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The Manor & Grounds » Sir Reginald Blomfield

Reginald Theodore Blomfield was born on 20th December 1856 at Nymet Tracey in Devonshire. He was the third son of a country rector. His ancestors the Blomviles, came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. He was educated at Haileybury and at Exeter College Oxford. In 1881 he started training as an architect in the office of his uncle Sir Arthur Blomfield. A year later he was admitted as a student of architecture at the Royal Academy. In 1883 he set up on his own as an architect and became one of the early members of the Art Workers Guild. He struck up friendships with Norman Shaw, Edwin Lutyens, D.S. MacColl and William Morris. He became involved with the Arts and Crafts movement.

Blomfield played a major part in the controversy over garden style in the late 19th century. From the 1860s William Robinson, who worked for the Botanic Society in Regent's Park, re-organising the herbaceous plant collection had became deeply impressed with the beauty of woods, fields and hedgerows and with the art-less simplicity of the cottage garden. Robinson began his own crusade to replace bedding and other "evils" with the natural use of hardy flowers. He was a prolific writer influential especially through The Wild Garden which described the joys of the natural use of plants. His periodical The Garden (from 1871) was a focus and clearing-house of ideas about naturalistic flower gardening for over fifty years. The "plantsman's picturesque" fostered by Robinson resulted in many beautiful gardens.

In 1883, Robinson began publishing The English Flower Garden, an enormously successful book but one which stirred up fierce controversy. In his introductory chapters, as in his earlier writings, Robinson poured scorn on architects and on the formal school of gardening. If only the architects could design a decent house it would make the job of the gardener a lot easier. In 1891 John Sedding published Garden Craft Old and New in which he criticised Robinson - fairly gently - for his narrow-minded view of gardens, suggesting that there were many different ways of making a garden, and that clipping yews to form topiary was no more unnatural than mowing grass to make a lawn. Sedding died before his book was published but in January 1892 Reginald Blomfield, attacked Robinson in his The Formal Garden in England. In July Robinson replied in Garden Design and Architects' Gardens and in October the second edition of The Formal Garden appeared with a long preface in which Blomfield ridiculed Robinson and made it quite clear that only the architect had the intellectual capacity to design a garden - it was the gardener's job to rake the gravel and grow the gooseberries.

William Robinson: The English Flower Garden (1883)
Of all the things made by man for his pleasure a flower garden has the least business to be ugly, barren or stereotyped, because in it it may have the fairest of the earth's children in a living, ever-changeful state, and not, as in the other arts, mere representations of them. And yet we find in nearly every country place, pattern plans, conventional design, and the garden robbed of all life and grace by setting out flowers in geometrical ways……Even when there is no money to waste in walls and gigantic water-squirts the idea of the terrace is still carried out in plains and other wrong positions in the shapes of green banks often one above the other, as if they were an artistic treat.

John Dando Sedding: Garden Craft, Old and New (1891)
Landscape-gardening is, in a sense, still in its fumbling stage: it has not increased its resources, or done anything heroic, even on wrong lines; it has not advanced towards any permanent, definable system of ornamentation since it began its gyrations in the last century. Its rival champions still beat the air…. Their intentions are admirable beyond telling, but their work exhibits in the grossest forms the very vices they condemn in the contrary school……Mr Robinson … humbly skirts his grounds with a path which as nearly represents a tortured horse-shoe as Nature would permit; and his trees he puts in a happy-go-lucky way, and allows them to nearly obliterate his path at their own sweet will! No wonder he does not fear Nature's revenge, when there is so little Art to destroy!

Reginald Blomfield: The Formal Garden in England (January 1892)
It will be well to clear the ground by a statement of the principles and standpoint of the Formal School as compared with Landscape Gardening. The question at issue is a very simple one. Is the garden to be considered in relation to the house [as an architect would do] or is the house to be ignored in dealing with the garden? The latter is the position of the landscape gardener in real fact…. The object of formal gardening is to bring the two into harmony… Thus the formal garden will produce with the house a homogeneous result, which cannot be reached by either singly. Now let us see how the landscape gardener deals with the problem of house and grounds……It is not easy to state his principles, for his system consists in the absence of any; and most modern writers on the subject lead off with hearty and indiscriminate abuse of formal gardening, after which they incontinently drop the question of garden design, and go off at a tangent on horticulture and hot-houses.

William Robinson: Garden Design and Architects' Gardens: two reviews illustrated to show, by actual examples from British gardens, that clipping and aligning trees to make them 'harmonize' with architecture is barbarous, needless and inartistic (July 1892)
In this, Sedding (who died in 1891 and could not defend himself) was briefly dismissed.
"This gentleman, unfortunately without any knowledge of plants, trees or landscape beauty, launches out into a sea of dreary quotations from old books about gardens, and knows so little of where he is going, that he is put out of his course by every little drift of wind."
Blomfield's Formal Garden is attacked paragraph by paragraph.

