In 1812 the artist JMW Turner totted up the cost of the garden he proposed to make from a rough sloping plot of sandy ground, around the tiny country house he was designing and building as a refuge from the noise and dirt of London: “100 planting. 20 Garden. 40 Pond”, he scribbled in the margin of his sketchbook.
Three seasons ago the garden was a builder’s yard, while the house was rescued from threatened collapse at a cost of £2.4m, but now sweetly scented old roses, hollyhocks – almost the only plant identifiable in a drawing made by a visitor in Turner’s day – and Canterbury bells are ruffling in the breeze, around a steep lawn of clover and wild flowers.
Restoring even the remaining fragment of the garden cost vastly more than Turner’s calculations. The project won a grant from the Prince of Wales Trust towards the planting and wildflower lawn, and volunteers gave thousands of hours’ labour but fundraising continues.
Sandycombe Lodge now stands in deepest suburbia in Twickenham, west London. Only a sliver of Turner’s original two acre garden survives, and his £40 pond could only be recreated by flooding the neighbours, but more than 150 species of plants have been packed in with more to come, surrounded by a picket fence replacing the 20th century wall. The consultant, Ellen Bramhill, sought out species known in Turner’s day, and also researched the planting at nearby Pitzhanger, the country home of his friend, the architect Sir John Soane. Her research has doomed the magnificent fat poppies which have seeded beside the front door, and a pretty white ground cover plant: both species only appeared in English gardens long after Turner sold the house in 1826, and will be uprooted and replaced with more authentic but less showy plants.
The art historian Catherine Parry-Wingfield, chair of the trust which now owns the house, calls it Turner’s only three-dimensional work of art. The garden was the domain of his father, Old William, and he is believed to be the little figure with a wheelbarrow in the drawing which was published in a book about the Thames, “A Picturesque Delineation of the Most Beautiful Scenery on the Banks of that River”. One visitor recalled how the retired Covent Garden barber filled his days happily as cook, housekeeper and gardener, “to be seen daily at work in his garden”. When Turner injured his leg, his father made a compress of camomile and poppy from the garden to soothe it.
The £40 pond, which Parry-Wingfield believes Turner probably enlarged from an old gravel pit, was stocked with fish caught on the nearby Thames. The fish kept mysteriously disappearing, and a visitor recalled that the artist eventually indignantly discovered a large perch living in the depths of his pond. “Turner would have it that it had been put in to annoy him.”
Turner also planted a willow by the pond, reputedly from a cutting taken from the famous garden created by the poet Alexander Pope in his riverside home further upstream. Turner was outraged when Pope’s house was demolished, and exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy showing its downfall. The willow did so well that his father complained that the garden was turning into “a mere osier-bed”.
The work eventually became too much for Old William – “always working in the garden and catching cold and required looking after” – and Turner sold the house in 1826, and 20 years later, made a useful profit selling his remaining little meadow to the railway company as the line to Windsor was cut through the landscaped estates and farm fields.
Despite the encroaching suburbs the profile of the sloping garden survived through many owners including a wartime factory. The last owner, Prof Harold Livermore, bequeathed the house to the trust, but by then it was so dilapidated that it found an ignoble place on the register of listed buildings in danger of being lost. Its restoration, involving demolishing later additions, has just won the RIBA London award and the RIBA London Conservation award for 2018, and has also been shortlisted for a Civic Voice design award.