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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Cathryn Spence 0:01

So Thomas Robbins is a jobbing artist who comes from quite a normal working class family born in Charlton Kings, which is really now a suburb of Cheltenham. I think it’s just absolute fortune, that a gentleman who happened to be renting a house in Charlton Kings. And he was a fan painter. And Thomas Robbins was apprenticed to him. And I mean, he may well have just been a house servant, or he may have been, you know, an actual artistic apprentice, but he certainly started his career as a fan painter. And you can see that everything that he does, the details, he’s so intricate. And chances are if Jacob had not been in Charlton kings, Thomas Robbins would have been accomplished but probably a sign painter. He wouldn’t have been the artist that we’re still sort beguiled by.


Sarah Wilson 1:08

Wow, that’s, yeah, that’s a thought to contemplate. So did he stick pretty much around where he lived when he did his paintings?


Cathryn Spence 1:17

He is very much based in Gloucestershire, a lot of paintings are of Gloucestershire, but he came to Bath for the season. So he’s around in the 18th century, and he is coming to Bath but he’s living still living in Charlton Kings. We know that he refers to himself as of Charlton Kings until the 1760s. But he comes to Bath for the fashionable season. He is in a shop just near the Abbey and the Baths working with George Baron, who is a toy shop owner and toy shops, they sold everything trinkets, fans, engravings, you know, little sort of memorabilia that people would buy from their trip to Bath. And he’s there, and we know he’s producing engravings of Bath. He must have been producing fans. But also he travelled out of the Bath fashionable season. He travelled up to Severn, and he’s at Davenport. So places which the 18th century accomplished, educated people would have been really fascinated by, when people were collecting images of ruins and antiquities, it’s that kind of time of trying to understand Britishness and I suppose it’s the sort of, you know, it is the British arrogance and ego really coming to the fore in the 18th century, we were a very, very powerful country, and really celebrating where we’ve come from and our history, but all sorts of other things and other cultures as well, which is what he shows in his garden paintings. And the garden paintings. They’re really sort of middle class, gentlemen, you know, people who’ve made good, they’re not very, very wealthy, you know, born and bred. But they’re adopting quite extraordinary styles. Egyptian, Indian, what we now call Chinoiserie and it’s all been cloaked in this style, which we call the Rococo. And so Thomas Robbins is very, very associated with this Rococo gardening style in the mid 18th century. So he travels around, but he doesn’t cover the whole country.


Sarah Wilson  3:42

So when you mentioned Rococo gardens, they sound very much an eclectic mix. And they were also an expression of, I presume, individual personality.Were they expressing anything else through gardens at the time?


Cathryn Spence 3:59

It’s the historians way, isn’t it? We, I mean, I don’t want to project onto these people. But I do. I do feel that they were sending messages with their gardens and lots of historians can read the political messages and political allegiances that were going on. And they adopted them because they were more liberal minded. They tended to be weaker in terms of politics, not Tories. And they were very much lovers of good, good, free living outside, sort of living off the land. They wanted people to enjoy their gardens and visit them and they also have plunge pools and they all had lots of fruit and vegetables. They use their gardens in a very productive way. And they spent a lot of time in the gardens, which is also why you have these buildings where they could take tea or eat ice cream, and those very fashionable things, but it meant their gardens were for all all weathers and climates.


Sarah Wilson  5:16

And was there a lot of symbolism used or, as you say, political allegiances expressed through things like statuary?


Cathryn Spence 5:26

Not as much as if you look at somewhere like Stowe, I mean, that is just screaming. So much imagery. There are elements, but not to quite the same degree. It’s more the whole, the whole kind of atmosphere, the whole feeling, even adopting a Rococo style of assymetrical paths, dotted with buildings, but they tend to be on a smaller scale. They’re not the great estates of Stowe, for instance. They’re also plantspeople, they’re exchanging plants, that seems to be a link, as well between the people that Thomas Robins’ works for. And he was very much part of the exchange of exotic specimens, insects as well as plants, so they’re very passionate about gardens in the way that I think we are now as well. They are growing things and they’re trying new things. So I think that the the type of plants that they are sharing and growing is symbolic, it links them.


Sarah Wilson  6:49

Yeah, it’s  a more cosmopolitan feel, I suppose in a garden.


Cathryn Spence 6:53

Yes, yes, definitely. Yeah. Yes, I agree.


Sarah Wilson  6:57

You said obviously, if somebody favoured the Rococo, then you may read that they were more liberal. Was the Rococo style a backlash against another style that came before it?


Cathryn Spence 7:12

Yeah, this is what we don’t know. I mean, and this is something that I argue in the book, really, you can probably look at any garden in the 18th century and you could say, it’s got various elements, which you could say is the Rococo garden. And were they Rococo gardens? I’m saying why not? They have very similar elements. And they have a similar sort of impetus behind them. And it is the rejection of the very formal, and the styles of the 17th century. And this really starts with people like Burlington, and William Kent, and there’s a development of that. But it’s either that they would have their classical Palladian style, in a smaller country house. And then they just go wild in the gardens. So it was a place for, for greater expression. And then they would break that symmetry in their houses by putting in sort of double height canted bays. So then they could actually admire the gardens, so that the link is very strong. And that’s something that I found in all the houses that Thomas Robins painted. They all had later additions in sort of in a big window spaces, so they could enjoy their gardens and look at them so that the link is really important.


