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Kensington Gardens

Your lilacs are in leaf, ours are in bloom. The horse-chestnuts are quite out, and the elms almost. I had a pleasant walk in Kensington Gardens on Sunday with Henry, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Tilson; everything was fresh and beautiful.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
April 25, 1811

The following article is excerpted from Old and new London: a narrative of its history, its people, and its places …, which was printed in 1898. Here you will find a history of the Gardens up to that point, a great deal of which is drawn from historical documents of Jane Austen’s time, 1802-1806, specifically. Here is a period look at the Garden Jane Austen knew and enjoyed!

Kensington Gardens
The gardens attached to Kensington Palace, when purchased by William III., did not exceed twentysix acres. They were immediately laid out according to the royal taste; and this being entirely military, the consequence was that closely-cropped yews, and prim holly hedges, were taught, under the auspices of Loudon and Wise, the royal gardeners, to imitate the lines, angles, bastions, scarps and counter-scarps of regular fortifications. This curious upper garden, we are told, was long “the admiration of every lover of that kind of horticultural embellishment,” and, indeed, influenced the general taste of the age…Addison, in No. 477 of the Spectator, thus speaks of the horticultural improvements of this period :—” I think there are as many kinds of gardening as of poetry: your makers of pastures and flower-gardens are epigrammatists and sonneteers in this art; contrivers of bowers and grottoes, treillages and cascades, are romantic writers; Wise and Loudon are our heroic poets ; and if, as a critic, I may single out any passage of their works to commend, I shall take notice of that part in the upper garden at Kensington which was at first nothing but a gravel-pit. It must have been a fine genius for gardening that could have thought of forming such an unsightly hollow into so beautiful an area, and to have hit the eye with so uncommon and agreeable a scene as that which it is now wrought into.”

In 1691 these gardens are thus described:— ” They are not great, nor abounding with fine plants. The orange, lemon, myrtle, and what other trees they had there in summer, were all removed to London, or to Mr. Wise’s greenhouse at Brompton Park, a little mile from there. But the walks and grass were very fine, and they were digging up a plot of four or five acres to enlarge their gardens.” Queen Anne added some thirty acres more, which were laid out by her gardener, Wise. Bowack, in 1705, describes here “a noble collection of foreign plants, and fine neat greens, which makes it pleasant all the year. . . . Her Majesty has been pleased lately to plant near thirty acres more to the north, separated from the rest only by a stately greenhouse, not yet finished.” It appears from this passage that, previous to the above date, Kensington Gardens did not extend further to the north than the conservatory, which, as stated in the previous chapter, was originally built for a banqueting-house, and was frequently used as such by Queen Anne. This banquetinghouse was completed in the year 1705, and is considered a fine specimen of brickwork. The south front has rusticated columns supporting a Doric pediment, and the ends have semi-circular recesses. ” The interior, decorated with Corinthian columns,” Mr. John Timbs tells us in his ” Curiosities,” ” was fitted up as a drawing-room, music room, and ball-room ; and thither the queen was conveyed in her chair from the western end of the palace. Here were given full-dress fêtes à la Watteau, with a profusion of ‘ brocaded robes, hoops, fly-caps, and fans,’ songs by the court lyrists, &c.” When the Court left Kensington, this building was converted into an orangery and greenhouse.

Just within the boundary of the gardens at the south-eastern corner, on slightly rising ground, is the Albert Memorial, which we have already described, and not far distant is the statue of Dr. Jenner, the originator of vaccination. This statue, which is of bronze, represents the venerable doctor in a sitting posture. It is the work of William Calder Marshall, and was originally set up in Trafalgar Square in 1858, but was removed hither about four years afterwards.

The eastern boundary of the gardens would seem to have been in Queen Anne’s time nearly in the line of the broad walk which crosses them on the east side of the palace. The kitchen- gardens, which extended north of the palace, towards the gravel-pits, but are now occupied by some elegant villas and mansions, and the thirty acres lying north of the conservatory, added by Queen Anne to the pleasure-gardens, may have been the fifty-five acres “detached and severed from the park, lying in the north-west corner thereof,” granted in the reign of Charles II. to Hamilton, the Ranger of Hyde Park, and Birch, the auditor of excise, ” to be walled and planted with ‘pippins and redstreaks,’ on condition of their furnishing apples or cider for the king’s use.”

