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David Stuart

describes the gardens of artist E. A. Hornel in Kirkcubright.


Scotland, so well known for its vast rhododendron gardens, and the castles and estates of great Victorian peers and magnates, has also a number of tinier wonders, where imagination and plantsmanship create magical gardens. One such, hidden but enchanting, can be found tucked away in a little town of lovely seventeenth and eighteenth century vernacular houses, where (unusally for Scotland), even the vennels are gardened. Kirkcubright, on Scotland's southwestern coast, windy but mild, is decorated with the town houses for local gentry too poor to overwinter in Edinburgh or London. Once roads improved, they left forever, and the town, with its picturesque harbour and castle, became, by the end of the nineteenth century an 'artists colony'. Here, the group called 'The Glasgow Boys', and numerous potters and craftsmen, came to stay. By far the most famous of the artists, and cetainly the most successsful, was undoubtedly E. A. Hornel, and it was here that he began to design and plant a fascinating garden.

Though born in Australia (in 1864), Edward Atkinson Hornel's parents moved back to Kirkcudbright in 1866, and their son was to live in the town until his death in 1933. He showed artistic promise very early, and was well known, and selling better, from the 1890's. He soon made enough money to start buying up handsome properties in the town, assembling furnishings and books, and buying plants. Like many European artists, he became fascinated, first by Japanese prints (especially those of Hokusai), and then by all aspects of Japanese culture. Unlike many, he managed a long visit to Japan in 1892-94, patronised by a Glasgow art dealer and the shipping magnate George Burrell.

The visit changed his life. It also changed his gardening. Hornel bought Broughton House, Kirkcubright's finest property, in 1900, and at once set about making a garden for it. Even the first garden building seems to have been at least partly in the Japanese idiom; a letter of 1907, written from Ceylon, bemoans the fact that he is missing the first flowering of his white wisteria (which is still tangled luxuriantly amongst the cherry trees), and the biggest show of his increasing collection of Moutan paeonies. Like any enthusiastic gardener, he also ran out of space, so he soon set about buying adjoining properties, and taking most of their gardens for his own.

But the collection continued to increase: on a second journey to Japan, he wrote that he was looking forward to visiting Japanese nurseries in the hunt for more plant. There are still a number of Japanese nursery catalogues, especially for irises and paeonies in the library at Broughton House. He was still, also, learning about Japanese gardens and gardening, visiting many of the private gardens of Kyoto, and painting them 'to his hearts content'. Though these studies were mostly for 'backgrounds' to human figures, the careful study of garden designs clearly brought rewards too.

Broughton House garden was in full flourish by 1916, when the garden is first described in 'Scottish Country Life', as 'bewitching', and Hornel as Kirkcudbright's most illustrious citizen. By 1925, photographs of the garden appeared in 'The Studio Yearbook of Decorative Arts'. They show the stepping stones (still there), over one of the ponds, all overhung by apple and cherry trees. The stones, with the combination of flat, worn, slabs, and dramatic uprights, show how fruitful were his Japanese journies. Other photographs show the long pool, fringed with irises, and dappled with water liiles, with overhanging conifers reflected in the open water. After Hornel's death, the house, the collection (which has extensive materials relating to Robert Burns, and to Galloway history), and garden were looked after by Hornel's sister. Following her death in 1951, the house became a museum, in the care of the E. A. Hornel Trust. By then, the garden had become overgrown, and some of the design obscured or derelict.

As Hornel horded papers, many of the plant orders to local and foreign nurseries survive in the collection, so it was possible to build up a clear picture of the garden's flora. This turned out to be a rather surprising amalgam, reflecting the garden's architecture, of new things recently introduced from the Orient, and old European 'cottage garden flowers': double and hose-in-hose primulas, Campanula persicifolia cultivars, hollyhocks, and a few Erica varieties, and much else.

Since the property was first opened to the public in 1951, the gardens have been slowly restored. This has been most actively pursued by the present gardener, David Russell. Since his arrival, box hedges have been rescued from other gardens in the area, and used to replace lost sections of hedging in the old rose garden. Pools have been recovered, excavated, cleaned, and replanted where necessary, and the rivulets and Japanese dripping fountains are once more fed from an immense tank installed by Hornel, and which collects rainwater from the roofs of house and studio. The overgrown cherries have been rejuvenated, and borders replanted with great skill, and mostly using plants known to have been grown by Hornel himself - especially anemones, hemerocallises, Japanese lilies. The lovely old conservatory has been repaired, and filled with quite simple plants, well grown. The little revolving summerhouse now sports E. A. Hornel prints and a pretty bonsai tree.

If you visit the museum, head straight for the garden door beyond the hallway; it opens into a sunken courtyard, once the laundry maids' haunt, now filled with pots and pieces of venerable stone, and half-enclosed by the walls of the house, wreathed with jasmine and clematis. At the far side, at the head of a short flight of steps, a pair of handsome classical gatepiers promise a surprise.

The surprise is that, instead of an '18th century revivalist' garden, or even an ordinary vamped-up cottage garden, there's a surprisingly pretty hybrid between 'fantasy Japan' and 'fantasy old-world cottage'. Fine Japanese garden lanterns find themselves next to Scottish sundials or wayside crosses. Clipped domes of greenery that would not be out of place in Kyoto, find themselves artfully placed next to rose pergolas and box hedges. It's a garden to be studied and cherished.

NOTE: Broughton House is now opened by the National Trust for Scotland – opening times on their website.


Copyright david stuart 2004