The Holfords of Westonbirt
Westonbirt House and Gardens are the creation Robert Holford (1808-1892) and his son Sir George Holford (1860-1926).
Robert Holford was a connoisseur and scholar and one of the richest men in Victorian England. He assembled an outstanding collection of Old Master paintings, rare books, manuscripts, silver and ceramics, and was responsible for the construction of the present Westonbirt House and its magnificent gardens. He also expanded and developed the Westonbirt Estate and was responsible for planting the Arboretum.
Robert’s son George inherited the estate in 1892. A soldier and courtier, he was an Equerry to King Edward VII and regularly hosted royal visitors at Westonbirt. Although he did not share his father’s interest in art and rare books, he had a passion for tree planting and gardening and was an expert in the cultivation of orchids.
On Sir George’s death in 1926 the mansion and its collections were sold. The house became a school and has remained remarkably unchanged since then.
The present Westonbirt House is the third mansion to occupy this site.
An earlier Tudor house stood close to the eastern side of the church. This building was demolished in 1818 by George Holford (Robert’s father) and replaced with a new mansion in 1823.
The 1823 house was located 100 metres to the north of its predecessor on the site of the present mansion. It was relatively modest in scale and was designed in a Regency Gothic style. However, Robert Holford considered the Regency manor house to be too small and replaced it with the present mansion in the 1860s.
The huge Victorian mansion was designed by Holford and the architect Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871), based on the Elizabethan Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire.
The Holfords moved into the house in 1872. However, parts of the interior remained unfinished at the time of Robert’s death in 1892, and were not fully completed by his son George until 1921.
The Development of the Gardens
The Tudor manor house at Westonbirt appears to have had little in the way of gardens other than a large lawn to the north.
However, following the construction of its Regency replacement in 1823, Robert and his father George laid out more extensive gardens which included the Church Terrace to the south and a large octagonal garden to the East (broadly on the footprint of the present day Kitchen and Italian Gardens).
The Regency house was altered by Robert after the death of his father in 1839 and these works were accompanied by further developments to the gardens. The formal Italian Garden was laid out in the 1840s followed shortly after by the Mercury Garden and Bishop’s Seat.
The Long Terrace was added in 1846 and the informally planted west gardens laid out in the 1850s. After 1882 the gardens were extended southwards which involved the creation of a new lower terrace and the relocation of the Fountain Pond.
The Design of the Gardens
The design of the gardens at Westonbirt was largely the work of Robert Holford.
He received professional horticultural advice and assistance from William Broderick Thomas (1811-1898) and James Pulham (1820-1898). Most of the built elements of the gardens were designed by Holford’s architect Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871).
The gardens also reflect the ‘pituresque’ influence of the landscape designer William Sawrey Gilpin (1762-1843), especially the combination of the formal terraces and lawns immediately surrounding the house gradually giving way to informal areas featuring carefully placed specimen trees.
Robert Holford was particularly interested in trees, and he laid the foundations of the highly important collection that is now the National Arboretum.
Sir George Holford continued his father’s vision by planting many more trees. He also established celebrated collections of orchids and amaryllis. Such was his dedication to the gardens and arboretum that he employed 50 gardeners and 20 foresters on the Westonbirt estate.
The medieval village of Westonbirt was originally located to the south west of St Catherine’s Church. The village straddled the road to Easton Grey and in 1840 consisted of 10 cottages, a rectory and a farm house.
The site of the village frustrated Robert Holford’s plans to extend his gardens westward after he inherited the Westonbirt estate in 1839. However, in the early 1850s he had the village relocated half a mile further away. This gave him the space to create a new informal garden which featured numerous specimen trees, a lake and a rockery.
Completed in 1856, the new village consisted of a row of stone cottages designed by Lewis Vulliamy. The relocation of the village involved the diversion and culverting of the village brook and the eventual closure (c1868) of the road to Easton Grey.
The works to the gardens featured the construction of a sunken pathway (with an iron footbridge over) which allowed the villagers to access the parish church without disturbing Robert Holford’s privacy.
|1665||Richard Holford, barrister at law, inherits the Manor of Westonbirt on his marriage to Sarah Crew|
|1808||Robert Holford born|
|1818||Tudor house demolished by George Holford Snr (Robert Holford’s father)|
|1823||Regency House completed by George Holford Snr|
|1829||First trees planted in the Arboretum|
|1836-7||‘Village Garden’ laid out by George Holford Snr to the west of the church|
|1839||George Holford dies; Robert Holford inherits the Westonbirt estate – makes alterations to Regency House|
|1840s||Italian Garden laid out; Sunken Garden and Bishop’s Seat created|
|1843||Italian Garden pavilion designs by Henry Hanlen|
|1846||Long Terrace laid out|
|1847-52||Park enlarged by moving the Bath to Tetbury Road further to the North West and the Easton Grey road further to the East|
|1848||Pickards Lodge built|
|1852-81||Main phase of Arboretum planting|
|1853||North Entrance Gate and Lodges constructed|
|1854||New Hare & Hounds coaching inn built|
|1854-6||Westonbirt village relocated and rebuilt|
|1860||George Lindsay Holford born|
|1863-72||Regency house demolished; new neo-Elizabethan house constructed|
|1874-5||James Pulham & Co restore the lake and create the rockery|
|1880s||New lower terrace built to the south of the Long Terrace; Fountain Pond relocated|
|1892||Robert Holford dies; Sir George Lindsay Holford inherits|
|1926||Sir George Lindsay Holford dies|
|1927||Westonbirt House and Park purchased by the Martyrs’ Memorial Trust|
|1928||Westonbirt School formally opened on 11th May 1928|
|1956||Forestry Commission acquires Westonbirt Arboretum including Silk Wood (following the death of the Earl of Morley in 1951)|