RURAL TELEPHONE BOXES (kiosks) are often used (re-purposed) to house AED defibrillators and small book libraries. Occasionally, they still contain coin-operated telephones. We were driving through rural Cornwall between Bodmin and Luxulyan, when we took a wrong turn and drove along a small lane. After making a three-point turn, I spotted an old telephone box partly covered with vegetation. Its original glazed door had been replaced by a wooden one that was quite out of keeping with the box’s elegant design. The present owner of the telephone box has been using this as the entrance to his or her garden. I was pleased to make find this quirky modification of an old telephone kiosk.
THE DOMED IONIC temple in the gardens of Chiswick House in west London was built in the early 18th century. It appears in a painting executed in 1729. This circular building is faced by an obelisk that stands in the centre of a circular pool. Today, we walked past these neoclassical garden features when we noticed a lady in a flowing white dress posing on the steps of the temple. Facing her across the circular pond were cameramen and their assistants, some holding large reflector screens. They were either carrying out a photo-shoot or making a film. Every now and then, a man holding a smoke gun ran past the temple creating an illusion that the temple was bathed in mist. Here is a photo I took whilst this activity was in progress.
MY LATE MOTHER worked in the Sculpture Department of London’s St Martins School of Art in the days when it was located on Charing Cross Road, near Foyles bookshop. Amongst her colleagues at St Martins were Sir Antony Caro (1924-2013) and one of his pupils, Phillip King (b 1934). Both of these artists helped my mother to learn sculptural metal welding techniques in the early 1960s.
THIS SCULPTURE, which is on display in a glade within the gardens of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, reminds me of the kind of work Caro produced, but this was by his ‘disciple’ Phillip King. I like it, but cannot explain why, but it might not be seen as beautiful by everyone. My mother was mainly involved in abstract composition. This might have helped me me to become appreciative of this kind of art. .
SOME OF LIFE’S PLEASURES are seasonal. Such is the case for the explosion of colour that can be seen in the Isabella Plantation in London’s Richmond Park. During late April and most of May, the azaleas and rhododendrons in the Isabella burst into flower. These alongside many other flowering plants, including seas of bluebells, provide a sumptuous banquet of colour for the visitors’ eyes. It is not so much the immense number of flowers that provides so much joy but the way the shrubs and other plants have been planted that creates a visual experience that easily rivals the best of fireworks displays. Even if I were able to express myself better in writing, words cannot possibly recreate the experience of seeing the Isabella Plantation in full bloom. Although I am keen on photography, I feel that even good photographs of the place can only hint at the impact of seeing the flora in real life. In brief, if you can, you must try to visit the plantation when the blooms are at their most magnificent.
The Plantation is in the southwest part of Richmond Park, not far from both the Robin Hood and Kingston Gates. The latter is open to motor traffic currently (May 2021). Richmond Park was a royal deer park, a hunting ground, established by the 14th century when it was part of the Manor of Sheen (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000828). King Henry VII was particularly fond of the park, which he named ‘Richmond’ after his earldom in Yorkshire (Richmond is a town in that county). He also had a palace built there, of which precious little remains because by the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, it was already dilapidated and was never rebuilt. In its heyday, it was one of the few places fitted with a flushing lavatory. This was installed by Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, Sir John Harington (baptised 1560- died 1612; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harington_(writer)).
The history of public access to the park is of interest (www.trpg.org.uk/perch/resources/newsletter-005.pdf). Between 1637 when King Charles I enclosed the park and the 1730s when Robert Walpole forbade it, there was pedestrian access to the park. In 1758, a certain John Lewis (1713-1792) won a court case that re-established the right of some public access to the paths and roadways within the park. By the mid-19th century, the public could drive their carriages through it. Today, its roadways are popular both with cyclists and motorists.
