Light hearted and flamboyant or frivolous and vulgar? Rococo seemed a fitting description for many of the smaller English gardens of the middle part of the 18th century now long since gone. A commentator at the time sneered:
‘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’.
Rococo gardens were a style generally more popular with the gentry, than those of more refined tastes and greater resources; who were able to manage their indiscretions from their London homes, or at the capital’s public pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh. The fact that Painswick survived in an overgrown and ruinous state is itself very rare, when hundreds of other rococo gardens were swept away in a desire to be part of the latest garden fashion. The daunting restoration started in 1984, and in 1988 The Painswick Rococo Garden Trust was set up to attract charitable donations to complete the work.
What I find appealing is that it is essentially a productive 6 acre (2.5 hectare) garden, with fish ponds, pigeon house, pleached apples and pears, and a large central vegetable garden. However, it is the whimsical buildings and their setting, rather than the heritage rhubarb and pumpkins that I came to see. To be fair, the garden is renowned for its marvellous carpets of snowdrops in mid-February, and there are substantial replantings of early 18th century flowers and climbers, such as tulips, foxgloves, honeysuckle, clematis and jasmine, mostly in the productive Kitchen Garden.
The recommended garden circuit takes you first to the restored Red House, with its bizarre asymmetrical facades angled to terminate the approaching vistas. Like many rococo buildings this a plaything of timber lath and lime plaster, as is the next structure, The Exedra, the garden’s most memorable feature. Built as both a seating apse and an eye catcher on the steeply sloping garden site. its small flower garden overlooks the Kitchen Garden, Bowling Green, Fish Pond, and Tunnel Arbour beyond.
Of the remaining structures, the Gothic Alcove, and the two storey Eagle House are the most impressive the lower vaulted area of which accommodates the steep slope of the hillside. The garden structures, being mostly Strawberry Hill Gothick (that curiously fanciful mix of Georgian and Gothic styles) have continuity, except for the Doric Seat which dates from a slightly earlier time, and was moved here in Victorian times.
To commemorate the 250th anniversary of the painting on which the restoration of Painswick was based, a maze of privet and golden privet was set out in 1988, to be over-viewed from further up the hillside; and this fits well into the overall garden layout.
Is Painshill a delightful curiosity, or a piece of nonsense? Well, a bit of both to my mind, but probably it is more of interest to the garden historian or the heritage botanist than the garden visitor. Its upside is that it is a seldom visited garden and a good place to enjoy tranquillity and distant views of the Cotswold countryside.
Where Painswick Rococo Garden, Painswick, Glos. GL6 6TH
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