Ralph Hancock F.R.H.S. Landscape Artist
- Written by Robin Hull
There’s a plaque on a wall in the roof gardens above what was once Derry & Toms on London’s Kensington High Street. It commemorates Trevor Bowen, Chairman of the Barkers Group and his Garden in the Sky, opened by the Earl of Athlone on 9 May 1938.
One would be forgiven for thinking that it was Sir Trevor who had created the fabulous one-and-a-half acre roof garden. He did indeed have the inspiration to utilise the empty roof space and turn it into unique gardens, 100 feet above one of London’s more famous streets.
And it was also Bowen, having seen the Gardens of the Nations on the 11th floor of the Rockefeller Center in the early 1930s, who took the wise decision to employ the same landscape architect who had created the New York spectacular – Ralph Hancock.
Clarence Henry Ralph Hancock was born in Cardiff in 1893. The son of a successful estate agent and auctioneer, little is known of his early life. We do know that he served as an officer in the Welsh Howitzer Brigade in the Great War. He was invalided out in 1917 having been diagnosed with diabetes.
His daughter, Sheila, recalls that her father, together with fellow demobbed officers, formed a cooperative of like-minded individuals so that ‘gentlemen’ could seize opportunities to promote their unique knowledge and skills.
Nothing is known of whether this particular venture was successful. But we do know that the London Gazette of the mid- and late 1920s records Ralph as being a busy marine insurance broker working in Cardiff.
A Fellow of the RHS
In 1926 the Royal Horticultural Society’s membership records show that Ralph – now living in London - had paid his membership fee and became a Fellow of the RHS.
A year later he was to build an iris garden and a rock and water garden for Princess Victoria (daughter of King Edward VII) at her home, ‘Coppins’, in Iver, Buckinghamshire. She was reported to be very pleased with his creation and presented Hancock with a diamond-and-sapphire tiepin.
Sometime between 1927 and 1928, Hancock designed and built a sunken garden for Edward Hulton, proprietor of The Daily Sketch and Picture Post at his family home on the Sussex coast.
We do not know why Hancock chose to change career. But his rise from insurance broker to successful landscape architect appears to have been meteoric.
In May 1930 Ralph, with his wife Muriel and daughter Sheila, set sail for New York. He was to use his association with Princess Victoria to great success. No sooner had he arrived in New Jersey than he was promoting himself as ‘gardener to Princess Victoria of England’ in a pamphlet entitled English Gardens in America.
The pamphlet must have worked. Within a short time Hancock was designing and building gardens for wealthy Americans including J.J. Newberry (owner of the famous five-and-dime stores) and Lydia Duff Gray Hubbard, the New York socialite. The latter garden now forms part of the Garden Club of America.
Hancock became a multiple cup and medal winner at major horticultural events. In 1933 he took the President’s Cup for a magnificent rock garden at the Massachusetts Flower Show.
He was a big hit on the lecture circuit and, like today’s celebrity gardeners, used the popular medium of the time to his advantage, becoming a well-known voice on the many New York radio stations, speaking about horticulture and giving gardening tips to his listeners.
The Rockefeller Center
In 1933 Ralph was approached to design roof gardens for Nelson and John D. Rockefeller at the RCA Building (Rockefeller Center) in New York City.
Also in that year he was asked to create two lower-level roof gardens on the British Empire Building and La Maison Française, and to design the planting for the fashionable Channel Gardens on Fifth Avenue.
Hancock’s Gardens of the Nations, on the 11th floor of the RCA Building, emulated the style of gardens from Holland, France, Spain, Italy and Japan.
Three thousand tons of earth, 500 tons of bricks, 100 tons of stone, 2,000 trees and shrubs, and 20,000 bulbs were delivered by the service elevator or were hauled by hand using a block and tackle up the side of the building.
There was also an English Garden, with turf imported directly from England. Low Cotswold-stone walls, Tudor arches and espaliered fruit trees featured within this slice of the old country. It was within the English Garden that Ralph had his own private gardens.
Also on the 11th floor, Hancock operated the Horticultural Halls, a place where purveyors of all things associated with gardening could promote their products. Exhibitions featuring the many garden clubs of New York and New Jersey were often held within the Halls.
Opposite the English Garden, Ralph installed an International Rock Garden. Stone from the English Lake District and Alpine planting were complimented by a waterfall and a 200-foot fished-filled brook. This spectacle required 96,000 gallons of water which was lifted by an electric pump. A Native American garden completed the spectacular. Hancock imported wildlife from upstate New York, including squirrels and chipmunks, and there was even an aviary of wild birds.
Hancock was confident that what he had created would unleash numerous opportunities for other similar gardens in the US. He declared in the New York Times: ‘…the days of penthouse gardening are over and miles and miles of roof space in every metropolis in this country remain to be reclaimed by landscape gardening’.
The Gardens of the Nations were opened on 15 April 1935. The event was attended by 400 guests, including the ambassadors of the countries represented by the gardens which Ralph had created. Also in attendance were prominent horticulturists and the guest of honour, Nelson Rockefeller.
In their first seven months the gardens attracted over 87,000 visitors, each paying $1. The gardens closed at the end of 1935 and over the winter were planted with 50,000 bulbs. The following year the entrance fee was reduced to 40 cents.
