3 – The Magic of Pulham’s Fountains

James Pulham and Son are best remembered these days for the rock gardens, ferneries, follies and grottoes they constructed during the Victorian years.   If natural rocks were not economically available, they would ‘make their own’ by building up heaps of rubble and old bricks, and coat them with their own proprietary brand of cement that soon became known as Pulhamite.   The craftsmanship of their ‘rock builders’ lay in their ability to sculpt the surfaces to simulate the colour and texture of natural rock, and my interest in this remarkable firm stems from the fact that no fewer than five of my ancestors – including my grandfather and great-grandfather – all worked for them in that capacity.  

What is not so generally known is that, as garden fashions gradually evolved through the Edwardian years, the Pulhams extended their portfolio to include grand, formal balustraded terraces, and Italian and Japanese-styled gardens that were becoming so popular with the ‘travelling gentry’.   The full story of the lives and work of this remarkable firm is told in my forthcoming book, Rock Landscapes – The Pulham Legacy – to be published by The Antique Collectors Club in May or June, 2012.   It will contain many beautiful pictures taken by Jenny Lilly, the professional gardens photographer for whose collaboration I am extremely grateful.

There is consequently no need to write a précis in this magazine.   Suffice to say here that there were four generations of Pulhams, and all of those most directly involved in the family business were named James, so, in order to avoid confusion, I find it easier to refer to them individually as James 1, 2, 3 and 4.   The firm became established as James Pulham and Son when James 2 took his son, James 3, into the business in 1865.  

It does not seem possible that it is now more than eight years since I submitted an article to the GHS-67 Magazine – Spring 2003 – entitled In Search of Pulham’s Fountains, but that is an inescapable fact.   I was still in the early stages of my research at that time, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, so I thought that readers might be interested to know how much I have learned about the firm’s fountains in the meantime.

They were made in James 2’s manufactory in Station Road, Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and many of them were indeed works of art – some winning awards at the International Exhibitions of the 1850s and ‘60s.   They came in many shapes and sizes – mostly big!   In fact, I have only aver seen one small ‘domestic’ fountain, and that happened to be in a garden that was within a few hundred yards of the now demolished manufactory, and I have the feeling that that was a ‘mix ‘n’ match’ item constructed from the pedestal of a sundial, with a concrete bowl on top.   This is shown in Fig 1, alongside a reproduction of a sundial taken from the firm’s Garden Ornament catalogue, published c.1925, and the good news is that the fountain is still in good working order.

 

 Fig 1  –  A domestic fountain and a Sundial from the Pulham Garden Ornament Catalogue

 

 Fig 2  –  A small rockwork ‘estate’ fountain believed to be by Pulham 

The fountain in Fig 2 is larger, and stands in the grounds of a manor house.   Its basin is about 12ft across, and its pedestal is made in the form of tufa planting pockets.   When the fountain is playing, the water cascades through the fluted lip of the bowl, thus providing the plants with the moisture they need – a simple, but quite ingenious, attractive device that Pulhams also adopted for some of their larger fountains.  

 

 Fig 3  –  The Warren House fountain   (Photo by Jenny Lilly)

 

 Fig 4  –  The Sheffield Park fountain, still playing in the grounds of Sheffield Park Mansion, in Uckfield, East Sussex 

Most of Pulham’s fountains were modelled entirely in terracotta, however, with elaborate, intricately designed figure work on their pedestals and basins that well illustrates the combined artistic skills and production techniques of their craftsmen.   Some still play today, as shown in Figs 3 – which I believe to be a replacement of the original – and Fig 4, but even these are relatively small compared with several others that still survive.

Most of them were made especially for municipal parks or large country estates – generally on an individual bespoke basis.  The one shown in Fig 5 was made as an exhibition piece, although the actual date and location of the exhibition – or the later destination of the fountain – are not known.  

