The details shown of the garden are remarkable. A mounted figure is shown approaching a wooden front entrance from where he would dismount using the mounting-steps shown by the stables (probably contemporary with the garden). A gate to the right leads to the upper terrace with an impressive row of stone vases and red brick garden houses on each end. From there an elaborate semi-circular stairway leads to a flower garden with fruit trees growing against the wall. From a gazebo there is a view down to the third terrace with a central fountain and two summer houses. A slope flanked with specimen trees leads down to the Neptune pool and a further bridge in the bottom right corner leading to the river Clwyd. Philip Yorke, author of Royal Tribes of Wales, records that the garden contained a sundial with the inscription, 'Alas my friend time soon will overtake you And if you do not cry, by God I’ll make you', a reference to the fact that the sundial spouted water in your face. A seventeenth-century poem by Ffoulk Wynn describes the garden as follows: 'Elegantly he diverted streams of cold water into his gardens and, praise he, he can wander in a great garden which he made, in the grounds about his mansion, and costly are his devices!'
There are two versions of the picture. A smaller painting, similar in most respects – with the exception of its inclusion of St Asaph’s Cathedral on the horizon – was acquired in 1968 by the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven from Leggatt Brothers, the London dealers. It had previously been owned by Mrs Patrick Hardman, and in the nineteenth century was lent by A. Whitehall Dod of Llanerch to an exhibition at Wrexham. Mr Whitehall Dod had succeeded to the estates of Llanerch in 1841 on the death of his grandmother, the last of the Davies family. This suggests that the larger version hung from an early stage at Gwysaney, another property of Mutton Davies.
A History of the Garden
By Elizabeth Whittle
Standing on the terrace in front of Llannerch Hall and looking eastwards down the steep, smooth grass slope to the valley floor and winding river Clwyd below it is hard to imagine that this rural scene was once the site of the most Italianate garden ever made in Wales. This is the garden laid out by Mutton Davies in the 1660s (probably finished in 1665) that is celebrated in the contemporary bird’s-eye view painting from Gwysaney, the Davies family home nearby.
Mutton Davies must have returned from Italy in 1658 with Italian gardens such as the Villa d’Este, Pratolino, and maybe even the great, terraced French garden of Saint-Germain-en-Laye fresh in his mind. In his new garden no Italianate element was left out and in particular water was harnessed so as to dominate the garden with pools, fountains, a formal cascade, hydraulic statues and water tricks. The last two were such novelties in north Wales that visitors went on remarking on them into the nineteenth century. Sadly, the garden met its end in the Victorian era.
Nothing as remotely Italian was created in Wales during this period, although many grand houses possessed formal, sometimes terraced, gardens, some dating back to the Tudor period. The great baroque gardens of Powis Castle and Chirk Castle were yet to come. Sketches by Thomas Dineley in The Beaufort Progress (1684) give glimpses of formal elements in gardens attached to the grand houses of the day: Powis Castle had a fountain, Margam Abbey pools, Ruperra Castle walled enclosures, all swept away. Chirk Castle’s terraced early garden, at Whitehurst, was made by Sir Thomas Myddleton in 1651. Its interest here lies in the ‘forreigne’ plants recorded as growing there, including orange and lemon trees. It is very likely that these would have been grown in the Llannerch garden not far away. The Gwysaney painting shows rows of fastigiated trees looking suspiciously like Italian cypresses.
One Welsh garden contemporary with that of Llannerch, Llanfihangel Court in Monmouthshire, is not only a remarkable survival from the period but is also celebrated in a similar bird’s-eye view painting. The terraced garden, summerhouses and axial avenues in the park were the creation of John Arnold, a Whig politician, in the 1670s. As with the Gwysaney painting, this layout, formal but not Italianate in the same way as Llannerch, is depicted in a large contemporary painting.
The Gwysaney painting gives a very rare and astonishingly detailed glimpse of a lost jewel in the Welsh cultural crown. Were the garden to exist today – and who knows what is buried beneath the turf? – it would be an extraordinarily unusual little piece of Italy transposed into the rural idyll of the Vale of Clwyd.
We are grateful to Elizabeth Whittle, author of Historic Gardens of Wales, for this additional note.
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