The history of the Isabella Plantation is detailed on the website of The Royal Parks (www.royalparks.org.uk/), from which I obtained the following information. By the 17th century, the waterlogged area in the south west corner of Richmond Park was known as ‘The Sleyt’, a sleyt being a word for boggy ground or an open space between woods and banks. The area where the Plantation is today was marked as ‘Isabella Slade’ on maps published by 1771. The name Isabella either referred to a lady with that name, or, more likely, it was a corruption of the word ‘isabel’, which as far back as the 15th century meant ‘dingy’ or ‘greyish yellow’, which is the colour of the soil in the area of the park where the Plantation is located.
A Deputy Park Ranger, Henry Addington, Lord Sidmouth (1757-1844), fenced off an area of 42 acres of the Isabella Slade in 1831, planted various kinds of trees for timber, and gave the land its present name, ‘Isabella Plantation’. Sidmouth, a Tory politician, was briefly Prime Minister at the beginning of the 19th century, lived in the White Lodge of Richmond Park from 1801 until his death (https://whitelodgetimeline.royalballetschool.org.uk/1800/item/161/). He had been given it as a residence by King George III, who appointed himself the park’s Ranger and Sidmouth his Deputy. Currently, the White Lodge houses The Royal Ballet school.
Getting back to the Plantation as we see it today, it was created chiefly by the work of the Park Superintendent, George Thomson, done between 1951 and 1971. The Royal Parks website explains that:
“The present garden of clearings, ponds and streams was established from the 1950s onwards. It is largely the work of George Thomson, the park superintendent from 1951-1971. Along with his head gardener, Wally Miller, he removed Rhododendron ponticum from large areas and replaced it with other rhododendron species. They established evergreen Kurume Azaleas around the Still Pond and planted other exotic shrub and tree species.”
The Plantation has three ponds, of which the Still Pond is the most spectacular. Surrounded by azaleas and Rhododendrons, its waters are still, that is they are mirror-like. The flowers of the shrubs surrounding the water are reflected in the water, producing a delightful and dramatic visual effect. The other ponds, Peg’s Pond, and one named after Thomson, have their own charms but lack the drama of the Still Pond. Streams and rivulets lined with ferns and other plants flows across the Plantation. The longest stream was dug in 1960 and includes Peg’s Pond.
So far, we have visited the Isabella Plantation three times. Twice, we saw it in its full floral glory and once a few months before the flowering began. Timing is important if you want to enjoy the full floral impact. So, get there in late April or during the first few weeks of May in order to best experience the forms, colours, and fragrances of this beautiful collection of flowering shrubs.
SHEEP WITH THEIR LAMBS were grazing or resting in the sunshine in a meadow beside the roadway leading to the entrance of Greys Court near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Although the main house at Greys Court was closed (because of the covid19 pandemic) when we visited the estate in April 2021, there was plenty to enjoy in the gardens and fields that are contained in its extensive grounds. The highlight for me was the formal garden enclosed within ruined stone walls that extend from two sides of a tall tower topped with crenellations.
Greys Court has an interesting history, most of which I have summarised from what is contained in a good guidebook published by the National Trust, to which Greys Court and its grounds were donated in 1969. I have also consulted “Elizabeth’s Rivals” by Nicola Tallis. The tower and the attached ancient wall are the only remains of what was constructed by the De Grey family, who had been living on the estate since (or before) the Domesday book was compiled in the late 11th century. One of the family, Walter de Grey (died 1255), Archbishop of York, was a supporter of King John when he was forced into signing the Magna Carta in 1215.
In December 1346, the then owner of the estate Sir John, 1st Baron Grey of Rotherfield (1300-1359) was granted a licence to ‘crenellate’ Greys. What this means is that he was authorised to surround his home with a fortified curtain wall. It is the remains of this mediaeval wall that surrounds the walled garden that attracted me. After Robert, 4th Earl of Grey died in 1387, the estate passed to his daughter Joan, who was married to Lord John Deyncourt. Then, it was inherited by their daughter Alice, who married Lord William Lovell (died 1455). Through this marriage, the estate became owned by the Lovell family.
