Painshill Park: the restoration of a classical 18th-century landscape
The restoration of Painshill Park, which began in 1981, was the first major reinstatement of a historic landscape in the UK. It was an enormously ambitious project, to rescue a site so derelict that it was almost at the point of no return, and put the landscape and all its buildings back to its 18th-century heyday.
Designed by Charles Hamilton between 1738 and 1773, Painshill features a 14-acre serpentine lake dotted with small islands. The walk around the lake takes the visitor past a series of ornamental garden buildings, set among planting which enhances their mood and effect. Carefully composed views are revealed, both within and beyond the Park as the visitor travels the circuit, contrived so that the whole landscape is never entirely visible as a whole.
After Hamilton left Painshill, the estate passed through the hands of numerous owners, remaining relatively well preserved until the Second World War. Under military occupation, the landscape became overgrown and the lake began to silt up, while the garden buildings quickly deteriorated.
In 1948, the estate was sold off in lots to pay for taxes. The main part of the ornamental landscape around the lake was put to commercial forestry, and in the years that followed, the landscape became jungle-like, its buildings falling prey to decay and vandalism, and plundered for materials.
Concern about the condition of Painshill began to stir and evolve into action from the late 1960s. The Garden History Society (GHS) formed a working group to explore means of protecting the landscape, and steps were taken to have its buildings listed in 1969.
At a local level too, Norman Kitz, who lives in Painshill House, had recognised the importance of the landscape, and together with local historians formed the Friends of Painshill in 1975. The GHS collated all the research and information available on Painshill with a 29-page article in the GHS journal in autumn 1973. Off-prints of the article, with its evocative illustrations by William Gilpin and others, were used as the basis of the Society's campaign to arouse interest and funds for the acquisition of Painshill.
In 1974 pressure from local campaigners and the GHS encouraged Elmbridge Borough Council to purchase 47 acres of farmland, which had been previously part of the estate. The council also intervened in 1976 to prevent the collapse of the Gothic Temple, and carried out almost £4000-worth of emergency works.
In 1979, the council threatened the compulsory purchase of the 106 acres of land around the lake, which had formed the main pleasure grounds. This was an unprecedented step for a local authority to take in relation to a threatened historic landscape, but the council recognised Painshill's importance both locally and nationally, and was warmly applauded by the garden history community for its far-sightedness.
A compulsory order proved unnecessary, however, and in 1980 the council bought the land for £135,000. This purchase, together with another parcel of land brought the site to 158 acres (64 hectares) of the original 250 acres.
In 1981 the Painshill Park Trust was formed, and Janie Burford was appointed its director. With grants of £25,000 from Surrey County Council, and £45,000 from the Countryside Commission for emergency repairs, work began to rescue the ruined landscape.