At the end of the avenue leading from the south part of the palace to the wall on the Kensington Road is an alcove built by Queen Anne’s orders ; so that the palace, in her reign, seems to have stood in the midst of fruit and pleasure gardens, with pleasant alcoves on the west and south, and the stately banqueting-house on the east, the whole confined between the Kensington and Uxbridge Roads on the north and south, with Palace Green on the west ; the line of demarcation on the east being the broad walk before the east front of the palace. Bridgeman, who succeeded Wise as the fashionable designer of gardens, was employed by Queen Caroline, consort of George II., to plant and lay out, on a larger scale than had hitherto been attempted, the ground which had been added to the gardens by encroaching upon Hyde Park. Bridgeman’s idea of the picturesque led him to abandon ” verdant sculpture,” and he succeeded in effecting a complete revolution in the formal and square precision of the foregoing age, although he adhered in parts to the formal Dutch style of straight walks and clipped hedges. A plan of the gardens, published in 1762, shows on the north-east side a low wall and fosse, reaching from the Uxbridge Road to the Serpentine, and effectually shutting in the gardens. Across the park, to the east of Queen Anne’s Gardens, immediately in front of the palace, a reservoir was formed with the ” round pond ; ” thence, as from a centre, long vistas or avenues were carried through the wood that encircled the water—one as far as the head of the Serpentine ; another to the wall and fosse above mentioned, affording a view of the park ; a third avenue led to a mount on the south-east side, which was raised with the soil dug in the formation of the adjoining canal, and planted with evergreens by Queen Anne. This mount, which has since been levelled again, or, at all events, considerably reduced, had on the top a revolving “prospect house.” There was also in the gardens a ” hermitage : ” a print of it is to be seen in the British Museum.

On King William taking up his abode in the palace, the neighbouring town of Kensington and the outskirts of Hyde Park became the abode of fashion and of the hangers-on at the Court, whilst the gardens themselves became the scene of a plot for assassinating William, and replacing James II. on the throne. The large gardens laid out by Queen Caroline were opened to the public on Saturdays, when the King and Court went to Richmond, and on these occasions all visitors were required to appear in full dress. When the Court ceased to reside here, the gardens were thrown open in the spring and summer ; they, nevertheless, long continued to retain much of their stately seclusion. The gardens are mentioned in the following terms by the poet Crabbe, in his ” Diary : “—” Drove to Kensington Gardens : … effect new and striking. Kensington Gardens have a very peculiar effect ; not exhilarating, I think, yet alive [lively] and pleasant.”

According to Sir Richard Phillips, in ” Modern London,” published in 1804, the gardens were open to the public at that time only from spring to autumn ; and, curiously enough, servants in livery were excluded, as also were dogs. Thirty years later the gardens are described as being open ” all the year round, to all respectably-dressed persons, from sunrise till sunset.” About that time, when it happened that the hour for closing the gates was eight o’clock, the following lines, purporting to have been written ” by a young lady aged nineteen,” were discovered affixed to one of the seats :—

“Poor Adam and Eve were from Eden turned out,
As a punishment due to their sin ;
But here after eight, if you loiter about,
As a punishment you’ll be locked in.

It may be added that now, on stated days during the ” London season,” the scene in these gardens is enlivened by the exhilarating strains of military bands. It is stated by Count de Melfort, in his ” Impressions of England,” published in the reign of William IV., that the Duke of St. Albans—we suppose, as Grand Falconer of England—is the only subject, except members of the royal family, who has the right of entering Kensington Palace Gardens in his carriage. The fact may be true, but it wants verifying.

