Gardens, Landscape History, London, Parks

Kensington Gardens

September 23, 2013

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If parks have personalities Kensington Gardens, envisioned by three queens (Mary, Anne and Caroline), birthplace of another (Victoria) and forever linked to Princess Diana, would be described as serenely elegant.  Adjacent to and formed from land that was once part of Hyde Park, when one enters the garden (and please do not call it a park) they are transported into a realm more akin to a private estate than a public space, a fitting reminder of the garden’s royal pedigree.

I’m backtracking on my travels as I write this having visited Kensington Gardens last May.  I was in London for several days and realizing it was a Royal Park that I had not spent much time in decided to rectify that oversight.  I had read about the redesign of the landscape surrounding the palace by landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan as well as the restoration of the Italian Water Gardens with funding from the Tiffany Foundation.  At that time I was blissfully unaware (possibly one of the few in the universe) that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George would be taking up residence in Kensington Palace.

Above all else, the history of the Palace is intimately linked to the development of the gardens and landscape that surround it – a landscape defined by its relationship to royal families and shaped by and beloved by queens and princesses alike.

The sculpture of Queen Victoria seen below, presides over the Broad Walk.  It was sculpted by her daughter Princess Louise and presented by the Kensington Golden Jubilee Memorial Executive Committee in 1893.

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Queen Victoria (aged 18) in her coronation robes at the public entrance to Kensington Palace

The gardens are also forever linked to the innocence of childhood through their association with Peter Pan and the addition of the Princess Diana Memorial playground, opened in 2000 near the site of an earlier playground that had been funded by the author J.M. Barrie.  Barrie lived close by and used Kensington Gardens as the setting for his children’s book, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, published in 1906.

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The playground, designed by Jenette Emery-Wallis of Land Use Consultants, eschews traditional play equipment and instead focuses on imaginative play informed by characters and places in Barrie’s books.   One of three play areas within Kensington Gardens, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground is located along the Broad Walk within view of Kensington Palace.  Features in the playground associated with Peter Pan’s adventures include a pirate ship, beach cove, indian camp, musical garden and a rock with the imprint of a mermaid’s tail.

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The world of the imagination and the appeal of Kensington Gardens for children is further enhanced by a popular bronze statue of Peter Pan, a gift from J.M. Barrie to the children of London. Located next to the Long Water between the Serpentine Bridge and the Italian Gardens the   statue was mysteriously installed in 1912 by Barrie who took out an ad in a London newspaper reading:

“There is a surprise in store for the children who go to Kensington Gardens to feed the ducks in the Serpentine this morning. Down by the little bay on the south-western side of the trail of the Serpentine they will find a May-day gift by Mr. J.M. Barrie, a figure of Peter Pan blowing his pipe on the stump of a tree, with fairies and mice and squirrels all around. It is the work of Sir George Frampton, and the bronze figure of the boy who would never grow up is delightfully conceived.”   

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The map below of Peter Pan’s Kensington Gardens, presents an enchanting overview of the places important to Peter and provides a  roadmap to those seeking to explore his imaginative world.

Peter Pan Map

Kensington Garden was identified as the home of Peter Pan in the Underground Poster below, in the off-chance you arrived via the Tube.

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Kensington Gardens is full of surprises and there is something very special about a landscape in the middle of the city that can amuse and delight both children and grown-ups alike.  The family in the photo below is searching for butterflies (or perhaps fairies) within view of the Palace.

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While writing this post I became hopelessly lost in research.   So in order to finish (and work on other pieces) I’ve  provided some preliminary history and social commentary augmented with impressions of my visit.  The history focuses on the roles of the three queens who are most credited with the garden’s landscape transformation and an examination of the gardens evolution from a private to a public space.  I conclude with some recent additions to the gardens as a reminder of their continued role as a canvas for creativity within London.

Somewhat fittingly the history of the Gardens begins with a royal couple looking for a peaceful place to live away from, but close to, London’s core.

In 1689 King William III and Queen Mary II purchased Nottingham House in what was then the village of Kensington to escape the “foul air” of the city proper. William was asthmatic and he and Mary had recently undertaken a similar project at Het Loo in the Netherlands.

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To improve and enlarge the property they hired the preeminent architect of the time, Christopher Wren and embarked upon a series of landscape improvements. Wren, who is credited with designing 57 churches within London including St. Paul’s Cathedral, is attributed with the design the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the second oldest institution of higher education in America (after Harvard), founded by William and Mary in 1693.

