1878-98 – Insole Court, Llandaff, Cardiff

SM 42 – Nov 14

During the late 1850s, James Harvey Insole – a young colliery proprietor – built a small country house for himself in Llandaff, a leafy suburb of Cardiff.   It was near Ely Road, so he named it Ely Court, but it later became known as Insole Court  It was quite a modest house, but had a terrace along the side with a beautiful stone balustrade and a pair of sleeping lion figures, all carved by the local sculptors, church furnishers and restoration specialists William Clarke and Son.   Fig 1 shows the Back Terrace of Insole Court, and the arched balustrade is shown in Fig 2.   One of the lion figures is shown in Fig 3, and Clarke is also thought to have built the Summerhouse shown in Fig 4,[i]

 5-10-42-1 - Insole Court - Back Terrace

 Fig 1 – The Back Terrace at Insole Court

 During the late 1870s, James Harvey embarked upon an extensive expansion and refurbishment of the house that featured high-quality woodwork and metalwork, and elaborately painted and gilded vaulted ceilings.   The Insole monogram and family crest was abundantly displayed, and there was a wealth of stone figures, animals and gargoyles – again said to have been carved by William Clarke and Son.

Another major feature inside the house was a lavish

‘. . . marble and alabaster Gothic staircase, which today lies in pieces in storage, and the massive brass gasolier on the newel post, in the form of the Insole griffin, which has, alas, disappeared. . .

 5-10-42-2 - Insole Court - Balustrade - A Salisbury 037

 Fig 2 – Balustrading along the side of Insole Court   (Photo by Alun Salisbury)

 5-10-42-3 - Insole Court - Lion Asleep - A Salisbury 049

 Fig 3 – Last remaining of a pair of Sleeping Lions at top of steps leading down to the gardens – said to have been carved by W Clarke & Son   (Photo by Alun Salisbury)

 ‘One curious feature that has (also) disappeared is to be seen on the left of the photograph of the staircase.   Set within an archway under the stairs appears to be an indoor rock garden, possibly for displaying a collection of ferns or other rare plants.

 5-10-42-4 - Insole Court - Summer House, Mrs Carolyn - A Salisbury

 Fig 4 – Mrs Carolyn’s Summerhouse, with walls built from large ‘pebbles’ – built by William Clarke and Son during the 1850s   (Photo provided by Alun Salisbury)

 5-10-42-5 - Insole Court - Garden c1900 - A Salisbury 6

 Fig 5 – Side garden to Insole Court c1900, with Pulham ornaments   (Photo provided by Alun Salisbury)

 ‘The Insole family were enthusiastic gardeners, and, in the years following his extension of the building, J H Insole bought large amounts of land around the house.   This enabled him to build a second lodge to the south, around 1880, that faced Ely Road.   In addition to this, he was now able to enlarge his garden considerably.   The remains of an impressive outdoor rock garden, which had been laid out in 1898, still exist, and the large boulders of Radyr stone (a red. stone from the nearby Danescourt quarry). . . have now been exposed to view, giving us the hope that, one day, the rock garden itself might be restored.’

This fits very well with the fact that Insole Court is only a couple of miles or so from St Fagans Castle, where the Pulhams worked between 1872-76 – as discussed in Chapter 9 of Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy – so it is quite probable that James Harvey knew Lady Mary Windsor Clive, and liked her new rock garden sufficiently well to invite James 2 to do some work at Insole Court.   The question is when, what, and how much?

 5-10-42-6 - Insole Court - Rockery by The Leat - A Salisbury

 Fig 6 – Rockery by The Leat at Insole Court c1900   (Photo provided by Alun Salisbury)

 The ‘when’ and ‘what’ can be established fairly accurately as c1878-80, because the Gardeners’ Chronicle published an article about the gardens at Insole Court sometime in 1882. [ii]   It reported that:

‘The mansion is a handsome Gothic building, with a tower and observatory 85 feet high.   On the west, or entrance front, is a spacious lawn, with fountain etc, and bounded by banks planted with Rhododendrons, hardy Ericas Erica’s and Azaleas, amongst which the growths are rapidly appearing of a varied collection of bulbs.   Beyond this rises a very effective piece of rockwork, which has been planned to hide a blank wall leading to the stables, and has been carried, partly by mounding and partly by large masses of natural rock brought from some distance, to a height of 30 feet. . . .

5-10-42-7 - Insole Court - GrottoFig 7 – The grotto at Insole Court.   Some rocks are natural – probably from the Radyr quarry – and others are artificial   (Photo by Alun Salisbury)

 5-10-42-8 - Insole Court - Grotto Archway

 Fig 8 – Side archway to the grotto at Insole Court   (Photo by Alun Salisbury)

 ‘A terrace of gravel and grass commands a view of the lower garden on the east front; the beds being furnished with shrubs and bedding plants for spring effect which are not particularly interesting in January.   To the left of the flower garden a winding path is entered, with shrubbery borders and rockwork which has been skilfully blended with its surroundings and hidden from the lawn . . . . Winding paths amongst clumps and specimen trees and shrubs make the most of the limited extent of pleasure grounds, and lead . . . . to the bottom of the grounds, and to a recent addition to its extent – taken from the park in front – and just converted into a rock garden with a small streamlet gradually widening to a pool at the lower end, where it is terminated by a rocky grotto some 30 yards long.’

Figs 5 and 6 are pictures of the gardens dating back to c1900, with Fig. 5 showing the formal gardens near the house – a typical Pulham layout, complete with vases from their manufactory – and Fig. 6 showing the rockery by The Leat (or ditch).   There can be absolutely no doubt about its provenance!   Figs 7 and 8 show the grotto following its ‘rediscovery’ in 2010, from which one can see that it was built from a combination of natural stone and Pulhamite.

[i]  The Story of a Victorian Manor by Matthew Williams, published by the Friends of Insole Court 1998, and printed by: Keith Brown & Sons Ltd, Cowbridge 01446 774490

[ii]   Gardeners’ Chronicle 1882 (actual date unknown)

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