Garden Portrait: Dartington Hall

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.

Summerhouse
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.

IF YOU ENJOY A WALK, LONG OR SHORT, THEN HAVE A LOOK AT JO’S SITE WHERE YOU ARE WELCOME TO JOIN IN WITH HER MONDAY WALKS.

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