Cobham: Painshill Park

One of the most important 18th century landscape parks in Europe, 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.

Painshill, a corner of the Rose Garden, 1907 Photographic Record and Survey of Surrey no. 2587

Painshill, a corner of the Rose Garden, 1907
Photographic Record and Survey of Surrey no. 2587

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.

Visitors were usually conducted round the site by the Head Gardener, a convenient way of supplementing the meagre wage paid by Hamilton. A mown strip along the northern estate boundary known as the ‘cabriole road’ was designed for carriages. Use the link on the left to read about the park tour.

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.

Following 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. Restoration work began in 1983 and continues to the present day, aided by generous grants from many charitable bodies and private benefactors.

Many of Hamilton’s original creations have been restored and can be visited, such as the shell grotto, the Turkish Tent and the Gothic Temple.

Read more about the 18th century sketches of Charles Hamilton’s gardens at Painshill in the Surrey History Centre Marvel: William Gilpin’s Painshill sketchbook.

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