Episode 145: Painting the Georgian Garden

I’m speaking to Dr Cathryn Spence this week, about Thomas Robins, a painter who documented the country estates of the Georgian gentry in all their Rococo splendour. Robins captured images of this flamboyant age of outdoor design where gardens were laden with symbolism and crammed full of Chinoiserie, follies ruins and the latest imports of exotic animals and plants. Follow the story of Robins as he moves from jobbing fan painter to star of his own paintings, the development of the floral borders around his canvases, for which he’s famed, and the evolution of the Georgian garden and what remains of this style today.

Dr Ian Bedford’s Bug of the Week: Fig wasps

What we cover

The artist Thomas Robins and when and where he worked

What gardens looked like at the time Robins was painting

What is a Rococo garden?

Why Robins painted floral borders around his paintings

How exotic species came to be included in these frames

In the book, Cathryn references “the Rococo’s requirement of asymmetry”. How did this manifest in Robins’ artworks and in gardens?

Political themes in Georgian gardens

Robins’ botanical art

How contemporary painters painted entire estates on one canvas

Remaining examples of rococo gardens

About ‘Nature’s Favourite Child – Thomas Robins and the Art of the Georgian Garden’

Thomas Robins the Elder (1716–1770) recorded the country estates of the Georgian gentry—their orchards, Rococo gardens, and potagers—like no other, with both topographical accuracy and delightful artistry, often bordering his gouaches with entrancing tendrils, shells, leaves, and birds. Robins’s skill was honed by the delicacy required for his early career as a fan painter and is shown too in his exquisite paintings of butterflies, flowers, and birds. This ravishing and scholarly study emerges from many years’ research by Dr Cathryn Spence, the curator and archivist at Bowood House who has also worked for the V&A, the Bath Preservation Trust, and the National Trust. This is the first full study of Thomas Robins since John Harris’s Gardens of Delight, published in two volumes in 1978; Harris, in fact, made over all his research notes to Spence in 2005 when she embarked on her work. Chinoiserie is everywhere—a wooden bridge over the Thames, delicious kiosks in a garden, a view of Bath with sampans, and Chinese fishermen on the river. There are also fascinating views of Sudeley Castle and other great houses that incorporated more or less ruined monastic structures, destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Spence has tracked down many previously unknown paintings by Robins and sets his elusive life and work in the framework of his patrons. More detective story than art historical monograph, this lavish study delights in Robins’s astonishing proficiency as a topographical, botanical, entomological and naturalist artist.

About Cathryn Spence

Dr Cathryn Spence is a museum professional, lecturer and historic gardens and buildings consultant. After a career in London and Bath museums, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Building of Bath Museum, she is now Lord Lansdowne’s consultant Archivist and Curator at Bowood House, Wiltshire. She has published several books on the architectural and social history of Bath, most recently The Story of Bath (2016). Her study of Thomas Robins is the culmination of over fifteen years research.  Cathryn has worked with the team at Painswick Rococo Garden, a site restored using Robins’s paintings from 1984, for the last 5 years advising on the continuing heritage and conservation of the garden.


Nature’s Favourite Child – Thomas Robins and the Art of the Georgian Garden
by Cathryn Spence is available from John Sandoe Books or directly from the author. Email thomasrobinselder@gmail.com (£45 to include p&p to a UK address, for RoW postage contact Cathryn on the above email for quote).

Painswick Rococo Garden

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