Voyages to the House of Diversion 
Seventeenth-Century Water Gardens and the Birth of Modern Science

Urns... of the Garden Variety
Read about terra-cotta in Italian Gardens here

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One thing that has become clear is that complete decorative terra-cotta garden pots from the seventeenth century are vanishingly rare. I've taken a preliminary look at the literature (and thanks to Paul Cotter of Oxford Archaeology, Peter Spackman and Ian Dunn for a few pointers) and it's clear that we may have to end up becoming our own experts. Where garden wares of the period have been excavated and recorded they tend to be almost always of the plain flower pot variety. The collection published by Brian Dix for Kirby Hall are similar to those recorded in the huge excavation of the Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace which again resemble those from contexts excavated at Colonial Williamsburg in the USA. Apart from the rather eccentric crenelated urn from the moat of the Jewel Tower at Westminster the only major collection of decorated pots that I am aware of comes from the excavations at Basing House in Hampshire and I've located an illustration of onr of their pots in a 1987 exhibition catalogue, nothing like the Hanwell urns, rather charming with birds and branches but not particularly sophisticated.

A Basing House urn.

Urn      Urn
Pots from Williamsburg plus a castellated urn from Westminster now in the Wrest Park store.

Illustrations of the pots from Kirby

If archaeology lets us down can art help? Well the first thing so say is that there are a variety of illustrations showing gardeners at work with pots and urns to hand. A charming picture by David Teniel the Younger from 1644 shows a gardener carrying a small potted tree and making use of the moulding around the rim of the pot to get a good grip. It is clear that plants were frequently moved around gardens of the period to make best advantage of different flowering periods as well as enabling tender specimens to be given additional winter protection. The 1682 image of arranging pot plants in a 'farm garden' from 'Georgica Curiosa' by Wolf Helmhardt von Hohberg shows a set of lion masked pots with a variety of plants potted up and ready to be positioned on balustrades or pillars.

Urn     Urn    
Gardeners and their pots: Teniel and  Hohberg.

There are also countless ( well I haven't counted them ) examples of genre paintings generally of urns filled with flowers  and often from Holland which show a multiplicity of pot forms although it has to be said some of them smack of the fantastical. The Spanish artist of the period Thomas Hiepes was also prolific in his depiction of assorted urns. Pieter Boel's wonderful painting of birds gathered round a fountain, yours for only 32,500, reminds us that wooden tubs were often used in gardens of the period both for planting and transplantation whilst the decorative urn to the right may be an example of the stone mason's art. The fountain with its octagonal surround is particularly evocative given recent finds at Hanwell.

Urn     urn
Thomas Hiepes... his urns, no idea what they are made of.

Pieter Boel's bird bath... alright maybe it's a bit grander than that.

When you scan the many contemporary illustrations of seventeenth-century gardens pots are not as frequently depicted as you might expect. Sometimes the scale may be too small to make it worthwhile drawing them in or perhaps as movable elements of a garden design they were not shown as permanent features within the garden. The famous image of  John Rose, the King's Gardener, presenting Charles II with a pineapple, arguably the first grown in England, has a nice collection of terra-cotta pots around a small pool with a good sized urn behind the king but my favourite depiction by far is of the garden at Pierrepont House, Nottingham with no fewer than 57 urns bordering the terraces around a sunken garden. The suggestion usually made is that they are of painted lead although I guess painted terra-cotta is a cheaper option. It just gives you a feel for the look of these vessels as distributed round the perimeter of the octagonal island at Hanwell.

King, gardener, pineapple and dogs.

Now this is the kind of garden I'd like please, Pierrepont House around 1705.