Garden History Journal – Autumn 2012

Review by Brent Elliott of

Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy

in the Garden History Journal – Winter 2012 (pp.308-310)

 Claude Hitching, Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy (Woodbridge: Garden Art Press, 2012), 320 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £35.00 (hbk). ISBN 9-781870-673761

121201 - Garden History Journal - Review Combo

 The firm of james Pulham and Son is famous for its rock gardens constructed in an artificial stone, which consisted of a Portland cement mixture poured over masses of brick and clinker, and sculpted into shape boulder by boulder.   The firm made the geological accuracy of its rock formations one of its selling points: Sir Roderick Murchison mistakenly identified their rock garden at Lockinge as having been made from the same sandstone as the local church, and the firm publicized this error as a testimony to their fidelity to nature.[i]   A typical Pulham commission met two different needs of the nineteenth-century rock garden: on the one hand, the creation of a scene that met the requirement for realism to a degree that would satisfy a geologist; and on the other, a great saving in cost and efficiency over the attempt to use real stones, which might need to be transported over a great distance and, in any case, might not be massive enough.   Paxton had had no compunction about cementing together various smaller boulders to create his huge Wellington rock at Chatsworth; Pulham’s works did not show their seams the way his did.   However, not all their works were made in their signature artificial stone: at Wisley they assembled the rock garden from an already acquired quantity of Sussex sandstone.

 Claude Hitching’s Rock Landscapes is the first full-length book on the Pulham firm.   The sub-subtitle (Rock Gardens, Grottoes, Ferneries, Follies, Fountains and Garden Ornaments) summarizes the range of the firm’s works; they also manufactured a terracotta called Pulhamite, which they used to create balustrades, urns and other decorations, and once even used for a funeral monument – the grave of William Mulready, which was awarded a medal at the Exposition Internationale in Paris in 1867 before coming to rest on his grave in Kensal Green.   Until recently, one foot was missing, allowing visitors to peer into the hollow structure and realise that it had been cast.

 The artificial stone rock gardens of the Pulham firm were one of the first aspects of the Victorian garden to receive any accurate historical study, in part because they had carried on their characteristic mode into the interwar years, and were still remembered with respect by what became the elder generation of the Garden History Society.   Graham Stuart Thomas recalled the great rock gardens that decorated the Chelsea Flower Show during the interwar years, describing them as ‘these great works of art`;[ii] among these firms was James Pulham and Son, who exhibited rock gardens from 1913 to 1915, and every year from 1919 to 1939.   In the early 1980s, Thomas was available to teach a new generation how to recognize Pulham rockwork in the field. 

 In 1983-84 the first historical studies of Pulham were published.[iii]   Sally Festing’s first article in 1983 was devoted to a single garden, Merrow Grange, Surrey, which had become the subject of a planning enquiry.   The subsequent history of this site can be found in a chapter of Hitching`s book (pp. 188-97).   Over the next two decades, Festing became the principal authority on Pulham, and added three more papers.[iv]    She tracked down over thirty Pulham rock gardens, confirmed or suppositious.[v]   At the end of the 1990s, English Heritage set up a database to record findings of Pulham work, and in 2008 published a pamphlet entitled ‘Durability Guaranteed’, containing a brief history of the firm, an analysis of the construction of some of their rockworks, and a gazetteer of known sites.

 By that time Hitching had begun his researches: he is the grandson of Frederick Hitching, one of the rock garden-makers employed by Pulham and Son.   Having discovered that two of his great-uncles had also worked for the firm, Hitching began to investigate the family history, and visited his first Pulham garden in the year 2000.   Since then he has been indefatigable in tracking down the firm`s works, and he contributed heavily to the gazetteer in Durability Guaranteed.

 At the beginning of his Pulham research, there was one primary source for the locations of their rock gardens: an undated eighty-page brochure published by the firm, Picturesque Ferneries and Rock-Garden Scenery, which included a list of clients up to the year 1876.   This was illustrated with pasted-in photographs; in the Lindley Library’s copy (the only copy l have seen – how many copies survive elsewhere?) the albumen prints have deteriorated to the point where hand retouching in ink has been unambiguously revealed.   Many of the gardens listed in this brochure have disappeared.   Some additional gardens can be found cited in catalogues of the interwar years, but until recently the gazetteer was dependent on ad hoc discoveries in the field, or in written accounts of particular gardens for any new entries.   Then the family of Fred Rickett, another Pulham staff member employed on rock garden construction, contacted Mr Hitching and were able to provide his diary of commissions worked on.   The story of the emergence of the diary is told in a final chapter entitled `The power of the Internet’.   The closest thing to a portion of the firm`s archives, Rickett`s diary was able to provide places and dates for many works carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century.

 So Hitching’s book is able to provide a greatly expanded gazetteer, with detailed and beautifully illustrated accounts of thirty-eight individual gardens, ranging from commissions for the royal family (Buckingham Palace, Sandringham), through great estates (Madresfield Court, Waddesdon Manor, Sheffield Park), to works for local authorities (Ramsgate, Blackpool, Folkestone).   The Folkestone commission was, as far as l know, their largest: to accompany a zigzag path descending the cliffs from the Leas to the shore, they effectively encased a portion of the cliffs in their artificial stone, with rock arches and caves near the shore level.

