Sunday, November 30, 2014

Garden History Over There 17C - The Earliest known bird’s-eye painting of a British garden

A detail from View of Llanerch Park in Denbighshire, Wales.  

The Guardian, London, Monday 10 November 2014 written by Maev Kennedy

"The earliest known bird’s-eye painting of a British garden is expected to fetch up to £600,000 when goes for auction next month.

"The painting of a lost Welsh garden has remained in the same family since the owner commissioned the artwork in 1665 of his fountains, pools, waterfall, avenues, statues, terraced lawns and walled fruit gardens.

"The garden was the pride and joy Mutton Davies, who was inspired by his trip to Italy between 1654 and 1658 to create a state of the then art Italian garden around a much older house in north Wales.

"Davies commissioned the painting of his creation, meticulously detailed down to the mounting block by the stables and the fountains designed to spurt water from unexpected places and drench the unwary.

"A 17th-century poem described the garden in its glory: “Elegantly he diverted streams of cold water into his gardens and, praise be, he can wander in a great garden which he made, in the grounds about his mansion, and costly are his devices.”

"The artist is anonymous, but believed to be English.

"Julian Gascoigne, a specialist at Sotheby’s, which is auctioning the painting: “There are much more accomplished later views of gardens like Hampton Court, by more sophisticated artists who often came from the continent. This is really very early and a very large and ambitious painting – and the artist is clearly having a few problems with the perspective – but we believe it to be the earliest by a native painter, so it is really quite an important thing...Its also completely delightful, there are more details to spot and take pleasure in every time you look at it.”

"Parts of the much-altered hall survive, but the garden as lovingly immortalised by the artist has long since gone, with most of the land taken up by later planting, buildings and a golf course, though it is listed as of historic importance to preserve paths and other structures buried under the turf.

"The painting will go on display at Sotheby’s in London before the sale on 3 December 2014."

Sotheby's Catalogue Note for the painting:

Painted in 1662, this is likely the earliest topographical birds-eye view of a British estate, a genre that would become hugely popular over the ensuing decades.

This is not only a very beautiful and decorative work of art but also a very important historical document. An early inscription, visible in the illustration in Country Life in 1943, but since apparently removed, suggests that it dates from 1662 but this is more likely to date when the garden started. This makes it the first in a great tradition of bird’s-eye views of country houses in Britain, and marks the beginning of large-scale topographical painting in this country, which would become celebrated in the work of artists such as Jan Sibrechts, Leonard Knyff and Jan Griffier. Most of these later works date from the end of the seventeenth and early into the eighteenth centuries and are by sophisticated foreign artists who visited England seeking aristocratic patronage. What makes the present picture of particular importance is not only the very early date but also the fact that it is evidence of a contemporary native tradition aware, through engravings, of earlier Dutch artists such as Hollar. The house as shown in this picture was probably built by Fulk Griffyth in the late sixteenth century, with a brick office range near the house added probably in the early seventeenth century by Sir Peter Mutton. Sir Peter’s daughter Anne married Robert Davies of Gwysaney, and it seems that it was their son, Mutton Davies, who was responsible for the splendid garden and who commissioned this picture. He was no doubt inspired by his trip to Italy between 1654 and 1658. The three-tier or terrace type of garden is immensely sophisticated and of a type advocated back in 1597 by William Lawson in A New Orchard and Garden. It should not be considered surprising that such a garden existed in what John Harris has described as 'remote Wales', as Denbighshire and Flint had a number of fine Jacobean houses, notably Plas-Teg, Nerquis Hall, Pentrehobyn, and Gwysaney. The proximity of the area to Chester and links between the North Wales coast and Lancashire helped to bring considerable prosperity to the region and explains the existence of so many fine houses.

The details shown of the garden are remarkable. A mounted figure is shown approaching a wooden front entrance from where he would dismount using the mounting-steps shown by the stables (probably contemporary with the garden). A gate to the right leads to the upper terrace with an impressive row of stone vases and red brick garden houses on each end. From there an elaborate semi-circular stairway leads to a flower garden with fruit trees growing against the wall. From a gazebo there is a view down to the third terrace with a central fountain and two summer houses. A slope flanked with specimen trees leads down to the Neptune pool and a further bridge in the bottom right corner leading to the river Clwyd. Philip Yorke, author of Royal Tribes of Wales, records that the garden contained a sundial with the inscription, 'Alas my friend time soon will overtake you And if you do not cry, by God I’ll make you', a reference to the fact that the sundial spouted water in your face. A seventeenth-century poem by Ffoulk Wynn describes the garden as follows: 'Elegantly he diverted streams of cold water into his gardens and, praise he, he can wander in a great garden which he made, in the grounds about his mansion, and costly are his devices!'

