Home Feature Articles Gardens of English stately homes: changing styles through the ages

Gardens of English stately homes: changing styles through the ages


How many of you enjoy photographing historic stately homes and associated gardens? Over the years, I have photographed both here in Great Britain and in Continental Europe. Yet it is the English country gardens which remain at the top of my list for variety and sheer breathtaking scale. Varying in style, many designed by the greatest landscape gardeners of the past five centuries, they offer unparalleled delights from season to season. But when better to enjoy an English country garden than at the height of summer?

Stately homes and their gardens

During my travels through Spain, France, Italy and Scotland, I have visited countless formal gardens. Highlights surely include the palace and gardens at Versailles and the villas and gardens of Lakes Como and Maggiore.

This article, however, concentrates on my home country of England. It includes five English stately homes and, in particular, their spectacular gardens. Each has a distinct style, illustrating how garden designs have evolved and adapted to different times and fashions.

The styles in the gardening world are generally categorised under our royal dynasties: The Tudors from 1485 to 1603, the Stuarts (1603 -1714), the Georgians (1714 -1837) and the Victorians (1837 -1901).

Before we jump in, however, I thought you might enjoy a very different, more eccentric perspective on English country gardens – a traditional song of that name performed by a group of Morris Dancers:

In an English Country Garden

The Tudor and Stuart style: Helmingham Hall

Not far from my home in Suffolk is Helmingham Hall, the family home of the Tollemache family, who still live there today. With the following photographs, taken with my Sony RX100 Mk6, I have tried to illustrate the features which make it such a stunning representative of this architectural era.

As the photograph clearly shows, it is moated with two working drawbridges. Each night the drawbridges are raised, as they have been since the hall was completed in 1510, over 500 years ago. The hall itself has a courtyard within its confines, and it was a surprising sight to see a modern 4×4 car driving over the drawbridge. I did not use any perspective adjustment on these photos in post-processing, just minor tweaks to exposure and framing.

On to the gardens

The award-winning gardens, in a mixture of the Tudor and Stuart styles, are a delight. They are the result of the hard work and vision of the current Lady Tollemache.  She goes under the professional name of Xa Tollemache, a garden designer and a Chelsea flower show gold medallist.

A recently planted knot and rose garden with old English roses is to the east of the hall.

Left: view from the rose garden looking towards the east face of the hall; right: the rose garden with its old English roses

To the west of the moated hall, a Saxon moat surrounds a garden featuring geometric beds, a bricked-walled garden with colourful herbaceous borders, and vegetable beds.

Clockwise from top left: entrance to the walled garden; view from inside the garden, looking west; herbaceous borders; topiary snowman; hybrid musk roses

Beyond the formal gardens are open parklands with ancient oaks and a herd of deer.  

The aerial images on the website below show the layout of the hall, estate and gardens. 

Helmingham Hall Gardens | Wedding & Events Venue | Suffolk 


This summer (2023), in the gardens, there is an outdoor sculpture exhibition called “Art for Cure”, raising funds for breast cancer research.

Clockwise from left: Sitting Wire Figure (Rachel Ducker, £2,400); Kneeling Figure (Stuart Anderson, £7,000); Virtual Mortal (Joseph Hillier, £36,000)

I like these modern sculptures, and to my mind, they sit comfortably in the old style of these gardens.  My favourite of the examples shown so far is the “Sitting Wire Figure”. 

The photographs below show various sculptures in a woodland setting. Do they appeal to anyone?

Left: The Dancers (Lilly Henry, £16,000) and, in the distance, Large Boxing Hares (Martin Duffy, £9,950); right: Rising Son (Nicholas Moreton, £33,600)

“Rising Son” would be a good conversation piece in my own garden. The price is £33,600, though. Yes, the title is “Rising Son”, not Rising Sun.  By looking at the sculpture, you will perhaps understand the artist’s rationale.


The exhibits are not cheap, but I was told the sales have been brisk, with thirty per cent of the sale price going to charity.

The Georgian style: Stowe House and Gardens

The Georgian period (1714 – 1837) saw a dramatic change to the gardens of English stately homes. Just look at the four photographs of Stowe House and gardens. Apart from that of the temple, these were all taken with my little Sony RX100 Mk1.

Clockwise from top left: Stowe House with Octagon Lake in the foreground; Temple of Ancient Virtue; Lord Cobham’s Monument; The Palladian Bridge and Gothic Temple

Where are the flower beds? Where are the flowers?  We now see what has been called the English landscape garden, as perceived by its pioneers: Capability Brown, William Kent and Humphry Repton.  Together they were responsible for the design of well over fifty stately home landscaped gardens in England.  

