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Step back in time to visit great gardens

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 14, 2013

  • Images from The Art of the Devon Garden (clockwise from left): Lupton House in 1793; Cobham; Bishopstowe in 1845, home of Bishop of Exeter Henry Philpotts; and Silverton Park

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There is little to love about the unlovely Henry Philpotts, infamous Bishop of Exeter – but you have to admire his taste in architecture and gardens.

The Bishop, enriched in 1835 by compensation for the freeing of 665 slaves he owned in the Caribbean, turned his back on his palace in Exeter.

Safe from cholera and angry parishioners, he built a new mansion – Bishopstowe, in Torquay.

The Italianate house overlooking the sea, along with its idyllic gardens, was as much admired by visitors and artists as its owner was hated by locals.

Now we can step back nearly 200 years and see the landscape as the argumentative Bishop may have seen it.

Devon historian Todd Gray tells the story of Bishopstowe – now the Palace Hotel – through the art that recorded it.

The house is a highlight of his new book, The Art of the Devon Garden. From the earliest illuminated manuscripts to modern photography, the garden has always provided inspiration for the artist.

For at least eight centuries Devon's artists have been recording the grand houses and their grand owners in the county's grandest gardens.

Dr Gray has collected 677 images, of illuminated manuscripts and Medieval wood carvings, fabric, earthenware, engravings and paintings to tell the stories of more than 90 of these gardens.

The works have been brought together from private collections, archives museums and libraries.

Dr Gray said one of the difficulties in researching some of the gardens is that they are little known, like the plan of the Italian garden at Lupton Park near Brixham.

"This does not appear to have been known beforehand and gives us a clear idea of the vision of the designer," he said.

Few of the gardens are recognisable today, and many have become hotels, like Endsleigh, near Milton Abbot, country seat of the Duke of Bedford.

Gardening is most easily achieved if you have enough money to throw at it, as the Duke showed when creating his hunting and fishing lodge overlooking the Tamar in 1813. No expense was spared in equipping the extensive grounds, designed by renowned landscape artist Humphry Repton.

The thousands of trees bought from a nursery included 12 variegated hollies, 12 cedars of Lebanon, 2,200 each of English oaks, birch, Spanish chestnuts and larch, 875 Scots firs and a similar number of beech, and 490 rowans.

More modest in ambition was Warleigh House in Tamerton Foliot – now a country house bed and breakfast – depicted in a 1792 watercolour and an intricate 1831 engraving.

The house was the home of Walter Radcliffe and the wonderfully named Admonition Bastard, a daughter of the Bastard family, who owned Kitley House at Yealmpton.

Dr Gray's painstaking research brings the garden at Warleigh House to life, from the troublesome myrtles cut down in 1782 to the mundane tale of the hand-shaped turnip harvested in 1822.

Grand designs sometimes fall victim to circumstance, as at Boringdon Hall at Plympton St Mary.

The house has been eclipsed by nearby Saltram, but in the early 18th century it was the canvas for a truly grand design. Turner's painting from the house, The Plym Estuary from Boringdon Park, looks out over an unfamiliar and uninhabited Plymouth countryside.

Remnants of the proposed garden can be seen around today's Boringdon Hall Hotel, but the great vision was never realised.

Saltram House and its amphitheatre, still prominent on the banks of the River Plym and seen from the Embankment to the east of Plymouth, was recorded in a 1770 painting by William Tomkins.

At the time Tomkins painted it, it was the entry point for those coming to Saltram by boat.

"Amphitheatres were a Georgian feature found in several Devon gardens but this one is the only one to survive," Dr Gray writes.

A visit by King George III in 1789 is the most famous single event to take place at Saltram. One of those present assessed the garden as being "about a mile from the house, extensive and replete with every fruit and vegetable, both native and exotic".

Like the gardens themselves, Dr Gray's book is rich and entertaining. You will need to pray for a prolonged winter if you hope to be finished before it is time to get on with your own spring planting.

The Art of the Devon Garden by Todd Gray, 366 pages with 677 illustrations, is published by The Mint Press, priced £24. It is available from some bookshops and direct through Stevens Books (stevensbooks.co.uk). ISBN 9781903356647. Life members of the Devon Gardens Trust who joined after September 14 will receive a free copy as part of their membership. Annual members joining after September 14 will be able to buy the book direct from the trust for £16 (plus p&p).

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