Sarah Wilson  8:56

Yeah, that’s interesting, because you actually do reference the Rococo, I’m quoting here, there were Coco’s requirement of a symmetry. And I wondered how did that manifest maybe in Robins artwork or in gardens themselves?


Cathryn Spence 9:09

Yes, I mean, what comes first? I mean, so, Robins, definitely, we think of tendrils of honeysuckle always framing his pictures on a fan, or one of these prospects of the garden views. And it really goes hand in hand you know, he couldn’t have put beautiful sinuous tendrils around a very straight gravel path, topiary type scene. So, he’s part of it. And he’s obviously encouraging it as well. I mean, his representations have become synonymous with this idea of the Rococo And I mean, if you look at somewhere like Painswick, which was put back using his painting, actually, there’s there’s only maybe two paths. So the sinuous paths. There’s some really straight sort of axial grids that run across the painting. But they’re linking aspects and features in that garden. But those features are things like a statue of Pan the position that he did originally have near the cold bath and the plunge pool was the only place where you can see the whole of the garden. But it’s this really straight, diamond shape. So this idea that it was all sort of tenuous, is a bit of a misnomer. Again, it’s a combination. There’s no nice, simple way to describe a Rococo garden. And of course, they wouldn’t have called it a Rococo garden, this is something that we’ve put on it later. It’s a sort of 20th century term, John Harris, trying to find a way to understand these gardens. And because of Thomas Robins we know that perhaps they only lasted, were only fashionable from the 1750s to the 1770s. Well, that’s his working life. So there were others. But they there tend to be smaller, created by the gentry rather than the aristocracy. And Robins seems to be the person who painted them. But there are other aspects that are painted, or captured at that time, and not just by Thomas Robbins. But he has a very, very distinct style. And I think he knew the owners, I think he was friends with them, I think he got what they were trying to do what they were trying to create.


Sarah Wilson  12:03

It must have been a very good time to be alive and to be painting. It does look like there was a lot of fun to be had. It’s interesting what you said about him knowing the people who he was working for, because he quite often paints himself into the pictures. And it’s, it’s quite close to the mark. I think some of his pictures, he’s rolling around with ladies, you know, more or less. You know, it’s a little bit I mean, imagine improper for that kind of time. You know, so how did that come about? What was he you know, was he just having fun when he did that?


Cathryn Spence 12:39

Yeah, I like to think he was tremendous fun. I mean, you look at his earlier paintings, and he’s quite, you know, quite slim and studious, and miniature, you know, but you can always spot him, he’s there. And he has those early ones. He’s still got his coat and his hat on, and he’s got his drawing board, and he’s on his own or perhaps with a child. And then as the years go by, he’s always with a woman. And, you know, the coat and the hat have been thrown off. And you’re lucky if there’s a paintbrush near. So, no, I think he was having a really good time. And I think it I think our problem is that we are very much the children of the Victorian period. And, you know, the Georgians knew how to have a good time. They lived life. And I think, you know, when, when your life expectancies is actually quite short, you do you take moreen joyment from it. So, yes, he gets sort of more portly, his nose gets bigger and rounder. And he’s, you know, rolling around in the foreground, very, very much on show. I’m part of the fun and part of the scene here. That’s what he’s saying.


Sarah Wilson  13:58

Yeah. So you mentioned he draws borders around his paintings, which he does that, you know, the frameworks really for of the main image, using botanical examples, I suppose, have lots of varying types, really. So what was the idea behind doing that? Was he one of the first people to do it? And and what did he actually paint into those borders?


Cathryn Spence 14:22

Yeah, so he’s not the first to do it. You could you could even go back to illuminated manuscripts and find similar borders. So he’s not the first, but he is incredibly accurate. They are all very identifiable as specific specimens. But what is fascinating to me about about him as well is that he’s part of the exchange. So in the 18th century, the plant hunters and people are buying from across the world and trying to make things grow here. And he’s part of that exchange, that sort of interest in science, which is growing. And his son, one of his sons, is based in Jamaica, and he is commissioned to paint the flora and fauna of Jamaica as a record. And those paintings come back, but also specimens come back; dead butterflies, but also live plant matter, which then Robbins and his contacts are painting, and capturing and adding to their decorative works. But also, people are cataloguing and, and also then trying to grow. And people like Dr. Portland, she’s part of this, she knew Robins. And you see this sort of link, actually, that the people that were part of that of that exchange, I then found that they had a link with Robins, they own something by him, or he had painted their house and garden. So I think what’s really driving all of this is actually more importantly, the botanical record and the insect record that’s going on, and then perhaps, as an aside, he’s painting their houses as a record. And as a present. And I think that there are commissions, definitely commissions, he is a prospect painter. But this exotic exchange is probably of greater importance, and probably is he really got to know the people. And his level of importance is based on that, I think.