When Alice died in 1474, she left Greys to her grandson Francis Lovell (1456-c1487), who managed to ‘back the wrong horse’ by being a supporter of the Duke of Gloucester, who became King Richard III. After fighting alongsid the king, who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth (1485), the Crown confiscated Greys and awarded it to Jasper Tudor (1431-1495), uncle of King Richard’s successor, King Henry VII. In 1514, Greys was leased to a member of Henry VII’s court, Robert Knollys (died 1521). His rent was a single red rose to be paid each Midsummer.
Sir Robert’s son Sir Francis Knollys (1511-1596), a devout Protestant, spent most of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-1558) abroad, returning following the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, who was a cousin of his wife Catherine (1524-1569), whose mother was Mary Boleyn (sister of Henry VIII’s wife Anne Boleyn). One of Francis’s many important jobs was guarding the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots.
Sir Francis demolished much of the mediaeval Greys Court building and rebuilt it with three gables in the Elizabethan style. His renewed building is what we see today as Greys Court House. One of his reasons for this and other constructions was that he hoped that he would be able to host Queen Elizabeth there, but she never visited. The works were carried out between 1559 and 1596. Francis’s son Sir William Knollys (1544-1632) inherited the Greys estate. It is thought that Shakespeare’s character Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” was based on William. The Knollys family made several modifications and additions to the buildings on the estate but by the late 17th century they began to lose interest in maintaining it. Lettice Kennedy (died 1708), the last of the Knollys to live at Greys sold it to James (or William, according to one source: “Greys Court Volume 2 – Historic England Research Report”: research.historicengland.org.uk) Paul in 1688. Mr Paul and his wife Lady Catherine Fane had a daughter Catherine, who inherited Greys Court. The daughter, Catherine, married Sir William Stapleton (1698-1739) in 1724. Thus, the Stapleton family acquired the property.
Sir William was wealthy. Some of his money came, as the National Trust discreetly puts it:
“…also from sugar plantations in Antigua and Nevis, acquired in the 17th century.”
His son, Sir Thomas Stapleton (1727-1781) inherited Greys. He was a member of the infamous Hell-fire Club along with its principal member and founder, his cousin Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781) of nearby West Wycombe. Sir Thomas did not live at Greys Court but arranged for the transformation of the mediaeval remains into ‘Gothick’ follies including the addition of the crenellations that can still be seen on the Great Tower. He also added the two-storey bow windows to Knolly’s Elizabethan house after his marriage to Mary Fane in 1765. She was responsible for many more modifications of the house and its outhouses.
The Grey estate remained in the Stapleton family for several generations, but it was only in 1874 that another male member of the family, Sir Francis Stapleton (1833-1899) began living in it. With no heirs, he left it to his nephew Miles Stapleton, who showed no interest in the place, eventually selling it to a widow, Mrs Evelyn Fleming, in 1934. Both her sons became extremely well-known. Ian Fleming was the creator of the fictional character James Bond. Ian’s brother Peter was an adventurer, soldier, and travel writer, whose life was far more exciting than that led by James Bond. Mrs Fleming was hoping that Greys would be a place where her son Peter could write between his travels, but his marriage to the actress Celia Johnson in 1935 put an end to this idea. So, she sold the property in 1937. The buyers were Sir Felix Brunner (1897-1982) and his wife Elizabeth (1904-2003).
Sir Felix was grandson of the politician and industrialist Sir John Brunner (1842-1919), who was one of the founders of the Brunner Mond & Co chemical company, which became part of ICI in 1926. Sir John was also a supporter of Octavia Hill (1838-1912), the founder of the National Trust, which was formed in 1895. Incidentally, Octavia was also involved with saving London’s Hampstead Heath from disappearing by being built on. As well as serving in WW1, Sir Felix was a Liberal politician. He stood in various Parliamentary elections but was never elected to become an MP. In 1926, he married the actress Elizabeth Irving (1904-2003), a granddaughter of the famous actor Henry Irving (1838-1905).
