The Pulham Legacy in London

James Pulham and Son, the eminent firm of Victorian and Edwardian landscape artists, are mostly remembered today for their picturesque rock gardens, ferneries, follies and grottoes with which they embellished many of the great country estates and parks around the country, but, as garden fashions evolved around the turn of the 20th Century, they also extended their portfolio to include grand, balustraded terraces, and formal Italian and Japanese-styled gardens.   They supplemented this by manufacturing a wide range of very high-quality garden ornaments, such as fountains, vases, urns, seats and balustrading etc in their Manufactory in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.  

 25-01 - St James Park Duck Island Fig 1 – 1895-99 –  The Pulhamite rocks along the bank of Duck Island, in St James’s Park, London

 There were four generations of the Pulham family involved in this business, and all of the principals were called James, so that, for ease of identification, I refer to them as James 1, 2, 3 and 4.   When natural rock was not economically available for their rock gardens, they often made their own by building heaps of rubble and old bricks, and coating them with their own proprietary brand of cement that very soon became known as ‘Pulhamite’, and the craftsmen who sculpted the surfaces to simulate the colour and texture of natural rock were called ‘Rock Builders’.

My new book, Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy, published by Garden Art Press (RRP £35) contains descriptions of more the 40 of the most prestigious parks and gardens designed and landscaped by James Pulham and Son, many of which include some stunning photographs taken by the professional gardens photographer, Jenny Lilly.   The London sites included in the book are the rock gardens in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and Battersea Park, and the magnificently ornate first-floor colonnade along the Exhibition Road façade of the V & A Museum.  

 25-02 - Streatham Park Hill Folly

Fig 2  –  1873-80 – The ruined tower and gateway at Park Hill, Streatham

Space limitations decreed that many others had to be excluded from the book, although descriptions of some of the most significant of these can be found under the ‘Where? / Site of the Month’ tab of my website at www.pulham.org.uk, which is devoted to the lives and work of this extraordinary firm.   These include the ‘Pelican Rocks’ in St James’s Park; the Norman Folly and Rocky Ravine in the gardens of Park Hill, Streatham – home of Henry Tate – and the boathouse folly and rocks around the banks of the ‘Potomac Lake’ in Gunnersbury Park, Hounslow.  

The Pulhamite rocks along the banks of Duck Island in St James’s Park are shown in Fig 1, and the Norman Arch Folly at Park Hill is pictured in Fig 2.   The ‘ruined tower’ is tucked away in a remote corner of the grounds, and is now covered by overgrowth, but the walls of the tower have traditional mediaeval ‘cross slit’ windows, and it is possible to enter the single rooms on both floors.   Unfortunately, most of the panoramic views that could once be seen from the upper floor are now obscured by nearby buildings, but it is intriguing to imagine what a vantage point this must have been all those years ago.   Fig 3 shows the Pulhamite ‘ravine’ crossed by the (non-Pulham) bridge in the main part of the grounds.

 25-03 - Streatham Park Hill Bridge DK

Fig 3  –  The bridge over the ‘rocky ravine’ at Park Hill.   (Photo by Desireé McDougall)

25-04 - Gunnersbury Kiln Tower 

Fig 4  –  1874 – Pulham’s conversiom of the old tile-kiln into a Gothic-styled tower-cum-boathouse folly, with, inset, a typical Pulham head label stop at the side of a door

 Another fascinating Pulham folly is on the banks of the ‘Potomac Lake’ in Gunnersbury Park, m Hounslow.   Lionel de Rothschild invested Gunnersbury ‘with such splendours as were unknown in England outside Her Majesty’s own grounds’ during the latter years of the 19th Century.   He purchased some more ground at the southwest corner of the estate in 1861, which included an old clay pit called ‘Cole’s Hole’, and, in 1874, he engaged James 2 to re-landscape this into a boating lake.

James’ initial idea was to construct a rather formal boathouse on the edge of the lake, but, for some reason, this plan was rejected, and it was decided instead to convert the old tile kiln that stood alongside the clay pit into a gothic-styled boathouse-cum-folly, as shown in Fig 4.   An inlet was cut underneath the kiln, so that boaters could descend to the landing stage via steps leading down from the ground floor entrance; the shoreline was lined with Pulhamite rocks for some yards on either side, and an artificial rock-lined island created a few yards offshore.

 25-05 - Gunnersbury Park Folly

 Fig 5  –  Gothic ruin near the old stable block in Gunnersbury Park

There are some typical Pulham faces at Gunnersbury around the doorways, although most of them have now decayed quite badly.   One survivor is inset into Fig 4.

According to James 2’s promotional booklet – Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery, published in 1877 – this is the extent of his firm’s activities at Gunnersbury, but there are one or two other items of interest in the Park that lead one to suspect that he almost certainly returned on at least one further occasion.   The first is adjacent to Princess Amelia’s Bath House, where there is what looks like a basement fernery.   It is now very seriously overgrown, but nevertheless looks similar in underlying construction to other ferneries described in this book. 

Elsewhere in the park, there is a small gothic folly near the stable block – shown in Fig 5 – which was erected to obscure the view of the stable walls from the house.   There is also what was presumably an entrance lodge at an entrance that is now closed off.   This is shown in Fig 6, and, although there is no documentary evidence to ascribe these structures to Pulhams, it seems reasonable to suggest that they may well have been responsible, bearing in mind the fact that the firm are known to have worked on the site. 

 25-06 - Gunnersbury Park Gateway

Fig 6  –  An old castellated entrance lodge

Leopold (son of Lionel) de Rothschild’s Head Gardener at Gunnersbury, James Hudson, laid out the Japanese garden at Gunnersbury in 1901, although very little of it now remains.   According to the records, Japanese workers were brought over especially to design and construct this garden, which is exactly what is said to have happened with a number of other similar gardens with which the Pulhams were involved – my feeling being that a Pulham team may well have worked alongside the Japanese.   How ‘genuine’ these gardens are also seems open to question, because one contemporary Japanese visitor who looked round the ‘Japanese-style’ garden at Gunnersbury is reputed to have commented:  ‘How beautiful.   We have nothing like this in Japan!’ [i]


[i]    ‘Four Centuries of History’ from http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/london.gardens/gunnersbury.htm

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