 

 Fig 5  –  A Pulham fountain at one of the major Exhibitions, for which the firm was awarded a Gold and Silver Medal   (Photo provided by Greg Kobett) 

The illustration in Fig 6 is also taken from the firm’s Garden Ornament catalogue.   It is called The Ewell Fountain, and its basin still survives in the grounds of Ewell Court House, near Epsom, Surrey, but has since been converted to a flowerbed (Fig 7).   James Pulham and Son worked here between 1892 and 1914, during which time they also remodelled the artificial lake; added an island, Pulhamite cascade and stream, and also built a small fernery near the house.  

The condition of all these features at Ewell Court was allowed to deteriorate over the years, but, thankfully, there is an extremely active and enthusiastic group of volunteer ‘Friends’ who have already raised funds to restore the fernery.   Their next project is to restore the lake, cascade and stream, after which they hope to be able to raise funds to restore the fountain.   They are a wonderful example of what can be achieved by groups of enthusiastic preservationists who are working tirelessly in collaboration with the local Borough Council – and, where appropriate, with the Heritage Lottery Fund – to raise the necessary funding to bring these treasures of our garden heritage back to life.

 

 Fig 6  –  The Ewell Fountain (Reproduced from the Pulham Garden Ornament Cataloguec1925) 

 

 Fig 7  –  Base of the Ewell Court Fountain today 

Terracotta remodelling and restoration is obviously a very specialised skill.   Missing parts sometimes need to be reproduced from scratch, and the only guides available are archive pictures etc, but thankfully there are still craftsmen around who are capable of doing this.   Sometimes a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund is available to help finance the work, and one good example is the Pierremont Fountain that now stands proudly in South Park, Darlington, shown here in Fig 8 – a fountain to which I referred in my earlier article, when it was still in a very sad, pre-restoration state.

 

 Fig 8  –  The Pierremont Fountain, in South Park, Darlington, after its recent restoration

The Dunorlan Fountain, shown here in Fig 9, is another that was pictured and referred to in that article, when it was also in a very poor state of repair.   This was originally an award-winning Pulham exhibit at the International Exhibition of 1862, and was later installed in Dunorlan Park, Tunbridge Wells.   As explained in my book, Dunorlan Park was taken over by the War Damage Commission during the Second World War, and most of the terracotta ornaments, including the fountain, were lost or destroyed as a result of unofficial target practice.  

The grounds were allowed to deteriorate badly during post-war years, but – rather like the Ewell Court House Organisation – the ‘Friends of Dunorlan Park’ was formed by a group of local enthusiasts who worked with the local Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund to obtain a grant that enabled them to bring the park back to life, and its facilities are now enjoyed by more people than ever before.   The fountain, which stands more than 20ft high, is once again working in almost pristine condition, with a new figure of Hebe on top.   Fig 9 puts its awesome size nicely into perspective.

 

 Fig 9  –  The Dunorlan Fountain, in Dunorlan Park, Tunbridge Wells, after its recent restoration

I also referred in my earlier article to a magnificent fountain that stands in Miller Park, Preston.   That proved to be wishful thinking on my part, because I have since discovered that this is not a Pulham fountain at all.   Having established that Miller Park contains a Pulhamite rock feature and several Pulham vases – the current ones are recent reproductions – I initially concluded that they probably also supplied the balustrading and the fountain, but this does not appear to have been the case.   The Records reveal that the fountain was designed by Edward Milner, and constructed by C R Smith – a local stone modeller – in Longridge stone at a cost of £217 – 3s – 7d.   It was restored to its original splendour during 1993.

A final example from that article was of the Pulham fountain that originally stood in the entrance lobby of the Horticultural Gardens at Kew during the Great Exhibition of 1862.   It was a strange looking thing, and turned out to have a fascinating story, but, sadly, there is not sufficient space here to reveal what happened to it, and where it is now.   Not to worry, though, because it is all revealed in the book . . .

All the latest updates on matters Pulham can be found on my website at www.pulham.org.uk.   All visitors are welcome!

 

©  Claude Hitching 2011

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