The First Earl
In common with other educated early 18th century gentlemen, the 1st Earl Harcourt was interested in classical culture. To further his education he went on a Grand Tour of Europe where his tastes were moulded by the art and architecture he saw. One of the greatest influences was the work of the Renaissance architect, Palladio. Many of Palladio’s buildings reflected the architecture of the country villas built by the ancient Romans. Of a relatively simple design and set up in the hills, these villas provided a summer retreat from the heat and politics of Rome. Like many wealthy young men, Simon returned home wanting to create his own villa retreat in the English countryside. He had recently inherited the Nuneham Courtney estate, placed in just the situation that Palladio would have recommended: on top of a hill and with a navigable river below. It was deemed to be in an ‘advantageous and delicious’ position.
The Second Earl
As a young man, the 2nd Earl, George Simon, rebelled against his father’s ideas. He had republican sympathies and would have nothing to do with the Court life in which his father played an important part. His taste in gardens was equally different. Rather than finding solace in landscapes that echoed the scenery of ancient Rome, he preferred the ideas of the French philosopher Rousseau. It was Nature, and flowers in particular, that inspired him. In 1771, while his father was working abroad, he created an informal flower garden with the help of the poet and gardener, William Mason. With its irregularly shaped flowerbeds, it’s difficult to imagine a greater contrast to the sweeping landscapes and classical architecture enjoyed by his father.
The next Harcourt to make an impression on the grounds was Edward Vernon Harcourt, Archbishop of York, who inherited in 1830. He removed the statue of Rousseau from the flower garden and commissioned William Sawrey Gilpin, nephew of ‘picturesque’ Rev William Gilpin to make improvements. He bought extra land along the Oxford turnpike where Gilpin layed out a ‘Pinetum’, creating changes that Queen Victoria may have admired when she stayed shortly after her wedding. The archbishop’s younger son the Reverend William Vernon Harcourt inherited the estate in 1861. A Fellow of the Royal Society, he made many new plantings in the park and arboretum, perhaps with the help of his friend and colleague, Charles Daubery, Keeper of Oxford Botanic Garden. The grounds at Nuneham Courtenay continued to delight visitors just as much as it had in the previous century. Its setting was the inspiration for several chapters of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The Reverend’s grandson, Lewis, 1st Viscount Harcourt, was the last Harcourt to make major changes to the estate. He was a friend of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson whose ideas on planting were very popular in the early 20th century. Lewis, inspired by Robinson’s ‘Wild Garden’ created a woodland garden on the lower slopes of the estate. Rare trees and hardy exotics were naturalised along a stream and linked to the rest of the garden by a rock walk. Perhaps he was responsible for planting some of the many beautiful specimen trees that we enjoy today, such as the magnificent Cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata) and the Handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata).
Post Harcourt Ownership
In 1942, and during Sir William Harcourt’s ownership, Nuneham House was requisitioned by the RAF and used as a Central Interpretation Unit for air surveillance photography. Sir William sold the estate in 1948 to the University of Oxford who leased it to a succession of tenants. Since the early 1980’s, under the watchful eye of Richard Bisgrove, garden historian, university lecturer and author, a great deal of restoration work has taken place in the 2nd Earl’s flower garden. The intention was to bring this space back to the look and feel of the late 18th century, as recorded in a series of paintings by Paul Sandby.