1929-33 – Exbury Gardens, near Southampton, Hampshire

SM 59 – Apr 16


As far as I know, their projects around the coastal resorts – discussed in Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy – were among the last undertaken by James Pulham and Son.   However, there is one more quite major piece of work undertaken during their final years that should be mentioned.   It has not been conclusively documented as being by the Pulhams, although the visual evidence is certainly sufficient to satisfy me as to their authenticity unless or until I can be proved wrong.

When I first heard of the wonderful rock gardens at Exbury, near Southampton, in Hampshire, and learned that they belonged to the Rothschild family, I immediately wondered whether the Pulhams might have been involved in their construction.   After all, they had worked for the Rothschilds on several of their gardens – such as Gunnersbury Park, London, in 1874 (‘Site of the Month’ #15, Aug ‘12); Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, in 1884 (Rock Landscapes, Chapter 12), and Halton House, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, in 1883 (‘Site of the Month’ ’#48, May ‘15) – and it seemed unlikely that they would have engaged anyone else to do this work.

 5-1-59-1 - Exbury - Waterfall Combo_edited

 Fig 1  –  Rock arch and cascade at Exbury Gardens

My one reservation was the fact that these gardens were thought to date from the early 1930s, and, apart from the final stages of the West Cliff Chine development at Ramsgate (Rock Landscapes, Chapter 41), this was considerably later than any other Pulham garden of which I was then aware.   I was consequently rather cautious about ascribing a Pulham provenance to them when I visited Exbury in 2008.

The gardens are truly magnificent, and much more extensive than most of the other rock gardens I have seen.   They are constructed entirely of local natural stone – with not a hint of Pulhamite anywhere – and consequently do not quite convey the same ‘natural stratification’ effect that is generally so much in evidence elsewhere.   There are a few distinctly ‘Pulhamesque’ features here, however, such as a rustic stone archway, cascades and rock-lined banks to the concrete-lined pools etc, that do provide considerable indications of their likely involvement.

Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, of the famous banking family, purchased Exbury Estate in 1919.   He described himself as ‘a banker by hobby, a gardener by profession’[1], and it was his vision, combined with his dedication and available resources, that helped him create one of the finest woodland gardens in the country.   The internet web page devoted to their history notes:

‘It had a temperate climate, moderate rainfall and an acidic soil ideal for growing rhododendrons.   Armies of men were employed to clear the woodland to enable the gardens to be laid out.   Gradually, the undergrowth of centuries was cut away, and hundreds of unwanted saplings uprooted.   Paths were set out and the soil enriched and prepared for Lionel’s new plantings.

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 Fig 2  –  The gardens and stream at Exbury Gardens   (Photo by Nigel Philpott)

 ‘A series of concrete lined ornamental ponds were built.   Lionel was a perfectionist and nothing was left to chance.   A borehole was sunk and an irrigation system spread out from its large red brick water tower to reach all parts of the garden through some 22 miles of underground piping; unique in its time, it is still used today and proves invaluable in long dry summers.   Some two acres of greenhouses were erected, built with the finest imported teak.   He stopped at nothing to create the gardens he wanted.   No expense was spared – if this garden were to be re-created today it would cost many millions of pounds.’


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Fig 3  –  The Balustraded bridge at Exbury Gardens

 Fig 1 shows the natural rock arch and cascade, which are somewhat more ‘casual’ in construction than if they had been constructed in Pulhamite, whilst Fig 2 shows two charming views of the gardens and the rock-lined stream that runs through them.   Strangely enough, however, the feature that most persuaded me of these gardens’ provenance was the balustraded bridge shown in Fig 3, because it looks so very much like several others pictured in the book.   I just wish that there was some positive documentary evidence to support my conclusions.


[1]    http://www.exbury.co.uk/exbury/history.htm

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