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The history of Cobham’s Painshill Park

PUBLISHED: 11:17 28 August 2018 | UPDATED: 11:17 28 August 2018

The Gothic Temple (Andy Newbold Photography)

The Gothic Temple (Andy Newbold Photography)

Andy Newbold Photography

Inspired by Charles Hamilton’s Grand Tours of Europe, the stunning landscapes of Painshill Park enthral visitors today, just as they did 250 years ago. Claire Saul enjoys a grand tour of her own

In 1738 the Hon. Charles Hamilton began to transform land at Painshill, Cobham, into a vast pleasure garden, inspired by the sights and experiences he had enjoyed while on two Grand Tours across Europe. Grand Tours were expeditions taken by wealthy young men for the purpose of completing their education. They were a sign of wealth and status as befitted the son of the Earl of Abercorn, although as the 14th child and youngest of nine sons, Hamilton’s affluence was limited.

Unlike his contemporaries, Hamilton decided not to commission paintings to depict his cultural experiences but to create ‘living’ art which could be experienced by others. Breaking away from the convention for formalised, symmetrical gardens, for the next 35 years he transformed the Surrey heathland into a vast, landscaped garden of stunning vistas, designed to inspire and surprise. Among the woodlands, shrubberies, islands and waterways he commissioned a series of follies to add perspective and drama. Ultimately the considerable costs involved overburdened Hamilton and he was forced to sell Painshill. In July 1773 it became the property of a Surrey landowner but after their death it eventually fell into a state of disrepair.

In the 1980s The Painshill Park Trust embarked on a Herculean project to repurchase the land and restore the garden to its original glory. Today, Painshill’s annual 100,000 visitors can enjoy each view as Hamilton envisaged it, as they amble around the winding paths of its elegant 158 acres. They might like to raise a toast to this success story with one of the bottles of white, rosé and sparkling wine sold on site after the replanting of his vineyard. Hamilton was something of a winemaking pioneer as subtly referenced by the statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, who greets visitors arriving at the park. Purchased in Rome, it was one of Hamilton’s most prized possessions although what he didn’t realise at the time was that for a tidy sum of £2,000 then, he’d been mis-sold a statue that was effectively a hybrid of several different body parts.

Temple of Baccus (Photo by Claire Saul)Temple of Baccus (Photo by Claire Saul)

Bacchus to the future

Bacchus was formerly housed in suitable splendour in the Temple of Bacchus, the architectural showpiece of Painshill, where Hamilton displayed the antiques he had collected on his Grand Tours. The entire contents of the Temple were sold in 1797 and it was another two centuries before Bacchus himself was rediscovered at Anglesey Abbey, where the fragile statue remains. The one on display at Painshill today is a casting taken from the original.

“Bacchus is of great historic significance to Painshill and so we were fortunate to be able to take this cast,” explains Jonathan Sharpe, Painshill’s marketing manager. “Whether or not he returns to the interior of the temple is yet to be decided. The temple is our current restoration project and we have just completed the first stage. The original foundations had been preserved and restored and amongst all the rubble around the site we also had fragments of the original plaster, but what visitors see today from the ground up has been reconstructed from drawings, paintings and photos. One image from 1938 shows it in great disrepair - the front has been propped up by a piece of wood as the pillars had been taken away to private houses. We have been able to take castings and measurements of the missing elements so everything has been recreated as near to the original as we can get using modern, but sympathetic, techniques.”

Contractors Cliveden Conservation are long-standing partners of Painshill and also restored the park’s exquisite and ethereal Crystal Grotto, Hamilton’s most expensive folly. Yet it is the Temple of Bacchus which is considered his pièce de résistance.

“The restored Temple of Bacchus is a real work of art, completed to the highest quality of craftsmanship,” continues Jonathan. “It has cost around half a million pounds so far and the interior will cost an additional £150,000, for which we have a fundraising appeal in progress. We are considering the options for this space to generate revenue for us. Our follies need to work for the landscape, they should not just be a place to be enjoyed by a privileged few, but accessible for everybody so this place can continue for another 300 years.”

Bridge (Andy Newbold Photography)Bridge (Andy Newbold Photography)

What next?

Next on the restoration agenda is the Mausoleum, inspired by the Arch of Constantine which Hamilton had seen in Rome. Among other destinations on this grand tour of KT11, visitors can also view the Great Cedar of Lebanon, one of Hamilton’s original trees, the Turkish Tent which reflects the examples of Ottoman culture he had seen in Europe and the Chinese bridge. At Painshill’s most westerly tip is the Gothic Tower, which in Hamilton’s day was the highest point in the garden. From the top visitors could see as far as St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

What 18th century visitors would not have had to endure from this end of an otherwise blissfully tranquil park is the drone of traffic from the A3. This is a problem which will get significantly worse if Highways England is successful in its bid to encroach onto a significant slice of Painshill’s precious and historically significant woodland for the purpose of increasing capacity on the nearby A3-M25 junction. It would also bring this major road perilously close to the beautifully restored Temple of Bacchus nearby. A petition against the scheme can be found at painshill.co.uk/A3.

Painshill’s follies may be tributes to the real deal but they offer histories, stories and intrigues of their own while creating the picture-perfect landscapes of Hamilton’s original vision. No small surprise that film crews are lured by sights such as the romance of the Ruined Abbey, the majesty of the Gothic Temple or the rustic charm of the Hermitage. The Five Arch Bridge will feature in the forthcoming television adaptation of Vanity Fair, which is due to air on ITV later this year.

“Many people say to me, “Are these follies real?” And I say, “Well, they are real follies!” Jonathan laughs. “Painshill is very special and has something for everyone whatever stage of your life you are. It is a beautiful and peaceful place to be, any time of the year - whatever the weather and the level of light, it has its own unique beauty.

“When people came here in the 18th century they would have looked out onto these landscapes and been wowed by Painshill’s beauty, just as Charles Hamilton wanted. And that’s exactly the same today.”

Painshill Park, Portsmouth Rd, Cobham KT11 1JE; 01932 868113; painshill.co.uk

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