Gardening: Portrait of a paradise regained

The rococo gardens at Painswick House would have disappeared completely were it not for a painting.
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The Independent Culture
On 19 September, an exhibition opens at Painswick Rococo Garden in Gloucestershire to celebrate the 250th anniversary of a remarkable painting - one that would not exist but for the garden, in a garden which would not exist but for the painting.

The story of this paradox started in 1740 when Benjamin Hyett transformed a hidden combe behind his family home, Painswick House, into a flamboyant pleasure garden. The grounds surrounding the newly built mansion were not extensive by aristocratic standards but Mr Hyett was determined to include all that was fashionable in the parks of great houses. His rococo pleasure garden was only some six acres in extent but it contained pools, straight paths, serpentine walks, a tunnel arbour and a plethora of garden buildings. He was so pleased with the result that in 1748 he commissioned a local artist, Thomas Robins, to paint a bird's-eye view of the garden.

Thomas Robins (known as Thomas Robins the Elder because his son Thomas also became an artist) was originally apprenticed to a fan painter, which may account for the delicacy of his work.

He used watercolour on vellum and it was his habit to surround the "view" with a border of exquisitely executed birds, animals and flowers which in some cases flow into the body of the painting in a lyrical fashion. His style was ideally adapted to depicting the rococo, and he painted a number of gardens. His success, though, did not outlive him, and he was soon forgotten.

Gardens, too, are ephemeral and by the time the present owner, Lord Dickinson, came to inherit Painswick, in 1955, few traces of the rococo garden remained. In the Seventies, however, the situation changed when Thomas Robins the Elder was rediscovered by the art world. This caused Lord Dickinson to take a closer look at the bird's-eye painting that had always hung in the house.

The more he looked, the more convinced he became that the painting was not a figment of Robins's imagination but an almost photographic impression of the original garden. With that realisation came the dream of restoring it.

This was hardly an easy task, as one of the first things Lord Dickinson had done to his property was to plant timber in the few parts of the gardens that were not already overgrown. Undaunted, however, in 1984 he set about clearing one of the vistas shown by Robins. The one surviving garden building, the Red House, was taken as a starting point and a path was hacked through the undergrowth - until a pond was discovered just where it was shown in the Robins painting.

Since then, garden archaeologists have discovered the sites of buildings and beds, areas have been cleared and levelled, paths resurfaced, ponds repuddled, vistas cleared and nearly all the original garden buildings restored.

A circuit of the garden today takes about 45 minutes and is full of surprises. A vista leads the eye to one building, and as soon as you reach it, something else is revealed in the distance.

"The element of surprise is important," explained Paul Moir, the garden manager. "The rococo is the period between the formal garden and the landscape movement, so some paths are straight and some serpentine, and the little buildings are a mixture of styles: some Gothic, some classical."

All, it must be added, extremely pretty, for the rococo was above all a period for light-hearted enjoyment. From the original Red House - a strange little asymmetrical Gothic summer house - you make your way past beds planted with 18th-century flowers to the Exedra, a decorative white screen-like structure surrounding an ornamental pool with views over the geometrically laid out kitchen garden that stretches down the hill. The path passes the classical Doric seat and leads down to the plunge pool and bowling green.

A tunnel arbour of laburnum, honeysuckle and clematis brings you past a large fishpond, up a steep path to the beech walk and the crenellated Gothic alcove. Returning through woodland, you reach the most recently restored and prettiest of all the follies: the two-storey Eagle House, an exquisite, sugar-pink confection in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style. This could not have been restored without another Robins painting, A Gothic Pavilion in the Garden of Benjamin Hyett Esq, which provided the detail.

You can see Robins's works for yourself at the exhibition, which includes a number of sketchbooks as well as the artist's larger paintings. These include Woodside House, Berks, painted around 1755, which shows a Chinese- style kiosk in a rococo garden and a bevy of gardeners busy about their tasks.

Thomas Robins's youngest son took up painting on his father's death, and in 1770 he advertised in the Bath Chronicle that he intended to "follow in his father's business".

A year later, on the occasion of his marriage, he was described as "landscape painter of this city". All his known works, however, show flowers and insects rather similar to those in the borders his father painted as decoration. Some 18 paintings and drawings by Robins the Younger will be on show at this exhibition, providing a rare chance to compare the works of Thomas Robins father and son.

Also in the exhibition are contemporary views of the garden; a Czech artist, Milan Ivanic, recently painted The Gothic Alcove and two views of the Eagle House; and Ian Weatherhead painted the Eagle House and a most intriguing picture, Painswick House Revisited, which reviews in 1998 the scene depicted by Robins in 1748.

`The Painted Pleasure Garden' is at Painswick House, Painswick Rococo Garden, Gloucestershire (01452 813204) from 19-27 September, 11am-5pm, admission pounds 2.25