English gardens are ahead of themselves. Ten years ago I still relied on my big bushes of scented white viburnums to reassure me in the third week of May when I returned from Chelsea Flower Show. They were covered in fresh scented flowers on a scale which the show’s exhibitors could not match. Chelsea will be on television from Sunday onwards, but my viburnums will be over. They have already been in flower for a fortnight.
As they fade, I am looking forward to the next act: honeysuckles. They remind me of their presence by releasing drifts of scent on to the air as it cools in the evening. I have grown Japanese honeysuckles on walls in shade. I have grown others flat on the ground to hide drain covers and unmovable eyesores. I even grow early and late Dutch honeysuckles as small standard trees, fixing a single stemmed plant on to a thick bamboo cane, clipping off any side shoots and then pruning its head of stems to keep them neat at a height of about 4ft. I recommend this simple trick.
Until now I have never seen honeysuckles on a ceiling. I never imagined I would have to go to a built-up suburb in London SW15 to fill this gap in my flowery life. Behind a high wire fence in Roehampton, next to 47 Minstead Gardens, an extraordinary survival is about to receive expert love and attention. The Mount Clare temple is a pillared classicised temple so evocative and so remarkable I cannot believe it has been left for decades to squatters and vandals.
Last year I wrote on the grotto of the poet Alexander Pope and the plans for its restoration, to be headed by the Heritage of London Trust. The trust’s team then showed me other landmarks on its list to rescue, of which this temple and its ceiling caught my classical and floral eye. It belongs in the very heart of England’s love affair with ancient Greece and the classics. On its plastered ceiling a superb 18th-century oil painting shows honeysuckle climbing in the finest company, among imaginary incense burners, female half-figures with wings, ivy, oak leaves and, in the centre, girdled by an olive wreath, a superb lyre, brightly gilded when first painted. The composition belongs with the style most widely known nowadays from works by Robert Adam after his travels to Rome and the late Roman palace at Split. This ceiling’s artist is unknown but is widely believed to have been Italian.
The imagery around the honeysuckle evokes classical friezes and wall paintings of a type that could still be seen in Rome. However, patterns of them were also available in books and, as a gardener, I recognise the honeysuckle which the artist painted and the care he took in portraying it. It is flowering with yellow flowers. It is not Lonicera caprifolium, the Italian honeysuckle whose flowers combine red and white. Its stems are growing up through rounded pairs of stemless leaves: botanists class such honeysuckles as perfoliate. It is an exact painting of an English woodbine, visible even now in hedgerows: Lonicera periclymenum. Modern gardeners enjoy a variety called Graham Thomas, named in honour of the great English plantsman. Its scent is excellent and its flowers open to pale cream, but on my east wall it sheds its leaves in June, probably because it is too dry. On the temple ceiling its ancestor looks pleasantly healthy.
The ceiling is miraculously free of major damage after 250 years. In each subsection winged females hold gold medallions displaying the bust of a Roman emperor. Even so, the honeysuckle is English: the artist, Italian or not, may have designed his pattern with living specimens in front of him. What, though, has Roehampton to do with ancient Athens?
The small temple has four austere pillars in the Doric Greek order. It was devised, perhaps in the 1780s, for one of the great Georgian patrons of classical art and literature, William Ponsonby, an Anglo Irishman, and Earl of Bessborough. He had been on a Grand Tour, reaching Constantinople from Naples and passing through Athens and some of the Greek islands. He married a massively rich daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and spent a fortune on classical sculptures, fine books and art. He had excellent taste.
Who built this temple for him? Many have ascribed it to the talented William Chambers, who designed and decorated the earl’s nearby residence, now known as Parkstead House. However, Chambers did not use the Greek Doric order in his buildings, and another candidate has gained favour, none other than James “Athenian” Stuart, the first person to present drawings of the Parthenon and antiquities in Athens to a fascinated British public. With his travelling partner Revett, he then designed Doric temples for great English parks, Shugborough and Hagley being two. Why, though, would the earl choose him?
I have a suggestion. Bessborough was an early member of the celebrated Dilettanti Society, founded in London in the 1730s. Its upper-class members’ dinners, scurrilous wit and spirit were famous and, in 1751, “Athenian” Stuart, the orphaned son of a sailor, was the first humbler man to be elected: the Society then backed his two great volumes on Athenian antiquities. The earl, I suggest, commissioned a fellow Dilettante to design this temple for his park.
This year, Heritage of London Trust will be appealing for up to £25,000 to rescue it and its ceiling. On the temple’s back wall is another treasure, a plaster relief of a section of the Parthenon frieze. If it is contemporary with the building it is of exceptional interest. It must be based on a cast even older than those of the Elgin Marbles, as they were only shown in London from 1807. On the temple’s façade are two more reliefs, based on classical sculpted scenes of partying Bacchanals. They include goats and the god Pan.
In 1913, the temple was dismantled and moved by horse and cart to its present site. It was also given a cement coating which Heritage of London will remove. So I went to look at the earl’s nearby mansion with the help of interior decorator Nicky Haslam, a one-time contributor to FT Weekend, who has helped to rescue another classical temple in the grounds. Dressed in white leather and white gym shoes, he marched me up the fine curving staircase and explained the interior and its ceilings, also superb, to an amazed audience of students between classes at Roehampton University, which now occupies the building.
A decade or so ago, Haslam said, he held a party there for 400 celebrants of his 70th birthday: they arrived from grand London, only to succumb to Georgian splendour in a suburb. “When did they go to bed?” I asked. “They didn’t,” he replied. Those bacchanalian reliefs on the temple have their modern heirs. It is up to us to save its ceiling, hanging on by the tips of its tendrils, for an equally impressive old age.
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