A Visit to Holker Hall

Thomas Mawson’s Inspirational Garden Designs at Holker Hall

The Labyrinth and Wild flower Meadow at Thomas Mawson's Holker Hall
The Labyrinth and Wild flower Meadow at Thomas Mawson’s Holker Hall

This month I have taken an in depth look at Holker Hall and Gardens and tried to capture just what it is that makes Thomas Mawson’s designs so inspirational to us at ilandscapers. This is the first of a series of articles on historical garden designers and how we draw inspiration from them today. Looking at the ‘i’ in ilandscapers. Thomas Mawson, a visionary in garden design, was born in the quaint village of Scorton, Lancashire. Moving to Windermere, he and his brothers founded Lakeland Nurseries, capitalizing on the booming railway network to expand their horticultural endeavors. Mawson’s expertise flourished, leading him to create breathtaking gardens at esteemed locations such as Graythwaite Hall, Langdale Chase, and Holker Hall. His unique blend of horticultural knowledge and architectural flair set his designs apart, transforming natural landscapes into living art. In 1901, Mawson’s seminal work, ‘The Art and Craft of Garden Making,’ laid the groundwork for modern landscape architecture, influencing and collaborating with legends like Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll and continues to inspire garden designers today. Mawson’s legacy lives on and Holker Hall is one of our local treasures in the North West. 

Thomas Mawson’s Inspirational Garden Designs at Holker Hall is representative of the cultural shift from classical garden designs influenced by styles of the Renaissance of the late 19th century into the appreciation for natural beauty of the 20th century. Traditionally classical designs created visual spectacles which were symbols of wealth and taste, intended to be admired from specific vantage points, often from the house or elevated positions. Elaborate parterres, manicured lawns, and ornamental flower beds defined these spaces, creating picturesque landscapes meant for admiration rather than active use. Mawson pioneered a new style which incorporated the order of geometrical formal grounds into the functionality of outdoor living spaces. The concept of “garden rooms” emerged, seamlessly integrating indoor and outdoor living. Throughout the early 1900’s designers started to blend functionality with artistry, creating gardens not just to be seen, but to be lived in and enjoyed. Gardens became extensions of living spaces, encouraging exploration, relaxation, and social interaction. The extension of the home into the garden is seen in Mawson’s in depth client work. He was adamant that the best designers work with the creative style of their clients in order to create a space that reflects their unique tastes, just as their homes do. This is actually one of our promises to all of our clients as we likewise believe that the garden is an outdoor home which should be reflective of the clients personality, not just the designers.

 

A serene garden room at Thomas Mawson's Holker Hall, a perfect harmony of design and greenery.
A serene garden room at Holker Hall, a perfect harmony of design and greenery.

This is an example of one of the ‘garden rooms’ at Holker Hall. Amidst the intricately nurtured topiary you can find small closed off squares of open space designed for active use where visitors can sit an admire the surrounding beauty and children can play on the grass. Such a simple conception but the incorporation of an open square of grass within such a detailed design revolutionises its appeal. The blend of active play space and surrounding elegance creates a seamless integration of admiration and utility, fostering generational appreciation.

Mawson use of geometrical shapes to define his formal gardens with right-angles walkways and symmetrical ‘garden rooms’ create a sense of order within natural landscapes. Which was reflective of many of his clients in this time of cultural upheaval. Bringing order to chaos and creating somethings beautiful.

Thomas Mawson's Holker Hall: The Elliptical Garden reflective of the classical design of the 18th century
The Elliptical Garden reflective of the classical design of the 18th century

Despite such a strong imposition of order Mawson was careful to integrate his designs with the surrounding views and topography in order to produce a harmonious environment. This combination of natural beauty and visually pleasing symmetry is reflected in some of our own designs. Mandi often skillfully incorporates bold circles in her garden designs to delineate distinct segments. This Mawson-inspired approach allows Chris to introduce a diverse array of plants and colours, ensuring a harmonious visual experience without any clashes. The ‘garden rooms’ became a signature feature of Mawsons visions with segmented areas of the garden dedicated to specific colour palates or feature pieces separated by manicured hedges and sculpted topiary. You can see the use of segmentation clearly in the elliptical garden below where the clean lines of the bright gravel walkway juxtapose nicely with the deep green chaos of the foliage and surrounding forestry.

Inviting seating area in the beautifully designed Sunken Garden at Holker Hall
Inviting seating area in the beautifully designed Sunken Garden at Thomas Mawson’s Holker Hall

As the rigid formality of the past began to concede to more fluid and naturalistic designs, pathways became more inviting to visitors. Wandering and discovery were encouraged, and seating areas for guests to admire gardens from within became a staple of Mawson’s visions. Much of Mawson’s work emphasises the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century as a wave of cultural appreciation for formal and artistically crafted gardens swept through western europe. His design work focuses on incorporating formal structures into the natural landscape and emphasising the craftsmanship which his background in nursery horticulture afforded him. This partnership between horticulture and architecture gave rise to a new form of flexible design. The crafting of outdoor spaces which allowed for the passage of time to change the horticulture both seasonally and over the course of years without the need for uprooting natural growth. Even taking advantage of the ever changing nature of flora to construct a continually evolving landscape which still reflects the beauty of human ingenuity. This in part inspired the combination of Chris’s abundant horticultural knowledge and Mandi’s conceptual designs when first establishing their own approach to garden composition.