In 1969, Sir Felix and Lady Elizabeth donated Greys Court to the National Trust and continued to live there. After she was widowed, Elizabeth continued to live at Greys Court, where she died in 2003. During their occupation of the Greys Court estate, the Brunners did much to improve and beautify it, rendering it one of the loveliest National Trust properties that I have visited so far.
I had never heard of Greys Court until a few weeks ago when we drove past a road sign pointing at a road leading to it. As we had never come across the name before and were curious about it, we returned a few weeks later and discovered what a gem of a place it is. While it is relatively simple to describe its history, the opposite is the case when it comes to describing its appearance. Photographs help to do justice to its attractiveness but the best way to appreciate it is to visit it yourself.
KEW GARDENS CONTAINS several magnificent Victorian plant houses made mainly of glass and iron. These include: The Palm House built 1844-1848; The Waterlily House built 1852; and The Temperate House built in about 1859. Although they are early examples of massive glass and iron structures for the cultivation of plants, they are not the earliest. The conservatory in the gardens of nearby Syon House predates them, having been built in 1827, ten years before Queen Victoria came to the throne. As a work of architecture, it rivals the best of those Victorian ‘glasshouses’ that can be seen at Kew.
We had parked in the grounds of Syon House several times before we visited its gardens in April 2021 and each time, I noticed the large glass and iron dome towering over the high garden walls. Until we entered the gardens, I had not realised that this splendid dome is attached to one of the most attractive plant conservatories that I have ever seen.
The extensive gardens of Syon House were landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) in 1760 but were replanned in the 19th century. The architect Charles Fowler (1792-1862), who designed the market buildings in London’s Covent Garden, designed The Great Conservatory at Syon Park. It was built for Hugh Percy the Third Duke of Northumberland (1785-1847), who served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under the Duke of Wellington from 1829 to 1830 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Percy,_3rd_Duke_of_Northumberland).
Writing in 1876, James Thorne, author of “Handbook to The Environs of London”, noted:
“The Great Conservatory designed by Fowler is in the form of a wide crescent, with pavilions at the extremities, and a lofty central dome. The centre, 100 feet long, is a tropical house, and is said to contain the finest collection of tropical plants in any private establishment in England. It is noteworthy that here only in this country has the cocoanut palm fully ripened …”
Thorne also noted that the vases on pedestals on the terrace in front of the conservatory were carved by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). The circular pool in front of the conservatory has a statue of Hermes (Mercury), which is a copy of one by the Italian sculptor Giambologna (1529-1608).
Although we were unable to enter The Great Conservatory, we could see most of it through its clean windows. The central dome is supported by a ring of perforated semi-circular arches held aloft by slender iron pillars. Even without entering it, the central area of the building can be seen to be a beautifully designed, airy space. Though not as crowded with plants as the conservatories at Kew Gardens, the one at Syon contains a collection of palms, cactuses, and other warm weather plants, mostly large and well-established. Unlike the glasshouses at Kew, much of the rear wall of The Great Conservatory is constructed with brickwork instead of glass and iron.
Much time can be spent enjoyably exploring the lovely gardens at Syon House, but despite their beauty, the pièce-de-rèsistance is without doubt The Great Conservatory, an impressive and beautiful example of construction in glass and iron. It is well worth purchasing an admission ticket even if only to see and admire this great work of Regency architecture.
WHEN I WAS BORN, my parents wanted to call me ‘Adam’. That was in the early 1950s. However, Mom and Dad were worried that Adam was a relatively unusual first name in those far-off days and that with such a name I might have been teased at school. As it happened, I only attended schools where the pupils were addressed by their surnames and mine, Yamey, was subject of a lot of mirth amongst my schoolmates. In view of their concerns, I was named ‘Robert Adam’, but have always been called ‘Adam’. My father, an economist, was all for calling me ‘Adam Smith Yamey’ in memory of the father of economics Adam Smith (1723-1790), but my mother was not keen giving me this name. The choice of Robert was possibly influenced by the fact that one of my mother’s brothers bore this name. It is also very vaguely possible that the name ‘Robert Adam’ was chosen in memory of another man who was alive during Adam Smith’s lifetime, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792).
