If you’d found yourself in the Studley Royal estate in the early 1700s, just along from the ruined Fountains Abbey, you’d have had a rather wild and rugged country walk along the valley of the River Skell, surrounded by woodlands. You might have been able to glimpse the abbey in the distance.
This was John Aislabie‘s estate. He’d inherited it in 1693, but was at that point in his life busy realising his political ambitions – in 1718 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Only two years later he was mired in the financial scandal of the South Sea Bubble, which ruined so many and shook the national economy. He was disgraced and expelled from parliament.
He returned to Yorkshire, and devoted his considerable energy and wealth to creating the first water garden of its kind seen in England. It owed a lot to formal French gardens of the time, and balances formal design with wonderful vistas set in an apparently natural landscape.
If you visit these days you’ll see a proper 18th century garden: the formal lakes, the temples and other follies, the carefully orchestrated views. Work continues year by year to rein the garden back to the detail of what those eighteenth century visitors would have seen. After all, trees grow taller and spawn saplings which grow in their turn. The river silts up. Land slips. Shrubs spread in an ungainly fashion. Unwanted invading plants make the place their home
On Saturday, we went on a little tour to look at some recent work. The classical statues – wrestling gladiators and the like which have ornamented the gardens since the 18th century – are lead. Marble would have been nice, but lead’s cheaper, so when they were new, those statues would have been painted in marble-look-alike white.
Now they’re white again. It wasn’t a question of slapping on the Dulux though. No, conservators hunted for evidence of the actual paints used by grubbing about in hidden groins and armpits for contemporary paint fragments, and experimented on discarded lead till they got the right shade, the right paint.
The formal ponds were once surrounded by planters and benches as well as statuary – contemporary paintings tell us that. These will be replaced, as well as a couple of statues sold in the 19th century when the estate fell on hard times.
Ungainly shrubberies will be knocked into shape and brought down to size. An informal garden will be planted with sweetly scented plants – roses, lavender and so on. Just the place to sit and view the Temple of Piety and the Moon ponds.
Tent Hill will live up to its name once more. The dense copse which covers it will be thinned out to make room for a tent something like an 18th century military campaign tent. Not for military campaigns of course, but to house entertainments of various kinds, just as it would have done back in the eighteenth century.
So much to do. But every piece of work brings Studley Royal even nearer to the intentions of John Aislabie, who first created this special place more than two ands a half centuries ago.