Trafodion – Welsh HGT – November 2012

Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy

Rock Gardens, Grottoes, Ferneries, Follies, Fountains and Garden Ornaments

Claude Hirching, with photography by Jenny Lilly

Garden Arr Press, 2012, £35, (£28 if ordered online from uk), 320pp, ISBN 978-1-870673-76-l

 Claude Hitching°s article ‘James Pulham in \Wales’ which appeared in the first issue of Trafodion, anticipated the publication of this ‘big book’, large in format and lavishly illustrated.   The author’s interest in the Pulhams sprang from his researches into his own family history, and the discovery that his grandfather, Frederick Hitching, had worked for the Pulham family firm for over half a century.   The present publication is the culmination of decades of intensive, patient and evidently enjoyable research by Claude Hitching, and is both an impressive ‘business history’ and an appropriate tribute to his grandfather.

 The history of the establishment and growth of the Pulham business is the archetypal rags to riches story as represented by four generations of Pulhams.   It is the name James Pulham which dominates the story (four generations bore that name, each clearly identified by Claude Hitching), but less well known is Obadiah, another talented member of the family, who is now given due recognition.

 The book falls into three main sections — A background history of the firm of James Pulham and Son, and the development of °Pulhamite’; detailed accounts of over 40 of the Pulhams’ most prestigious projects; and a comprehensive Gazetteer listing some 380 commissions, the names of the patrons, the nature of the work undertaken and the English Heritage Parks & Gardens registration (unfortunately EH and not CADW is cited for the Welsh entries).

 Tempting as it will be for the reader to plunge into the central section of the book to explore a particular garden, essential preliminary reading is the first section, ‘How it all Began’, ‘The Second Generation’ and `The Broxbourne Manufactory’, for these chapters put the Pulham family in a genealogical and social context, describe the manufacture of °Pulhamite’ (which involved pouring cement onto rubble and colouring the resultant rock to replicate natural stone), the different types of artificial stone and cement in the Pulham repertoire, and give an outline of the firm’s multifarious activities.   Then, chapter by chapter, in chronological order, the author investigates some of the Pulhams° major projects, beginning’ with Highnam Court (1847-62) in Gloucestershire and ending with Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens (1934-36) in Buckinghamshire, with a final chapter on the decline and ultimate closure of the business.

 The long title of the book gives some indication of the diverse output of the Pulhams.   Claude Hitching reveals that it was in stone modelling and plasterwork that the first James Pulham°s talents were initially demonstrated (would you recognise a Pulham face adorning the wall of a church, private residence or public building?), then came church restoration and building, the development of `Pulhamite°, the production of garden ornaments and the creation of picturesque rock gardens.   What emerges with great clarity is that the Pulhams were shrewd businessmen, and that the fashion for Grottoes, Ferneries and Alpine Gardens provided them with unrivalled opportunities to demonstrate their skills.   They were craftsmen expert in the art of deception, their artificial rock all but indistinguishable from the natural local stone it was imitating.   When their skills were applied to garden ornaments they proved themselves equally expert in producing formal embellishments such as urns and balustrading, vases and fountains which firmly identified their makers, and the output of their factory at Broxbourne in Hertfordshire was prodigious.

 Even among the wealthiest, titled landowners there were few who could afford to emulate the 5″‘ Duke of Devonshire who despatched his head gardener Joseph Paxton into the Derbyshire Peak District to extract huge boulders of local stone to create the rock garden at Chatsworth, and for the less affluent, the emergent nouveaux riche and the developers of public parks and gardens `Pulhamite° brought Rock Gardens, Grottoes, Ferneries etc. within their grasp.   Such garden landscapes were sure indicators of wealth, social status (assured or aspirational) and °taste°.   In the case of parks there was the added social dimension of providing open spaces for the population of the new industrial towns. For the Pulhams and their Broxbourne manufactory the opportunities were boundless and they grasped them with shrewd business acumen.

 Members of WHGT will, inevitably, seek out the Welsh gardens where `Pulhamite` is (or was) such a notable feature, gardens included in the Trafodion article, but here described in much fuller detail or included in the Gazetteer at the end of the book.   For example, the chapter on St Fagans records the reluctance of Lady Mary Windsor Clive to finance the entire original design, and includes a copy of the detailed plan submitted by James Pulham (the second of that name), together with two poems in praise of ‘Pulhamite°, one penned by James Pulham to accompany his plan, the other by George Hitching (another of the author’s forebears) in praise of Ferns and Rockwork.

 The Pulhams established themselves among the foremost `landscape artists’ of the Victorian and Edwardian period, heir use of a combination of natural and artificial ‘Pulhamite’ stone creating some stunning rock and water landscapes.   Edward Milner and his son Henry Ernest, and Thomas Mawson were among the eminent landscape architects who incorporated Pulham rockwork and garden ornaments into their schemes, and each `rock landscape’ described in the present publication has its individual tale to tell.   The roll call of commissions and clients is impressive.   It includes Royal Sandringham (1868-1905) and Buckingham Palace (1903-04) – which earned the Pulhams a Royal Warrant – Waddesdon Manor (1881-92) for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, Friar Park (1898-1912) with its “mini Matterhorn’ constructed for the alpine plant expert Sir Frank Crisp, Ross Hall Park, Glasgow (1890-91), the rock garden at RHS Wisley (1903), Regents Park Zoo (1905-13), and Selfridges Roof Garden (1914), to name but a few.

 This book invites the reader to explore the Pulham legacy.   Not all the sites identified are open to the public, not all the features originally incorporated into the landscapes have survived unscathed.   Some have deteriorated beyond repair; some have been rescued in the nick of time thanks to the endeavours of Claude Hitching.   But there is much to see, and the reader is challenged to turn detective for, as Mavis Batey says in her Foreword, there is probably more Pulhamite to be discovered (she herself discovered examples at Bletchley Park).   Claude Hitching, who has a well-established website (, would certainly be delighted to learn of it.

 Hilary M Thomas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s