Maybe because I share his name, I have grown to like and appreciate the architecture and interior decors created by the 18th century Robert Adam. However, you do not need to be called Robert Adam to enjoy Adam’s great works.
Last year, we visited Osterley Park on an extremely rainy day and were able to wander around the interior of Osterley Park House (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/02/at-home-with-adam/). Built by the merchant and founder of London’s Royal Exchange Sir Thomas Gresham (c1519-1579) in about 1575, the house was extensively remodelled by the Child family, who owned it, during the 1760s and 1770s. The remodelling was to the detailed designs of Robert Adam.
When we visited the house on that rainy day in November 2020, we omitted walking around the house’s fine semi-formal gardens. On our recent visit, the house was not open because of covid19 prevention measures and there was no rainfall. So, we wandered around the lovely gardens. Like so many other 18th century landscaped gardens attached to stately homes, that at Osterley contains several buildings that were placed to add to the picturesqueness of the grounds.
The Doric Temple of Pan with four columns and four pilasters was built in the 18th century, probably to the design of the Scottish-Swedish architect William Chambers (1723-1796), who was born in the Swedish city of Gothenburg. Between 1740 and 1749, while in the employ of the Swedish East India Company, he made three voyages to China, where he learnt Chinese. A major rival of Robert Adam, he was an exponent of neo-classicism, of which the small Temple of Pan is a fine example. The interior of the temple, which we were unable to see because of covid19 prevention measures, contains, according to Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry:
“… mid c18 interior plasterwork with Rococo flourishes and medallions of Colen Campbell and Sir Isaac Newton.”
The front of the temple faces across a lawn towards a structure, 175 yards away, designed by Chambers’ rival Robert Adam: The Garden House.
Adam designed the Garden House in about 1780. It has a semi-circular façade with five large windows within frames topped with semi-circular arches. Pevsner and Cherry describe these windows as “five linked Venetian windows”. A balustrade tops the façade and almost hides the conical roof. Between the windows, there are roundels containing bas-relief depictions of classical scenes with bucolic themes. The building was part of Mrs Child’s Flower Garden. The National Trust, which manages Osterley Park, notes in its website (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/osterley-park-and-house/features/the-garden-house-at-osterley-park-and-house) that the Garden House’s original purpose was:
“… a display house for the collection of rare trees and shrubs that were housed here in the 18thC. The main type of plant that we always grow and display in this building is lemon trees as we have historic evidence that 45 lemon trees were on show here in the 1780’s. We choose to have a mixed display of other interesting specimens alongside the lemons so as to give a greater display and range of interest for our visitors. All of these plants are known to have been either at Osterley in the 18thC or to have been available to grow at that time.”
Although it is not as spectacular as Adam’s interiors of Osterley Park, the Garden House is both delightful and elegant, a fine feature that enhances the appearance of the formal part of the gardens. This and other buildings designed by the same architect makes me proud to have been given, maybe accidentally, the name Robert Adam Yamey.
IN SEPTEMBER 1940, a 17th century church in London’s Soho was destroyed by fire because of aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe. All that remained intact was the tower at the west end of the church, St Anne’s Soho. Today, the tower still stands and overlooks a small but interesting churchyard.
St Anne’s was completed in 1686 during the period when Soho was becoming urbanised as London grew in a westerly direction. It had been designed either by (more likely) Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) or by William Talman (1650-1719), or maybe they collaborated (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp256-277). According to John Timbs, writing in “Curiosities of London”, published in 1867, when the church was standing:
“The interior is very handsome and has a finely painted window at its east end.”
Sadly, this no longer exists. The tower, which we see today, was built in about 1806 to the design of Samuel Pepys Cockerell (1753-1827), great-great nephew of the diarist Samuel Pepys, to replace an earlier one that had become unstable.
