Saturday, September 16, 2023

The Gardens of Melbourne Hall

From Country Life:

The gardens at Melbourne Hall, with their tree-lined allées, carefully framed vistas and cleverly positioned ponds and fountains, are regarded as the best surviving example of the early-18th-century Anglo-French Baroque style, a rare chance to see a surviving garden of this period, when designs were directly influenced by formal French gardens, such as Versailles.

Melbourne is uplifting, too, because, as well as restoring and respecting the historical importance of the gardens, which have been in the family for 500 years, Ralph and Marie-Claire Kerr have added their own deeply personal signature with extensive planting of exquisite specimen trees and a wonderful painterly approach to the gentler, wilder parts of the garden away from the grandeur of this main axis Vital to the transformation has been Lady Ralph’s vision and attention to detail. As a distinguished portrait painter, her tireless passion for the possibilities of colour and form has led directly to the magical atmosphere of the garden today.

The original design of the garden was conceived by Thomas Coke, Vice-Chamberlain to Queen Anne, who commissioned the day’s leading garden makers, London and Wise, to develop a detailed scheme for Melbourne Hall, which was implemented in 1704. ‘I really think that, after that, very little happened botanically except that the Victorians planted laurel absolutely everywhere. When we came here in 1987, there were lots of self-set holly, yew, sycamore and Rhododendron ponticum — it was quite dark.’ The house was rented out for 100 or so years until shortly before the war, but, although the garden was well maintained, things had become rather settled: the era of reassessment and subtle experimentation with plants was about to arrive.

Brought up in Cornwall and Scotland with a love of woodland gardens, followed by several years in Spain apprenticed to Catalan artist Joaquin Torrents-Llado, Lady Ralph’s approach to restoring and bringing life to the garden was both intuitive and brave. Many a mature plant ‘had to go’ — four huge cypresses around Mercury, some ‘rather majestic’ Corsican pines and ‘six huge golden yew balls that spread out over the path at the top of the garden, blocking the view to the urns’. She remembers her husband looking with dismay out of his dressing-room window after the yews had been removed: ‘It looked as if six bombs had fallen on the lawn.’

Keeping a sense of the garden as a whole was key. ‘My worry was not wanting only to do little pockets: rather like a canvas, you want to see all the painting at once.’ It was a huge relief when she realised that a Dawyck beech, given to the couple by her mother, was planted ‘far enough to the left’ of a particular avenue to be allowed to grow on in peace. (Read more.)


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