Reginald Blomfield: The Formal Garden in England (2nd edition, October 1892)
Since the publication of the first edition of this book Mr W. Robinson has issued what is no doubt intended to be a counterblast to the views advanced in The Formal Garden and the late J.D.Sedding's Garden Craft. Mr Robinson is annoyed that anyone else, and architects of all men, should presume to meddle with garden design; and after an aggressive preface…he launches into a series of detached paragraphs to prove that landscape gardening is a very beautiful art, that he himself is an eminent professor of it, and that architects cannot possibly know anything about it at all… Mr Robinson seems to conceive of a garden as a Botanical Museum, a place for the exhibition of specimens from all parts of the world, in which no doubt the monkey puzzler would occupy the proud position due to its conspicuous ugliness… not being an artist Mr Robinson does not understand the artistic importance of mass on the one hand and scale on the other.

The onlooker was left with the impression that a garden could either be designed and tasteful or it could be interesting and beautiful. The debate then fizzled as suddenly as it began when the fruitful collaboration of Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens, produced a fusion of house and garden which no one person could have achieved. The architectural structure of the house extended into the garden with beautifully detailed walks, steps, terraces, walls, buildings and water features while Miss Jekyll's profuse but disciplined planting schemes softened and decorated the architecture and merged the house into its surroundings. The result was a Lutyens' house for Edward Hudson, the proprietor of Country Life - the Deanery at Sonning (Berks) - which, in the words of Lutyens' biographer, "settled that controversy of which Sir Reginald Blomfield and William Robinson were for long the protagonists, between formal and naturalistic garden design. Miss Jekyll's naturalistic planting wedded Lutyens' geometry in a balanced union of both principles". The Robinson / Blomfield debate was dead.

Reginald Blomfield: The Formal Garden in England (3rd edition, 1901)
At the date at which the first two editions of this book were issued, a somewhat acrid controversy raged between landscape gardeners and architects … In the attempt to dislodge a tradition of bad taste, a somewhat polemical treatment was necessary. The occasion for this no longer exists, and I have therefore omitted the preface to the second edition.

Examples of Blomfield's gardens : Godington Park, Caythorpe Court, Athelhampton Gardens, Mellerstain Garden, Sulgrave Manor Garden, Mountsmere Manor.

The Italian-styled terraced garden in Mellerstain was laid out in 1909 by Sir Reginald Blomfield and commands a glorious view overlooking the lake to the Cheviot Hills in the distance.

In 1900 he published a Short History of Renaissance Architecture in England and in response to the Boer War, joined the Inns of Court Mounted Infantry, (A Territorial Army unit based in Lincoln's Inn in the Holborn area of London). In 1906 he was appointed Professor of Architecture to the Royal Academy. He was elected President of the RIBA in 1912, was awarded their Royal Gold Medal 1913 and elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1914. Upon the outbreak of the Great War, he renewed his acquaintance with the Inns of Court and dug trenches all over London in the company of some of the most distinguished legal minds of the Empire and the war poet Laurence Binyon. In 1918 he was appointed one of the Principal Architects of the Imperial War Graves Commission and for the next nine years was heavily involved with the design of their cemeteries behind the Western Front. In any Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery with over 40 graves, you can find The Cross of Sacrifice, designed by him to represent the faith of the majority. By using a simple cross embedded with a bronze sword and mounted on an octagonal base, Blomfield hoped to, in his words, 'keep clear of any of the sentimentalities of Gothic'.

He collaborated with Sir Aston Webb and Sir W. Hamo Thornycroft in designing several war memorials for London. They were forbidden use of the Royal Parks, which explains the considerable number of war memorials on Victoria Embankment. He designed the Royal Air Force Memorial on the Embankment, the municipal memorials at Leeds, Luton and Torquay and the Memorial Chapel at Oundle School.

In 1918 he was appointed to the memorials committee convened by Sir Alfred Mond, First Commissioner of Works. In 1919 he was sent by the War Office to Ypres to design a memorial intended initially to take 40,000 names of those who had no known grave. He chose the site of the Menin Gate and designed there the memorial that was to be the best known work of his career. There were to be major difficulties involved with its erection, which he overcame with the help of the brilliant engineer Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice. The completion of this commission ended his time with the Commission. In December 1927, Sir Fabian Ware wrote to him: 'I think you will understand it, when I say that everybody working had wished, looking back on the past years, to send you a special message of gratitude for the great work that you have done for the Commission…. We are all deeply grateful to you, and very proud to have been associated with you'.

A pugnacious and energetic figure, Blomfield relished a fight and engaged in the architectural controversies of his day with gusto. His plans for remodelling Carlton Gardens led to a debate in the House of Commons and his resignation from the Royal Fine Art Commission. He published Memoirs of an Architect (1932), Modernismus (1934) which attacked modern architecture as 'deliberately cosmopolitan.. I for the hill on which I was born; France for the French, Germany for the German, England for the Englishman', Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1938) and Richard Norman Shaw (1940). He designed the façade of the Carlton Club in London and Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford.

He was also influential in the development of uniform architectural styles for a given street or area, setting the style for Regent Street with his Quadrant and remodelling Piccadilly Circus in London in the 1920s and The Headrow in Leeds from 1929. He designed Lambeth Bridge and St George's Memorial Church in Ypres, which was built in 1928. He died in 1942.

A bronze portrait bust by Sir William Reid Dick
is in the National Portrait Gallery.
A bronze portrait bust by Sir William Reid Dick is in the National Portrait Gallery.