Devon Gardens Trust – Spring Newsletter 2013: No 89

Rock Landscapes: the Pulham Legacy 

by Claude Hitching, Published by Garden Art Press – 312pp – £35

130600 - Devon Gardens Trust - Cover 500 x 700This book is a wonderful example of how family history can expand into garden history.   When Claude Hitching set out to discover more about his grandfather, he found that four more relatives had worked at some time for the firm of James Pulham and Son, which itself spanned four generations from the turn of the nineteenth century.   Claude has enthusiastically pursued Pulham artefacts and sites, which revealed many fascinating personal stories as well.   You will have to read the book to find out about a message in a bottle hidden in a Pulham bench, and how people appeared to walk on water!   The author is careful to distinguish between fact and speculation, which is not always the case.  

 The firm began as master builders, specializing in stone modelling and plaster work, which led to the design and production of garden ornaments.   They manufactured a wide range of classically styled terracotta vases, balustrading, fountains etc., all illustrated in their catalogues, and so readily compared with surviving examples.   Claude traces the history of the firm and their diversification into landscape gardening for Victorian mansions, Edwardian themed gardens, public parks and seaside walks: the ‘rock gardens, grottoes, ferneries, follies, fountains and garden ornaments’ of the sub-title.   There are detailed descriptions of over forty important Pulham sites, displaying the use of natural rocks, but mainly their own artificial stone.   This was formed by pouring Portland cement over masses of brick or clinker, then sculpting the surface to resemble geologically accurate rocks and to create planting pockets.   The exceptional photographs by Jenny Lilly illuminate the text and make this a delightful book to browse as well as study.

 Patrons included leading industrialists, as well as the Royal family and aristocrats, but there is a wide variation in the subsequent uses and current condition of the sites listed in the chronological gazetteer.   The famous ‘Matterhorn’ rockery and Japanese garden at Friar Park were fully restored by George Harrison, and are maintained by his widow.   The Pulham main base was at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and there are a few examples of their work southwest of Bristol: Orchardleigh, Somerset; the lake area at Wood, South Tawton; a lost statue at Hannaford Manor (both by Mawson); a fernery at Daison, Torquay.   Winterbourne, Teignmouth, is listed, but was definitely by F. W Meyer, and his influence from Exeter may partly explain the scarcity of southwest work by a firm which had clients throughout the British Isles and beyond.

 The Pulham website (www.pulham.org.uk) contains regular updates, as world-wide interest continues to produce further information.   Indeed, the final chapter is entitled ‘The Power of the Internet’   An extraordinary personal and historical journey is continuing.

 Carolyn Keep

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