Early 18th-century engraving of Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK, ENGLISH HERITAGE
Wrest Park was home to one of England’s leading aristocratic families for over 600 years. Today it is an exceptional rarity, containing one of the few remaining formal gardens of the early 18th century.
‘Portrait of the Ladies Amabel and Mary Jemima Yorke’ by Sir Joshua ReynoldsOriginal Source: WREST PARK, ENGLISH HERITAGE
For nearly 100 years, the gardens at Wrest Park were managed and maintained by two women, Jemima, Marchioness Grey (1723–97) and her daughter Amabel (1751–1833). Their careful management of the garden resulted in the survival of many of the features we see today.
Wrest ParkOriginal Source: Wrest Park
Set alongside the surviving features of this garden are additions and alterations made by subsequent owners. However, the respect shown by those who came after preserved Wrest’s remarkable quality. Even the new gardens added in the 1830s did not conflict with the earlier scheme.
Portrait of Henry, Duke of Kent by Charles Jervas, Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK
Jemima inherited Wrest Park in 1740 after the death of her grandfather. She had visited Wrest Park throughout her childhood and would have known the gardens well. She left the management of the estates to her husband but showed a keen interest in the gardens.
Root House, Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK
Jemima was tutored in garden design, surveying techniques, geometry and astronomy by the great polymath, Thomas Wright. It is vividly apparent from her letters that she had her own vision for the gardens.
Sundial and its travels to Coles Park, movement of the statues around itOriginal Source: WREST PARK
Her letters written while staying at Wrest Park during the summer months show her affection for the house and gardens. She wrote to her daughter, Amabel: ‘home has always beauties … that no other place can equal.’
A statue in the garden at Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK, ENGLISH HERITAGE
In 1749 she writes of her rapture for the garden: ‘You ask if it is in Beauty? Nothing can surpass it. the Ground cover’d with the richest verdure, the Trees the most flourishing, the Flowers the most fragrant, & the birds the most harmonious that you can imagine.’
A day at Wrest Park for Jemima and her guests would often include a walk in the park and tea in one of the numerous garden buildings. In 1787, Amabel describes how they ‘breakfasted at the Bath-House & Tuesday drank Tea at the Bowling Green’.
In 1748 Jemima began making some small alterations to the garden. She, along with her husband and friends, built a stone ‘altar’ as an elaborate intellectual joke. The monument bears a cryptic inscription, apparently inspired by the ‘Athenian Letters’.
An 1831 illustration of the altar at Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK, ENGLISH HERITAGE
The letters were purportedly written by an agent of the King of Persia, but were in fact entirely imaginary, having been published privately by Jemima, her husband and their friends. Unsurprisingly, visitors were mystified by the inscription, much to Jemima’s amusement.
A bridge over one of the streams at Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK, ENGLISH HERITAGE
Between 1758 and 1760 the gardens were altered with the assistance of leading garden designer ‘Capability’ Brown. He replaced many of the straight canals that went through the gardens with meandering streams.
In 1770, a column was created celebrating the creation of the gardens. The inscription describes ‘the professional assistance of Lancelot Brown Esq’. However, Brown was only given limited freedom by Jemima, and the older garden design remained mainly untouched.
In the late 1750s Jemima modified one area of the garden forming a separate ‘set piece’, reminiscent of scenes found on Chinese tableware and wallpapers of the time. This included a wooden Chinese bridge, temple, conch shell water feature, willow tree and tulip tree.
The Bath House was designed and built in 1769–71 by the architect Edward Stevens for Jemima. It resembles a semi-ruined classical building, patched up in a rustic way, with a thatched roof and cobble floor inlaid with a pattern of deer bones.
One of the water features in the landscaped gardens of Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK, ENGLISH HERITAGE
In 1774 the gardens were sketched by Amabel for Catherine the Great’s Wedgwood dinner service. Jemima wrote to Amabel asking to include in the drawings ‘the different views of the water round the garden at Wrest … also the Bath & Room at Wrest’.
Bridge and lake in the landscaped gardens of Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK, ENGLISH HERITAGE
These views showed changes made to the gardens by Jemima.
Amabel inherited Wrest Park after Jemima’s death in 1797. Amabel’s meticulously kept journals give a vivid insight into life at Wrest Park. They suggest she was less emotionally attached to Wrest Park than her mother, though she continued to manage and care for the gardens.
An 1831 illustration of the antique altars at Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK, ENGLISH HERITAGE
Amabel made very few changes to the garden. However, she purchased five antique altars which were placed in the garden in 1817. They were positioned within an existing circular clearing which had been part of the garden since at least 1735.
Wrest ParkOriginal Source: Wrest Park
Amabel also had to make some tough decisions. She had many of the original lead statues melted down to provide lead for repairing the roof of the house. She later spoke about this with regret as she felt it depopulated the garden.
View over the water towards the house at Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK, ENGLISH HERITAGE
Amabel died in 1833 and was succeeded by her nephew Thomas Philip de Grey. He demolished the old house and built the current one further north. This allowed the garden to be extended without removing any of the older phases.
The French garden at Wrest ParkOriginal Source: WREST PARK, ENGLISH HERITAGE
Philip added the formal flower gardens to the south and west of the house. The intricate design is typical of the formal flower gardens that had become fashionable again in the early 19th century. He also added new kitchen gardens and a new French-style orangery.
In 2011 English Heritage embarked on a 20-year programme to restore the gardens at Wrest. This includes works at the bath house, the roman altars, and the ‘set piece’ around the Chinese temple, to restore them to how they looked when Jemima and Amabel lived at Wrest.
Text by Emily Parker
All images are copyright of Historic England, except for ‘Portrait of the Ladies Amabel and Mary Jemima Yorke’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is in the public domain, courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art/Bequest of John L Severance