SM 15 – Aug 12
The 186-acre estate of Gunnersbury, on the boundaries of Hounslow and Ealing, in southwest London, was once owned by the Bishops of London, but was purchased by Princess Amelia, favourite daughter of George II, in 1761.[i] She improved the estate, and used it as her summer residence until her death in 1786, and Princess Amelia’s Bath House – a battlemented Gothic style building at the far end of the terrace to the house – still survives.
Over the next fifteen years, the mansion was pulled down, and the land sold off piecemeal. Fortunately, most of the lots were purchased by two people; Alexander Copeland – an eminent architect of the period – and Stephen Cosser. Copeland bought 76 acres, and designed and built a splendid new Italianate mansion c1802. The house became known as the ‘Large Mansion’, and its grounds as Gunnersbury Park. Cosser built the ‘Small Mansion’ in grounds that became known as Gunnersbury House.[ii]
Fig 1 – James Pulham (2)’s original sketch for a proposed boathouse at Gunnersbury Park (Photo reproduced by kind permission of Gunnersbury Park Museum)
Nathan Mayer Rothschild – head of the ‘English branch’ of the eminent banking firm – bought the Large Mansion shortly before his death in 1835, after which it passed on to his son, Lionel. The Small Mansion and its grounds were acquired by the family some fifty years later, thus effectively reuniting the original estate.
Lionel invested Gunnersbury ‘with such splendours as were unknown in England outside her Majesty’s own grounds’ He and his family entertained here on a lavish scale for many years to come, and the gardens were a particular pleasure to them. He purchased some more ground at the southwest corner of the estate in 1861, which included an old clay pit called ‘Cole’s Hole’, and, in 1874, he engaged James 2 to re-landscape this into a boating lake.
Fig 2 – Pulham’s conversiom of the old tile-kiln into a Gothic-styled tower-cum-boathouse folly, with, inset, a typical Pulham head label stop at the side of a door
His initial idea was to construct a rather formal boathouse on the edge of the lake, and Fig 1 shows a sketch that was actually submitted by him for consideration, with his signature on the bottom right corner. For some reason, this plan was rejected, and it was decided to convert the old tile kiln that stood alongside the clay pit – which now rejoices under the much more romantic name of the Potomac Lake – and James 2 transformed this into a gothic-styled boathouse-cum-folly, as shown in Fig 2. There are some typical Pulham faces around the doorways, most of which have now decayed quite seriously, but one survivor is inset into Fig 2.
An inlet was cut underneath the kiln, so that boaters could descend to the landing stage via steps leading down from the ground floor entrance, and the view from the lake level is shown in Fig 3. This was taken during the drought period of July 2006, and some of the background brickwork can be seen on the left of the boat cave where the Pulhamite coating has become detached over the years. The small balustraded bridge over the inlet can also be seen, although the balustrading has suffered damage over (presumably) recent years. Pulham’s stamp can nevertheless still be seen embossed into the terracotta of one of the balustrades.
Fig 3 – Inside the boat cave at Gunnersbury Park (Photo by Lee Bartlett)
Fig 4 – The rocky island near the inlet to the boathouse at Gunnersbury
The shoreline was lined with Pulhamite rocks for some yards on either side, and a rock-lined island created a few yards offshore, as shown in Fig 4. This picture was also taken during the abnormally low water levels of the 2006 drought, and the foundation brickwork that is normally below water level can be seen below the Pulhamite coating.
Fig 5 – Wall of the basement fernery adjacent to Princess Ameila’s Bath House
Fig 6 – Gothic ruin near the old stable block in Gunnersbury Park
According to James 2’s promotional booklet,[iii] this is the extent of his activities at Gunnersbury, but there are one or two other items of interest in the Park that make me suspect that he returned on at least one further occasion. The first was adjacent to Princess Ameila’s Bath House, where there is what looks like a basement fernery. It is now very seriously overgrown, but nevertheless looks similar in underlying construction to the other ferneries described in this book. Fig 5 was taken through the security gate above, and is the best I could do at the time.
Fig 7 – An old castellated entrance lodge
Fig 8 – Small rockery near the Orangery at Gunnersbury
Elsewhere in the park there is a small gothic ruin near the stable block, and what was presumably an entrance lodge at an entrance that is now closed off. These are shown in Figs 6 and 7. There is no documentary evidence to ascribe these structures to Pulhams, but, taking into account their style, and the fact that the firm are known to have worked on the site, it seems reasonable to suggest that they may well have been responsible.
There is also a possibility that they may have returned later, when James Hudson – Leopold Rothschild’s gardener at Gunnersbury in 1901 – decided to lay out the Japanese garden, although so little remains of this now that it is impossible to say. According to the records, Japanese workers were brought over especially to design and construct this garden, but it is intriguing how many ‘Japanese’ gardens were built on sites where the Pulhams are known to have worked on various other projects, and at about the same time. I therefore have a feeling that they may have been involved in the Gunnersbury Japanese Garden in some way, albeit, possibly, in a comparatively minor capacity. How ‘genuine’ these gardens are also seems open to question, because record has it that one contemporary Japanese visitor who looked round the ‘Japanese-style’ garden commented, ‘How beautiful. We have nothing like this in Japan!’[iv]
Finally, there is a small rockery near the Orangery – shown in Fig 8 – that was built up from rocks that had recently been moved from another rockery located near the stables, so it would have been interesting to have been able to see it in its original state. As far as I could tell, most of it was natural rock, which indicates that it could have originated from roughly the same period as the Japanese Garden.
[i] ‘In the footsteps of Royalty at Gunnersbury’ by Jane Owen, The Times, 15th April 2003
[iii] Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery, written and published by James Pulham 2 c1877
[iv] ‘Four Centuries of History’ from http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/london.gardens/gunnersbury.htm