Book of the week: Woburn Abbey: The Park & Gardens

John Martin Robinson delves into an account of a garden and finds it to be the best country-house history published in years.

Woburn Abbey: The Park & Gardens
Keir Davidson (Pimpernel Press, £40)

An interesting social phenomenon of the early 21st century has been the energetic creation and restoration of large gardens at historic seats by young duchesses: The Duchess of Northumberland at Alnwick, The Duchess of Norfolk at Arundel and The Duchess of Bedford at Woburn.

This book is devoted to the latter, where the Reptonian pleasure grounds, covering 42 acres, have been superbly revived and re-planted by Louise, the present Duchess of Bedford, since she and her husband moved into Woburn after their marriage in 2000. As she says in the foreword, her determination to reinstate what had been lost under plain grass and excessive tourist commercialisation was aroused when she discovered Repton’s ‘Red Book’ for Woburn in the library there.

This new history is based on the concomitant research into the whole development of the park and grounds that has underpinned the restoration. It traces the history of Woburn from the 16th century, when the dissolved Cistercian monastery came via ‘Henry VIII’s Will’ to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, up to the present day and illuminates the wider story of English gardening, especially landscape design, over four centuries.

All the great names are represented here: Isaac de Caus, who made the grotto, George London, Henry Wise and Charles Bridgeman, who created avenues and water features in the reign of Queen Anne, even a brief appearance by Capability Brown in the 4th Duke’s time, but especially Repton, whose embellishments in the early 19th century, are the focus of this story.

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However, what comes out most of all is the strong and innovative directional role of the Russell family themselves. The ‘great project’ of the Whig brothers, the 5th and 6th Dukes of Bedford, over 53 years, from 1786 to 1839, made the modern Woburn landscape: enclosure, draining, road building, model farming, ground-breaking forestry, the enlargement of the park to 3,500 acres and the implementation of Repton’s ideas. It is their astonishing work, representing an advanced social and cultural vision, that made Woburn a place of international significance that still takes the breath away today.

Of course, most great English aristocratic families produced remarkable people between the 17th and early 20th centuries, reflecting their roles as leaders of the most dynamic, creative and progressive culture in the world, but the Russells were distinctive even by those standards for a combination of great intellect and vast wealth. (Disraeli told Queen Victoria that the Duke of Bedford was her ‘rich- est subject’ and Lady Holland com- pared the 6th Duke’s large family to the genius of the Ancient World.)

It’s this combination that was also responsible for Woburn’s survival from 1840 to 1940 as a paragon of Enlightenment ideals. The Victorian dukes spent their money on extensive social housing and lavish church building, not on wrecking their principal seat with ill-considered alterations. They preserved Woburn intact as a Georgian wonderland, even maintaining such fragile structures as Holland’s Chinese Dairy, with its delicate painted glass, and Repton’s thatched Thornery, with its interior murals, not to mention the Rousseau-esque Log Cabin in the Evergreens.

All idylls are interrupted and, at Woburn, State requisitioning in the Second World War caused brutal and irreversible damage, leading to the tragic demolition of Henry Holland’s East Wing, riding school and tennis court.

The pioneering transformation of Woburn by the 13th Duke into a leading tourist attraction in the 1950s and 1960s provided the estate with a commercially viable modern role, but it wasn’t without its downside in the impact on the special historic interest. It’s heartening that great efforts are now being made to restore Woburn to its Georgian glory, of which the Repton garden is the most obvious manifestation.

Apart from the reinstatement of the historic layout and repair of the surviving buildings by Repton and Wyatville—including the Shell Grotto, the 5th Duke’s Memorial Temple, the Labyrinth and Gothic Garden Seat—several missing Reptonian features have also been re-erected, including the Aviary, Pine Cone Pavilion and Chinese temple on top of the 6th Duke’s Rockery.

Is it too much to hope that, one day, Holland’s riding school and tennis court and the missing part of Repton’s unique outdoor verandah walk from the South Wing and Sculpture Gallery to the Chinese Dairy will be reinstated?

Keir Davidson’s is a precise and scholarly history, which covers a wider field than might be expected, taking in many other former Bedford properties and their impact on Woburn. The extensive footnotes are worth reading in their own right, as delicious nuggets can be found there.

The reader will, of course, be drawn primarily to Repton’s accomplished watercolours, but the illustrations also include fascinating black and whites of the 1950s–1960s tourist phase of innocent steam rallies, caravan clubs in the park, gift shops and ‘kiddies’ fun fairs’. In some ways, these pictures seem more remote now in post-Thatcher Britain than does the 18th century.

This book focuses principally on the gardens, but, in my view, it is the best country-house history published in recent years, not least because it is a straight account of a family property, untainted by modern art-historical jargon.

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