Magazine article History Today

Gardens Old to New World - and Back Again

Magazine article History Today

Gardens Old to New World - and Back Again

Article excerpt

* Seeking out clues to the eighteenth-century layout of one of England's most famous landscape gardens, 6,000 miles away at what was once a ranch in Southern California, is the intriguing project currently being undertaken in Britain by the National Trust. A team from the Trust has just returned from working on archives held at the Huntington Library at San Marino - just outside Los Angeles. They relate to the Stowe gardens in Buckinghamshire - acquired by the

Trust in 1989 and now part of a long-term project to be restored to their former glory.

The genesis of the Stowe project at the Huntington was the exhibition An English Arcadia staged at the library in the autumn of 1991. One of the Trust speakers who took part in a Stowe Day seminar during the exhibition was George Clarke, a historian who formerly taught at Stowe School, and who currently chairs the National Trust's Advisory Committee for Stowe, who had first used the Huntington archives in the 1970s. During the visit he and the other members of the Trust team looked at the Stowe papers and realised their significance for revealing vital information about the development of the gardens and associated buildings. The further recent visit of an enlarged team of seven - aided by a grant from the Skaggs Foundation of California - was the result. |We have now searched through all the boxes of building, garden and repair accounts between 1749 and the 1920s', (when hard times forced the family to sell the mansion and estate for use as school), Clarke says, |and what has been especially exciting has been the way our multi-discipline tean have been able to pool our ways of looking at the material and then translate it into manageable form'.

The most recent visit included the architect in charge of the repair work to the network of setpiece temples, Palladian bridges and grottoes that make Stowe so remarkable as a surviving integrated attraction, and Frank Thomson, who, as the head gardener at Stowe today, is the successor to the legendary |Capability' Brown. It was Brown who between 1741 and 1751 helped plot out the Stowe landscape that has become recognised as the epitome of the eighteenth-century English garden.

A survey of Stowe's gardens, founded by English Heritage, was carried out by Land Use Consultants in 1990-91. This, with the new Hungtington information, has already made it possible to draw up a long-term management plan for reviving the gardens, to complement the repair programme for the buildings. The most ambitious step is to put all the Huntington material onto a computer database - a daunting project on which Clarke and other members of the team are now working at the Trust's computer centre at Westbury. When completed it should provide a unparalleled resource for work on both buildings and gardens, as well as an impressive database for all aspects of a great landscape enterprise such as Stowe.

But what is the garden archive material - a fraction of a mammoth depository of around 350,000 pieces in the Stowe collection, covering the years 1175 to 1925 - doing in Southern California in the first place? The answer lies in the extraordinary eclecticism of the Huntington's founders, Henry and Arabella Huntington, who between them transformed what had been a 600-acre ranch into a library, art gallery and botanical gardens in the years just before and after the First World War. …

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