Of the Bridge over the Serpentine, at the northeast corner of the Gardens, we have already given an illustration [elsewhere in the book]. At some distance on the west side of this bridge, as it leaves the Uxbridge Road, the Serpentine has been divided into a series of four large basins or reservoirs, of octangular form, each of which has a small fountain in the centre, encompassed with marble. In the central pathway, above the water-level. At the other end of the reservoirs is an engine-house, containing engines for working the fountains. This building is of Italian design, and roofed with red Italian tiles. It stands just within the Gardens, at a short distance from the Bayswater Road.

Kensington Gardens have been celebrated by [Thomas] Tickell in the poem which bears their name, and from which we have quoted above ; ” verses,” says Charles Knight, ” full of fairies and their dwarfs, and Dryads and Naiads ; verses made to order, and which have wholly perished as they deserve to perish.” His poem on ‘ Kensington Gardens,’ with the fairy tale introduced, is much admired; the versification is smooth and elegant . He is said to have been a man of gay conversation, but in his domestic relations without censure.” Kensington Palace and its Gardens were the first places where the hooped petticoats of our greatgrandmother’s days were displayed by ladies of fashion and ” quality.” We do not purpose giving here a history of Englishwomen’s dress; but it may be as well to record the fact that the hoop appears to have been the invention of a Mrs. Selby, whose novelty is made the subject of a pamphlet, published at Bath, under the title of ” The Farthingale Reviewed; or, more Work for the Cooper:a “Panegyrick on the late but most admirable invention of the Hooped Petticoat.” The talented lady who invented it died in 1717, and is thus mentioned by a Mrs. Stone, in the ” Chronicles of Fashion :” ” How we yearn to know something more of Mrs. Selby, her personal appearance, her whereabouts, her habits, and her thoughts. Can no more be said of her, whose inventive genius influenced the empire for well-nigh a century, who, by the potency of a rib of whalebone, held the universal realm of fashion against the censures’ of the press, the admonitions of the pulpit, and the common sense of the whole nation ? Mrs. Tempest, the milliner, had her portrait taken by Kent, and painted on the staircase of Kensington Palace ; and what was Mrs. Tempest that her lineaments should be preserved, whilst those of Mrs. Selby, the inventor of the hoop, are suffered to fall into oblivion ? ” It was during the reign of George I. that the fashionable promenades in the Gardens became so popular, and the glittering skirts, which still lived in the recollection of our grandparents, would seem to have made their first appearance. Caroline of Anspach, the Prince of Wales’s consort, probably introduced them, when she came with her bevy of maidens to Court. People would throng to see them ; the ladies would take the opportunity of showing themselves, like pea-hens, in the walks ; persons of fashion, privileged to enter the Gardens, would avail themselves of the privilege ; and at last the public would obtain admission, and the raree-show would be complete. The full-dress promenade, it seems, was at first confined to Saturdays ; it was afterwards changed to Sundays, and continued on that day till the custom went out with the closing days of George III.

In fact, during the last century the broad walk in Kensington Gardens had become almost as fashionable a promenade as the Mall in St. James’s Park had been a century earlier, under Charles II. There might, probably, have been seen here, on one and the same day, during the portentous year 1791, Wilkes and Wilberforce ; George Rose and Mr. Holcroft ; Mr. Reeve and Mr. Godwin ; Burke, Warren Hastings, and Tom Paine ; Horace Walpole and Hannah More (whom he introduced to the Duke of Queensberry) ; Mary Wollstonecraft and Miss Burney (Madame d’Arblay), the latter avoiding the former with all her might ; the Countess of Albany (the widow of the Pretender); the Margravine of Anspach ; Mrs. Montagu ; Mrs. Barbauld ; Mrs. Trimmer ; Emma Harte (Lady Hamilton), accompanied by her adoring portrait painter, Romney ; and poor Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV., come to look after some jewels of which she has been robbed, and little thinking she would return to be guillotined. The fashions of this half century, with the exception of an occasional broad-brimmed hat worn both by gentlemen and ladies, comprised the ugliest that ever were seen in the old Court suburb. Headdresses became monstrous compounds of pasteboard, flowers, feathers, and pomatum ; the hoop degenerated into little panniers ; and about the year 1770, a set of travelled fops came up, calling themselves Macaronis (from their intimacy with the Italian eatable so called), who wore ridiculously little hats, large pigtails, and tight-fitting clothes of striped colours. The lesser pigtail, long or , curly, prevailed for a long time among elderly , gentlemen, making a powdered semicircle between the shoulders ; a plain cocked-hat adorned their heads ; and, on a sudden, at the beginning of the new century, some of the ladies took to wearing turbans, surmounted with ostrich feathers, and bodies literally without a waist, the girdle coming directly under the arms.