The pleasant rectangular churchyard that extends from the tower to Wardour Street measures approximately 150 feet by 80 feet. It contains several fascinating memorials, some of which used to be inside the church before it was bombed. Standing near the northern edge of the churchyard is the prominent gravestone for the essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830), one of my favourite writers, who died in a house in Frith Street, not far from the church. His gravestone bears an extremely lengthy inscription, which might have been composed by a lawyer and poet called Charles Jeremiah Wells (c1800-1879; http://www.lordbyron.org/persRec.php?choose=PersRefs&selectPerson=ChWells1879), who had become a “devoted acolyte” of Hazlitt (according to his biographer AC Grayling). Amongst many other positive attributes, the inscription describes Hazlitt as:
“… The unconquered Champion of Truth, Liberty, and Humanity…”
There is a second monument to Hazlitt, which is attached to the wall of the tower. This has less of an inscription, but includes the words:
“Restored by his grandson February 1901”.
Near to this and also attached to the tower, there is a small rectangular metal plate in memory of the Welsh philosopher David Williams (1738-1816), who founded The Royal Literary Fund in 1790, lived in Gerrard Street, and is buried somewhere in the churchyard.
The most curious memorial in the churchyard is to Theodore, King of Corsica. The monument informs that Theodore died in the Parish of St Annes soon after his release from the King’s Bench Prison in 1756. This man, Theodore Anthony Neuhoff, who was born in Prussia, disembarked from an English vessel on the coast of Corsica in Spring 1836. He had with him a considerable supply of arms and money. He led the Corsicans in a successful revolt against their Genoese rulers and was crowned ‘King of Corsica’. After a short time of peace, the Genoese returned, and Theodore travelled around Europe trying to seek foreign supplies and aid. His journey took him to Livonia, France, and Holland, where he managed to obtain a frigate armed with 52 guns and an army of 150 men. Sadly, the Neapolitans arrested him and imprisoned him in the north African town of Ceuta. Unable to help his Corsican subjects, he fled to London, where problems with debt landed him in prison (for full story, see: “The Patrician, Vol. 1”, 1846, edited by Bernard and John Burke). His memorial states that after getting into debt, he “registered the Kingdom of Corsica for use of his creditors”. His memorial was financed by the writer and politician Horace Walpole (1717-1797), whose words about Theodore, who died a pauper, are inscribed on the stone:
“The grave, great teacher, to a level brings
Heroes and beggars, galley-slaves and kings;
But Theodore this moral learn’d ere dead;
Fate pour’d its lesson on his living head,
Bestow’d a kingdom, and denied him bread.”
The bodies of Hazlitt, Williams, and the King of Corsica, are amongst the 60,000 corpses buried in the graveyard, which his why the level of the ground in the churchyard is much higher than the pavement in Wardour Street that runs alongside it.
Hidden from sight because it is below the ground floor of the tower are the ashes of the author Dorothy L Sayers (1897-1957), who was a churchwarden at St Anne’s between 1952 and 1957. I have not yet discovered her connection with Soho.
More recent monuments are also of interest. There is a list of those of the parish, who died in WW1. Beneath that there is one to those who died in active service in WW2, which includes several with probably non-English surnames: Rosenfeld, Grossman, Kosky, and Masser. This monument also remembers those in the parish who died during the Blitz. A small plaque on a post in a flower bed records the names of three young people who were killed on the 30th of April 1999 when the Admiral Duncan pub in nearby Old Compton Street was bombed by a racist homophobe, David Copeland (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-47216594). A triangular wooden bench near the monument to the victims bears a plaque that reads:
“This triangular bench represents Brixton, Brick Lane, and Soho, three places brought together by acts of hate, made stronger by acts of love. 17 – 24 – 30 April 1999”.
The three places were all sites of horrific nail bombings that April.