Stowe is an idealised landscape with man-made lakes, follies and monuments on a vast scale.  Many of the follies reflect themes from previous times, such as The Temple of Liberty (now known as the Gothic Temple), The Temple of Ancient Virtue, Lord Cobham’s Monument and the Palladian Bridge. All four were all built during the period 1735 – 1745.

Not surprisingly, the aristocratic family at Stowe House was unable to afford its upkeep after the end of the First World War, so it was sold to a new fee-paying school (Stowe School) in 1922.  David Niven, the actor, was an early pupil there.

In 1997 the National Trust took over the ownership of the gardens, and therefore we are all able to enjoy and photograph the impressive landscaping. If you do visit, it is a 600-yard walk to the gardens themselves from the National Trust visitor centre.

Volunteers provide an electric buggy taxi service for those who request it. I did!

Stowe | Buckinghamshire | National Trust

The Georgian Style – Stourhead House and Gardens

Stourhead, started in 1741 by the banker Henry Hoare, again falls into the Georgian style of landscape gardens, but specifically here as a picturesque garden inspired by the famous landscape painter Claude Lorrain. Hoare had purchased several Lorrain paintings during his grand tour of Italy. 

Clockwise from left: View over the lake with the Temple of Flora amongst the trees; view over the lake with the Palladian Bridge in the foreground; a woodland path with rhododendrons

Hoare dammed a stream on his estate to form an artificial lake.  Throughout the gardens, rather like Stowe, are impressive follies together with the bridge. They are all based on ancient mythology. The gardens also have woodlands with wonderful rhododendrons. I was fortunate to visit in May time when they were at their colourful best. 

Stourhead, like Stowe, is in the care of the National Trust and is perhaps regarded by them as their premier garden in England. 

Stourhead | Wiltshire | National Trust

The Georgian and Victorian styles – Bowood House and Gardens

Clockwise from upper left: Bowood House showing the herbaceous border; view across the lake; the two terraces; the lower Victorian terrace

Bowood House in Wiltshire is not so well known as Stowe and Stourhead.  Capability Brown also worked there and was responsible for excavating the lake.

However, from the photographs, you will see that there is a mix of styles, from landscaped lake to formal terraces. The upper terrace was completed in 1818, and the lower terrace in 1851, which fell into the Victorian style.  On the terraces, we see manicured lawns, flower beds, and Yew trees standing like soldiers.  

The family still lives in Bowood House and takes great pride in the standard of the landscape. The gardens and some parts of the house are open to the public.

Country Estate Wiltshire | Capability Brown Garden Wiltshire (bowood.org)

I was surprised when they accepted an offer to use two of my photographs on their website.  They used them for about a year.

The Victorian style — Waddesdon Manor

Clockwise from left: Front view of Waddesdon Manor, February; rear view, February; the garden, June

By looking at my photographs of Waddesdon, you would be forgiven for thinking that they were taken in France. Yet this imposing French-style manor is perched on a hill in rural Buckinghamshire, some 40 miles northwest of London. My photographs of the gardens really do not do justice to Waddesdon. The image of the colourful flower bed was taken through a window, which is not ideal.  

If you click on the link below and halfway down the page, you will see a video entitled “Glimpse the Gardens on Film”.  

Gardens – Waddesdon Manor

Please watch it, as the images are stunning.

If you have seen the video, then I really do not need to write any more about Waddesdon except to say it is perhaps one of my favourite places to visit in England. The photographic opportunities are boundless, as long as one can avoid other visitors!

The photos of Waddesdon, as well as those of Bowood and Stourhead, were taken with my Sony Rx100 Mk1. The shots of the houses themselves were adjusted using the perspective control application in GIMP.

A thought on the future

Times are a-changing, and smartphones, AI and professional drone footage and other enhancements are coming into play. Where does this leave us camera enthusiasts, whatever brand of camera we use?

I still get pleasure in trying to take the best photographs possible with a decent camera and lens. I am my own judge. Others, too, can judge. My recent visit to Helmingham Hall was proof of my philosophy of seeking satisfaction and enjoyment through photography.

Read more from the author

Join our community and play an active part in the future of Macfilos: This site is run by a group of volunteers and dedicated authors around the world. It is supported by donations from readers who appreciate a calm, stress-free experience, with courteous comments and an absence of advertising or commercialisation. Why not subscribe to the thrice-weekly newsletter by joining our mailing list? Comment on this article or, even, write your own. And if you have enjoyed the ride so far, please consider making a small donation to our ever-increasing running costs.