 The local authority commissions are particularly important in the latter-day history of Pulham rock, for it was these that eroded fastest, and where attempts at repair and restoration were first made, sometimes with dire consequences.   The firm’s first public commission was the cascade in Battersea Park, constructed in order to conceal the view of Clapham junction from the centre of the park.   After generations of children had scrambled over the rocks, Wandsworth Council decided to have the structure repaired in 1987-88.   In order to prevent water penetration, a layer of gunnite was sprayed over the rockworks, with the consequence that the cascade no longer looks like a sandstone outcrop.   Hitching is careful to do justice to all involved, and points out that the contractors had been given no brief to respect the aesthetics of the cascade, merely to make it watertight, and that the positive assessment of Victorian municipal parks still lay in the future.   Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that the work on the cascade was described as a “restoration”,[vi] and that a necessary attribute of a restoration is that the thing restored resemble its original appearance.

 Among the new material furnished in this book is a mass of information about the prehistory of the firm.   There are chapters on the life and works of James Pulham I, the firm`s founder, and of the early work of his son, James Pulham II; various churches and secular buildings for which they made terracotta decorations in the early nineteenth century – not quite in the same league as Coade stone, but no doubt frequently mistaken for it – are described and illustrated in photographs.   This is a contribution to architectural history that deserves some attention.

 The book also includes a history of the Broxbourne pottery works, and an illustrated account of the garden ornaments made there.   Festing gave the first account of these in her 1988 article in Garden History, and Hitching followed with a preliminary article on their fountains in the Society`s Newsletter in 2003.[vii]   Here he expands on the matter, including a delightful account of how their fountain from the 1862 Great Exhibition was traced to a hotel in Las Vegas.

 The book is beautifully produced, with a wealth of illustrations.   The references, unfortunately, are few, and the text does not always provide sufficient elucidation when they are lacking.   On p.29, in a discussion of the earliest known Fulham rockwork, made for Robert Warner at Woodlands, near Hoddesdon, we read that ‘A journalist from the Gardener’s’ Chronicle visited the garden a few months after its completion`, but no reference is supplied.   Since the article in question is not in Ray Desmond`s Bibliography of British Gardens, it is worth recording here that it appeared in the issue of 10 September 1842, pp. 607-OS, under the heading of ‘Hoddesdon Hall`.   A certain lack of horticultural background knowledge also makes itself felt.   It would not have taken much effort to deduce that ‘a Mr C H Curtis` (p. 31) was Charles H. Curtis, Editor of the Gardeners Chronicle and one of the most eminent gardening journalists of the twentieth century.   But these cavils are minor by comparison with the achievement of the book as a whole.

 It should also be noted that not all rockworks in artificial stone were made by the Pulham firm.   Once the idea had attracted attention, there was nothing to stop other people from trying it for themselves, and instructions for making artificial stone can be found in publications such as Harry Hemsley`s Rock and Alpine Gardening (l900); and works like the Khyber Pass in East Park, Hull, were designed and constructed locally.   A subject, perhaps, for the next database?

 And, finally, a little mystery.   It is universally agreed that the Pulham firm closed down around the beginning of the Second World War: I939 was the last year in which they exhibited a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.   James Pulham IV did not die until 1957, but nowhere have I ever found any suggestion that the firm was functioning after the war – until, in the course of writing this review, l found that Pulham and Son were exhibiting `Plans and photographs of gardens` at Chelsea, in the Garden Design section, in the years l949-50.   It would seem that there is still more to be learned about the firm`s closing years.


Lindley Library, Royal Horticultural Society, 80 Vincent Square, London, SWIP ZPE, UK   Email:


[i]    James Pulham & Son, Picturesqiie Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery (London: Penfold & Farmer, c.1877), pp. 6, 75.

 [ii]    Graham Stuart Thomas, The Rock Garden and its Plants (London; Dent, 1987), p. 75.

 [iii]    Sally Festing, `Cliffs, glades and grottos at Merrow Grange`, Garden History, 1 1 (1983), pp. 157-66; Brent Elliott, ‘We must have the noble cliff`, Country Life (5 January 1984), pp. 30-1.

 [iv]     Sally Festing: `Pulham has Done His Work Well`, Garden History, I2 (1984), pp. 138-58; ‘Great Credit Upon The Ingenuity and Taste of Mr Pulham’,  Garden History, 16 (1988), pp. 90-102; ‘James Pulhain 3`, Garden History, 25 (1997), pp. 230-4; `Recent discoveries and restorations of Pulham sites’, Garden History, 25 (1997), pp. 235-7.

 [v]    I dealt with Pulham again in Victorian Gardens (London: Batsford, 1986), pp. 97-9, 176-8, 187-9; and more recently in ‘The British Rock Garden in the Twentieth Century`, Occasional Papers from The RHS Lindley Library, 8 (2011), advt, pp. 12-17, 23-5.

 [vi]    Anon., ‘Facelift for Battersea Park`, Horticulture Week (2 December 1988).   For nearly a quarter-century, I have been using the treatment of the Battersea cascade as an example of what cannot count as a restoration!

 [vii]    Claude Hitching, `In search of PuIham`s Fountains`, Garden History News (Spring 2003). pp. 21-3.


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