Letters of the period in the Rockefeller family archive show that, despite Hancock’s best efforts, the American gardeners employed by the buildings management, were not looking after Ralph’s creations with the care that he demanded. In response to a complaint from Ralph, a letter from the buildings manager, William J. Hoffman, suggests that Hancock should quite literally, ‘pack his bags!’
Success in the UK
Ralph left the United States in 1936 and returned to London. He was soon exhibiting at both the Chelsea Flower Show and the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition.
He also published When I Make a Garden, an 80-page collection of photographs of his work in the UK and the US. It was updated in 1950 to include his post-war designs. Sadly, very few of the black and white images give details of the location of the gardens.
Catalogues from Chelsea show that Hancock always took the largest stand space for his garden designs. He won many gold medals for his Arts-and-Crafts-inspired gardens, which often incorporated sunken pools, Cotswold stone walls, wrought iron and thatched cottages. Planting was very traditional.
Like Chelsea, the Ideal Home Exhibition gave him an opportunity to show off his designs, for which he must have received countless commissions. Before the Second World War, Hancock and his family were living in Sloane Street and Trevor Square in fashionable Knightsbridge. He had a showroom in Park Arcade, just up from Harrods and a workshop making wrought iron, garden furniture and ornaments, close to his country home in Lingfield, Surrey.
Derry & Toms roof garden
It was during this incredibly successful period that Hancock designed and created the biggest roof garden in Europe at Derry & Toms in Kensington. This time Hancock was to build just three gardens, each with its own unique style and planting.
The Tudor Garden featured Hancock’s trademark herringbone brickwork pathways, impressive Tudor-inspired arches and a wrought-iron hand pump. The planting was very formal and traditional.
The was a splendid Spanish Garden, based on the gardens of the Alhambra in southern Spain, planted with palm trees and with a court of fountains as well as Moorish colonnades.
Finally there was a Woodland Garden, built with a cascade and river, home to fish and ducks, and set out with trees and with manicured lawns.
Once again the logistics involved in the construction were impressive. Before planting and building could begin, a thick bitumastic base was laid on the bare roof, followed by a layer of loose brick and rubble, arranged in a fan-like pattern to aid drainage. On top of this was a 36-inch layer of topsoil, into which the planting was made. Water came from Derry & Toms’ own artesian wells 400 feet below.
They were completed in 1938 at a cost of £25,000. On opening day the gardens contained over 500 different varieties of trees and shrubs. Visitors were charged a shilling. The money raised that year was donated to the Queen's Institute of District Nursing and over the next 30 years £120,000 was raised for local hospitals.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, Ralph once again enlisted, serving as an officer in the Pioneer Corps. His wife Muriel drove ambulances during the Blitz and his two sons, Bramley and Denys, joined up and went overseas. Denys was killed in Libya in 1941. Sheila was sent to neutral America to live with friends made during Ralph’s time in New Jersey.
Ralph was eventually discharged from the army after becoming unwell again due to diabetes. The war had effectively put an end to gardening and Ralph turned his design expertise to building air-raid shelters. Despite his innovative designs he was not successful and through lack of work, he became bankrupt.
When the war finished, Ralph took his son Bramley as his business partner. Together they formed a successful partnership as Hancock and Son. Bramley was later to become one of the first importers of aluminium greenhouses into the UK.
When the Chelsea Flower Show returned in 1947, Hancock was there with his spectacular designs. Pathé news footage of the 1949 show features Hancock showing the Queen his formal garden. Press photographs capture him sharing a light-hearted moment with both the King and Queen and with Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth, the present Queen.
Ralph continued to be a popular choice for clients who wanted gardens designed and built by the same firm. Sir David Evan Bevans (a director of Barclays Bank) commissioned Ralph and Bramley to build gardens at his home, Twyn-yr-Hydd, near Margam, Wales. The formal walled gardens, with a sunken pool and wrought-iron grilles look as fresh today as they did when Ralph and Bramley completed their work in 1948.
One of Ralph’s final commissions was to design a rose temple on land known as Knightsbridge Green, donated by the bloodstock auctioneers, Tattersalls. The design was to be part of the Festival of Britain celebrations.
After Ralph’s premature death of heart failure linked to diabetes, in 1950, his widow regularly placed flowers on a small plaque to Ralph’s memory at the temple. When the temple was removed for road improvements she no longer felt that there was a fitting tribute to her late husband.
In 2008, a proposal to install a blue plaque to commemorate the life and work of Ralph Hancock at Derry Street, Kensington, was made to English Heritage.
Despite meeting all the qualifying criteria and having the support of the Kensington Roof Gardens current owner, Sir Richard Branson, the proposal was rejected. In their accompanying letter, English Heritage said that they rarely recognised landscape architects, although they hoped to recognise Capability Brown with a blue plaque in the near future.
The campaign to have Ralph Hancock recognised as one of the leading landscape architects of pre- and post-war Britain continues.
Robin Hull is the webmaster of www.ralphhancock.com and is related, through his brother’s marriage, to Ralph Hancock’s granddaughter, Belinda.