Garden of the imagination: Lady Londonderry’s Mount Stewart

Edmond Brock, Circe and the Sirens, 1925

The gardens at Mount Stewart in County Down, Northern Ireland are one of the most celebrated and original gardens of the 20th century. Nearly one hundred years after they were designed, they continue to resonate with the unique personality of their creator, Edith, Lady Londonderry (1878-1959).

Neil Porteous, Head of Gardens at Mount Stewart, tells the story of Lady Londonderry's artistic vision and influences in the making of her gardens.

An idiosyncratic creation

When Edith Helen Chaplin married Charles Stewart Henry, eldest son of the 6th Marquess of Londonderry in 1899, she was marrying into a wealthy and powerful dynasty of Conservative magnates. Sixteen years later, Charles (Charley) succeeded to the title of 7th Marquess, Edith became the Marchioness of Londonderry and the couple inherited Mount Stewart. 

Between 1917 and her death in 1959, Edith oversaw the design, implementation and management of Mount Stewart's formal gardens – each made up of themed compartments which include the Italian, Spanish, Sunken, Mairi and Shamrock Gardens. Taking advantage of the mild climate of Strangford Lough, Edith was able to amass an unrivalled collection of rare and tender plants from across the globe, and experiment with bold and exuberant planting schemes.

Edith intermixed trees, shrubs, vines and herbaceous plants to create an informal effect within the formal parterres as seen here in the Italian Garden
The Formal Gardens seen from the terrace at Mount Stewart

Edith imbued the gardens with rich symbolism and theatrical imagery, making Mount Stewart a wonderfully unique, idiosyncratic creation. Personal triumphs are celebrated, stories from Greek mythology alluded to and themes from Gaelic folklore represented, all in a light-hearted and highly imaginative way. Where did it all come from?

Mythological influences

As members of the aristocracy, Edith and Charley (Lady and Lord Londonderry) spent much of their time socialising and engaging in political affairs. In January 1915, Edith formed the Ark Club, a circle of family and friends who met at weekly meetings over dinner. This ritual bolstered the morale of the Londonderrys' social and political circle, offering a much-needed reprieve from wartime work.

Edith, Lady Londonderry was an influential society hostess and patron of the arts. Here she is painted by Philip de László in 1913 / Mount Stewart NT 1221349
Portrait of Lady Edith Helen Chaplin, Marchioness of Londonderry

Although membership in the Ark was by invitation only, the club quickly grew to include an eclectic mix of personalities ranging from poets to politicians. Members were required to adopt an alliterative name of a real or mythological creature. Edith became 'Circe the Sorceress'. Circe, the alluring figure from Homer's Odyssey, charmed Odysseus and his men to stay on her island before she turned them into pigs. The name of the mythical enchantress stayed with Edith for the rest of her life.

The Dodo Terrace

After the war, Edith chose to celebrate members of the Ark Club on the Dodo Terrace in the Italian Garden with a collection of eclectic and playful sculptures. In doing so, Edith was working in a long-standing European tradition of weaving Classical mythology into garden layout, architecture and ornament. Edith selected deities and mythological figures as a means to comment on her life history, accomplishments, values and politics. These include statues of an Ark and of various living, extinct or mythical creatures, including dodos, griffins, a mermaid and a hedgehog.

The statues were modelled by Thomas Beattie, a stonemason from Newtownards, using OPC (Ordinary Portland Cement), an early form of  cast concrete. It was an innovative approach to new materials, adopted for other sculpture and structures throughout the garden.

The influence of travel

Edith's love of plants and gardening grew out of her travels. Early in her marriage, she visited the great Moorish palaces of Andalusia and their seductive gardens. Years later, when it came to creating the Spanish Garden at Mount Stewart, Edith called upon the design motifs she encountered in Spain.

The cypress arcade, which lines the edges of the Spanish garden, draws in particular upon an early 16th-century description written by the Venetian traveller Andrea Navagero. Navagero described how similar arcades were used by the Moors to line the water parterre of the Garden at the Palacio de Generalife in Andalusia.

The Spanish Garden at Mount Stewart draws on an early 16th-century description of the Garden at the Generalife Palace in Andalusia, Spain
The Spanish Garden at Mount Stewart

In 1906, using her influence and contacts, Edith managed to visit many of the famous Renaissance gardens of Italy. Elements of some of these would later be adapted into the design of the gardens at Mount Stewart.

The inspiration for the balustrade for the South Terrace, for example, came from the water parterre of the Boboli Gardens in Florence. The statues, or 'herms', that mark the southern boundary of the Italian Garden are inspired by those at the upper garden of the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. While the Farnese examples take the traditional shape of muscular, male figures, Edith selected imagery for the herms to reflect her persona of Circe. The herms have the faces alternatively of Circe and Odysseus’s sailors in various stages of transformation into swine, surmounted by orangutans holding up ornate pots.  

One of several orangutan-topped herms representing Odysseus's sailors transforming into a pig / NT 1220402
A herm in the Italian Garden

Circe and the Sirens

In 1925 the artist Edmond Brock depicted Edith in her favourite mythical guise in the large group portrait, 'Circe and the Sirens'.  Brock produced this impressive portrait when Edith was his most faithful patron and close friend. His Ark Club sobriquet was ‘Brock the Badger’, and it’s likely that the Club connections led to many of his most important commissions.

Edmond Brock, Circe and the Sirens, 1925 / Mount Stewart NT 1220965
Edmond Brock, Circe and the Sirens, 1925

The portrait depicts Edith as Circe in the Italian Garden. She is surrounded by the Sirens, her three youngest daughters: Margaret, Helen and Mairi. In the background, the concrete herms are visible, but instead of depicting the faces of Odysseus's sailors, they depict the faces of Charley (Edith's husband) and of the Brock himself.

The central figure of the painting is of course Edith, painted in flowing, sea green robes. Brock replaced the golden belt, usually shown around Circe’s waist, with a Celtic style brooch pinned on Edith’s left shoulder, in the tradition of a Scottish clan chief’s wife. The large gold cup in Edith’s hand alludes to the potion used by Circe to bring Odysseus under her spell. It is based on the Sunderland Cup, an enormous silver-gilt cup produced in around 1690, that can be seen in the silver display off the Central Hall of the House. It was acquired nearly a century earlier by her husband's forbears, Charles, Lord Stewart and his second wife Lady France Anne Vane-Tempest.

In this way, Brock's picture evokes mythology, symbolism, family history and ancestry - the very things that informed Edith's designs for the gardens at Mount Stewart.  

From illustrations to topiary

In 1928, Edith wrote a children's book called 'The Magic Ink-Pot', a tale deeply steeped in Irish mythology. Edmond Brock supplied many of the illustrations which depict the Tuatha de Danann, a supernatural tribe in Irish mytholoy, and their struggle against the wicked Fomorians, a race of half human, half demon creatures. 

While the trefoil hedge was growing around the Shamrock Garden, Edith proposed a whimsical narrative in topiary, based on the adventures described in The Magic Ink-Pot.

A whimsical narrative in topiary

A remarkable legacy

Mount Stewart is an astonishing garden of the imagination, possessing a richness and singular spirit.  As it currently undergoes a renaissance, in the restoration of structural features and planting that has been lost over time, it seems apt to pause to consider its history. Edith, Lady Londonderry left us a unique legacy; it is a remarkable garden that is an eloquent monument to an exceptional woman.

Delve deeper

Pruning the lime arbour at Hidcote, Gloucestershire

Garden conservation 

A dedicated team of archaeologists, curators, conservators, historians, horticulturalists and other experts provide the skills needed to secure the long-term future of our gardens. Learn more about their work.