Lady Brownlow, in her ” Reminiscences of a Septuagenarian,” tells us that after the Peace of Amiens, in 1802, she here met the celebrated Madame Recamier, who created a sensation at the West-end, partly by her beauty, but still more by her dress, which was vastly unlike the unsophisticated style and poke bonnets of the English ladies. “She appeared in Kensington Gardens à l’antique, a muslin gown clinging to her form like the folds of drapery on a statue ; her hair in a plait at the back, and falling in small ringlets round her face, and greasy with huile antique; a large veil thrown over her head completed her attire, which not unnaturally caused her to be followed and stared at.” No doubt, dressed in such a costume, and at such a period, Madame Recamier might well have been the “cynosure of neighbouring eyes.”

In an article on Kensington Palace and Gardens, in the Monthly Register for September, 1802, the writer somewhat critically remarks : — “All the views from the south and east façades of the edifice suffer from the absurdity of the early inspectors of these grounds. The three vistas opening from the latter, without a single wave in the outline, without a clump or a few insulated trees to soften the glare of the champagne, or diminish the oppressive weight of the incumbent grove, are among the greatest deformities. The most exquisite view in the Gardens is near the north-east angle ; at the ingress of the Serpentine river, which takes an easy wind towards the park, and is ornamented on either side by sloping banks, with scenery of a different character. To the left the wood presses boldly on the water, whose polished bosom seems timidly to recede from the dark intruder ; to the right, a few truant foresters interrupt the uniformity of the parent grove, which rises at some distance on the more elevated part of the shore ; and through the boles of the trees are discovered minute tracts of landscape, in which the eye of taste can observe sufficient variety of light and shade of vegetable and animal life to gratify the imagination, and disappoint the torpor, which the more sombre scenery to the east is accustomed to invite.

“The pencil of Claude and Poussin was employed on general landscape ; and the transport inspired by their works is from the composition and general effect, not from the exact resemblance of objects, to which Swanevelt and Watteau were so scrupulously attentive. In the landscape of nature, as well as in the feeble imitations of the artist, individuals deserve some attention. The largest and most beautiful of all the productions of the earth is a tree. As the effulgent tints of the insect must yield to the elegance and proportion of the other orders of animals, when contemplated by our imperfect optics, so the gorgeous radiance of the flower must bend its coronal honours to this gigantic offspring of nature, whose ample foliage receives all the splendid effects of light and shade, and gives arrangement and composition to landscape. The trees that conduce to the sublime in scenery are the oak, the ash, the elm, and the beech. It is a defect in the gardens at Kensington that, excepting the elm, the whole of this beautiful fraternity is excluded, so that all the variety of tint in the spring and autumn is lost, and the gardens burst into the luxuriance of summer, and hasten to the disgrace of winter, without those gradations which indulgent Nature has contrived to moderate our transport on the approach of the one, and to soften our griefs on the appearance of the other. The dusky fir is the only melancholy companion the elm is here permitted to possess, who seems to raise his tall funereal head to insult his more lively associate with approaching decay. If in spring we have not here all the colours of the rainbow, in the forms of nascent existence ; if in autumn the yellow of the elm, the orange of the beech, and the glowing brown of the oak do not blend their fading honours, it must be acknowledged that the elm is one of the noblest ornaments of the forest ; it is the medium between the massive unyielding arm of the oak and the versatile pliancy of the ash ; it out- tops the venerable parent of the grove, and seems to extend its mighty limbs towards heaven, in bold defiance of the awful monarch of the wood.


Excerpted from Old and new London: a narrative of its history, its people, and its places … By Walter Thornbury; 1892

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