July 13, 2012 8:48 pm

Sham rock

The tale of the Pulhams, a self-made family renowned for its fake stone, is not over yet
The boathouse and ‘The Nest’ at Sandringham, part of a series of Pulham rockscapes rediscovered in the late 1980s©Jenny Lilly

The boathouse and ‘The Nest’ at Sandringham, part of a series of Pulham rockscapes rediscovered in the late 1980s

Across four generations a self-made family dominated the solid features in the gardens of Britain’s new rich. The story is inspiring and has only been known so far in outline. Now, much more of it has become clear, from Las Vegas to the country seat of England’s Rothschilds. More is surely out there, waiting to be added. The tale of the Pulhams is not over yet.

For 10 years their traces have been pursued by the tireless Claude Hitching, a management accountant (recently retired). He has found that no fewer than five of his direct ancestors worked across the ages for the Pulham family enterprise. From Buckingham Palace to the Belle Vue Park in Wales, he has inspected rocks and balustrades and chased up records and contacts that are about to be forgotten. It has plainly been obsessive fun. He tells the story as a cross between a catalogue and a chain of coincidences, but as an ex-businessman with a bee in his bonnet he has managed to add dozens of unfamiliar gardens to my list of those worth visiting in Britain. In 2008, English Heritage published a survey of examples of the Pulhams’ work and called it Durability Guaranteed . With the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage has also been putting up money for restorations of several Pulham gardens. After Hitching’s additions to Durability’s survivors, they will face demands from many more.

The Pulham brand is remembered for one thing above all: “Pulhamite”, or artificial stone. They prospered, we remember, by faking it. Pulhamite was mixed from cement and was claimed to look as good as pale Portland stone. They made it up by the truckload and sold it to rich garden-owners for the big rock gardens and pergolas that were the height of garden fashion on their estates. However, we have been unfair to the Pulhams, four James Pulhams in a row, based at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire from 1793 until the business faded in the 1930s. They were admirably explicit about what they were doing and Pulhamite stone was only part of their story. In their Garden Ornament Catalogue of 1925, they distinguish between Pulhamite cement, which they often used for rock gardens, and Pulhamite stone, which they used for garden vases and features. There was also Pulhamite terracotta, used for garden urns, which has proved even more durable than the stone. The faking, therefore, had three distinct divisions. I dislike the darker shade of their terracotta fakes and much of the “stone” has weathered to a dark, grim surface. Nevertheless, the Pulhams were extremely skilled at designing landscapes with it and laying them out in a “natural” style. We have reviled them as fakers but they were actually proud craftsmen with delighted letters of thanks from their grand patrons. They were more than capable of working with natural stone, too, but their Pulhamite was lighter, cheaper and able to be precast to suitable shapes. It has since acquired a new virtue. In our terms nowadays, it is much more eco-friendly than a rock garden made from pillaged tons of Westmoreland limestone or bits of the Burren, looted from Ireland where its outcrops hold such remarkable wild flowers.

Famous sites with big Pulham stonescapes include Sandringham, Battersea Park and the Rothschilds’ Waddesdon House in Buckinghamshire where a series of Pulham rockscapes was only rediscovered in the late 1980s. Hitching is justly scathing about attempts by Wandsworth Council to “renovate” the Pulham rock pools and rockscapes that dignify Battersea Park. They set about them with water jets, which caused the artificial stone façades to split. They also coated them with sprayed cement, losing the outline and the charm. At least the result caused English Heritage to list and protect Pulham “rock” gardens. Since then, restorations elsewhere have been much more successful, especially at Dunorlan Park in Tunbridge Wells. By 2010 its remarkable Pulham Grecian Temple and its decorative Hebe Fountain were back in fine form. The garden has been a major undertaking by public funds and private friends but no gardening columnist has ever so much as noticed it. Victorian and Edwardian suburban gardens have been off our radar.

A Pulham archway at Madresfield Court

A Pulham archway at Madresfield Court

Why do we profess to hate faking on principle, and not just because it can deceive us and cost us unwisely-spent money? Great painters fake so many effects and are admired for them, so why cannot landscapers fake it too? The Pulhams’ clients included great city names, Rothschilds, Quilters and so forth, but they were super-nouveaux, desperate to impress. However, they also laid out a magnificent “rock” garden at Madresfield Court for Lord Beauchamp, the family that inspired Evelyn Waugh’s top-drawer fiction, Brideshead Revisited. I have even walked and idly weeded among the big pillar “rocks” of this fine garden, at last under restoration. Admittedly the Pulhams’ stone-colouring and style were only too suited to the Landseer world of the royal family. One of the greatest Pulhamite landscapes is at Friar Park near Henley where it is maintained by the widow of the Beatle George Harrison, the ultimate super-nouveau, buyer and lover, appropriately, of such a weird garden.

If you are still unsure about the style, here, amazingly, is how to see it from your armchair. In the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sally Ann Howes plays Truly Scrumptious and sings her love song “Lovely, Lovely Man” from the top of a fine Pulham-built bridge, which spans the lake at Heatherden Hall, adjoining Pinewood Studios. In the Pulhams’ honour I urge Selfridges in London to restore the magnificent Pulham garden, which was the glory of the store’s roof. In May 1912, part of the roof, it emerges, “was set aside for golfers, where they could practice [sic] putts and tee shots into a net”. What an eco-friendly loss in our age of revived “green city” gardening.

Is it sometimes kitsch or is it rather touching? Hitching’s tireless research and catalogue allow us to decide. On the one hand he has had an amazing coup, the rediscovery of the lost “Kew Fountain”, which the Pulhams made for the International Exhibition in 1862. Mourned by Pulham fans, it has now turned up, rather the worse for restoration, in the Bellagio Casino Hotel in Las Vegas. Is this setting the just home for the Pulhamite heritage? Yet one of the Pulhams, younger brother of the second James, turns out to have had a remarkable name, Michael Angelo Pulham, no less. He is commemorated as a “Modeller in Terracotta and Plasterer” and is honoured by an excellent memorial of a big winged angel that is now in the Lowewood Museum, Hoddesdon. Two small pots and two terracotta heads by Michael Angelo have now turned up and joined the angel in the museum. The family that named a son Michael Angelo surely considered their art and craft to be more than market-driven kitsch.

Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy, by Claude Hitching, Garden Art Press, RRP£35.00

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