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Restoration of the 18th-century planting in pleasure grounds

Feature

The planting in Painshill Park.

Site

Painshill Park, Surrey, England.

Issue

Restoration and re-creation of the 18th-century planting at Painshill Park, Surrey.

Background

Charles Hamilton's 18th-century planting at Painshill Park had been lost or was unidentified two centuries later. The restoration and re-creation of it, from the late 20th century, was the first major attempt to replant a landscape of its size authentically.

A view of Painshill Park, from the Turkish Tent looking across the lake to the Gothic Temple. The Grotto is in the middle ground, to the right. Photograph by Sarah Jackson, summer 2006. Copyright: Sarah Jackson.A view of Painshill Park, from the Turkish Tent looking across the lake to the Gothic Temple. The Grotto is in the middle ground, to the right. Photograph by Sarah Jackson, summer 2006. Copyright: Sarah Jackson. The choice and layout of plants is very important to the artistic effect of the landscape, complementing the architecture and creating a variety of moods as the visitor moves around the garden.

Hamilton arranged trees and shrubs carefully for theatrical effect: passages of dark, sombre greens were followed by light foliage and bursts of colourful flowers, while densely planted areas contrasted with open green lawns.

Finding documentary evidence

Several 18th- and 19th-century visitor descriptions give clues to the type of planting at Painshill, such as the colour, flowers and fragrance to be found on the Chinese Peninsula and the Elysian Plain, and the remarkable variety of conifers in the Alpine Valley. They are often vague, however, about actual species.

There was also very little in the way of detailed visual evidence such as paintings. No planting plans for the park have ever been found, but Hamilton was known to have been deeply interested in horticulture. He corresponded between 1755 and 1759 with the Abbé Nolin, a French plant collector and adviser to the French monarchy. Through him, Hamilton received seeds and plants from America, Canada, China, Europe, South Africa and the West Indies.

Hamilton also received two boxes of seeds from American plant hunter John Bartram via importer Peter Collinson, who together introduced many new plants to Britain from America.

Finding physical evidence

Snowy landscape with one of the surviving cedars of Lebanon planted in the 18th century, Painshill Park. Photograph copyright: Andrew Trimble.One of the surviving cedars of Lebanon planted in the 18th century, Painshill Park. Photograph copyright: Andrew Trimble. A tree survey in 1982 revealed 169 of Hamilton's original trees still standing, including cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), locust tree (Robinia pseudoacadia), cork oak (Quercus suber) and swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum). There were also about 700 stumps of trees surviving from Hamilton's time, which helped in defining the position of his plantings.

Solution

Extensive research by Dr. John Harvey and Michael Symes went into establishing the plants that Hamilton definitely had at the time, and those that he probably or possibly had. The Painshill Park Trust now has a comprehensive list of all trees and shrubs available between 1738 and 1773.

Photograph of the Amphitheatre, Painshill Park, October 2004. Copyright: Painshill Park Trust.Photograph of the Amphitheatre, Painshill Park, October 2004. Copyright: Painshill Park Trust. Garden historian Mark Laird drew up planting plans for the Amphitheatre, the Chinese Peninsula and the Elysian Plain shrubberies. Until the early 1980s, most historians had assumed that 18th-century landscapes were largely green, composed of trees and grass. However, Laird's research showed that flowering shrubs and herbaceous plants had a far larger role to play in such landscapes than had been thought.

For example, the Chinese Peninsula, mixes plants from North America, which were new introductions in Charles Hamilton's time, with plants of European origin to provide colour. Vibrant autumn colour is provided by trees and shrubs such as sumach, spindleberry and maples. In the summer, fragrance and colour are provided by lilacs, roses, honeysuckles and jasmine, with hardy geraniums at ground level.

The Chinese Peninsula, Painshill Park. Copyright: Painshill Park Trust. The Chinese Peninsula, Painshill Park. Copyright: Painshill Park Trust. As new information has been revealed about which plants were available to 19th century garden designers, and which Charles Hamilton grew, so has the planting at Painshill evolved.

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