The China Garden at Biddulph Grange
Surely Biddulph’s most memorable garden with its bright, loud, foreign colours, lit up with gold, the China garden is a far cry from the pale classical temples or rustic huts of English landscape gardens.
It is also remarkable in that it has so many features packed close together - a pagoda, a bridge, monumental doorways, a joss house, a ‘Great Wall’ and a tower.
Bateman’s China garden is a hidden, mysterious place. It is approached either from the mystery of the Stumpery or from the ice-house tunnel that emerges into the back of the Pagoda. Both routes offer a different classic tableau of what it was thought a Chinese garden should be. From one direction, the view is of the red and turquoise Pagoda with its little lake and arching, gaily-painted wooden bridge, arranged like the design on blue and white willow-pattern plates. From the other direction. is a view over the water to the bridge and the Great Wall capped by the Joss House. In fact the whole garden is a series of criss-crossing vistas from one architectural feature to another, which offer new compositions along the way.
Rock and sculpture
Rock forms the core of the China garden with its gigantic tower and formal gateways and the curving curtain wall which encloses the Dragon Parterre. Some truly vast boulders were brought down from Biddulph Moor to stand beside the Pagoda and there is also porous tufa here, imported from Derbyshire.
Waterhouse-Hawkins’ most memorable sculpture is here, a gilded and canopied sacred water buffalo, perched on top of a wall and overseeing the whole scene. There is something wonderfully nonchalant about its pose that is typical of Hawkins’ work at Biddulph. The same manner can be seen in a nearby frog the size of a wheelbarrow.
In 1842, just as Bateman started to create Biddulph, the Treaty of Nanking opened up China to the west and the Horticultural Society (now the Royal Horticultural Society) sent an adventurous Scotsman, Robert Fortune, to see what Chinese plants or systems of agriculture might be useful to gardens in Britain. It is to Robert Fortune that Biddulph owes many of the plants in Bateman’s China garden: 190 plants came from Fortune’s many collections, including the hardy fan palm, Trachycarpus fortunei and Spiraea japonica var fortunei.
However, Bateman’s China garden was not created exclusively with Chinese plants. It was and is home to as many plants from Japan, Britain and America too. There are Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica), Sarawa cypresses (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Squarrosa’) and specimens of the Chinese golden larch (Pseudolarix amabilis, formerly fortunei), a deciduous conifer which Robert Fortune found in 1854, so beautiful when its leaves turn yellow in autumn; Biddulph still has one of the oldest specimens in cultivation. There is the pagoda tree, Paulownia tomentosa, remarkable for its large leaves, azaleas, bamboos, hostas, mahonias and the garden’s signature image: three huge Japanese maples.
A taste for the Chinese style
If the China garden seems astonishing to us today, we should remember that in making this area of the garden, Bateman was actually revisiting an older style. There had been a fashion for chinoiserie as far back as Louis XIV’s garden which continued through the 1700s but by 1800, the interest in Chinese gardening was fading. Bateman’s garden was a Victorian take on an older tradition, but this time the focus was as much on Chinese plants as on architecture.