An almost secret garden

ONE COULD EASILY MISS it whilst walking around the Inner Circle at London’s Regent’s Park. Had I not noticed a couple of people emerging from the discreet gap in a fence, I would have dismissed this as one of the numerous private entrances on the outer circumference of the Inner Circle. The gap in the fencing is near the northernmost point on the circular road. A small notice, framed by vegetation, within the gap in the fencing gives a short history of The Garden of St John’s Lodge. Follow the pathway away from the road, take a left turn and walk between two manicured hedges and then turn right, and you enter a lovely formal garden replete with a pond, several sculptures, and a lawn that gives a fine view of one side of St John’s Lodge. Brave the slippery mud and explore the various separate parts of this almost secret garden. You will not be disappointed.

St John’s Lodge was the first ‘villa’ to be built in Regent’s Park. Completed between 1817 and 1818 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1277478), it was designed by John Raffield (1749-1828), who had worked for the Adam brothers before setting up his own architectural practice. It was later modified and enlarged both by Decimus Burton and Charles Barry. The house was built for the politician Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849).  Subsequent owners of the private residence have included Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) who served in India; John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (‘Bute’;1847-1900), whose heart was buried at The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem; and Baron Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (1778-1859). It was Wellesley who employed Decimus Burton to enlarge the house in 1831-32.

Goldsmid was a philanthropist and one of the leading personalities in the emancipation of British Jews. He made his fortune as a partner in the bullion brokers firm of Mocatta & Goldsmid (founded as ‘Mocatta Bullion’ in 1684), brokers for both The Bank of England and The East India Company. It was due partly to Goldsmid that my alma-mater, University College (London), was able to come into existence. Albert Hyamson, author of “A History of the Jews in England” wrote that:

“University College, London … was established in 1826, largely by the efforts and through the munificence of Isaac Lyon Goldsmid …”

Goldsmid paid for the land on which the university was later built.

In connection with Jewish emancipation, the online Jewish Encyclopaedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6765-goldsmid) writes of Goldsmid:

“The main effort of his life was made in the cause of Jewish emancipation. He was the first English Jew who took up the question, and he enlisted in its advocacy the leading Whig statesmen of the time. Soon after the passing of the Act of 1829, which removed the civil disabilities of the Roman Catholics, he secured the powerful aid of Lord Holland, the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Duke of Sussex, and other eminent members of the Liberal party, and then induced Robert Grant to introduce in the House of Commons a similar measure for the Jews. During more than two years from the time when Jewish emancipation was first debated in Parliament, Goldsmid gave little heed to his ordinary business, devoting himself almost exclusively to the advancement of the cause.”

In 1841, Goldsmid became the first Jewish person, who had not converted to Christianity, to become a Jewish baronet.  His son, Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid (1808-1878), worked with him for Jewish emancipation and was the first Jewish barrister in England, having been called to the Bar at Lincolns Inn.

Clearly, St John’s Lodge has had some noteworthy residents. Of these, it was Bute who commissioned the Scottish Arts and Crafts architect and landscape designer Robert Weir Schultz (1860-1951) create a garden “… fit for meditation”. Bute at St John’s Lodge, which he acquired in 1888, was one of Schultz’s first major clients (http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/architect_full.php?id=200199). Bute had taken an interest in Schultz’s studies, having financed his visit to the British School at Athens in the late 1880s. The garden was created in the early 1890s. It was refurbished and some of its original features restored in 1994, but it has been open to the public since 1928 (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=WST108).

Apart from its vegetation, the garden features sculptures, a pond, and a giant urn. The sculptures include “Goatherds daughter” by Charles L Hartwell (1873-1951); “Hylas and the Nymph” by Henry Pegram (1862-1937); an “Awakening” by Unus Safardiar (born 1968), commemorating Anne Lydia Evans (1929-99), a local medical practitioner. There are two stone piers, one on each side of a lawn, bordered by scalloped hedges,  leading up to the house. Each of these is topped with a stone cherub holding a fading painted stone shield, the coat-of-arms of Crichton-Stuart. These were made by William Goscombe John (1860-1952).

St John’s Lodge remained in private ownership until World War I, when it became a hospital for disabled officers and then became the HQ of St Dunstans (now known as ‘Blind Veterans UK’) with its workshops from 1921 to 1937. Then, it became the headquarters of the Institute of Archaeology from 1937 to 1959. In 1959 it was occupied by Bedford College (now ‘Regent’s University’).  It was vacated and since 1994, it has been leased for private residence to the Royal Family of Brunei.

Had I walked past the small passage leading off the Inner Circle,  I would have missed experiencing the almost hidden, delightful garden of St John’s Lodge, which is a building that has housed persons who have influenced the history of Britain significantly. We visited the garden in late December when few plants were in flower. We hope to return a few months later when not only the garden will be filled with blooms as will the nearby Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens within the Inner Circle.