    • Farhiz, yes, running privately owned stately homes is an expensive business. Most now are open to the public to generate funds. However it was only in 1948 that the Marquess and Marchioness of Bath opened Longleat House in Wiltshire to the public, being the first to do so.
      It is a popular visitor attraction now with its own safari park.
      Fergus Garrett is head gardener at Great Dixter, which is a Grade 1 listed Lutyens designed house and gardens in East Sussex. Again it is open to the public.

  1. Thanks for posting this. Like your photo journey through East Anglia, it’s quite enlightening for those of us living in America (‘b—-y colonials’ as a colleague refers to us), who wouldn’t know a Tudor from a Victorian.

    Having seen your other work, it’s certainly no surprise that Bowood House would choose to use your photos to represent themselves online; it strikes me that you’ve a gift for architecture.

    The photos of actual gardens interested me: when I photograph a garden, it’s a mess; it was educational to see how you handled them. There’s a great deal to be learned from your work.

    An aside — wasn’t there an episode of Midsomer Murders (John Nettles version) featuring Morris dancers and the music to ‘English Country Grden’?

    • Midsomer must be one of the most dangerous places to live in UK: a murder a week it seems. Can you imagine what it must be like selling property in Midsomer? And the most profitable business in Midsomer? Funeral Directors!

      • Apparently, one doesn’t actually “live” in Midsomer … I think I recall Nettles saying he appreciated the similarity to Jacobean plays, with their inventive slaughters …

    • Thank you Kathy for your kind comments.
      You may be interested to know we over the pond are now living in the Carolean Age. Each age is taken from the name of our reigning monarch. Carolean comes from the Latin name for Charles (Carolus). Perhaps there is already a Carolean style of garden design knowing HRH’s devotion over the last 40 years to his garden at his private residence at Highgove, Gloucestershire, England. The gardens are open to the public in the summer.

  2. Thank you Jean
    Yes, the National Trust properties in Cornwall at Lanhydrock and Cotehele are certainly worth a visit. I took some slide photographs of them many years ago. Dartmouth in Devon is very photogenic and there is also an added bonus (for me at least) of a steam heritage railway to Paignton.
    However your Chateaux of the Loire valley take some beating when it comes to a holiday devoted to photography. I still treasure my slides (Velvia) of; Ambroise, Blois, Chambord, Chaumont, Chenonceaux and Sully.

  3. Thanks Chris for a great article and beautiful images. You’re blessed in Britain with so many houses and gardens. Every time we cross the Channel to visit our daughter, her husband and grand daughter we always manage to visit one or two national trust properties in the south west (Devon or Cornwall) or private gardens open to the public.

  4. A lovely article Chris and it further encourages me to keep returning “home” to Britain. I think apart from enthusiastic gardeners you are truly blessed with the National Trust. Many of this houses and gardens would be in poorer condition. Enjoy!

    • Thank you Le Chef
      Yes the National Trust is a very worthy and “British” institution with over 5 million members (roughly 8% of the UK population). I agree without it the “United Kingdom” would indeed be poorer culturally.
      The terms, Great Britain and the United Kingdom can be confusing. Originally in 1707 a “United Kingdom” was formed with the Act of Union when Scotland joined England and Wales to form Great Britain. In 1800 a new Act of Union merged the Kingdom of Ireland with the Kingdom Of Great Britain. Following the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 only Northern Ireland remained in what is now called the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
      So in summary; the term “Great Britain” excludes Northern Ireland and the term “UK” includes Northern Ireland.
      As to why it is “Great” Britain, is it perhaps to distinguish ourselves from “little” Brittany in France?
      I encourage you to return “home” to whichever of the four nations of the UK it may be.

      • It is indeed “great” as in greater or larger. It was to distinguish the larger island (excluding Ireland, south and north, of course) from Little Britain, which is Brittany in France. There is a tendency sometimes for people to assume it’s some form of boasting about status (as was) but they are mistaken.

      • Home was in England, growing up for a few years in Bath, and parts of Yorkshire, before moving to London for work, so familiar with the distinction between GB and UK. It’s always nice to come back!

      • Great article and photos.Thanks Chris, for that accurate description of what often confuses people on both islands. I won’t go through the long and complex and still evolving relationship between the two islands. Over here, we tend to use the term ‘Big Houses’ rather than ‘Stately Homes’. Some are still preserved as they were, others have been refurbished and others were confined to history when they got burned down during the Irish Revolution. There are many stories, including when a group of IRA men on their way to burn down Lord Waterford’s house in the 1920s turned tail when lightning struck a crucifix on the roof of the house as they came up the driveway. The house still survives today. I got this story from Basil, the last butler in the house, on his last day of work. The landed gentry, as they were known, have by and large left Ireland now, not least because of the cost of running such ‘piles’.

