Fabulous gardens, Historic landscapes

A Blind Date with Chicheley Hall

February 7, 2011

Chicheley Hall Baroque Facade
Readers, meet Chicheley Hall.
I only recently met Chicheley Hall myself and merely by happenstance.
It was in the autumn at the end of a Weekend Study Retreat in Oxfordshire with my Masters in Garden History cohorts.  We had just visited an array of historic landscapes — Blenheim Palace, Shotover, Heythrop Hall, Beckley Park — and my historically-shallow American mind was swirling with the names of Archer, Repton, Vanbrugh, Evelyn, and others.  My husband picked me up outside of William Kent’s delicious and classical Rousham and the LAST thing I wanted to do was drive to Buckinghamshire where he was invited to international scientific conference.
Home again, home again, jiggitty-jig, please.
But since he normally has conferences in far-flung places such as San Francisco, Vienna, and Rio de Janiero, I simply could not complain.  Same island. Within an hour of Rousham.  What luck!
Modern atomic sculpture at entrance of Kavli Royal Society International Centre

Tree-lined approach to Chicheley Hall

As soon as we turned down the gravel avenue of mature double-lined limes, I opened one eye. I would like to say that I merely straightened myself in my seat but witnesses at the scene describe it as “bolting upright.”
“Uhhhhhhhhhh….What is this?” I asked my husband, for I’m accustomed to his networking in the tungsten light of cavernous and characterless modern conference centres.
“An international conference centre for scientists.”
“Yea, but …” I looked around and said, “This is no ordinary “conference centre.” How can anyone concentrate on science here?”
I grabbed my camera, praying to the ghost of Alexander Pope that I had enough battery juice for my camera.  I jumped out of the car. This was magnificent that much I knew.  I ran around like a person possessed, taking pictures of history that had been so gorgeously preserved.  Our three kids scratched their heads, ‘Where’d mom go?’ and chased me in the fading daylight from the pond through the wilderness to a summer house and kitchen gardens. It was the best game of hide-and-seek EVER.

Baroque details

Three-sided lake

Grade I listed Georgian country house. Check! English baroque architecture? Check! Wilderness?  Check! Rectilinear pond? Check! Kitchen gardens, walks, Italinate plantings, topiaries, dovecote?  Checkcheckcheckcheckcheckandcheck!

Unlike Blenheim Palace, this country home was far more approachable and so much less about commemoration and an ego. Large, yes, but compared to the other places I’d visited, this country home was modest.  Gardens, like houses, were displays of wealth and status and expressed complex eighteenth-century society. Gardens didn’t merely ‘happen’ overnight. Nor do our present gardens spring out of the ether.  (Which is a whole other subject.)
I recently drove 200 miles back there to walk the grounds and spend the day pawing through letters, diaries, maps, and illustrations at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies. From 18th-century diaries, I know the names of the gardeners who created the landscape. I read an original letter from Alexander Pope to Jonathan Swift.  I held an original Charles Bridgeman drawing of the place. I discovered William Kent painted ‘Herse and her sisters’ for the Great Hall. (For what it’s worth, I also know how much Sir John Chester, the owner at the time, paid for a wig and the efforts he took to keep moles out of the gardens.)
All designed landscapes are born of their time.  Out of what society in 1719-1725 was Chicheley created?
This requires an academic reading of the landscape like it is a text.  Ready?

George London and Henry Wise laid out the grounds ....

Questions:  as a cultural artefact what politics are relevant to the landscape theory and the expression here at Chicheley? What social, ideological, and aesthetic values are reflected here?  What planting schemes and aesthetic properties express the political climate? What philosophical and literary responses to Nature influenced this design? As this is Classical Arcadia, is there a loosening of the planting scheme?  I am learning that there are a lot of contradictions in landscape and garden design of 1720-1820, and while I’ve collected a lot of information from maps and diaries, my understanding of it all has yet to be fully developed.  That understanding is the main project on my plate for the next two weeks.

You probably won’t want to read the wonky academic paper that comes of this, but I will share the layperson-version as it unfolds.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoy some snapshots of this preserved Georgian beauty.

I am dreaming about it.  So, too, must the scientists who now walk this rare, preserved formal landscape.

UPDATE: February 2012 — Chicheley Hall was the subject of my Masters thesis. It was not difficult to write 15,000 words about the place!

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