I thought we’d have a short post this week, after last week’s epic on Hougoumont.

Regular readers will be aware that I’ve started to take an interest in historical gardens, so a couple of weeks ago I went to see the park at Gunnersbury.


Gunnersbury is just north of the Thames, near Kew (map from Google)

The landscape of Gunnersbury as it is today can be traced back to 1739, although there are still some garden walls on the site that date back to the 17th century. In 1739, the land was bought by Henry Furnese MP, a wealthy merchant and art collector. He paid William Kent for garden designs in the 1740s.

In 1760, the house and estate was bought by Princess Amelia, daughter of George II. She purchased Gunnersbury House and estate as a country summer retreat, landscaping it in the 18th-century landscape style. She is said to have spent over £20,000 on improvements. The kitchen garden was walled and the grotto and plunge bath, now part of ‘Princess Amelia’s Bathhouse’, were probably built for her.

After Amelia’s death the estate went through various transformations, being split up and then recombined, until Nathan Meyer Rothschild, of the banking family, acquired it in 1835 and began planning improvements. Although he died soon afterwards, his widow and son continued to improve the estate, buying more land and investing heavily in the house and gardens.

With the construction of the Great West Road, the estate had substantial potential for housing development, but in 1925 the Rothschilds sold it at a discount so that it could be developed as a public park. The park was opened to the public by Neville Chamberlain in 1926 and in his opening speech he bemoaned the failure of earlier generations to recognise the need for open spaces in the towns and cities, when outdoor recreation was the privilege of the few.

The park now is very much a municipal park, although some of the elements that contributed to the gardens of a grand house (like the Orangery) are being restored. What is interesting, though, is the degree to which the 18th century landscaping still contributes to the appearance of the park today. In the view from the terrace the false perspective formed by the converging lines of trees that frame the view “stretch” the lawn, making the lake appear further away than it is.

The 18th century ‘temple’, probably built for Princess Amelia, sits comfortably alongside later changes in the grounds.

Part of the walled kitchen garden is now a service yard and the rest is overgrown, but, even after all this time, the tunnel of apple trees that led from the garden gate is still recognisable, waiting for somebody to trim it back into its 19th-century glory.

The approach which is being taken to the restoration of the Park is interesting. The park is municipally owned and this has led to a different emphasis from that demonstrated by English Heritage at Marble Hill. (See http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/marble-hill-18th-century-garden-21st-century-park/) For example, while English Heritage attempts to follow the original planting plan as closely as it can, the approach taken in Gunnersbury is subtly but importantly different.

Another key aspect of the restoration is re-introducing planting schemes that reflect Gunnersbury’s Victorian heyday. The new schemes for the borders, rockeries and shrub beds surrounding the lawns to the south of the mansions take inspiration from historic paintings and plans of the park. But we’re also thinking about modern day visitors and making sure the combination of plants we choose create interest throughout the year.

Gunnersbury illustrates, in my view, the best approach to heritage. While the project to renovate the Park is guided by its history, it recognises its importance as a 21st-century municipal park and the development of the changing landscaping between the 17th-century and now.


Dogs playing in the renovated Horse Shoe Pond with the restored Orangery in the background

Day-to-day running of the Park is the responsibility of a non-profit Community Interest Company, but the site continues to be owned by the local authorities who, answerable to the electorate, take care to involve the community with the restoration project. Local press comment seems positive – for example, from the Chiswick Herald: http://chiswickherald.co.uk/gunnersbury-park-museum-reopens-after-transformation-p8167-95.htm; or on the local community website: http://neighbournet.com/server/common/congunmuseum001.htm.

Acknowledgements

Text draws on Gunnersbury’s website (http://www.visitgunnersbury.org/) and Wikipedia. Map is from Google Maps. Photographs and opinions are author’s own.

 

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