Friday, June 2, 2023

Painswick, Gloucestershire

Cotswold Rococo

In 1984 Lord and Lady Dickinson, owners of the Painswick House estate, decided to restore the 18th-century garden in a hidden valley behind the house. The area had been neglected for years, the garden abandoned, and part of the site eventually made over to a commercial conifer plantation. Restoration meant clearing decades of rubbish, working out what remained of the original structures, no doubt uprooting any remaining conifers, and repairing (and sometimes reconstructing) garden buildings. This was a huge undertaking and would have been impossible were it not for a painting (and drawings) of the garden in its mid-18th century prime by local artist Thomas Robins.

What has emerged over the decades since 1984 is a garden in the Rococo taste, with walks, pools, vistas, a wooded glade, a kitchen garden, a vineyard, planting with species available in the 18th century, and numerous pavilions and other architectural structures. Some of the buildings were restored to something close to their 18th-century state, some were rebuilt completely following the Robins pictures, for some a compromise was achieved, with certain structures restored to a state similar to the way they were in the 19th century.

One of the most striking buildings is the Red House, which sits at one end of the garden, at a point where formal beds and clipped hedges give way to a riot of natural vegetation and wild flowers. It is not only a belter of an eyectacher, but also exemplifies some of the key features of the Rococo. These are: asymmetry, the interesting use of colour, scrolls and curlicues, rich ornamentation, playfulness, and eclecticism of style (the building owes much to Gothic, but the roofline of the right-hand room takes a concave form derived from Chinese sources). This building of the 1740s adopts a fancy and fanciful kind of Gothic detailing with an ogee (double-curved) gable, deep cusped ogee canopies to windows and doorway, large finials, upside-down trefoil-shaped openings, exaggerated buttress-like stone uprights with concave-slopes to the gables. This is similar to the kind of Gothic used by Horace Walpole at his Twickenham house, Strawberry Hill, at around the same time as the Rococo Garden was begin constructed.

A further Rococo feature of the Red House is the way in which the two wings are set at a slight angle, another piece of asymmetry that seems odd until one realises that the two rooms face two different paths that converge here, one leading along the edge of the garden, the other heading towards its centre. So whichever path you take to approach the Red House, one of its wings acts as a focal point: the building is ingeniously integrated into the plan of the garden.

Painswick Rococo Garden, as it’s now known, is a unique example of a Rococo garden in England. To those interested in architecture, it offers half a dozen small delights like the Red House. For those whose main interest is the horticultural side of things, the place is stunning in the snowdrop season (it has one of the best collections of snowdrops anywhere), delightful in the late spring when we visited (though we were a little late to see the bluebells at their best), and its wooded sections must be beautiful in autumn too. But the point is not to separate buildings and plants, but to appreciate how well they are integrated. The effect is a triumph of 18th-century design and 20th-century restoration.

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