the Echo building. Between the wall and the house, the gardens were separated in the European model, into three compartments, a traditional sequence of parterre garden, ‘wilderness’ garden, and formal grove. Two of these gardens are shown in the famous engraving of the house published by Johannes Kip in about 1711, but the third was probably omitted for artistic licence and a greater focus on the mansion itself. Certainly, the formal grove was in place in 1720 when all thee of the series are illustrated on an estate plan.

Two of the three likely gardens at Kings Weston shown in Johannes Kip’s c.1711 engraving. 

The three gardens represented an ordering of nature, with this being most strongly expressed in the ornamental parterres closest the house, gradually becoming less formal through each subsequent section, but all connected by a rigid axial path and symmetrically arranged on each side. Each of the gardens was walled-in from the park beyond, so largely isolated from the landscape outside of their narrow parameters – an idealised microcosm of nature.

Closest to the house, the parterres were intended to be the showiest part of the garden. Once planted with rare and unusual specimen plants, manicured ornamental shrubs, and probably flowering bulbs, by 1720 they appear to have been greatly simplified. The expense of maintain such an intricate garden, particularly while the house was a building site, must have been difficult and expensive, and as much evidence as we have suggests it was laid simply as lawn at this date.  

Gardens like that at Wilton House, Wiltshire from the 1630s set the Continental model for gardens that houses like Kings Weston followed.  

The wilderness garden, the second compartment, was far from what we’d imagine today, a wild unkempt area, but instead it was a geometrically planned series of compartments formed with dense evergreen hedges. These were set out either side of the Echo path and incorporated secluded saloons linked by radiating pathways. Like the famous Hampton Court maze these hedges were maintained at a regular height and profile and were as much an expression of enlightenment order as the parterres. We might assume that the open saloons in this part of the garden were provided with focal points, perhaps the lead statues of Jupiter and Vesta that were later transported to the family estates in Downpatrick by 1749. This garden was planted with evergreens, with yew and holly being popular species for form dense hedges and winter interest. Writing in 1785, Malesherbes described the gardens;

“planted with varied and beautiful trees, but still young, the “allées francaises” having been changed only fourteen years since. A great number of old trees which comprised them have been preserved with great art.”

The allées francaises referred to are the regular paths in this and the final part of the garden, a design that had originated on the Continent. It’s likely that the surviving ancient holly tree beside the Echo Path, and perhaps some of the yews nearby, are the same trees that once formed the wilderness garden.   

Detail of William Halett’s estate plan of 1720, showing the three garden compartments surviving from an earlier era.

 The last of the three gardens was a formal grove, or rather four groves, each planted with a star shaped radiating pattern of trees. This would have provided a shady place to walk during the summer months, and may also have been decorated with statues or other architectural features at key points. At the time of the 1720 estate survey it’s not clear how the garden terminated against the boundary wall at its southern extent. The Echo pavilion is part of a series of buildings added only after that date, but it would be extraordinary if there were no focal point to attract the visitor’s eye. The survey suggests that there may have been some sort of raised terrace with ramped access down either site that would have enjoyed elevated views back towards the house and to the Severn Beyond, but this is only speculation.

A view across the front of Kings Weston House with the three garden compartments stretching out along the path to the Echo. 

After the publication of the 1720 estate plan, Neddy Southwell returned to his architect, Sir John Vanbrugh, and commissioned a series of new garden buildings to ornament his estate. The new works included the Echo and Kings Weston Inn on the hill beyond, both from around 1724-28. As part of our reconstruction these buildings have been inserted into the earlier garden layout. Also modelled is the original profile of Kings Weston Hill, much higher behind the Echo than today, with 30 feet of rock removed a decade later mound of Kings Weston Hill between them as it was before being quarried away in 1731. What’s immediately apparent is how prominent the Inn would have been, enjoying a belvedere position looking across the gardens, with a central tower that was, no doubt, used as a viewing platform. Another striking feature is the impact of the original hill profile behind the Echo, and how it dominated the Echo in front of it, no doubt one reason behind it’s expensive and laborious removal. Although the view is changed today, it’s still possible to imagine the urns on the Echo once creating an ornamental silhouette against the sky, and whilst the was Vanbrugh’s original ambition, the hill beyond robbed the Echo of its full impact for a number of years.  

The reconstructed view from the Echo, with the aligned views through one of the formal groves of trees and the central axial path framed within Vanbrugh’s arches. A statue may have ben an eyecatcher in the centre of the grove. 

Modelling the original gardens in 3D also reveals another intriguing aspect of the design. When viewed from within the Echo, each of the three arches framed a different view. The central arch remains aligned on the path to the house today, but the outer arches appear to relate to the tree-lined paths radiating out into the formal groves.  

It’s unlikely, of course, that we will ever know exactly how the gardens looked, felt, or smelled, but in putting together the evidence we can at least get a sense of them in their prime. The scene today it different, with maturing woodland and new formal gardens on the south of the house. Although the Echo remains, as a focal point of the original design , there are no plans to turn the clock all the way back to the 1720s.

Looking up towards the Echo from the wilderness garden. The line of the hill behind is higher than it is today, and Kings Weston Inn on the left is no longer visible behind trees. The formal groves of trees are planted on the rising ground beyond the end of the wilderness garden. 
A statue may have stood in the centre of the largest  of the wilderness garden saloons. The lost brick-built orangery stands beyond. 

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