According to The Gardens of William and Mary written by David Jacques and Arend Jan van der Horst the original property was 40 acres in size with a paddock and a few small gardens including a mount, a banqueting house and bowling green.

Under Mary’s direction George London was retained to create plans for a southern garden of 12 acres with a great walk in line with the Elm Avenue. Dutch in style with clipped yews, holly and topiary the gardens are described as “ a collection of elaborate unsymmetrical parterres and wildernesses which, although smaller, were even more intricate than any bosquet at Versailles,” Kensington Palace and Gardens transformation from a modest country estate to a residence befitting the royal family had begun in earnest.

The illustration below depicts the garden’s formal parterres.  

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Kip’s Britannia Illustrata, 1724.

To facilitate William’s safe passage to Whitehall an illuminated private road was cut through the gardens and Hyde Park. The Rue de Roi or “King’s Road,” labeled as The King’s Private Road on the Schmollinger Map of 1833 became known as “Rotten Row” the name it retains to this day.

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Rotten Row

In 1702 Mary’s sister Anne became Queen.   Like Mary before her Anne loved gardens and immediately set about enlarging Kensington’s grounds. She appropriated thirty acres of land from north of the garden in 1704 and in 1705 acquired an additional one hundred acres from Hyde Park to create a paddock for deer and antelope.

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Queen Anne (1665 – 1714)

Anne commissioned landscape designers Henry Wise and George London (who had begun working on the gardens during the reign of William and Mary) to create an English-style garden within the park.  Anne built the Orangery, designed by Vanbrugh (seen below) added a sunken garden and built a mount.

The Orangery, a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, remains a popular destination.  It is available for large events and in particular weddings for those harboring royal aspirations. “You’ve got your prince we’ve got your palace,” is advertised on its website.

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In 1705 Anne commissioned Wren to create a covered seating area, known as the Queen’s Alcove.   Moved to its present site in 1867 the Alcove is located near the Italian Water Gardens between Marlborough Gate and Buckhill Lodge and provides a welcome, if somewhat grand, site for a chat.

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It is Queen Caroline to whom much of the present day character of Kensington Gardens is attributed. Working with Charles Bridgeman and later William Kent Caroline continued the work of previous monarchs while transforming the landscape into a fine example of the English Garden style with “wiggly walks” and glades of trees.

out of; (c) Warwick Shire Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Queen Caroline (1683 – 1737)

Caroline, who also established the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, is fondly remembered for her role in creating two of the gardens most iconic features, the Round Pond and the Long Water/Serpentine. She is memorialized in Hyde Park.

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During Caroline’s reign plans developed by Charles Bridgeman, appointed Royal Gardener in 1728 (with Henry Wise) were realized. Bridgeman, a seminal figure in the development of the English Garden style promoted the use of the ha-ha, a sunken invisible wall that allowed for uninterrupted, picturesque, landscape views. Royal Gardener for ten years Bridgeman also designed or redesigned the gardens at Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, St. James and Hyde Park.

The plan of Kensington Gardens below, attributed to Bridgeman, dates from 1733. The Round Pond, on access with the Palace is surrounded by wilderness with “wiggly walks.”

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At Kensington Gardens Bridgeman installed a ha-ha and new wall boundary with Hyde Park, developed additional gardens, and constructed the Round Pond and the Long Water or Canal also known  as the Serpentine.

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A view of the round pond from the sunken garden

Flower borders developed during Anne’s tenure were removed and replaced by lawns, plantations, promenades and vistas advancing the transition of Kensington Gardens layout to the English Garden style.

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It is also during this period that the Gardens became fashionable for promenading, first by the monarchs and court and later, on a limited basis, to the public.  According to Susan Ladsun in The English Park: Royal, Private and Public, Kensington Gardens were first opened to the public in 1733 once a week while the King and Queen were at Richmond.  It would be almost one hundred years later, in 1837 during the reign of Queen Victoria that Kensington Gardens would be fully open to the public.

To place the concept of public access to the Royal Gardens within context it is useful to remember that the first publicly funded civic park was opened at Birkenhead, outside of Liverpool in 1847 more than one hundred years (and one American Revolution) after the public was first allowed access to Kensington Gardens.

The Gardens were fashionable and popular.  Upwards of 50,000 people were said to have been seen taking the air at one time in Hyde Park and the Gardens and in the winter of 1813 – 1814 more than 6,000 people, chiefly skaters were counted on the Serpentine.

