Painshill Park, one of the most important 18th century landscape parks in Europe, was the creation of the Hon. Charles Hamilton. Born in 1704, Hamilton was the ninth son and fourteenth child of the Earl of Abercorn. After an education at Westminster and Oxford he went on two Grand Tours and was much influenced by the art, architecture and landscape of Italy.
From 1738, Hamilton began acquiring land at Painshill, Cobham, and over the next thirty-five years dedicated himself to turning this rough heathland into a vision of idealized beauty. Hamilton created the terrain he wanted, laid out grassland, planted woodland and shrubberies, and created an artificial lake with islands. Ornamental garden buildings and features in a variety of styles completed the picture. Many of the plantings were of newly available ‘exotic’ species from North America and elsewhere.
Painshill was one of the earliest landscape parks, breaking away from the previously favoured style of formal, symmetrical gardens. In this, Hamilton was a forerunner of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and also of the late 18th century Picturesque movement – yet his style was distinct from both of these. Painshill was famous during Hamilton’s lifetime and many people came to visit, several leaving detailed descriptions of the park.
Hamilton never had a great fortune and had to borrow extensively throughout his life to pay for his work at Painshill. Eventually in 1773 his debts became overwhelming and he was forced to sell the park. After this, Painshill had a succession of owners, most of whom took good care of it or, at the very least, did not impose any major alterations. Thus it survived into the twentieth century remarkably unchanged from its original form.
From the time of the Second World War, the park suffered neglect and from 1949 it was sold off in a number of parcels. Some parts were used for commercial farming and forestry, while the rest was left untended: grassland and lakes became overgrown with trees and undergrowth, and the garden buildings decayed, collapsed, and in some cases totally disappeared.
Many people believed the park to be unsalvageable, but during the 1970s various groups formed and began to take an interest in its possible restoration. Elmbridge Borough Council was able to purchase the land making up the core of the original landscape park, and in 1981 employed Janie Burford as Director of a possible restoration project. In November 1981 the Painshill Park Trust was formally incorporated and the Council granted the land to the Trust under a 99-year lease. Biological and archaeological surveys were undertaken, and in 1983 the Trustees decided to pursue a full and faithful restoration of the park to its appearance in Hamilton’s day.
Restoration work began in 1983 and continues to the present day, aided by generous grants from many charitable bodies and private benefactors. In 1987 HRH the Prince of Wales became the Trust’s Patron and he has visited the park several times.
It was always the Trust’s firm intention to open Painshill to the public, but for many years access was limited to pre-booked tours and Sunday afternoons because of local difficulties over the siting of a public car park. However, the park was fully opened in 1997 and a purpose-built Visitor Centre was opened in 2001. In 1998 the Trust was awarded the prestigious Europa Nostra medal for ‘the exemplary restoration from a state of extreme neglect, of a most important eighteenth century landscape park and its extraordinary garden buildings’.
- Painshill Park Trust website