The Alpine Gardener – September 2012

120900 - Alpine Gardener - Sept 12 - Cover 400 x 600The Master Builders of Britain’s Rock Gardens

Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy                              

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

Garden Art Press, 2012

ISBN  978 – 1 – 87067 – 376 – 1

Price   £35.00

AGS1 - Rock Landscapes Front Cover

 J.R.Pulham, Secretary to the Committee of the Alpine Garden Society at the end of World War Two, was the last of a dynasty of four James Pulhams who, in turn, led a company manufacturing garden ornaments and constructing rock gardens, water features and ferneries.  

Their superbly fashioned fountains, urns, vases, sundials, balusters and so on had an enormous impact on the appearance of British gardens throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras.  

The company was wound up in the late 1930’s, and is now perhaps best known for the many remarkable Pulhamite rock gardens.   From the 1840’s on – and at a time when rockwork was becoming ever more popular – the Pulhams exploited techniques they had developed in their ‘manufactory’ to create artificial rocks that were so geologically authentic they often deceived the experts.   Pulhamite was simply a rendering, made using the company’s own cement formula, and including appropriate dyes where necessary, that was applied on site to a foundation of skilfully laid bricks to achieve whatever shape the builders had in mind.   The trick lay in the sculpted, finished surfaces that meticulously imitated those of natural rocks, such as weathered or stratified limestones and sandstones.   It would be interesting to know what tools, other than trowels and brushes. they used to achieve these effects.  

AGS2 - Bracken Hill Arch

An imposing archway constructed by the Pulhams at Bracken Hill, Bristol

Not all their masterpieces have withstood the British weather over the years, and conservation has become an issue.   Wandsworth Council’s bungled attempt to restore the dramatic Pulhamite rockwork in London’s Battersea Park has been a stark reminder of the problems faced.   This had been the Pulhams’ showpiece in the capital, but at least the travesty has prompted English Heritage to decree that all surviving Pulhamite rock gardens be listed and restored, when necessary, only by knowledgeable individuals.  

Rather surprisingly, most of the important gardens are still in good order.   Pulham rockworks – works of art in themselves – may be found in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, Sandringham, Madresfield Court, Friar Park, Audley End, Waddesdon Manor, Abbotswood, Batsford Park and Arboretum, Luton Hoo, Dewstow House and Sheffield Park, among many others, many of which seamlessly combine Pulhamite with the natural rock found locally.  

Especially beautiful are the rockworks commissioned by the Wills family at Rayne Thatch in Bristol, and those at nearby Bracken Hill, which, until recently, formed part of the University’s Botanic Garden.  

Not all the great Pulham commissions involved artificial rocks.   Their 1911-12 north-facing rock garden on the slope at RHS Garden Wisley was constructed using Sussex sandstone, producing a fitting home for the alpine collection.  

AGS3 - Madresfield Garden IMGP0047

Pulhamite Rockwork at Madresfield Court , near Malvern, Worcestershire

All these gardens feature among the 42 chapters dedicated to outstanding Pulham sites in Claude Hitching’s splendid new book.   A worthy account of the Pulham story has long been overdue, and we owe the author a sincere debt of gratitude for the truly Herculean labours entailed in the tracing of hundreds of gardens, and for his many years of dedicated research.  

What began as a labour of love to tell the tale of his ancestors who worked for the Pulhams has blossomed into a substantial, superbly illustrated book of great importance to garden historians.   The copious illustrations – largely the work of photographer Jenny Lilly – are excellent.   The chronological gazetteer of Pulham sites, which refers to hundreds of gardens, is invaluable.  

AGS Members unfamiliar with the name of Pulham, and who are visiting the Society’s garden at Pershore should consider making an appointment to visit Madresfield Court, near Malvern, Worcestershire, where they will find a rock garden that is one of the great Pulhamite creations.

John Page

Dr. Page is convenor of the Society’s History of Rock and Alpine Gardens Study Group. Details of meetings may be found from time to time in ‘Alpine News’.

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