Elizabeth Dysart and her Garden at Ham House by Michael Ann Mullen
‘In a wilderness, paths between planted trees led to clearings or forest ‘rooms’. These shaded areas offered the possibility of some privacy.’
Elizabeth Dysart and her husband Lionel Tollemache inherited Ham House in 1653. The House had been built and the garden laid out over 40 years earlier by Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshall to King James I. The design of the garden was influenced by the ideas of French engineer Solomon de Caus who was designing Queen Anne’s new garden at Somerset House at the time.
Elizabeth’s father, William Murray moved to Ham in 1626, the year of her birth. He enlarged the estate through a series of land acquisitions and carried out work on the house to create a residence appropriate to his position as member of the Court and personal friend of Charles I. Improvements to the gardens were probably undertaken also. Murray, who was an active Royalist, left England at the start of the Civil War in 1642 to work for the king abroad. It’s unlikely major work on the house or garden continued in his absence.
Elizabeth was the eldest of Murray’s five daughters. She was attractive, well educated and very ambitious. She became a powerful woman in her own right when, after his death in 1653, she assumed her father’s title as Countess of Dysart. She and Tollemache had eleven children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Although she befriended Cromwell, perhaps strategically, she was a founder member of the Secret Knot, a Royalist organisation that aimed to restore the monarchy; it is thought the group sometimes met at Ham. It is known that she travelled to the exiled Court in France several times.
An inventory of the garden in 1653 indicates one if not two orchards, a kitchen garden, melon ground, tree lined walks, a wilderness and pond, parterres and the ’blacke walke’. It details the type and position of hundreds of fruit and other trees and indicates that vines and numerous ornamental plants were planted in the ‘Tarras walke nexte the howse’. These included ‘2 Jessimonde trees against my laides chamber windowe where the birde cage is’. At that time the wilderness was planted with ‘253 Furr trees’.
In a wilderness, paths between formally planted trees with a cleared understory often led to clearings or forest ‘rooms’. These shaded areas offered the possibility of some privacy. An important marker of contemporary taste, Murray is likely to have created the wilderness at Ham on newly acquired land beyond the main garden.
It is unlikely that major changes were made to the garden again until 1672-75 when Elizabeth and her 2nd husband John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, upgraded the house and gardens to the almost palatial grandeur they thought befitted Lauderdale as Secretary of State for Scotland, the position he held in Charles II’s government. Their improvements were influenced by works then being done by the king in the royal gardens of Whitehall and St James’s Park.
At Ham they created an Orangery and Orangery garden. Vast avenues of trees were planted and the forecourt, gardens and wilderness were ornamented with statues. The terrace was extended and a multitude of ornamental plant pots placed on it. New walls and stairways were built and Elizabeth had elaborate aviaries attached to the house.
As a result of the Lauderdale’s expenditure on Ham and two Scottish properties, Elizabeth was left with little money after Maitland died in 1682. She remained at Ham until her death in 1698 but was forced to live frugally amidst the grandeur they created there.
Elizabeth of the Sealed Knot, Doreen Cripps, 1975 - assessment of the life and personality of the Duchess of Lauderdale, based on documents.
‘The Building-activities of the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale, 1670-82’, John Dunbar, Archaeological Journal, 1975, vol.cxxxii, pp.202-230 - provides detailed information about the works undertaken in all the Lauderdale properties in the 1670s and the costs involved.
Ham House, The National Trust guidebook, Christopher Rowell, Cathal Moore and Nino Strachey, 1999 revision.
The English Renaissance Garden, Roy Strong, (London, Thames and Hudson, 1998), pp.117-118 - the book discusses gardens of palaces and great houses from Henry VIII to the Civil War.
See The earliest wildernesses: their meaning and development, Kristina Taylor, Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, vol. 28, no. 2 April-June 2008, pp. 237-251.
A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration, Jenny Uglow, (London, Faber & Faber, 2009) - provides historical context, particularly as Elizabeth’s 2nd husband was a minister in Charles II’s government 1672- 82.
Also of interest:
The 1653 lease with an inventory of the garden is kept at Ham House as are several other inventories of different dates.
Michael Ann Mullen has worked as a freelance photographer and as an arts administrator. She lectured on Arts History at Middlesex University for 13 years, and on Garden History at the Inchbald School of Design, and is a qualified garden designer. She has an MA in Garden History from Birkbeck College and now does research in garden and landscape history, specialising in the 19th and 20th century. Work for the Garden of Reason project provided a welcome excuse to investigate the earlier 17th century garden at Ham House. From Michigan originally, she has lived in London since the early 1970s.