So much for the churchyard, but what about the church? After many years of having used the site of the bombed church as a car park, which I can dimly recall, a new building that contains social housing as well as a small chapel was built in the early 1990s. The new church is entered from Dean Street. Apart from being a site of many historical associations, the churchyard is a peaceful haven in the heart of a normally busy part of central London.
THE GROUNDS OF KENWOOD House in north London are delightful at any time of the year. Here you can enjoy the marvels of a fine country house in magnificently landscaped grounds, rivalling rural spots like, for example, Stourhead, Blenhheim, and Compton Verney, without leaving the metropolis. Amongst Kenwood’s many horticultural attractions are the superb flowering bushes such as camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons.
Kenwood was within about half an hour’s brisk walk from my family home in Hampstead Garden Suburb and even nearer Highgate School, which I attended between 1965 and 1970. In amongst the flowering bushes, I remember that there used to be an open-fronted, small round hut with a conical roof. Inside it, there were benches that served as seats. This edifice was labelled ‘Dr Johnson’s Summerhouse’. The Dr Johnson to which this referred was one of Britain’s greatest literary figures, the writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). When I used to see this hut during visits to Kenwood in the late 1960s and the 1970s, I used to try to imagine the great Johnson sitting, resting and enjoying the view of the lawns and trees, some of which we can still see today. But, in those days, I was unaware that he never did enjoy these views from this spot.
It turns out that Dr Johnson used his summerhouse not in Kenwood but far away at Streatham Place in what used to be countryside south of London during Johnson’s lifetime. Shaun Traynor wrote:
“Streatham Place, the grand country house of the brewer Henry Thrale and his wife Hester, became for a time in the mid to late 18th century a setting for some very distinguished literary and artistic company. To this house, then sitting amid extensive grounds in the countryside south of London, came leading figures of the day: Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds (who was to paint the Thrales), Oliver Goldsmith and – most significantly – Dr Johnson.” (https://www.johnsonsocietyoflondon.org/resources/Documents/Dr%20J’s%20Summerhouse%20-%20Shaun%20Traynor/Sam%20J%20summerhouse%20Shaun%20Traynor.pdf).
He added that the grounds of Thrale’s home contained a secluded summerhouse in which Johnson used to read and write. When Henry Thrale (born between 1724 and 1730) died in 1781, his widow Hester remarried, and the Streatham Place with its summerhouse were sold. Thrale’s daughter Susannah, who had been fond of Johnson, moved the hut to her home in Knockholt, Kent in 1826. According to Traynor:
“She erected it on rising ground in the very centre of the grove making all paths lead to it, and making the grove a kind of shrine to Dr Johnson’s memory.”
The years passed, and the summerhouse fell into disrepair. In 1962, a local man, who had great feelings for its historical significance, bought it and then presented it to London County Council (‘LCC’) so that it could be displayed to the public. After restoring it, it was placed in Kenwood at the spot where I recall seeing it, in 1968 (http://www.thrale.com/samuel_johnsons_summer_house). Although it is not inconceivable that Johnson might have visited Kenwood, it is not at all likely that he passed much if any of his spare time in a summerhouse in that garden.
In about 2017, after not having visited Kenwood for two or more decades, I paid it a visit. One of the first things I looked for was Dr Johnson’s summerhouse. I knew exactly where to look, but it was no longer there. After peering in amongst the large clumps of bushes in the spot where I remember that it used to stand, I found an octagonal concrete base. I wondered whether the summerhouse had once stood there. On enquiring at the information desk within Kenwood House, I learnt that the base was all that remained of what I had remembered seeing. I was told that the summerhouse had been destroyed by fire. This fire occurred sometime after 1984, probably 1991 (www.moruslondinium.org/research/dr-johnsons-streatham-park-mulberries). I was saddened to learn of this.
