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The history of Claremont Landscape Garden

Mist on the lake at Claremont Landscape Garden, Surrey
Mist on the lake at Claremont Landscape Garden | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

For more than 300 years, Claremont has been a place to enjoy life's simple pleasures with family and friends. Today anyone can visit, but in times gone by it was a playground for the wealthy and influential, including members of the royal family.

An elite country retreat

In 1709, the renowned architect, playwright, courtier and spy Sir John Vanbrugh bought the area then known as Chargate Farm and Wood. He built himself an elegant retreat and began to develop the garden.

The birth of Claremont

Sir John Vanbrugh sold the estate in 1714 to Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle, and helped him develop 'Claremont', working on designing the gardens and extending the mansion. The Duke was Prime Minister twice and Secretary of State for nearly 30 years. Claremont, which he bought aged just 21, was an important retreat from this intense public and political life.

The Belvedere Tower

The Belvedere Tower was built on the top of a hill, for all to see, as a symbol of the Duke’s wealth and power. It was a focal point in the garden, a place to write letters, have supper parties and play cards. A telescope on the roof allowed the Duke to indulge his interest in stargazing, or sometimes to inspect the houses of his neighbours.

The Belvedere at Claremont Landscape Garden, Surrey
The Belvedere at Claremont Landscape Garden | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Crafting the garden features

In the early years of Claremont, around the 1720s, landscape designer Charles Bridgeman created a formal garden for the Duke of Newcastle. His most notable addition was the three-acre turf amphitheatre, painstakingly carved into 'Bridgeman's Hill', and built between 1720-22.

Believed to be inspired by a theatre in the Vatican, amphitheatres were popular in grand gardens in the early 18th century. However, by the mid 1730’s, these formal designs were out of favour as the English landscape garden became popular.

Many amphitheatres were levelled and most have since been lost to time; Claremont’s amphitheatre is believed to be the largest of its type left in Europe.

The grass Amphitheatre at Claremont Landscape Garden, Surrey
The grass Amphitheatre at Claremont Landscape Garden | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Claremont's ampitheatre

Measuring 3 acres, the amphitheatre 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.

Whilst the inspiration may have come from a theatre, it is likely it was never intended to be a stage but rather as a viewpoint. At the time of building, and up to the 1770s, the view from the top was of Claremont’s beautiful lake and out across the Surrey countryside towards London.

As the formal garden went out of style in the 1730s, Newcastle employed William Kent to bring it up to date. The round basin pond Bridgeman originally designed below the amphitheatre was extended in 1738 to form the larger, serpentine lake seen today.

Robert Clive

In 1769, Robert Clive bought Claremont. He commissioned Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to build a replacement mansion, now home to Claremont Fan Court School and in 1771, he had the Portsmouth Road moved from alongside the lake to it's current route. Lord Clive died in 1774 before work was finished. The estate then passed through a rapid succession of owners.

A royal retreat

In 1816, Claremont was bought by the British Nation through an Act of Parliament as a wedding present for George IV's daughter Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales and her husband Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and so began a period when Claremont became a much-loved home to British and foreign royalty.

As heir to the throne of George III and the only well-regarded member of the royal family at the time, Charlotte was seen as the hope of the nation and the original ‘people’s princess’.

Soon after her marriage in 1816 to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, the newlyweds moved to Claremont. The prince and princess led a quiet, happy and comfortable life, distancing themselves from the politics and strife of court.

Her premature death during childbirth in 1817 at the age of 21 caused an unprecedented torrent of national grief, and forever altered the course of British history and culture.

'Dear old Claremont'

Prince Leopold owned Claremont until 1865 but only lived there until 1831, when he became the first King of the Belgians. His crown still tops the railings around the Camellia Terrace.

Queen Victoria described Prince Leopold as her ‘dear uncle’. She was able to escape her secluded life at Kensington Palace as a child and visit Claremont to stay with him from time to time. It was a rare opportunity to enjoy some freedom in ‘dear old Claremont’ where she spent many a ‘very merry, happy Birthday’.

Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold’s legacy

In their short time together at Claremont, Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold added features such as the Camellia greenhouse and made plans for a tea-house.

The construction of the highly fashionable, neo-Gothic tea-house, which was designed by John William Hiort and his assistant John Papworth, was Charlotte’s favourite project. Sadly, she never had the chance to enjoy it, as she died before it was completed.

Leopold decided to finish the project, transforming the building with the help of A.C. Pugin into a cenotaph commemorating his beloved wife.

The cenotaph demolished

The original building was constructed using brittle Bernasconi’s cement, which did not weather well. The ornate design was quickly damaged by the elements, and by visitors who wanted to take home a memento of their much-mourned princess.

Although the building was kept in good repair by Claremont’s next owner, Queen Victoria, by the early 20th century it had deteriorated significantly, and in 1922 it was demolished by the local council. The whereabouts of a bust of Charlotte that once stood inside remains a mystery.

A Royal Home

As Queen Victoria had been a frequent visitor to Claremont, both as a child and later as an adult, Leopold lent her the house. She, in turn, lent it to the exiled French King and Queen, Louis-Philippe and Marie-Amelie, after the Revolution of 1848.

Then in 1882, Victoria bought Claremont for her fourth, and youngest, son Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, when he married Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont in 1882. The Duchess remained at Claremont until her death in 1922, when Claremont was sold by the Public Trustee to shipping magnate Sir William Corry, director of the Cunard Line. Two years after Sir William's death, in 1926, it was bought by Eugen Spier, a wealthy German financier.

Breakup of the estate and the restoration of the grounds

From 1922, much of the wider Claremont estate was sold for housing development, leaving just the house and surrounding 210 acres of garden. Most of the buildings were demolished, but the house became a school in 1930.

Given to the treasury in lieu of tax in 1949, the surviving 49 acres of the garden were passed to the National Trust and in the 1970s, a grant from the Slater Foundation allowed the Trust to restore the grounds.

This work is ongoing.

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