Painswick Rococo – ‘Snowdrops in a Snowstorm’

Do you hanker for serious garden design critique? Lesley and Robert of ‘The Hegarty Webber Partnership’ are professional garden designers who battled the elements to visit the Painswick Rococo Garden exclusively for Ryan’s Garden.

‘You are taken to a pompous and gilded building, consecrated to Venus for no other purpose, or so it seemed, that the squire riots here in vulgar love with a couple of orange wenches from the purlieus of the play-house’.

So wrote a ‘garden reviewer’ in the 1750’s! This quote succinctly sums up the frivolous and short lived Rococo style of garden design. From about 1720 to 1760, tastes moved away from the French formal influence towards the more natural landscape gardens of say Stowe or Blenheim. A very quick affair in garden history terms, Rococo was an intermediary stage which amalgamated elements of both movements, but lacked the gravitas of either. Combining straight lines and informality side by side, the style was ornate, curlicues, whimsical and folly laden. In what amounted to horticultural theatres, aristocrats could indulge in fetes champetres. This particular garden fashion quickly became a joke and ended before it got a firm foothold.

Painswick is thus one of the few remaining and most complete examples of such a garden in this country. Stuffed with enough follies for the squire to conduct affairs with a whole playhouse full of orange wenches, it is also the kind of ‘lost and found’ story which newspapers love. Two centuries of decline and adaptation had blurred the original design almost to extinction, when in the 1960’s the owner, Lord Dickinson had a bright idea. He concluded that the garden shown behind the family’s mansion in a painting he owned was actually buried under a tangled wood which he himself had planted!

Heligan, but without the hype, because it was genuinely lost, the Rococo Garden has become a story of discovery, dogged determination and painstakingly slow renovation. Trees have been felled, ponds have been drained and ground regraded. In some cases the follies have been completely reconstructed. Lord Dickinson and the Painswick Rococo Garden Trust have by now restored a huge part of the garden – a mammoth and heroic task. But is it anything more than a partial record of a brief stylistic fling? Does it make a successful garden?

In point of fact the fundamental design problems are still there. The combination of the sinuous and the straight is not successful. Wedged into a slender Gloucestershire combe the central vegetable garden with its strong diamond shaped pattern somehow manages both to lack conviction and jar. Formality on a slope, without using steps and terracing as the method, always seems odd.

More use could be made of water is this garden. There are abundant springs of startling clarity to have made this a really sizeable feature. The central pond of the vegetable garden for example is pitifully small. It seems possible that a fairly central bowling green might actually have been a large shallow pond. If so that might start to pull things together.

As it is, the disparate architectural elements, since they lack in themselves a cohesive style, need somehow to be linked up and with some conviction. As you pore over the painting that inspired the restoration you sense other follies and linking hedges and paths which might somehow have made rather more sense of it. But you are also tempted to think that even if they put it all back together it would still be a hotch potch, because that is what the original style was. The word ‘rococo’ itself as a term applied to the arts and architecture derived from a combination of the words rocaille meaning rockwork and coquille meaning shell, themselves two very different materials. In the world of Rococo garden design there appears to be a similar incompatibility of elements.

However, these days Painswick Rococo Garden has a second claim to fame – as one of the premier snowdrop gardens in the country. No one knows for sure how it all began, but one James Atkins, a snowdrop grower for who ‘Atkinsii’ is named, certainly lived in one of the estate cottages during the 1800’s. Of course these Cotswold combes, with abundant moist and dappled shade, are exactly what snowdrops crave.

Even in the 1890’s there were so many that locals used to be let in to gather bunches of them. But now that the snowdrops are big visitor business this is no longer allowed. It is obviously imperative that the snowdrop season goes with a bang since it is very clear that without the lucrative early visitors the rest of the garden would never have progressed to the stage it has today. There are volunteers and stewards on hand and crucial paths are strewn with aromatic, shredded conifer to protect your feet.

The display is fabulous. We are great fans of massing plants. Almost anything used that way works and the commoner the better! While there are liberal quantities of snowdrops throughout the garden and we do sense some serious bulking up taking place to play on the fame they now have, the real location to see these wintery stars naturalised is the Snowdrop Grove at the bottom of the garden. Here on the banks above a tumbling stream the ground is frost-white with them.

We looked round in half a snowstorm. But even so there were plucky galanthophiles showing the true brit Dunkirk spirit as they braved the elements. Fortunately it wasn’t settling so they could still see the snowdrops for the snow. So get yourselves to Painswick Rococo Garden asap to make your own decision about the garden and enjoy the snowdrops in one fell swoop. You can’t have worse weather than we did!

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