Along the valley from Slad is Painswick, where we found the unusual and magical Painswick Rococo Garden.It’s the only surviving example of a style of garden that became popular in the early 18th century as a reaction to the formal gardens with regular designs that were typical at the beginning of the century. Rococo gardens were part of the aristocratic pleasure-seeking ethos of the times.  They were light-hearted, flamboyant and frivolous; designed to amuse or even to shock.

Painswick House (seen in the photo above at top left) was built in the mid 1730s. Its owner, the asthmatic Charles Hyett came to Painswick to benefit from clean country air, and named his new house ‘Buenos Ayres’.  It didn’t work: he died soon after the House was completed. It was his son, Benjamin, who created the Rococo Garden in a hidden valley behind the House.

Thomas Robins' painting of the Rococo garden 1748
Thomas Robins’ painting of the Rococo garden 1748

During the 19th century, the original 18th century design was lost, as much of the garden was converted to grow fruit and vegetables. However, using a painting (above) by Thomas Robins in 1748, the garden has been fully restored to its eighteenth century character.  Archaeological evidence unearthed during the course of the restoration and the buildings that survived the ensuing years confirmed the painting to be a remarkably accurate record of what Robins saw.

In the course of the next 200 years the layout of the garden changed dramatically. By the 1820s the original design no longer existed.  The main vista had disappeared as had the kitchen garden. By the twentieth century most of the valley was filled with plots of varying sizes for growing vegetables and soft fruits. The principle buildings remained, as Robins drew them, but in a verry poor state of repair.  Until 1955 five full-time gardeners were still employed looking after the large, but mainly kitchen garden. There were no mechanical aids bar a small motor mower. Unable to afford the high cost of upkeep, Lord Dickinson, the new owner, planted a wood on the site in 1965 and during the next 19 years the garden became overgrown and impenetrable with brambles and old man’s beard.

Painswick Rococo Gardens The Eagle House
The Eagle House

In 1984 restoration work began, and has continued ever since, managed by the Painswick Rococo Garden Trust.  Some of the buildings presented real challenges.  In the case of the Eagle House (above),all that remained was the lower storey, close to collapse. Fortunately, Robins had painted the structure in 1757 (below), and so it was possible to reconstruct the 18th century ‘Gothic Pavilion’.

The Eagle House, painted by Robins
The Eagle House, painted by Robins

All the materials used in the reconstruction were contemporary to the period, and the interior and exterior colours (pastel shades of blue and pink) were matched to pieces of lime plaster discovered during excavation.

The Eagle House interior
The Eagle House interior

Above the Kitchen Garden stands the Exedra, or outside seating area.  It’s an eye-catching feature (top) at the end of the avenue through the vegetable beds, and provides a wonderful vista back across the circular pond and down the full length of the garden.

The Exedra
The Exedra
Painswick Rococo Gardens The Exedra view
The view from the Exedra

At the end of the Beech Walk stands the Gothic Alcove, completely rebuilt in 1985.

The Beech Walk
The Beech Walk
The Gothic Alcove
The Gothic Alcove

Perhaps the most striking structure in the Rococo Garden is the asymmetrical Red House. Asymmetry was popular in rococo designs.  The façade is finished with a traditional lime plaster and red lime wash.

The Red House
The Red House

There are two rooms in the Red House.  The first room is finished with ashlar stone, in contrast to the inner room which was finished with ornate panelling and mouldings. The Red House windows, with stained glass designs and Latin inscriptions, provide tranquil views back along the length of the garden.

The Red House window
The Red House window

The Maze was not a feature of the original garden – it was created in 1998 to mark the 250th anniversary of the Robins painting of the Rococo Garden.  The trustees felt that the light-heartedness of a maze would match the mood of the garden.  It was a Painswick resident and maze enthusiast who designed the maze, which is unusual in having three goals – the centre of each of the numbers 2, 5 and 0.

Painswick Rococo Gardens The Maze 2
The Maze

Painswick Rococo Gardens The Maze

There are several water features in the garden, including a Plunge Pool, fed by its own spring.  Even at the height of summer the temperature of the water is extremely chilly.  The hardy gentlemen of the 18th century would have used the pool for plunging at most times of the year.

There is also a fish pond which feeds a stream that runs through the snowdrop grove which produces what is reputedly one of the best displays in the country.  In the 19th century, the Hyetts would open the gardens for one Sunday in February for local villagers to admire the display and pick blooms.

Rococo gardens quickly went out of fashion, seen as a sign of the vulgarity of their owners. A magazine article of 1753, describing this style of garden, crystallises this contempt:

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

Today, however, the Painswick garden provides a highly enjoyable way to pass the time and be taken back to a period when wealthy gentlemen created flamboyant pleasure grounds to entertain their guests. After a stroll, the coach house restaurant, where all the food is made on the premises using produce grown in the kitchen garden, is well worth a visit.

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