Amphitheatres were popular in grand gardens in the early eighteenth century. Believed to be inspired by a theatre in the Vatican and illustrated in Serlio’s Tuttu l’Opere d’ Architura they were a feature in many gardens of the time but by the mid 1730’s the formal designs of the jardin a la francaise were out of favour as the English Landscape Garden became popular. Many amphitheatres were levelled and most have since been lost to time including those at Cliveden and Stowe. Claremont’s amphitheatre is believed to be the largest of its type left in Europe.
The amphitheatre at Claremont was designed by Charles Bridgeman for the Duke of Newcastle in 1716 but not built until about 1720-22.
Measuring 3 acres, it was carved from a hill with concave and convex terraces. Illustrations from the time don’t show any planting on the terraces but it was surrounded by an avenue of trees on the top semi-circle, set in woodland behind.
Bridgeman designed a round basin pond below to accompany the amphitheatre which was extended in 1738 by William Kent who had taken over landscape design to form a large, irregular shaped lake. The lake became a major feature and focal point of the garden and is one Claremont’s main focal points today.
Whilst the inspiration for such may have come from a theatre it is likely it was never intended to be a stage but as it is used today; as a viewpoint. At the time of building and up to the 1770’s the view from the top was of Claremont’s beautiful lake and out across the Surrey countryside towards London.
" Noun: 'an open circular or oval building with a central space surrounded by tiers of seats for spectators, for the presentation of dramatic or sporting events’ "
Our knowledge of the Amphitheatre comes from drawings, illustrations, letters and even diaries of the time. Such a notable structure would have been an important status symbol in a garden as it reflected the owner’s ambition and the designer’s expertise. A temple is shown on top of the amphitheatre in early plans but by 1754 there was a large covered seat replacing the temple. In 1817, Princess Charlotte commissioned John Papworth built her a teahouse in Neo-Gothic style. Sadly, she died before it was finished so her beloved husband, Prince Leopold, converted it into a mausoleum as a memorial to his wife. The mausoleum survived until the mid-20th Century when the stone was broken up to be used for a path. A tragic ending for a labour of love.
Subsequent owners of the gardens did very little work to them and by 1760 the amphitheatre had become overgrown. It was described as ‘now thick as possible with Ever-green shrubs…..’ By 1869, the description was like this: ‘the amphitheatre formerly cut into grass slopes is now covered with the greatest variety of Evergreens and looks very beautiful ‘.
During the restoration of the garden in the late 1970’s the trees and shrubs were removed from the Amphitheatre as it was brought back to life in its original form; a form of which only lasted for a period of about 20 years before it was planted in response to changing fashions.
The white painted seats you see today are specially commissioned replicas based on their appearance in paintings of the garden from the 1740’s by an unknown artist referred to as ‘The master of tumbling chairs’. They provide an artistic and practical counterpoint to Claremont’s green scenery.
The grade 1 listed amphitheatre is currently closed to the public as it has shown signs of considerable wear and tear over the past few years.
The gardeners tend to the sides every year by mixing seed and top soil and spreading it by hand and patting it down so the seed stays put. The steep slopes are cut by a remote control mower and currently the lower half is being tended to by a robotic mower which is on loan from a local supplier. However, Claremont’s dedicated gardeners continue to tend the slopes to repair the damage and restore it to its former glory.
The amphitheatre is an important part of Claremont’s history, both for the stories of the past owners, and also as a testament to the garden’s importance in Britain’s passion for all things horticultural.