They also provided inspiration as a setting for notable fictional encounters.  An example is Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)  who wrote about visiting them in her letters and used them in the novel, Sense and Sensibility.

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Kensington Gardens as painted by John Martin in 1815.

In the guide, The picture of London for 1808 : being a correct guide to all the curiosities, amusements, exhibitions, public establishments, and remarkable objects in and near London ; with a collection of appropriate tables, two large maps, and several other engravings Kensington Gardens are described as:

“……..one of the most delightful scenes belonging to this great metropolis….. The spacious gravel roads, within the park, are, on a fine Sunday, covered with horsemen and carriages, from two till five o’clock’jn the afternoon. A broad foot-path, that runs from Hyde Park corner to Kensington Gardens, is frequently so crowded during the same hours, with well-dressed people passing to, or retiring from the gardens, that it is difficult to proceed.”     

The Gardens did however retain an air of exclusivity with Feltham noting that:

“All the doors of Kensington Gardens are open only from spring till autumn; and from eight in the morning till eight at night. There are four gates belonging to these gardens: two that open into Hyde Park, open all the year; one opening into the Uxbridge Road; and another opening into a road belonging to the king, and leading from the palace into Kensington. The last of these gates, called the Avenue Gate, is open till nine at night, all the year. No servant in livery, nor women with patterns, nor persons carrying bundles, are admitted into the gardens. Dogs are also excluded.”

Being well-dressed while in the Kensington Gardens was important,  so much so that in the August 1807 edition of La Belle Assemblee (or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies) published between 1806 and 1837, Kensington Garden dresses were advertised.

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While Kensington Gardens remain exceedingly popular today the rules, although more restrictive than neighboring Hyde Park, are far more relaxed.
The painting below, by Nadia Benois, is from 1937 and depicts families with children (and the occasional off- leash dog). It is in the collection of the Manchester City Gallery.
(c) Tamara Ustinov; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Dogs are allowed (with some restrictions) and in park’s northeast corner there is a pet cemetery dating from 1880.  The dog fountain below, a memorial to Esme Percy (1887 – 1957) located near the Palace Gate, was installed in 1961.
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However water fights are not allowed, should you be so inclined.
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As the Gardens transitioned to a fully public space new features and amenities, including water fountains and rest stations were introduced. The South Flower Walk was added in 1843 and the Italian Water Gardens  in 1861. Combined with The Albert Memorial, unveiled in 1872, these new features added a Victorian flourish to the 18th century landscape.

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The South Flower Walk:

A 500-yard-long path leading from the Albert Memorial to the Palace and Broad Walk  the South Flower Walk is accessible via the Hyde Park Gate.

Each side of the walk is lined with flower beds accented by flowering shrubs, roses and ornamental shrubs.  The South Flower Walk, one of the most popular features in Kensington Gardens, is gated and allows for a sense of tranquility from the city proper.

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In the 1903 book, The Fascination of London : Kensington, the South Flower walk is described as the “quarter most patronized by nursemaids and their charges.”

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The Italian Gardens:

Located near Lancaster Gate, the Italian Gardens are believed to be a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria.   Albert, a keen gardener, designed similar gardens at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where the Royal family vacationed.    Many of those features, including raised terraces, fountains, decorative urns and geometric flower beds, were replicated in the Italian Gardens, attributed to James Pennethorne and completed in 1860.

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The gardens are centered on a Pump House where a steam engine, designed to operate the fountains, was housed.  Combining utility with ornamentation, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s initials are etched on one of the walls.

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As can be seen in the photo above the Italian Gardens remain a romantic setting and it is fitting that Tiffany and Company supported their restoration in 2011 through  Tiffany – Across the Water a program of the Tiffany & Co. Foundation established to enable Americans to support the natural history and heritage of London’s Royal Parks.

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The restoration was extensive and included the repair of severe frost damage, clearance of silt from fountain basins and ancient pipework, and removal of build-up of green algae from the Portland stone and marble. The cost was close to $800,000.

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Work was completed on the Tazza Fountain, which overlooks The Long Water and ornamental marble decorative features throughout the garden. The project also improved the parks’ ecology and landscape architecture teams designed a display of aquatic plants, sited in the four perimeter basins, to reflect the garden’s historic design.

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Vintage postcards were used to detail how the basins were originally planted and provide a framework for the updated  planting scheme reflective of the original Victorian intent.

The Sunken Garden:

Created in 1909, the Sunken Garden was modeled on an 17th century garden at Hampton Court for Edward VII by historian Ernest Law.