Sarah Wilson  17:06

Presumably, then what he is painting in the borders does usually bear a relevance to what’s found in the garden or in the collection of that particular homeowner, or is it sometimes just that he’ll take things, he’ll extrapolate from what’s on site and kind of incorporate that into the border? Does it get more exotic as he goes on?


Cathryn Spence 17:26

Yeah, yes, it does, actually does get more exotic as as his career progresses, but that equally could be because his contacts have opened up and they’ve got more things. But I do think there is a correlation between what’s in the borders, and what he saw at the houses. So friends of mine, who are much more expert at botanical identification, have seen, let’s say, for example, the paintings of Woodside, they have seen plants in the borders, in the garden borders of the painting, which are then also found in the borders of the framework of the painting. So he is making a link and the type of plants there are exotics, you know, they’re not things that everyone would have had that time. So he is showing that this particular owner has has an important collection, whilst also obviously enjoying painting something beautiful and something new.


Sarah Wilson  18:30

So he also did some botanical studies, I think, didn’t he? So was that just an aside to his normal work?


Cathryn Spence 18:38

So yes, there are far more botanical studies than there are finished garden pictures. And I think there’s a mix of things. There are studies which we then can absolutely link with garden pictures. So he’s practising or, you know, he’s spending a specific amount of time really understanding a particular plant, and then he can successfully transpose that into a border frame for his painting. But also he’s teaching how to do botanical work, and paint insects and that’s something that he does with Henry senior down at Dorset in Hanford House. But they would have also exchanged those paintings. And so you’ve got one son working in Jamaica, his job is to collect visually collect a record and they come back and they’re exchanged and, they have another son, also Thomas, who is more known as strictly a botanical artist. And he, he very pointedly puts it, all his paintings are painted from nature in Bath. And these are all exotic, and, and natural, but, you know, pretending to be more exotic plants. And so what he’s saying is, I’ve actually got this plant in front of me, I’m seeing it. And so these are the things which are being sent, probably by Luke the brother. And so those will be collected, those will be sold and be as profitable for them as artists, as his prospects of gardens. So he’s in there, they’re all interconnected, all interrelated, but they are about making a living, and recording things and selling things. And people are collecting views of antiquities, ruins, collecting themes of their own garden, they’re collecting fans. And they’re collecting visual representations of plants and butterflies, from the New World,


Sarah Wilson  21:25

Talking about his commissions, I think both Robbins and contemporary artists, were painting entire estates. And as I was reading through the book, I was looking at views, at how they’re rendering them, it was almost as if they had used a drone or been up in a hot air balloon or something where they were looking down upon the entire estate. And I wondered if you could just talk about how they might have visualised those views, and also how they rendered them on on canvas, because it was really interesting, the techniques used to get the entire estate into one picture.


Cathryn Spence 22:07

There are artists who do these sorts of estate paintings now. And through them, we can understand how these artists did it, and it probably is one of the first and those real kind of bird’s eye views trying to get the whole estate in, and artists working now, they will literally walk the site. And, sort of measure it out, you know, foot by foot, and take notes. And then they just have this extraordinary skill of kind of imagining themselves above and up. And of course, the whole point was to get the entire estate in. And it comes, I think, from a tradition of mapmaking. And that’s where that that sort of visual up in a balloon aspect comes from. But the whole point was, obviously to show as much as you possibly could. And then, as time goes by, and I think maybe influenced by Burlington and Kent who start introducing sort of garden rooms in different spaces, which are hidden. And that’s something very much found in the 18th century gardens, they do not reveal themselves all at once, you know, you’re supposed to turn a corner and be completely inspired by the next scene. And so then people started to realise that actually, what you need to do is produce a series of paintings, you see that Robbins does that as his career goes on, he doesn’t actually then try and capture the whole estate, like he did Painswick. He does, you know, aspects of the garden, a particular feature, and then they they are more sort of straight on, as we recognise a photograph representation of something. So he picks on a feature and captures as much as he can around that. So that’s quite good for him, because then he’s producing maybe two or three paintings of the same site rather than just one. So in terms of, you know, commercial, economic success, he can paint three paintings rather than one.


Sarah Wilson  24:26

Yeah, yeah. He was very smart. And that technique is for somebody like me, who is utterly useless, visualising that kind of thing. It’s very impressive, isn’t it? Yeah. So you mentioned Painswick. My last question is, are there any other examples of Rococo gardens left?


Cathryn Spence 24:48

Yeah, I mean that there are more Rococo gardens than we would like to admit. So, yes, okay. So there’s Painswick Rococo garden which has been put back you to its original state using his painting, in the 1980s. And, you know, we still strive very hard to make that garden as accurate as we can to how it was in the 1740s-1750s. But I would argue that there are gardens like Prior Park in Bath, which was as Rococo, also drawn by Thomas Robins, there are loads and loads of drawings that he did of Prior Park garden, there must have been a finished painting. Quite sure there was. And there were definitely sort of elements in those bigger gardens. But people I don’t know garden historians aren’t keen to say a garden is Rococo, but I mean, I would say there are aspects of it at Painshill and at Stourhead, which you could say have have a Rococo feel to them.

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