        Next month I am giving a talk at one such house which was bought by a private party over 40 years ago and is now in the hands of a heritage trust. One of the many things they found in the house was a complete late 19th Century darkroom, with prints, plates, darkroom equipment, chemicals, papers, cameras and lenses and, the icing on the cake, the photographer’s notebooks showing the images which he took, many in and around the house, in the late 19th Century/early 20th Century (late 1880s to early 1920s) when photography was, apart from professional use, normally confined to the wealthier classes. He recorded lenses used, f stops, plate types, masks and chemicals, which at one stage included soda powder for washing. My audience next month will be largely non technical, but I will do it again for my expert friends at the Photographic Collectors Club of Great Britain (PCCGB) on a research Zoom, probably in October, and I will do a piece here on Macfilos with a link to the YouTube recording of that Zoom. The Royal Photographic Society (RPS) has expressed an interest, as it is rare to get all of those things surviving together. The archivist at the house has already scanned a large number of the images that were found there, largely on glass dry plates. This kind of preservation could only have happened in a ‘Big House’ which is now in the hands of a heritage trust. The estate also contains a Famine Museum, but that is a separate story.

        Sorry for the digression, but I was working on my presentation when I first saw this lovely article by Chris.


        • William, thank you for your kind comments about my article.

          I presume the “big house” is Strokestown Park. From the photographs I have seen on the web it certainly is a “big” house.

          Knowing your interest in photography, this project must be totally absorbing for you. I certainly look forward to your proposed piece on Macfilos. Will you be able to show the scanned images? I cannot envisage any copyright issues.
          It wasn’t so long ago I visited Laycock Abbey in Wiltshire and visited the Fox Talbot Photography Museum there. I even have a modern photograph of that famous widow as depicted in the “window negative” taken in 1835 by Fox Talbot.

          I’m sure your presentation next month will be a great success.


          • Thanks, Chris. Yes, you are right about Strokestown House. It is very nice to have literally a time capsule of photography from 130 years ago preserved and to be able to research and present about it. The darkroom and the photos need a lot more research, but what I will be doing next month will be a good start. I am also currently cataloguing the camera and equipment collection of the Photographic Society of Ireland which was founded in 1854 as the Dublin Photographic Society. In addition, during the Leica Society International Conference in Wetzlar this October I am organising an expert group, including Jim Lager, to do some research work on the very earliest Leicas in the Leica Archive during the conference. This might mean missing some of the main conference events, but you won’t be surprised to hear me say that I will take old cameras over new cameras all of the time. There will be general visits to the Archive and Museum organised for conference attendees, of course. What with also acting as Chairperson of Photo Museum Ireland I have definitely joined the ‘unretired’. I am also giving a talk next Monday on Irish Engineers and Scientists of the 19th Century which will include a lot of what is in my Grubb and Parsons article on Macfilos from 2017. It will feature another Irish ‘Big House’, Birr Castle with its Great Telescope.


  5. Thanks, Chris, for sharing this. Despite not being a big fan of formal gardens, my appetite is whetted! And the buildings are amazing. You managed to capture many of them in extremely beautiful light. One more reason to travel though England again in the near future! All the best, JP

    • Thank you JP
      I believe it is the quality of light which can make or break a landscape photograph. It is a matter of luck or extreme patience whether the light is “magical” or not. When you are next in England let us hope you have some decent weather for your photography. Have you a theme in mind?

  6. Hi Chris,
    An enjoyable read, thanks. We are fortunate to have these properties here in the UK. I really like the photo of the bridge at Stowe and the way the road leads up to the house. Nicely captured.

    • Thank you Kevin
      Yes the photograph of the bridge at Stowe seems to work not only because of the composition but more importantly, the quality and angle of light.
      I recall two of your previous images which really impressed me were: “Yellow umbrella” and “We will remember them”.
      Have you any articles in the pipeline?

      • Thanks Chris, I appreciate your comment. Yes Mike has an article of mine in the waiting room. I hope you will enjoy it.

  7. Dirk
    I can assure you that it was no effort at all to visit these wonderful places and gardens. Many of them are supported by an army of volunteers who help maintain them.
    I too, like Keith, was impressed by your Verona doors project. I have spent many happy holidays in Italy from top to toe but perhaps Pienza, in Tuscany is my favourite location for photography.
    Many thanks.

  8. Dear Chris,
    thank you for your effort to visit all these wonderful places and gardens and providing us with the photographic impressions you had.
    The changes in style over the time periods are enormous. I did not know that, nor had I thought about it.
    Whatever the changing times will bring to us, AI won’t create and maintain places like these. It will streamline all sorts of advertising for sure but who could care less?



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here