I love the magnificent Elizabethan House at Montacute with its ham stone walls, turrets, obelisks, statues and the banqueting houses in the East Court but have always been disappointed by the gardens surrounding the house. This could all be about to change. By using a photograph of the North Garden taken in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the National Trust is planning to recreate the elaborately designed parterre. Chris Gaskin, Head Gardener at Montacute, describes how the first stage of the project has been ‘to mow the designs into the grass, to give a feel of how it would have looked’. It is hoped that over the next five to ten years, gravel paths will be laid out followed by beds planted with brightly coloured flowers.
But when was the Parterre first created? Was the design similar to the Sunken Parterre at Hanbury Hall? The earliest mention of the North Garden is from a survey of Montacute dated 1667. Described as ‘a very fair Spacious Garden walled about’ the survey discusses how the area is ‘furnished with all sorts of Flowers and fruits and divers mounted walkes‘. Mounts had been used since medieval times and had become increasingly popular in England from the beginning of the sixteenth century. They were not uniform in their shape or height with the one at Hampton Court having a two-storied banqueting house at its top. Apart from being used as viewing points, mounts also took on an allegorical meaning with one visitor to Lord Burghley’s garden at Theobalds in 1613, describing the mount encircled by a maze as ‘Venusberg’. John Parkinson in his book Paradisi in Sole, published in 1656, comments on how fashionable Mounts are within a ‘four square form’ often with a ‘Fountain in the midst thereof to convey water to every part of the Garden.’ By following the latest trend in gardening, owners confirmed their status and wealth in society.
Two years after the survey of 1667, a dispute arose between three sisters regarding who was the rightful heir of Montacute. It took nearly one hundred years to resolve the argument during which period, the house fell into disrepair and no work was done on the garden. In 1750, Edward Phelips V claimed the estate’s ownership and the next description of the garden is from a survey of c1782 by Samuel Donne; it shows a mount and fountain in the North Garden but no parterre. Phelips was responsible for significant changes to the house and its setting but it is unlikely he introduced the design as by then, fashions had changed.
In 1845, William Phelips married Ellen Helyer of Coker Court, Somerset who brought her gardener, Mr Pridham, with her. I think it is more likely that Pridham created the Parterre to reflect the history of the house rather than the design being of Elizabethan origin. It is also possible that Pridham updated the central fountain although Reginald Blomfield includes several drawings of the feature in his sketchbooks in preparation for his book The Formal Garden, published in 1892.