What did the Georgians do in their gardens?

By Helen Brown, PhD Researcher

The Georgian period produced some of the most famous and well-loved gardens in England and the design style was exported to properties across the world. Detailed analysis of garden design, style development, and the lives of famous designers has been the focus of garden historians for decades. However, most narratives end when the designer, his foremen and labourers finished their initial building projects and little direct attention has been paid to how people used and experienced the gardens. Many design histories might briefly mention walking or sports, but it is rare for a whole study to focus on these activities and the relationship between the space and its visitors. Kate Feluś’ Secret Life of the Georgian Garden (2016) is a great example of a work that explores the wide range of uses of gardens and the conditions required to perform them.

What did Georgians actually do with the gardens that they spent a significant amount of money and labour on? This question forms the basis of the third chapter of my thesis about the production and consumption of country house gardens beyond their designs. So far, I have looked at expenditure on building and maintaining gardens as well as the people that worked there and the wider professional networks of designers and suppliers.

The gardens at Audley End were laid out by Lancelot “Capability” Brown in the 1760s after decades of decline. This was a large improvement project that ran both over budget and beyond the original deadline. Other areas of the garden were remodelled over the next 50 years or so, but the overall structure of the garden remains recognisable as Brown’s landscape design. The layout includes vast swathes of lawn, a ha-ha, a widened river to imitate a lake, and a number of garden buildings.

Audley End from the west, photo taken by Helen Brown

The most common activity done by Georgian visitors and residents of Audley End was simply to move around the space and take in the various views. This could be done on foot, on horseback or in a carriage. All three were popular garden activities for the leisured class in England, either in their own gardens or the gardens of others. Carriages offered a faster and raised experience of the garden and wider parkland and required much less effort for the individual. However not all areas of the gardens were accessible by carriage. At Audley End, the Elysian Garden has narrower winding paths that takes the walker over features such as the Tea Bridge and Cascade.

William Tomkins, Audley End, The Tea House Bridge and Audley End, View from the Tea House Bridge, c. 1780-1790, courtesy of English Heritage

Garden buildings such as the Tea Bridge and Turkish Tent depicted in Tomkins’ paintings were ideal places to take refreshment, rest and socialise in small groups. Other areas of the garden facilitated grand celebrations and large gatherings of people. Cricket at Audley End was often a great spectacle in the 1840s, played on the lawn between the house and the river. Large crowds came together to watch the Audley End XI play Cambridge University, Marylebone C.C. and other local sides. Luncheons for 80-90 guests were laid out for invited guests and many more spectators from the neighbourhood came out in support of their team.

The nature of being out of doors means any activity was weather dependent. In August 1845, the cricket was played on a “fine day without a single shower”, but three years later “violent showers of rain” drove the players into their tents and the spectators into the house. But the gardens were not only explored and used in the summer months. One snowy day in February 1844, Lord Braybrooke walked out with his friend and diarist Joseph Romilly and two sisters to visit two sheltered sites, the aviary and the conservatories. The gardens at Audley End were enjoyed all year round.

Watercolour of a cricket match at Audley End, likely by Louisa Ann Neville, c. 1840, courtesy of English Heritage

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