Great care has been taken to restore the planting at Painshill as authentically as possible.
Careful research in the early phases established those plants that Hamilton definitely grew, together with those that he is very likely to have had, and those that he may have had.
Estate manager Mark Ebdon began work at Painshill with the original MSC team in 1982, and now heads the landscape team. When work began, the landscape was almost entirely overgrown. A dense thicket of trees grown for commercial forestry covered much of the site. Most of the good timber had been stripped out, and what remained had never been thinned.
‘It was so thick you couldn't see through it,' recalls Mark. ‘It was a case of a few live trees holding up the dead ones! It was a shocking mess.'
Making decisions on what to clear was helped by the Great Storm of 1987, when some 1000 trees came down overnight. Although this included about a third of the 169 trees surviving from Hamilton's time, Mark believes that nature made the right choice for them..
In hindsight, I'd say the biggest mistake you make on jobs like these is not cutting down enough trees, so the hurricane did us a favour,' he says. ‘There was a bunch of trees at the northwest tip of the Chinese Peninsula which all went down into the lake. They were nice trees, but if they were still there now, they'd have unbalanced the design and been a nightmare to remove.'
The team aims to hold the landscape in a 40-year ‘window', as it would have looked between about 1740 and 1780. Setting the time frame for the planting was a relatively easy task. ‘After Hamilton, Painshill never stayed long in one person's ownership, so it didn't evolve as other gardens. The core of the park was quite identifiable and you could see - with research - what was needed,' explains Mark.
A rolling programme of planting, maintenance and renewal means that the team is now removing or cutting back some of the plants that they put in 20 years ago to retain the balance.
The planting schemes have also had to be adapted as knowledge of 18th-century planting has increased. In the early 1980s, conventional wisdom had it that 18th-century landscapes had been predominantly green, but research by the Trust's horticultural historian Mark Laird showed that flowers were much more widely used than had been thought
The Chinese Peninsula,
Painshill. Copyright Painshill
'The core of the park was quite identifiable and you could see - with research - what was needed,'.
When we started off, there wasn't a flower in the garden, but now they are a huge proportion of our planting. We've got shrubs and herbaceous perennials all going in on the Chinese Peninsula and the Elysian Plain,' says Mark.
All available evidence was used in drawing up Painshill's planting schemes, but much of the information, such as visitor descriptions, was vague, which has left a lot of room for interpretation. For example, although the Amphitheatre is known to be early 18th-century, it has proved difficult to identify whether it was a feature in Hamilton's design or pre-dated his work.
‘Landscapes followed fashion like everything else,' says Mark. ‘We've got evidence it was there once, but we're not sure if it was there at the end of Hamilton's time, because in the next bit of evidence we've got, it's disappeared.'
Flower bed on the Elysian Plain,
Painshill. Copyright: Painshill
‘Landscapes followed fashion like everything else,'.
Getting the scale and balance of the planting right remains a continuing challenge. ‘The Park looks very different when the plants are only a foot high,' comments Mark. ‘When we did the Amphitheatre, it was all spot-planted, and there was nothing to see really but acres of bark mulch, so we got a lot of complaints about lack of progress.'
In reaction to this, the team tried over-planting to create more instant impact, but this led to almost immediate maintenance issues. Mark has learnt from experience that double-planting and then thinning the growth is not worthwhile in the long term, particularly in schemes which require even spacing: ‘The Amphitheatre back row was done on that principle, but the right plant never grows so you get uneven spacings!' he exclaims.
The Amphitheatre, Painshill
Park, showing the cork oak,
October 2004. Copyright:
Painshill Park Trust.