Lauderdale House and Gardens, Waterlow Park, London

Located right next to Highgate Cemetery, Waterlow Park is your typical north London public park, where grassy slopes alternate with trees and shrubberies and hidden ponds. It was donated to the City Council in 1889 by politician and philanthropist Sir Sidney Waterlow who intended it as “a garden for the gardenless”. Waterlow had created the park by merging the grounds of several estates he had acquired in the area. Perhaps the most prominent of these estates was Lauderdale House, which still stands in an elevated position in the northeast section of the park. It is surrounded by an ornate terraced garden markedly distinct from the rest of the park.

In its present state, Lauderdale House sports a fine neoclassical façade, dating to c. 1760. At its core, however, the house is much older: It was first built as a timber-framed structure in (or slightly before) 1582 for Richard Martin, Lord Mayor of London. By the mid-seventeenth century, it had passed into the possession of John Maitland (1616–1682), 1st Duke of Lauderdale, councillor and favourite of Charles II. A source from that time already describes the house as “having an English garden with terraces, orange trees and a fountain”.

It seems that the gardens’ architectural structure has remained largely unchanged since then: To this day, the terraces are retained by brick walls dating from the seventeenth century. The buttressed southwest wall, which now separates the garden from the surrounding park, is particularly impressive.

Two sets of stone steps lead from the park onto the lower terrace; another flight of steps connects the latter to the upper terrace and the house itself. The steps are somewhat younger than the walls, some of them said to be of eighteenth-century origin, others presumably rebuilt in the Victorian period.

While its architectural ‘framework’ is thus of a rather venerable age, the garden itself was much altered in later times. It underwent its most decisive remodelling in the years after 1850, when Lauderdale House was leased to the clergyman and scholar James Yates (1789–1871). Under his patronage, the house became “famed for its garden-parties, at which the literary and scientific celebrities were gathered to meet the lions of the season”, as James Thorne’s 1876 Handbook of the Environs of London informs us. “The terraced garden”, Thorne continues, “with its brilliant flowers and velvet lawns, was in Mr. Yates’s time a charming example of an old-fashioned garden, treated with the best modern skill.” As we know from other sources, Yates also added an orchard, a hedged kitchen garden, a palm house and other glasshouses to the grounds.

Not long after Yates’ death, however, the garden had fallen into decay. In 1893, John E. Locking characterises it as “a wilderness of shrubs and flowers”, and an overall rather desolate place: “As one mounts the steps of the terrace, overgrown with snapdragon, broken many of them, and the balustrades falling down, somehow there is a feeling of sadness. (…) Here, in tangled confusion, the iris, the evening primrose, the marigold, the hollyhock, the camomile, the Portugal laurel, the sweet pea, burridge, and the rowan-tree ‘for luck’, grow and flourish at their own sweet will in the long silky grass.”

Today, after some further ups and downs, Lauderdale House and its gardens are once again a well-kept and charming site. Having been restored to their former glory from 2001–2005, with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund, they are now a lovely place for a stroll or for simply sitting down on a bench – or for enjoying a cuppa and a slice of cake in Lauderdale House Café…

York Water Gate, London

I recently read Laura Cumming’s fascinating book The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez and was pleasantly surprised to find that the author, albeit briefly, mentions one of my favourite London landmarks: York Water Gate. Now located in the Victoria Embankment Gardens, this fine piece of architecture is all that survives of York House, one of the many great houses that once lined the Strand. Its name refers back to the Archbishops of York who had owned the building from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. In 1622, however, it was acquired by George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592–1628), a friend and favourite of king James I and later of his successor Charles I.

Villiers immediately set about embellishing his new property: Within a few years it was adorned with frescoes by Orazio Gentileschi, paintings by Holbein, Raphael, Titian and Dürer, a statue of Samson by Giambologna (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum), and a fairly large number of sculptures from Roman antiquity. All of these works, alas, were destroyed or dispersed when the building was demolished in 1675, having been sold off to developers by Villiers’ son.

So all that remains today is the former water gate, built in 1626 at the rear end of the property. Like most of the palaces on the Strand, York House and its grounds extended all the way to the Thames. It was there that the gate was erected as a ceremonial entrance for those arriving from the river, a much-used transport route in those days. As befits its function, the water gate is richly decorated with coats of arms, inscriptions, emblems, and heraldic beasts relating to the owner and his family – e. g. the Villiers’ motto Fidei Coticula Crux (The Cross is the Touchstone of Faith) inscribed on the land side of the structure.

But even without its decorations York Water Gate would still be highly impressive. Reflecting the Italianate court style fashionable in the ambit of Charles I., it essentially is a small-scale triumphal arch dominated by rusticated Doric columns.

Unfortunately, the architect of this rare piece of London Baroque is unknown. Traditionally, it has been attributed to sculptor and royal master-mason Nicholas Stone, but other names have been suggested, too, most notably Balthazar Gerbier and Inigo Jones. The one thing we can say with certainty, though, is that its design was based on that of the Medici Fountain in Paris, erected only a few years earlier by an Italian master, presumably Tommaso Francini, in the gardens of Marie de’ Medici’s palace on the Rive Gauche.

There is a certain irony in the fact that York Water Gate was modelled on an elaborate architectural garden feature – for that is exactly what the gate itself has become since the construction of the Thames Embankment in the 1860s: The river now flows more than a hundred metres south-east of the building, leaving it stranded and all too often overlooked at the back of the Embankment Gardens.