Richard Griffiths Architects restores the Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire
Richard Griffiths Architects’ £2m restoration of Robert Dudley’s ‘sensual paradise’ at Kenilworth is an exercise in authenticity
Architect: Richard Griffiths
Oak frame subcontractor: McCurdy & Co
Location: Kenilworth, Warwickshire
In 1575, Elizabeth I’s summer progress arrived at Kenilworth Castle where she spent 19 days as the guest of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. She was greeted by a display of opulence unrivalled at the time, including pageants, music, dancing, fireworks, hunting and feasting. Dudley, still hoping to persuade the queen to marry him, had added a suite of luxurious apartments to the medieval castle and created a pleasure garden, a sensual paradise with a 5.5m-high marble fountain at its centre, abundant scented flowers and fruits, shady arbours and a bejewelled aviary. But Dudley’s first wife had died in suspicious circumstances and he was unpopular at court, so despite his considerable efforts, the queen refused him.
No drawing of the garden survives and following the civil war, part of the castle’s keep was pulled down, covering the garden and destroying the original layout.
A Tudor garden was laid out in the 1970s, but archaeological excavations showed it to be an inaccurate representation of the original. After five years of work by historians, archaeologists, designers and gardeners, in May 2009 a £2 million recreation of the garden will be complete. Richard Griffiths Architects has co-ordinated the design, continuing its work at the castle, which has included restoration of the 16th century stables and a new green oak-framed admissions building.
Tales of the queen’s movements were recorded and lapped up with a similar ardour as today’s celebrity magazines. One account, written by Robert Langham, a cloth merchant in Dudley’s court, includes a highly detailed description of the Kenilworth garden which English Heritage has used for the new design.
Langham’s letter gives some measurements, but the accuracy of his description was unproven until the discovery by archaeologists in 2005 of the fountain’s foundations, which pinpointed the centre of the garden. The line of the former north wall was also revealed, along with several rubble-filled pit bases for timber obelisks at the centre of each quadrant. The absence of other foundations suggests the garden structures were timber, which was quicker and cheaper to use than stone.
By the 1570s, the Italian renaissance was gaining influence in British architecture. Dudley possessed books from Sebastiano Serlio’s Treatise on Architecture and was aware of engravings of renaissance gardens by Dutch architect and painter Hans Vredeman de Vries, known for his 1583 publication on garden design. For the new garden, a 1574 de Vries engraving was studied to determine the rhythm of the planting, the scale and the proportions of the layout.
McCurdy & Co, well known for its reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, worked with Richard Griffiths and David Honour, an independent historical adviser, to develop timber details that were buildable and authentic. “The authenticity comes from the construction”, says Richard Griffiths. “Trying to interpret by building rather than [by] studying drawings provides a greater understanding of the connection between style and construction.”
Planting in the new garden has been selected to be as authentic as possible to match species that would have been used in 1575.
The main structure of planting would have been low hedges arranged in symmetrical patterns, or knots, copied from French and Italian sources.
Hawthorne, juniper and bay would have been used for the hedges, while the knots would have been interspersed with summer-blooming Gillyflowers, a 16th century term for perfumed perennials such as pinks, carnations, sweet Williams, stocks and wallflowers.
In the Elizabethan period, flowers had rich symbolic value and would have been chosen to highlight the status of their owner and the glory of the queen.
Subsequent disturbance of the ground meant it was not possible to identify seeds from the period, and Langham is frustratingly brief on the details of the planting. He mentions apples, pears, cherries and strawberries, and “the sweet odours breathing from the plants, herbs and flowers”, suggesting Gillyflowers.
Dudley created a sensual paradise with a 5.5m-high marble fountain at its centre
On the north wall of the garden, Langham describes “a square cage, sumptuous and beautiful… replenished with lively birds”. It was like a jewelled casket, “beautified with great diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, and garnished with gold”.
In the Elizabethan era when such displays were put up for specific occasions, longevity was not a particular issue either for the building or the birds. In the new aviary, the birds will be species known to British aviculture in 1575 and those for which English Heritage is able to maintain a good standard of welfare. The first to be introduced will be canaries for their colour and song; later will come a pair of pheasants, European quails and pigeons.
The aviary’s oak frame is raised on a stone-clad concrete plinth, allowing flightless birds to be viewed at close quarters. Holes in the back wall lead to roosting boxes in a lean-to at the rear. Stainless steel zoo mesh will be fixed across the openings and over the roof, where it will be supported on a lattice of oak battens.
The primary frame has 420 x 420mm square oak corner posts which support continuous horizontal members, all with mouldings carved directly into them. Tudor architecture made no distinction between primary and secondary members.
“It is an architecture of tree trunks — unlike Georgian, which is an architecture of trim on a frame,” says Richard Griffiths.
At the corners, mitre joints were ruled out as they would just pull apart (the oak shrinks up to 8% across its grain but hardly at all along its length), so mortice and tenon joints were used instead. The structure is braced by solid oak haunches in each opening, and by curved oak braces between columns and roof beams. Once the oak has settled, the aviary will be painted a deep red to match the sandstone of the castle and further decoration will be applied. Jewels and motifs are being made from painted cast lead, with details taken from other structures in the grounds such as the gatehouse porch.
A 3.7m-wide terrace in front of the castle, 3m above the ground, is described by Langham, having “two fine arbours redolent by sweet trees and flowers” at either end. The new design refers to a 1565 engraving by Jacques I Androuet du Cerceau, and is the only element of the garden based on pure conjecture.
Made with green oak from Herefordshire, the arbours were built offsite, then dismantled and reassembed on site. A balustrade runs along the terrace with sculpted white bears, obelisks and spheres on plinths, all made from green oak and to be painted in the spring.
Compliance with modern engineering safety factors, particularly for wind loading, presented a challenge.
“A Tudor structure would have just blown over under such extreme conditions”, says Richard Griffiths. The guiding principle was that the authentic timber joint should not be altered but if needed, components could be added to strengthen it such as on the arches, where three jointed sections of curved timber had to be reinforced with a stainless steel T-section inset in the top.
The roof is an open lattice consisting of four hip rafters which curve first one way, then the other. McCurdy & Co used templates to source individual logs with the correct natural curves to minimise the likelihood of deformation in the future. The lattice trellises are made from nailed 75 x 20mm oak laths, riven (split along its grain) rather than sawn to give it greater resistance to decay.
Langham describes a white marble fountain at the garden’s centre with two male figures (atlantes) on an octagonal plinth, ranged back to back holding aloft a ball.
A new fountain, to be installed next spring, is being built by David Honour and sculptor Fairhaven & Woods, using descriptions from Langham and studies of a similar fountain in Austria. It is likely the original was carved in Britain rather than Italy as the rough blocks would have been easier to transport without damage. The plinth reservoir will be decorated with scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Langham notes a humorous aspect which will be used in the new design: if someone stands nearby, a tap can be turned on to send “water spurting upward with such vehemency as they should be moistened from top to toe”.
Architect Richard Griffiths Architects, Client English Heritage, Main contractor ROK, Fountain subcontractor Fairhaven & Woods, Oak frame subcontractor McCurdy & Co, Historical research Parklands Consortium, Garden design adviser David Jacques, Building design & mouldings adviser Richard Morris, Aviary structure & fountain adviser David Honour, Fountain iconography adviser Anthony Wells-Cole
Kenilworth photos by Morley von Sternberg