The garden is terraced with an ornamental pond containing fountains, surrounded by paved walkways and seasonal, ornamental flower beds.

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Located close to Kensington Palace and the Orangery this is perhaps one the most photographed areas of Kensington Gardens.  Unfortunately,  on my visit the seasonal flower beds were in the process of being replanted.

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The plan of the Sunken Garden is below and with its relationship to the Palace and Orangery detailed. A Wiggly Walk (perhaps a tribute to Queen Caroline) leads from the Palace’s public entry court to the Orangery accommodating a change in topography.

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A restoration of the cradle walk, an arched arbour of red-twigged limes affording views to the central sunken garden, has been ongoing following damage during a storm in 1987.

Tours of the sunken garden are offered twice a week and for additional information visit:

http://www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace/stories/sunkengardens

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I wanted to also share two elements of Kensington Gardens which are, if you will, more modern – a testament to the ability of the landscape to continue to change and evolve over time

The first, the Henry Moore Arch was installed in 1980, 2 years after the sculptor’s 80th birthday celebration at the Serpentine Gallery.  The six meter high sculpture, sited on the north bank of The Long Water, has recently been restored and when viewed through the right perspective provides a framed view of Kensington Palace.  For a photo of the view visit: http://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/kensington-gardens/kensington-gardens-attractions/the-arch-by-henry-moore 

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Established in 1970 the Serpentine Gallery is housed in a tea pavilion dating from 1934.  Focusing on modern and contemporary art and architecture, the Serpentine Gallery annually commissions an artist of international acclaim to design a pavilion on its lawn.

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The 2013 pavilion ( under construction in the photo above), by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, will be on exhibit through October 20th.  The design intent of the pavilion, a lattice structure of steel poles, is described by the architect below:

“It is a really fundamental question how architecture is different from nature, or how architecture could be part of nature, or how they could be merged…what are the boundaries between nature and artificial things.”

For additional information about the Serpentine Gallery visit: www.serpentinegallery.org .  The image below is copied from the Serpentine Gallery Website: (Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2013, Designed by Sou Fujimoto © Sou Fujimoto Architects, Image © 2013 Iwan Baan).

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For me the pavilion is a fitting reminder of Kensington Garden’s landscape evolution, influenced by the most prominent garden designers and architects of their period. Almost three hundred years ago Queen Caroline’s temple, designed by William Kent was similar in its innovative quality described by historian Roy Strong as a structure that:

“..marked a revolution in royal – garden making : by cutting a swath through the avenue of trees west of the Serpentine, Caroline was given an uninterrupted vista that sloped to the water’s edge, while from the opposite bank the Temple could be seen across the reflective waters in the setting trees.”

Kensington Gardens are managed by The Royal Parks. For additional information visit: www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/kensington-gardens

For additional background information on Kensington Garden’s History visit British History Online: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/

To listen to a literary tourist podcast  by The Guardian visit: http://literarytourist.com/2013/01

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Copyright © 2013  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Of Gardens September 25, 2013 at 12:45 am

    I, too, was in Kensington Garden in May. I often find myself there when I am in London, I like to have a cup of tea in the Orangery, the huge windows and the yummy Victoria sponge cake make the Orangery a lovely respite from the sometimes grey London weather. I have tried several times to go into the Princess Diana playground to see what it’s all about, but there is a rule that an adult must be accompanied by a child, and so far I have not had a child with me when I am in Kensington. I have heard a story, or perhaps it is passed into legend, that Queen Anne had all the boxwoods removed from the grounds at Kensington Palace because she did not like the smell. Have you heard this story?

    • Reply Patrice Todisco September 25, 2013 at 8:22 pm

      No, I have not. In Roy Strong’s book Royal Gardens (which I highly recommend) he writes that Anne’s first works at Kensington (according to Stephen Switzer) “were the rooting up of the box and giving an English model to the old-made gardens.” He also refers to the favourable press Anne’s gardens received by contemporary writers in contrast to the formal Dutch gardens of William and Mary.

  • Reply Donna@Gardens Eye View September 29, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    I have wanted to visit this beautiful place and it is on the top of my list for one day!! What an incredible history.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco October 1, 2013 at 8:52 pm

      Donna,
      I enjoyed my visit in May and am somewhat embarrassed that it was when I returned home and wrote this piece that I became aware of some of the historical aspects. I’m always torn between the act of discovery and visiting a place I know a lot about! Do keep it on your list, it’s a very special place.

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