Philip Southcote created the first Ferme Ornée (or ornamental farm) of its kind at Woburn Farm (then known as Wooburn Farm) in Addlestone. He and his wife, the Dowager Duchess of Cleveland, purchased the 116 acre farm in 1735, and Southcote quickly set about building a new house and creating his pioneering garden from the simple farmland of the estate. The idea was to create an Arcadian fantasy – combining farming and gardening together into a unified and artistic whole. His name has gone down in history as one of the earliest innovators in Georgian landscape gardening.
Philip Southcote came from an old-established Catholic family who had supported the Jacobites, favouring the restoration of the Stuart king James II. He had spent most of his childhood and young adulthood in France, but returned permanently to England upon marrying the wealthy Dowager Duchess of Cleveland, who was many years his senior. Members of established Catholic families were banned from holding public office in early 18th century England, so Southcote concentrated instead on using some of his wife’s considerable fortune to create his Ferme Ornée.
It is likely that Southcote was influenced by the key thinkers in garden design of the time, as well as contemporary fashions for the rural idyll. Poet Alexander Pope was a family friend, as was William Kent (who later designed the lodge house at Woburn which is still standing today). He is also likely to have read works by Switzer and Philip Miller, whose ideas on natural planting and rustic retreats prefigured his own.
The essential idea behind the Ferme Ornée was the creation of a rural idyll that was both a real working farm and a lively and varied feast for the eyes. “Tis all painting” wrote Southcote, and he developed artistic vistas, producing living paintings though clever planting, light and shade and careful, sympathetic treatment of the landscape. He favoured a varied and lively approach, and introduced the novel idea of growing flowers throughout the estate, not just in the area around the house. Another innovation was the inclusion of walks which snaked through the garden and around the perimeter. These were usually edged with naturalistic herbaceous borders of flowering plants which offered colour and unexpected variety. Water was included with a stream meandering through the garden. Carefully constructed views with follies as focal points were also a feature – new ideas which were to be taken up in several important later 18th century gardens still in existence today, such as Stourhead and Painshill Park. Finally, Southcote peopled his creation with farm animals such as cows, sheep and chickens. His staff also farmed arable crops, though the project was never an economically viable proposition, rather a rich man’s fantasy of rural life.
In its day Woburn Farm had many visitors, and was much admired. Southcote never set out to create something new, but despite this, his unique take on the fashions and garden ideas of the day meant that Woburn Farm was an influential model for what was to follow. Though his name is not so familiar to us, famous 18th century garden designers such as ‘Capability’ Brown did utilise and develop Southcote’s ideas, most notably the concept of the perimeter path or ‘belt’.
After his death in 1778, Philip Southcote’s second wife Bridget maintained the farm, and it remained unchanged until the early 19th century. The estate had a succession of owners during the 1820s, but by 1829, the Ferme Ornée was no longer in existence. In 1876 the property came back into the hands of the Petre family (who were related to the Southcotes). Monsignor William Petre allowed it to be used as a Roman Catholic boy’s school, and in 1884 it was sold to the Josephite Brothers who set up St. George’s College, which still exists today as a co-educational Catholic Independent school. The house remains, along with some unusual tree specimens which are the last vestiges of Philip Southcote’s careful 18th century planting.
The Ferme Ornée, Philip Southcote and Wooburn Farm, R.W.King, published in the Journal of the Garden History Society, 1974