Wrest Park: Lost and Found

English Heritage

Wrest Park House and Gardens

A Remarkable Rarity
Wrest Park in Bedfordshire is an exceptional curiosity: a house in the style of an 18th-century French chateau set within grounds that contain one of the few remaining formal gardens of the early 18th century. 

The gardens were improved and extended by successive generations of the de Grey family, owners of Wrest Park for over 650 years until 1917.

But the contents of Wrest Park have had a turbulent history. Most of the house contents were sold in the early 20th century and scattered across the globe.

Slowly, piece by piece, some of these objects and works of art have been brought back to their original home.

The contents of Wrest Park were sold off at a grand auction held over five days in September 1917, marking a sad end to the long tenure of the de Grey family. Everything from fine furniture and porcelain to the pots and pans in the kitchen came under the auctioneer’s hammer. As a result, most of the rooms in the mansion are unfurnished today.

The owner of Wrest, Nan Herbert, 9th Baroness Lucas, had decided to sell up after her elder brother, Auberon (Bron), the 8th Baron, was killed in action during the First World War.

The house had also been badly damaged by fire whilst in use as an auxiliary hospital, treating soldiers invalided back from the trenches.

Neither Bron nor Nan much cared for the trappings of aristocratic life, having had an austere childhood in the New Forest with their rather eccentric father, the radical thinker Auberon Herbert.

Bron had already sold some of fine furnishings from Wrest before the First World War, including perhaps the French tapestries in the Drawing Room (pictured here) which do not appear in the 1917 sales catalogue.

Earl de Grey had collected family portraits together in the library, placing them in chronological order.

The majority were sold in 1917, but this portrait of Henry, Duke of Kent, by Charles Jervas has recently been returned to its original position after being purchased at auction.

This group of full length portraits around the Staircase Hall was almost lost when the house and contents were again sold in 1939.

They were included as separate lots in the sales catalogue, but were purchased by the new owners of the house, the Sun Insurance Company, who used Wrest as their wartime headquarters.

As a result the pictures have remained in the positions in which they were placed when the house was built in the 1830s by Thomas, 2nd Earl de Grey.

The Gardens
While their grandeur is now undeniable, the gardens at Wrest Park have had a similarly turbulent history. 

Following the sale of Wrest Park in 1917, the magnificent gardens, developed over 250 years by the de Grey family, fell into decline. The new owner, John George Murray, simplified many of the designs for easier maintenance and neglected areas furthest from the house.

The 1930s saw the sale of many of the statues and garden ornaments.

The layout of this French garden was simplified during the 20th century but has now been restored after archaeological investigation.

All that is still missing are the eight statues that once stood in the corners of the two rectangular parterre panels.

These corner statues - four representing the seasons and four representing the elements of earth, fire, air and water - were removed in the 1930s

They can now be found at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire.

The stone edging from the Italian Garden was also sold by Mr Murray in the 1930s and taken to Ditchley, where it was used to create a new Italianate garden designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe.

In 1950 the predecessor to English Heritage, the Ministry of Works, bought back the edging and it was carefully reinstated in its original position.

After purchasing Wrest Park in 1917, Mr Murray made changes to the gardens which had been neglected during the First World War.

Amongst his earliest changes was the removal of the Rose Garden. This was replaced with a herbaceous border.

Aerial photography later revealed the location and arrangement of the original Rose Garden beds, and these were reinstated by English Heritage in 2011.

When Mr Murray left Wrest Park in 1933 he took many of the statues and garden ornaments with him to his new residence, Coles Park in Hertfordshire.

One of the items removed was Henry Wynne’s 1682 sundial. This had stood for many years within a semicircle of gravel on the south side of the terrace walk below the old house.

When Coles Park was sold and demolished in 1954, many of the ornaments were bought back.

These included the sundial, which was reinstated close to its previous position - sadly now lacking its original base.

The Great Garden, a formal woodland garden of the early 18th century, is an amazing survival from the period of garden design before the English landscape style became fashionable.

It was created by Henry, 12th Earl and later Duke of Kent, on either side of an existing formal canal called the Long Water.

Later owners have embellished the Great Garden, adding new features and more serpentine paths, but the original layout of formal rides and garden rooms ornamented with statues and monuments can still be clearly discerned.

Thomas Archer’s magnificent baroque pavilion provides a focal point for the garden, with formal rides radiating from it.

It was built between 1709 and 1711 by Henry, 12th Earl of Kent, to celebrate his elevation to the dukedom, and was intended to be used as a banqueting house.

This 1730 lead statue of Diana and Greyhound by Andrew Carpenter is another ornament removed by John George Murray in the 1930s and taken to Coles Park, Hertfordshire.

The statue remained with Murray’s descendants until 2011, when it was purchased at auction by English Heritage with assistance from the Arts Fund. It has now been restored and put back in the garden at the head of Ladies Lake.

These two 1720s lead urns, probably by John Van Nost the Younger, have now also been put back in their historical position in front of the Bowling Green House.

The 20th century saw a chequered time at Wrest Park. The house was turned over to institutional use, the gardens simplified and at times neglected. Many furnishings and garden ornaments were sold off and scattered around the globe, seemingly lost forever.

But, through decades of careful research and no small amount of detective work, English Heritage has brought some of Wrest Park’s treasures back home.

Credits: Story

Andrew Hann, Peter Moore, Rose Arkle

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