Garden Portrait: Dartington Hall

Designer Henry Avray Tipping (1855-1933) the distinguished architectural editor of Country Life magazine gave this advice to the RHS in 1928:

“Let there be some formalism about the house to carry on the geometric lines and enclosed feeling of architecture, but let us step shortly from that into wood and wild garden”

His reputation was based on the hundreds of articles he wrote on country houses and their gardens and in his many books, but his greatest legacy are the gardens he designed for his friends, one of which is Dartington Hall in South Devon.

The medieval hall itself was built between 1388 and 1400 for John Holand, Earl of Huntingdon, half-brother to Richard II. After John was beheaded, the Crown owned the estate until it was acquired in 1559 by Sir Arthur Champernowne, Vice-Admiral of the West under Elizabeth I. The Champernowne family then lived in the Hall for 366 years until 1925.

Dartington Hall

It sits amongst the bosky lanes of south Devon and easily missed if you don’t turn into the long drive by the church. The medieval Great Hall presides over a gaggle of subsidiary buildings, where many famous artists have gathered including dancers, actors, painters, potters, musicians, philosophers and poets through the long decades of the 20th century.

But I am here to introduce you to the gardens. Restored by the homesick American heiress, Dorothy Elmhirst, who along with her English husband Leonard, bought the hall in 1925, at its heart are the impeccable lawn terraces that recall the medieval tournament ground. All around are graceful green walks across lawns, beneath magnificent trees.

Jacob’s Pillow by Peter Randall-Page (May 2005)

“a house should sit at ease with nature”

The garden, really a small park, is Dorothy Elmhirst’s creation through 40 years. When they arrived the central feature was an overgrown formal Dutch-style sunken garden which Leonard Elmhirst dubbed the ‘Tiltyard’ and had its tiered shape accentuated. Drawings from the †19C revealed that it had been a lily pond making use of the nearby spring waters.

Azalea Dell and Swan Fountain

A flagged walk on the west side of the Great Lawn leads to terraces south of the Hall.

This is the sunny border as designed by Henry Avray Tipping and in spring is full of peonies and irises.

“retain the grace and feeling of the wild, while adding eclectic beauty of the cultured”

There are woodland garden walks which were designed by Beatrix Farrand, a famous American landscape architect, who loved to ‘paint’ with colour and form. Dartington is her only example of her work outside the USA.

The paths converge at the statue of Flora (also the name of Dorothy’s mother) which was presented to the Elmhirsts in 1967 by the people of Dartington. The statue dates back to the late †17C but the artist is unknown. Flora marks the site of the couples’ ashes and the statue is often found adorned with flowers.

Working with existing landscapes and views interested English landscape architect Percy Cane, who after WWII, created the walk around the garden including the Glade with its temple, the Azalea Dell and the long flight of steps between the Glade and the Tiltyard. Except for a burst of colour around the Swan Fountain (1949 and a gift from artist Willi Soukop) in spring, most of the palette in the garden is soft blues, white and yellows.

Steps between the Swan Fountain and the Tiltyard
The Glade

At the bottom of the Glade you find one of the several sculptures in the garden, this by Henry Moore. The Reclining Figure (1945-6) was created for this location as a tribute to the Elmhirsts’ first Arts Administrator, Christopher Martin, who died in 1944.

The Reclining Figure (Henry Moore 1945-6)

Alongside the sculpture is a row of 500 year-old Spanish Chestnuts.

At the other end of the terrace a Garden Access Bridge, designed by Peter Randall-Page leads to a dappled shady area where his sculpture Jacob’s Pillow can be found. The sphere of 12 spirals is inspired by the Twelve Apostles.

By now the somewhat cloudy sky was growing darker and it was obvious that we were in for a shower so we began to walk back to the entrance past the lovely stone and timber summerhouse (listed Grade II) with a thatched conical roof built by Rex Gardner in 1929 to overlook the valley south-east of the Hall. It was formerly a temporary nursery and then a studio for Willi Soukop. It was rebuilt in 1980 after a fire.

Darkening skies

We were lucky to manage to reach a wonderful new Green Table café just outside the entrance without getting too wet and enjoyed a marvellous cup of coffee along with orange polenta cake and a delicious flapjack.

This is a beautiful peaceful garden with delightful views and a wonderful sense of traces of the past and the artistic and tranquil atmosphere.


Sources include Wikipedia, the Dartington Hall Gardens leaflet and Historic England website


40 Comments Add yours

  1. How wonderful it would be to live surrounded by all this beauty. I love your last photo, Jude. It’s very moody.

    1. Heyjude says:

      Moody indeed Carol, downpour about 5 seconds later! The garden has a wonderful atmosphere, must be on account of all those artists and creative folk that gathered there.

      1. That was good timing then!

  2. What a garden. What strikes me most is the number of people who contributed to its current beauty, and it certainly is beautiful. I could live happily in the summerhouse; or sit happily on the benches amongst the sunny border; or ramble along all those inviting paths. I also like the philosophy of “stepping soon into wood and wild garden.” Thanks for a pleasant end to my lovely weekend.

