Painshill English Landscape Garden – Designed to Delight

by Karen Emery

February 2024

View through Gothic Temple (image:- Karen Emery)

As tour guides, we are used to employing words to indicate visual beauty. We might also extol the picturesque nature of a location or preview a truly sublime experience. However, had you been a tourist in the polite society of the eighteenth century, you had better have used these terms with care, lest you expose yourself as ignorant of the theory which casts the Beautiful (smooth, harmonious) and the Sublime (vast, frightening ) as opposite characteristics and the Picturesque as an aesthetic category somewhere between the two.

All can be revealed – literally – in a visit to one of the most iconic English landscape gardens in our region: Painshill near Cobham in Surrey. Right next to the M25 and A3, its entrance just 3km from J10 of the M25 motorway, it is one of the most easily accessible yet serene destinations for a garden visit. Described as a masterpiece of garden design, visitors become immersed in  a landscape deliberately created to be ‘like a picture’, with elements positioned for maximum emotional impact on the viewer as they follow a route through the estate.

Vista with Turkish Tent (image:-Jonathan Fenner)

From an extraordinary island grotto of artificially created fretted rocks to vistas incorporating both a Greek temple and a Turkish Tent, every twist and turn of the 2 mile route brings surprise and pleasure. Just like a painting, this work of art plays with light, where the sunny open spaces and reflections over the 14 acre serpentine lake contrast with with the darkenss of mature woodland in an ‘Alpine Valley’. This steep wooded bank leading to an imposing ‘Gothic Tower’ provides the ‘Sublime’ element of the scenery, whereas the Elysian Plains with flowering meadows and shrubs present the true ‘Beauty’ to lift the spirits.

The Hermitage (image:- Jonathan Fenner)

This Disneyland of the mid-eighteenth century was composed by The Honorable Charles Hamilton (1704 –1786), taking inspiration from his travels in Europe and interest in art. Following the then fashionable landscape paintings of painters like Claude Lorrain (c.1600-1682), he incorporated the appeal of romantic ruins in his garden –the Roman ‘Mausoleum’ and the ‘Ruined Abbey’, both freshly constructed in the 1770s to act as derelict eye-catchers. As for the secluded Hermitage, a thatched rustic hut sitting on twisted tree stumps:  romantic it may have looked, but the hermit who was booked to live in it for 7 years broke his contract after just 3 weeks!

What visitors are able to see and experience at Painshill now is very much the result of a dedicated group of enthusiasts who rescued the park in the 1980s from an overgrown, neglected wilderness. The Painshill Park Trust have researched and restored this Grade I listed landscape as closely as possible to the vision of Charles Hamilton with royal support from the then Prince of Wales, His Majesty King Charles III who was their Royal Patron.

Take a guided tour for maximum appreciation of this important – and impactful – historic landscape.

Karen is a SE England Blue Badge Guide and Canterbury City Guide