However, all is not lost. Alan Byrne, an artist who used to love sitting in the original Johnsonian summerhouse in Kenwood, has created an accurate replica of the refuge that the great writer used to enjoy. Using detailed plans of the original and other records, he produced an accurate reconstruction during the years 1997 to 1999 (https://www.johnsonsocietyoflondon.org/Dr-Johnson-summerhouse-photos-and-narrative). It stands in his garden in Islington.
Even without Dr Johnson’s summerhouse, Kenwood is well-worth visiting. The gardens alone are splendid, but when it is open, Kenwood House is a ‘must-see’. It contains some fine rooms decorated by Dr Johnson’s contemporary, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) as well as a collection of fine-art paintings that is, after the National Gallery, one of the best in London. When you feel that you have seen enough of Kenwood, then treat yourself to a stroll through its grounds and the contiguous Hampstead Heath to historic Hampstead, a place which offers a great range of eateries and pubs. And, incidentally, Samuel Johnson was no stranger to the place as the historian Thomas Barratt revealed:
“‘Mrs. Johnson for the sake of the country air,’ writes Boswell, ‘had lodgings at Hampstead, to which Johnson occasionally resorted. ‘For his own part, Johnson would doubtless have preferred Fleet Street; but he was fond of his wife, and felt in duty bound to minister to her pleasures as far as his limited means admitted.”
I can sympathise with Mrs Samuel Johnson. I much prefer Hampstead to Fleet Street, even if the former has less countrified air than it did in the 18th century.
BEAUFORT HOUSE IN CHELSEA was the home of Henry VIII’s ill-fated advisor, Thomas More (1478-1535), between 1521 and his arrest in 1535. After More’s death, the property passed through the hands of several owners, the last of which was the physician and founder of the British Museum Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). He bought the house and its grounds in 1737 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol4/pt2/pp18-27). During 1739 and 1740, Sloane demolished Beaufort House, and sold parts of it and its grounds to be used in other buildings. One of the items he sold was an elegant gateway designed by the British architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), who introduced the neo-classical style to the UK. The gateway, which was constructed in 1621, used to serve as an entrance to the grounds of the house from Kings Road.
The gateway, which now stands near to Chiswick House in west London, bears a carved stone with the words:
“Given by Sir Hans Sloane, Baronet to the Earl of Burlington 1738.”
Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork (1694-1753), an architect. He built the present Palladian-style mansion at Chiswick in 1717. An admirer of Inigo Jones, he was happy to install the gateway from Beaufort House close to his recently constructed building in Chiswick. Contrary to what appears on the inscription, he paid for the gateway rather than receiving it as a gift from Sloane. A poem by the architect and landscape designer William Kent (c1685-1748) relates the story of this fine gateway (quoted from “The Palladian Revival. Lord Burlington, His Villa and Garden at Chiswick” by John Harris):
“Ho! Gate, how came ye here?
I came fro’ Chelsea the last yere
Inigo Jones there put me together
Then was I dropping by wind and weather
Sir Hannes Sloane
Let me alone
But Burlington brought me hither
Gate Inigo Jon-ical
Was late Hans Slon-ical
And now Burlington-ical”
Burlington was so keen to have the gate that he agreed to pay Sloane however much it was valued.
As far as I can see, the gateway serves no other function than as a decorative garden feature. Burlington was a keen collector of the architectural drawings of Inigo Jones and had seen the Beaufort House gateway amongst them. As an enthusiast, he must have been thrilled to have acquired an actual work by the architect he admired. So, apart from being a garden feature, it was a fine collector’s item. I feel that it is a pity that he did not rescue more from the house that Sloane demolished because old drawings and plans of it make it appear as if it was a remarkable edifice.
The gardens of Chiswick House, close to the busy A4 highway, are open to the public free of charge and apart from the fine gateway, there are many other lovely man-made garden features: statues, neo-classical buildings (apart from the main villa), bridges, and a fine waterfall that empties into a lake. The gardens are interestingly laid out, both formal layouts with hedges and also less manicured areas. Come rain or shine, a visit to these gardens is a worthwhile and refreshing experience.