    1. Heyjude says:

      What you get when you have money Meg. I should have been an heiress! Imagine what you could create if you have access to all those wonderful landscape designers? Oh, well, I shall potter on in my own slow way re-shaping my plot.

  3. Lucid Gypsy says:

    You’ve done Dartington proud Jude, it’s lovely to see one of my favourite places through your eyes. Did you see my studio/holiday home? the two storey house on the side of the hill?

    1. Heyjude says:

      Yours? Or wishful thinking? It is a fabulous setting. Wouldn’t mind staying there at some time, though a tad expensive if I remember correctly.

  4. Tish Farrell says:

    Breathtakingly glorious – and I’d never seen hide nor hair, or even heard of it until your post, Jude. Definitely one on the list the next time we’re in the direction. It’s very own Henry Moore too. Also find myself much taken with the title of erstwhile owner: ‘Vice Admiral of the West’. Fabulous.

    1. Heyjude says:

      It has a fascinating history Tish – all sorts happened during the 20th century. It must have been an extraordinary place in the early days.

  5. Su Leslie says:

    What a beautiful-looking place; and your photos are so lovely. I really miss the grand old houses and wonderful gardens around the UK.

    1. Heyjude says:

      One thing about the UK I do enjoy are the ‘Grand gardens’. And if this weather ever bucks up I have one or two on my list to visit this summer!

      1. Su Leslie says:

        🙂 fingers crossed for better weather for you.

        1. Heyjude says:

          Thank you.You might be crossing them for some time!

        2. Heyjude says:

          Actually it worked. Today was fabulous!

        3. Su Leslie says:

          We must have swapped. It’s miserable here today. But then it is winter, so I can’t complain.

        4. Heyjude says:

          But we all like to complain about the weather – too cold, too hot, too wet, too windy. At least us Brits do 😀

        5. Su Leslie says:

          We do it too. It is a perfect conversation starter though; not personal and everyone can share in it.

        6. Heyjude says:

          Very true 🙂

  6. Sue says:

    Thanks for this lovely post, Jude…its been a great virtual wander around this marvellous garden.

    1. Heyjude says:

      It has a fascinating history too – I was side-tracked by all the goings-on here during the last century 😀

  7. Such a picturesque place, Jude. Thanks for all the beautiful photos. 😘

    1. Heyjude says:

      You are very welcome Sylvia. It is a lovely place and would be a nice spot to picnic in during the summer (if we ever have one!)

  8. restlessjo says:

    Fabulous, darlin! Thank you so much 🙂 🙂 Not only is it a magnificent place but you’ve researched and written this beautifully. I didn’t get a pingback or I’d have been here sooner. Better late than never, and you know very well where I’ve been. 🙂 I could become a Beatrix Farrand fan, but it really is a treasure. Speaking of which, you must be meeting Gilly soon? I’d love to be a fly on the wall- or better still share the table with you. Sunday hugs!

    1. Heyjude says:

      My link goes to the categories not an individual post which is why you won’t get a pingback. You would love the woodland part of this garden. Maybe a holiday in Devon is required????? We should rent a cottage on Dartmoor.

      1. restlessjo says:

        That’s a great idea 🙂 🙂 Now when could we make that work?

        1. Heyjude says:

          Spring is probably the best time, but Gilly would know better than me.

        2. restlessjo says:

          Hmm… I expect so, but that’s a long way off and I don’t know if I’ll still be around. Hey ho! 🙂

        3. Heyjude says:

          You’re not thinking of leaving us for the Algarve permanently are you? So soon? Trouble is we are both busy in the autumn and winter is perhaps not the best time to appreciate the area. Summer I fear will be crawling…

        4. restlessjo says:

          Yep! I know. Too early to say, Jude 🙂

  9. Lovely memories! I did consider it as an arts college before my Crohn’s went nuts. Have sent a link to a good friend of mine who did go there 🙂

  10. Anabel Marsh says:

    What a beautiful garden – you are so good at finding and portraying them.

    1. Heyjude says:

      Thank you Anabel 🙂

  11. The gardens look amazing!! I want to visit them so badly.. I’m dying to finally get to Devon but it’s quite a drive from Yorkshire and never found the time to do it.

    1. Heyjude says:

      Devon is a lovely county, though I prefer the north to the south – wilder and less crowded. You really need a week there! How are you enjoying living in the UK? Settled in now?

      1. I enjoy it very much, I’m in love with the countryside, with all the gardens and little houses/castle. It’s so rich! People here are proud of their heritage and try to maintain it, I just love it!

        I’m going to Wales for a few days in July but I don’t think I will be able to spare a week to go there this year. Do you think Devon is good to visit in October?

        1. Heyjude says:

          You may have discovered by now that there is never a ‘good’ time to visit anywhere weather-wise. October would be nice and quiet as long as you avoid half-term (usually the last week) and there will be the tree colours too. Some nice gardens in the north and south of the county though always best to check closing dates.

        2. Good to know about half-term, I always got mixed up with the dates and never know when the kids are off or not. So very confusing to me. Hmm, yeah, I should do some research about closing date, some things maybe close during the low season

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