“More a threshold than a path”*

*description of poetry by Seamus Heaney

The 210 bus has brought me from Golders Green, sedately past the Spaniards Inn, where the traffic is historically reduced to a single lane, to Kenwood House. It dates from the early 17th Century, when it was known as Caen Wood House. In 1754, it was bought by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

The rhododendrons that come into view around the house are spectacular, and show the merest signs of fading on closer inspection. The first man to describe himself as a “landscape gardener “, Humphry Repton, was invited in 1793 to improve these grounds by Viscount Stormont, who had inherited the property on the death of his uncle, the first Lord Mansfield.

Landscape historian John Phibbs explains Repton’s use of “the burst”: “whenever he could, he arranged it so that the way you first saw the house was immediately after coming through an area of dark woodland. This was designed to build up an emotional response.”

Patrick Baty, a historical paint expert, describes the Picturesque treatment of fences in this era with the colour that became known as “Invisible Green”, a shade still available from paint suppliers (who give Repton a namecheck) by that name today. William Mason’s 1783 poem, “The English Garden”, sums up the desired effect:

“The paint is spread, the barrier pales retire,

Snatched as by magic from the gazer’s view”.

Charles Elliott tells us that Peter Collinson introduced the first American variety of rhododendron to Britain, planting it in his garden in Peckham. “Somewhere around the 1760s or 1770s R. Ponticum – not from America, but from the Black Sea coast of Turkey- opened its gross purple blooms in England for the first time.”

When Sir William Chambers spoke derisively in the 1760s of the import of “American weeds”, the term American had overtones of the savage or wild. For Repton, this had the virtue of ornamental excitement. He developed what would become a key tenet of Regency garden style, the formal garden area between a great house and its Park.

Elliott notes: “That ponticum, so hopefully introduced 250 years ago, has now become a simple British weed. Its leathery leaves and purple blossoms are smothering hundreds of acres of irreplaceable heather moorland from Surrey to Snowdonia.”

Repton himself had his detractors, who detected weakness and insincerity in his business dealings. Jane Austen, in “Mansfield Park”, has Miss Bertram recommend Mr Repton to the bumptious but clueless landowner Mr Rushworth, who feels he “must try to do something ” with his grounds.

English Heritage, on its Kenwood House website, invites the visitor to “roam the meandering paths”. The section on “Kenwood in Spring” , gives a moment’s pause with its subheading “A Riot of Colour”…

Lord Mansfield, who had died before his nephew brought in Repton, has been variously described as “the legal genius of his generation” and “prudent to the point of timidity”. In June 1780, London was shaken by violent anti-Catholic riots, which became known as the Gordon Riots. The mob were raging against Government proposals to reduce restrictions against Catholics. Lord Mansfield was at the time Lord Chief Justice and was known for Catholic sympathies, a belief in religious tolerance, and a legal decision which took a step towards recognising slavery as illegal.

The mob marched towards Kenwood, intending to burn it down. They stopped at the nearby Spaniards Inn, where the publican and the Earl’s steward plied them with huge amounts of alcohol. This allowed time for troops to arrive and arrest them.

On another evening that first week of June, the mob burned Newgate Prison. Whether by design or by accident, the front line included the poet William Blake.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s