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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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