There are two versions of the picture. A smaller painting, similar in most respects – with the exception of its inclusion of St Asaph’s Cathedral on the horizon – was acquired in 1968 by the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven from Leggatt Brothers, the London dealers. It had previously been owned by Mrs Patrick Hardman, and in the nineteenth century was lent by A. Whitehall Dod of Llanerch to an exhibition at Wrexham. Mr Whitehall Dod had succeeded to the estates of Llanerch in 1841 on the death of his grandmother, the last of the Davies family. This suggests that the larger version hung from an early stage at Gwysaney, another property of Mutton Davies.

A History of the Garden by Elizabeth Whittle

Standing on the terrace in front of Llannerch Hall and looking eastwards down the steep, smooth grass slope to the valley floor and winding river Clwyd below it is hard to imagine that this rural scene was once the site of the most Italianate garden ever made in Wales. This is the garden laid out by Mutton Davies in the 1660s (probably finished in 1665) that is celebrated in the contemporary bird’s-eye view painting from Gwysaney, the Davies family home nearby.

Mutton Davies must have returned from Italy in 1658 with Italian gardens such as the Villa d’Este, Pratolino, and maybe even the great, terraced French garden of Saint-Germain-en-Laye fresh in his mind. In his new garden no Italianate element was left out and in particular water was harnessed so as to dominate the garden with pools, fountains, a formal cascade, hydraulic statues and water tricks. The last two were such novelties in north Wales that visitors went on remarking on them into the nineteenth century. Sadly, the garden met its end in the Victorian era.
Nothing as remotely Italian was created in Wales during this period, although many grand houses possessed formal, sometimes terraced, gardens, some dating back to the Tudor period. The great baroque gardens of Powis Castle and Chirk Castle were yet to come. Sketches by Thomas Dineley in The Beaufort Progress (1684) give glimpses of formal elements in gardens attached to the grand houses of the day: Powis Castle had a fountain, Margam Abbey pools, Ruperra Castle walled enclosures, all swept away. Chirk Castle’s terraced early garden, at Whitehurst, was made by Sir Thomas Myddleton in 1651. Its interest here lies in the ‘forreigne’ plants recorded as growing there, including orange and lemon trees. It is very likely that these would have been grown in the Llannerch garden not far away. The Gwysaney painting shows rows of fastigiated trees looking suspiciously like Italian cypresses.

One Welsh garden contemporary with that of Llannerch, Llanfihangel Court in Monmouthshire, is not only a remarkable survival from the period but is also celebrated in a similar bird’s-eye view painting. The terraced garden, summerhouses and axial avenues in the park were the creation of John Arnold, a Whig politician, in the 1670s. As with the Gwysaney painting, this layout, formal but not Italianate in the same way as Llannerch, is depicted in a large contemporary painting.

The Gwysaney painting gives a very rare and astonishingly detailed glimpse of a lost jewel in the Welsh cultural crown. Were the garden to exist today – and who knows what is buried beneath the turf? – it would be an extraordinarily unusual little piece of Italy transposed into the rural idyll of the Vale of Clwyd.

We are grateful to Elizabeth Whittle, author of Historic Gardens of Wales, for this additional note.


Country Life, 14 May 1943, reproduced fig. 5;
J. Steegman and D. Stroud, The Artist and the Country House, 1949, p. 35, no. 3, reproduced;
J. Harris, The Artist and the Country House, 1979, pp. 41 and 54;
A. M. Clevely, Topiary, 1988, p. 24;
E. Whittle, Historic Gardens of Wales, Cadw. HMSO, 1992, reproduced on the front cover.
London, Sotheby’s, The Glory of the Garden, 1987, no. 44;
Cardiff, Cardiff Castle, Welsh Treasures Exhibition, 11 November – 11 December 1987, no. 19.