Hartwell House – The Gardens series

Paintings of Hartwell House gardens by Balthasar Nebot

This series of eight paintings by Balthasar Nebot shows the spectacular garden landscape of Hartwell House, just outside Aylesbury, in 1738. The formal green architecture of topiary hedges, with classical stone temples and statues of gods and goddesses, was balanced by informal views towards the town. Please be sure to contact the museum before making a special journey to see these paintings as they are not always on display.

Sir Thomas Lee (1687-1749) of Hartwell commissioned them from Balthasar Nebot, a little-known Spanish painter, based in Covent Garden.  They provide a unique record of a country estate and garden landscape at this time.  The people of Hartwell – family, visitors, household and estate staff and, especially the gardeners – are also portrayed in great detail.

 

The paintings may originally have hung around a room in Lee’s London house.  Similar sets of views of country houses were a standard artistic commission in the 1700s, but this set is especially interesting, as the Hartwell they show lasted only a few years.  In the 1750s Sir William Lee remodelled Hartwell House and its garden in the more ‘natural’ style of Capability Brown.

The Lees were an old Buckinghamshire family, who had acquired Hartwell a hundred years earlier by marriage into the family of John Hampden.  Hampden, a local landowner and MP, had opposed Charles I in the Civil War of the 1640s.  The Lees were Whig landowners; part of a grouping of opposition MPs centred in the 1730s around Frederick, Prince of Wales.  In the early 1700s the Whig connection in Buckinghamshire included Lee of Hartwell, Lord Wharton of Winchendon House, the neighbouring estate, and Viscount Cobham of Stowe.

Sir Thomas Lee married a wealthy heiress, Elizabeth Sandys, in 1720 and set about the transformation of the Hartwell gardens.  He brought in the architect James Gibbs to build an Egyptian obelisk and pyramid, classical temples inspired by Greece and Rome, columns, statues, a menagerie and Gothic tower.

All these structures expressed Whig political ideas about Liberty, which they believed had been inherited from ancient Egypt through the Greek and Roman world of classical antiquity and transmitted to Northern Europe by the Anglo-Saxons (or ‘Goths’) at the end of the Roman Empire.  A bust of John Hampden linked the Whig landowner of the 1730s to the Civil War Parliamentarian of the 1640s.

Sir Thomas’s garden design was also an expression of his taste and cultural influences.  In many ways Hartwell in the 1730s was like a small-scale Roman villa estate or the villas designed by the architect Palladio for Venetian landowners in the 1500s.  Lee was in touch with Lord Burlington, whose villa at Chiswick introduced Palladian design for English country houses and parks.  The formal pleasure gardens for walking, playing bowls or viewing from a carriage are visually linked to the surrounding farmland of the estate.

The paintings were given to the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society by Ernest Cook, the last private owner of Hartwell, in 1955 via the National Art Collections Fund. They are kept in store at our Museum Resource Centre when not on display at the museum.