Susan Jenkins marvels at the former magnificence of Boughton’s gardens, the subject of a fascinating exhibition
The owners of Boughton house in Northamptonshire have long had an interest in garden design. As this small exhibition curated by Paul Boucher demonstrates, generations of Montagu descendants have been closely involved in cultivating the estate.
Richard, 10th Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, explaining the inspiration for ‘Vistas of vast extension’, writes that ‘part of the fascination rests in the nuts and bolts of how my forebears set about garden creation and how over the years tastes evolved… It is our ambition that visitors will step from the study of stories and plans from centuries past directly into Boughton’s vast landscape, better able to understand why a contemporary like Daniel Defoe could write that “even in Italy, I have never seen the like”’.
Defoe was one of several enthusiastic visitors to Boughton in the 1720s who wrote admiringly about the house and its magnificent gardens. Along with many other tourists, he came to enjoy the extensive formal gardens created by Ralph ‘the Magnificent’, 1st Duke of Montagu (1638–1709), who, as Charles II’S ambassador to France, was inspired by Louis XIV’S gardens at Versailles. his walks, waterworks and formal planting no longer survive, but their extent can be appreciated in a drawing of about 1730, attributed to garden designer Charles Bridgeman.
Another contemporary visitor, Charles Perry, described the impressive water features: ‘But the Gardens, good God! The gardens are wonderful! Terrace walks, groves, wildernesses, a canal above a mile in length, a pond of two acres in the middle of the garden communicating with the canal… then the cascade was a noble sight! The basin large, the pipes that threw up the water, nine in centre, four in circumference and 13 playing from the uppermost steps of the cascade, with as mighty a torrent as can be imagined!’
Such extensive landscaping was an expensive investment, both for Ralph and his son, John, 2nd Duke of Montagu, known as the ‘Planter Duke’. The exhibition demonstrates their close involvement in garden design through the display of a series of fascinating drawings and documents. According to the contract on display, for instance, in 1709, Leonard van der Meulen, the 2nd Duke’s head gardener, was paid the princely sum of £250 per annum, with an additional allowance of three horses, all the tools, iron rods for the yews and junipers and charcoal to preserve the bay
trees and orange trees in frosty weather and any fruits, roots and herbs not required by the Planter Duke.
Also on display are contemporary garden treatises from the family’s library, including the influential designer Stephen Switzer’s The Nobleman, Gentleman and Gardener’s Recreation (1715) and The Practical Husbandman and
Planter (1733). In addition, a copy of Sir Hans Sloane’s Voyage
to Jamaica (1707 and 1725) is on view. Not only was Sloane a botanist who was landlord and patron of the Chelsea Physic Garden, but he was also physician to the 1st Duke’s second wife, the widowed Duchess of Albemarle.
The 2nd Duke oversaw a number of important developments on his Boughton estate. These included planting 23 miles of interlinking tree-lined avenues. He was assisted by the celebrated botanist Philip Miller, Sloane’s curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and by his friend, the antiquary and archaeologist the Rev Dr William Stukeley.
Stukeley’s first drawing of Boughton’s parterre was made in 1706, but he continued to visit and, in 1744, he designed an early Gothic Revival bridge to go over the River Ise. It wasn’t built, but can be appreciated through the drawing and model on display in the exhibition.
‘Visions of vast extension’ ends with two films offering a drone’seye view across the surviving landscape at Boughton. These satisfy the 10th Duke’s ambition for the visitor to ‘step from the study of stories and plans from centuries past directly into Boughton’s vast landscape’. The films afford a glimpse of the latest improvements to the estate, including Kim Wilkie’s Orpheus, commissioned in 2009 as ‘a new landform for the 21st century’, with an inverted grass pyramid descending 23ft below the level of the restored terraces.
Under the guidance of the present Duke, Boughton’s landscape continues to evolve with his ‘huge project of restoration’. The Grand Etang’s jet of water has recently been restored and the celebrated Cascade, once surmounted by 13 fountains that fell over five stages flanked by statues, may follow suit. A visit to the exhibition, which is open throughout August, followed by an excursion into the gardens, provides unique insight into the past, present and future of a great estate.
‘Vistas of vast extension: A celebration of 460 years of gardening at Boughton’ is at Boughton House, Kettering, Northamptonshire, until August 31 (www.boughtonhouse.co.uk; 01536 515731)
Left: Ralph ‘the Magnificent’, 1st Duke of Montagu. Above: An aerial view of Boughton gardens and park (about 1730), probably by Charles Bridgeman
Above: Stukeley’s unbuilt bridge for the 2nd Duke of Montagu. Right: One of a pair of Sèvres vases (1758) made for Mme de Pompadour
Kim Wilkie’s Orpheus, an inverted grass pyramid that descends 23ft below the terraces, with the 18th-century mount behind