Autochromes – a view of Welbeck’s historic gardens

Autochrome of the Edwardian garden at Welbeck Abbey

In this online talk, Derek Adlam explores the history of Welbeck Abbey’s great flower gardens through a rare series of glorious full-colour images.

Welbeck has a history of magnificent gardens including medieval monastery gardens, pre-civil-war water gardens and 18th-century landscape gardens.

Winifred, Duchess of Portland started to develop a grand stately home garden at Welbeck in around 1905. They included a quarter-mile long herbaceous border, fountains and balustrades, pergolas and a private sunken garden.

But her romantic garden did not last long. Following the start of World War One, the herbaceous border was dug up and planted with potatoes. The border was never restored. However, a rare collection of early colour ‘stereoscopic autochromes’ remains which show the gardens in their full splendour.

These evocative photographs are now the only record of some of the most remarkable flower gardens ever created in Britain.

In 1879 the 22 year old 6th Duke of Portland inherited Welbeck Abbey. The new Duke was horrified by the house is left by the burrowing Duke, describing it as a white elephant an inconvenient barracks. He wished to turn his back on it but his stepmother insisted he should live in the house and make it the centre of social life. He obeyed, he stayed. 10 years later, the Duke married Winifred Anna Dallas York of Walmsgate Hall near Louth in Lincolnshire. No doubt influenced by Duchess Winifred, and her mother Francis Graham, who had a strong interest in the arts and crafts movement, improvements to the Abbey began immediately; led by arts and crafts architect John Sedding and Henry Wilson. These works were to continue until 1913. A turning point was a fire in the Oxford Wing in 1900, it was an opportunity for some radical alterations to the house, including improvements to the internal circulation and a grand new classical façade for the east front behind which, the principal state rooms lie. With the family once more in residence of the repaired Abbey, attention could be given to gardens surrounding the house and a number of garden advisors and designers were called in. This period coincides with a great development in photography; the Lumiere brothers invention of the autochrome direct colour photographic process. This process was patented in 1903 and was introduced commercially in 1907, in the process a panchromatic black and white photographic emulsion on a glass plate is exposed through a microscopic mosaic of potato starch grains dyed red blue and green, the black and white image serves as a colour selection filter and a developed autograph plate viewed by transmitted light will be seen in full and splendid colour. By another fortunate coincidence, the Retford businessman Stephen Pegler, took early retirement and thereafter devoted much of his time to photography, especially stereoscopic photography using the autochrome process. Stephen Pegler, we owe The Portland Collection set of 50 pairs of stereoscopic autochrome plates showing the Welbeck Abbey flower gardens from about 1910 until 1928, all housed in a taxiphote, a stereoscopic autochrome viewing machine. The photographs which follow are all Pegler’s work digitally photographed and restored.

We can now move through the seasons in a great Edwardian garden in which horticultural skill was extraordinarily highly and all necessary labour easily available. In the campaign of developing the abbey gardens, the strongest influence appears to have been the partnership of Alfred Parsons on Walter Crocus and Tyler’s partridge commission to advise on the gardens by the 6th Duke. Alfred Parsons was a landscape painter and botanical illustrator. He’s best remembered today for his watercolours of roses painted for Ellen Wilmot’s famous book the Genus Rosa. We do not know how far his signs were adopted but the east terraces were laid out with formal parterres, gravel paths, clipped box hedging, blocks of trimmed used chipped pyramidal hollies. The centrepiece of the arrangement is a pool with a fountain topped with a figure of a small girl modelled on the young Lady Victoria, Duchess Winifred’s daughter. The sculptor, Alphonse Legros, French-born but a naturalised Englishman, taught at the Slade school, were notable for teaching a large group of distinguished women artists who became known as the Slade girls. His work on the two fountains for the 6th Duke of Portland was done after his retirement from the Slade.

The planting is notably not gardenesque or Victorian in style, the Spring bedding is in a free, relaxed, painterly manner with large intermingling drifts of tulips and scented wallflowers under planted in a mass of forget me nots and violets in blue and white, with early rhododendrons flowering in giant lemon ponds. This painterly quality was almost certainly derived directly from Alfred Parsons gardening style. An arts and crafts marriage of old and new.

Moving into early summer we move to the sunken garden and this is a remarkable area which was the intended site of a bachelor’s wing, which was underway at the 5th Duke’s death and then abandoned, leaving this great chasm to be further developed. The layout of the Sunken Garden or Duchess’ garden, in this cellar area was first proposed in 1909 by Alfred Parsons. As ideas for the sunken garden developed, Harold Peter of iford manor and architect Sir Ernest George were consulted, a member of the estate staff also made significant contributions. Harold Peter’s proposals of 1909 included waterworks, four dome temples and a colonnade, these improvements were not accepted. But Sir Ernest George’s proposal for a large north summer house was accepted, the Duchess writing on the plan, “I approve this very much”. Alfred Parson’s central feature of the large canal with two large semicircular terminations was modified into two separate pools surrounded by a grand stone and timber pergola which spans a broadstone flagged path. The centrepiece became a hard tennis court concealed by high clipped yew hedges. The design was completed by a small southern summer house, its roof supported by carriages, by sculptures, and antique well head of various toprio birds and ornaments.

Moving to high and late summer we come to the double herbaceous borders which are the climax of the abbey flower gardens. This double border was reached from the east terraces and laid out on a north-south axis between two lines of small leaved limes that were probably already about 100 years old, interrupted at its midpoint by an old venetian fountain with an attendant group of golden Irish yews, it was concluded at its far end by a painted and gilded curved iron chervoir. Another incident was provided by a pair of vases brought by Hudson and Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland’s gardens near the Hague.

Derek Adlam

Derek Adlam is the Curator Emeritus of The Portland Collection, author of Tunnel Vision: The Enigmatic 5th Duke of Portland and The Great Collector: Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford, and enjoys tending his garden at his historic Welbeck estate home.