Mawson is quick to credit much of his own inspiration to the work of Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, and vice versa. The later of whom revolutionised planting design, crafting gardens that offered year-round appeal and invited people to immerse themselves in their natural beauty. 

Much of this cultural phenomenon was due to the rise of the middle class following the industrial revolution of the 19th century. As the disposable income of the working class became more commonplace the desire for personal gardens and leisure activities grew. Gardens became more about a personal retreat and less of a status symbol. This desire for outdoor space may also be due to the increased indoor working as office and factory based roles became more commonplace than outdoor labour. 

The lush yew tree archway in the Summer Garden at Thomas Mawson's Holker Hall
Tomas Mawson’s Holker Hall: The Summer Garden

In his chapter ‘the formal arrangement of trees’ Mawson references the strikingness of using local trees to the district both because they will thrive in their natural climate and as a representation of local pride. Using such a tree to form an avenue allows for a lovely stroll through natural heritage in the clients own back garden. The use of yew trees in Holker Hall’s Summer Garden for example showcase the native british trees with the advantage of their evergreen nature bringing green and structure to the garden even in the winter months. The native lime tree was possibly a source of inspiration for Thomas Mawson’s Inspirational Garden Designs at Holker Hall as Holker boasts one of the oldest Lime Tree’s in Britain at over 400 years old. The Holker Great Lime was most likely planted in one of the earliest garden designs in the 1700’s at Holker Hall. Its traditional treatment by pleaching and trimming are reflected in the tree-care styles of the 18th century. It is currently listed as one of the Tree Councils ‘50 greatest British trees’. 

Holker Great Lime Tree
Holker Great Lime Tree

Mawson suggests however in ‘The Art and Craft of Garden Making,’ that the full grown forest trees while beautiful are only suitable for larger grounds with imposing architecture. His solution was pleached lime trees which form a hedge on a vine, easily manipulated to form a “useful and beautiful feature in the garden”. This is the equivalent of an avenue of forest trees in a park but with the accommodation of limited scale and budget. When it comes to a copse of trees the use of flowering John Downie Crab apple trees is suggested to bring colour whilst remaining hardy. This is also seen in the Summer Garden at Holker Hall as seen in the picture below. Mawson emphasises that a grove of trees is an excellent place for garden features such as small sheltered seating areas as it allows clients to enjoy their gardens and brings attention to the colourful and scented air of the surrounding foliage. 

Crab apple archways offer shade in the bright sunshine at Thomas Mawson's Holker Hall
Crab apple archways offer shade in the bright sunshine and highlight the geometrical design

Finally any visit to Holker Hall would not be complete without mentioning the Neptune and Cascade water feature which epitomises the integration of nature and human construction into a statement piece which highlights the gardens of Holker Hall. Though not designed by Thomas Mawson the fluidity of the geometrical structure of the cascade reflects his own unique style and I believe shows how influential his design work is even now. Have a browse through some of the pictures below to see more of Holker Hall’s wonderful gardens and consider visiting yourself to be inspired this summer. For a first time visit I would recommend allowing at least 2-3 hours to tour the gardens and a few more if you would like to view the inside of the hall. There is ample parking and a delightful cafe for lunch if you get peckish. Happy touring!

The cascade water feature at Holker Hall, exemplifying the integration of nature and design.
The cascade water feature at Holker Hall, exemplifying the integration of nature and design.
Sky Line at Holker Hall
Sky Line at Holker Hall
Geometrical Lines at Holker Hall
Geometrical Lines at Holker Hall
Sculpted Topiary hiding a Garden Room
Sculpted Topiary hiding a Garden Room
Vibrant pink petals along the waters edge
Vibrant pink along the waters edge
Cascading water feature down the hillside
Cascading water feature down the hillside
Ying-Yang inspired Stone Labyrinth
Ying-Yang inspired Stone Labyrinth
Secret Pathways at Holker Hall
Secret Pathways at Holker Hall
Vibrant Wild flower meadow
Vibrant Wild flower meadow
Historic Sundial at Holker Hall
Historic Sundial at Holker Hall
Twisted trees contrast with the structural design work
Twisted trees contrast with the structural design work
Carefully considered outlook from a hidden seating area
Carefully considered outlook from a hidden seating area
Daring you to explore more! An overgrown stone staircase leading into the forest
Daring you to explore more!

References:

Waymark, J. (2009) Thomas Mawson : life, gardens and landscapes. London: Frances Lincoln.
‘Mawson, Thomas Hayton (1861–1933)’ (2015) The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. 3rd edn. Oxford University Press.
Mawson, T.H. (1901) The art & craft of garden making. 2nd ed. Batsford.
https://www.greatbritishgardens.co.uk/thomas-mawson.html

 

Pictures taken by Abby Clapp June 2024