HISTORY OF HARDWICK PARK
The Hardwick estate was acquired by John Burdon, a wealthy Tyneside merchant, in 1748. Shortly afterwards he embarked on a dramatic programme of landscape improvement, establishing a large ornamental lake to the south of the house, into which flowed an artificial serpentine ‘river’, channelled over a terminal cascade. A circuit walk was laid out along an anticlockwise route around the lake, passing a set of decorative buildings, each in a carefully landscaped and planted setting. At each of these focal points, new views would be revealed, and the visitor would pause to admire ornamental facades and interiors. The route would eventually lead across a bridge and finish at the grandest of the garden buildings. The whole layout appears to have been implemented during the 1750’s, giving it an unusual integrity of style.
The designer of the garden layout is not known, but Burdon employed some of the finest designers and craftworkers available in Europe in his grounds. His architect was James Paine, a man with a considerable national reputation. Paine produced designs for a series of ornamental buildings in the Palladian and Gothic styles, and carried out interior schemes of exceptional richness using a team of craftsmen including the painters Francis Hayman, Samuel Wale and Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis, and the stuccoist Giuseppe Cortese.
The resulting design was characteristic of its time, and owes much to the work of William Kent, the acknowledged originator of the English landscape garden. This is not to say, however, that Hardwick was a mere pattern-book layout: it was a bold , rich, subtle and carefully worked scheme, with all its elements carefully integrated and sequenced so that the visitor would experience a series of visual and atmospheric contrasts. The banker Henry Hoare was engaged on a layout with many similarities to Hardwick at his Stourhead estate in Wiltshire, now universally recognised as one of the great achievements of the early landscape garden. Useful parallels can be drawn with other pioneering designs of the period, such as Studley Royal in Yorkshire and Painshill in Surrey. The pioneer local historian William Hutchinson, writing in 1787, was struck by the degree to which the Hardwick layout exemplified the glowing description of Kentian design principles in Horace Walpole’s ‘History of the Modern Taste in Gardening’, published in 1780 and now regarded as a benchmark in the critical appraisal of the new style. Hardwick was in the forefront of this new and revolutionary taste.
Once the initial layout was complete, Burdon appears to have commissioned further designs for ornamental buildings, including a house of exceptional grandeur. For whatever reason, these designs were not executed, and the gardens remained unchanged. A later owner, Matthew Russell, carried out a number of improvements around 1800, including the transformation of the land between the Hardwick garden and Sedgefield into ornamental parkland, but his work was entirely in sympathy with Burdon’s work, extending and refining it rather than altering it.
During the mid-19th century the house and garden were tenanted, and a long, gradual period of decline set in. The lake was drained, for reasons that have yet to be explained, before 1873, whereupon the circuit walk lost its focus, and the design its coherence. During the 20th century the property was used for a variety of purposes, none of them particularly sympathetic. The ornamental buildings were still largely intact as late as 1938, but by 1950 they were in advanced stages of decay. The decline has continued until the present day, only partially arrested by the acquisition of the south-eastern portion of the garden in 1972 by Durham County Council as a country park.
The process of decay has been accentuated by the fragmentation of the original layout into several ownership’s and uses. The country park is managed for informal recreation and wildlife conservation by the County Council; the house and the northern part of the garden is operated as a hotel with various ancillary land uses; the western part of the garden is under arable farming and forestry. The former park, separated from the garden by a modern bypass, is in mixed agricultural use.
The effect of the fragmentation has been to obscure the 1750’s layout: only with a specialist guide is it possible for the visitor to make sense of John Burdon’s design. The long period of decline has, however, had one unintentional benefit in that no significant alteration has ever been made to the original layout. Hidden beneath scrub, marsh and insensitive planting, the remains of the ornamental buildings, paths and features are still there. Gardens of this vintage have emerged from the undergrowth to international acclaim before now, as at Painshill and Claremont. The essential integrity of this early Georgian layout has been recognised by English Heritage through the inclusion of Hardwick in the ‘Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest’ at Grade II*.
There is now a key opportunity to begin the process of returning Hardwick to something approaching its undoubted former glory. The modern history of fragmentation, neglect and indecision can be redirected, and the site once again revealed as an outstanding example of the garden taste of the 1750’s, a style which has been called Britain’s greatest original contribution to the history of art. If this project can be brought to fruition, it will reflect lasting credit on the custodians of Hardwick, and provide the people of Sedgefield and the wider region with a landscape park on their doorstep of international significance, attracting visitors from across Europe whilst still remaining their favourite place for walking and bird watching in refined rural surroundings. This history is still ongoing ……………….