Between 1661 and 1669 Charles II’s vision of a new royal palace and park grand enough to rank with those of Europe began to take shape. The terraces around the flat grassed parterre to the south of the Queen’s House can be attributed to French landscape architect André Le Nôtre. The general layout of radiating avenues may be due to Sir William Boreman, but the palace was never to be completed; by 1669 work had stopped and Charles turned his attention to Hampton Court. For over 20 years Webb’s King’s House remained a shell and the Grand Plan remained incomplete.
In 1660 Charles II had been restored as monarch after his long exile in France and Holland. He was inbued with continental ideas on art and planning and undoubtedly impressed by the splendour surrounding France's King Louis XIV (known as 'the Sun King'). “Impecunious as he was, the prospect was irresistible” ... and he embarked on projects to embellish his Restoration with French grandeur. Within a few weeks of his return, work had started on St. James’ s Park, with the help of “a skilfull person from Paris”, probably Andre Mollet, Le Nôtre’s assistant, who was appointed with Gabriel Mollet, as the King’s Gardeners in 1661. That year Charles visited his derelict palace at Greenwich, ordered it to be demolished and commissioned John Webb, pupil and relative of Inigo Jones, to design a new palace, and to repair and enlarge the Queen’s House.
In August 1661 extension work started on the Queen’s House; in July 1662 the Queen mother, Henrietta Maria, landed in England and proceeded to Greenwich; the following summer work started on laying the foundations for the 4 comer pavilions planned by Webb. The first designs for the palace were done in 1662, his first idea being a courtyard open to the river with parallel blocks and a crosswing with a large domed central building, which would have cut off the Queen’s House on the central axis. In 1663 Pepys reported: “At Greenwich I observed the foundation laying of a very great
house for the King which will cost a great deal of money”. But only the west block known as the King’s House or Charles II Block was built. Funds ran out and work stopped in 1669 as it did also on the Queen’s House, but it provided the starting point for the great baroque ensemble subsequently built
up by Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and John Vanbrugh.
Meanwhile the park was being remodelled and replanted appropriately. In August 1661 Sir William Boreman petitioned the King to be able to undertake the planting of the park and between September 1661 and June 1662 Boreman’s accounts include the planting of 14 coppices, elms, birch, quicksetts,
ivyberries, holly berries, digging and trenching, 600 elms for 7 walks, Chestnut trees from Lesnes Abbey, the formation of 12 “ascents” from the bottom to the top of the hill, filling part of the great pit, cutting and carrying turf. In April 1662 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary “to Greenwich by water, Sir
William Pen and I walked into the Parke where the King hath planted trees and made steps in the hill up to the Castle which is very magnificent”. No contemporary documents and no contemporary comment has come to light that mentions a designer for this layout of the park done between September 1661 and April 1662. The question remains unanswered although the “patte d’ oie” at the Blackheath gate suggests that Andre Mollet might have had a hand in it.1
In May 1662 N. Batailler wrote to the Foreign Secretary Lionne: “The King of England, walking 2 days ago in St. James’s Park and talking of the alterations he hoped to make in his gardens, especially at Greenwich, notified that he would require the help of Le Nôtre, who was in charge of the (French) King’s Gardens and he begged me to write to His Majesty to ask that he would allow him to make the journey to England”. Louis XIV’s
reply was “Although I have need of Le Nôtre continually who is very occupied at Fontainebleau, I will certainly allow him to make the journey to England since the King so desires”2
The extent to which this permission was followed up, and the part played by Le Nôtre on the design of Greenwich Park have led to much speculation. In summary it is known that Le Nôtre was informed of the situation and the plans concerning the Queen’s Garden but, it is not clear if this was through
drawings and explanations sent to him by his cousin Andre Mollet or by other means. There is no definite evidence that he was concerned with the entirity of Greenwich Park except as a setting for the Queen’s Garden. There is no contemporary evidence, either from public records or from
the papers of the diariests Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn (who were closely interested and well-informed on events here at this time) that Le Nôtre actually visited Greenwich.
Although there is no historical evidence of any visit by Le Nôtre, which could in the circumstances hardly have been made without being recorded, there is no question that he was somehow enabled to make a plan of the grass terraces and a parterre for the Queen’s House... “a charming garden
with 3 fountains and formal flower beds framed by a curious terrace, in outline resembling a double broken architrave”.3 The plan, unsigned and undated gives the appearance of a working sketch, and shows the terrace ‘frame’ more or less as it was formed around the parterre. The Queen’s House is drawn with its 4 corner pavilions designed by Webb probably between 1662 and 1663 but never completed. At the top of the plan, at what would have been the foot of Greenwich Hill is a simple 7 arched feature or grotto. The plan is annotated in 2 hands, one of them said to be Le Nôtre’s giving instructions and dimensions for the formation of the terraces. “They will send for me as they did for the terrace (?) and I shall make a little sketch plan as was done for terraces ABC” .. indicates that either this was the second drawing he had been involved with or that this plan was being sent back for the second time, and that he expected to continue working on the scheme and possibly intended to visit.
The layout of the adjoining southern part and the giant steps was by this time already accomplished. His involvement seems to have been limited to the Queen’s House Parterre and the planting of the walks on either side which were carried out between 1662 and 1665. His detailed proposals for the
basins, fountains and flower beds were never realised. Possibly with reference to Greenwich, King Charles wrote to his sister Henriette at St. Cloud in October 1664 : “Pray lett Le Nostre go on with the model and only tell him this addition that I can bring water to the top of the hill, so that he might add much to the beauty of the descente by a cascade of water”. (It is most likely he was referring to Greenwich although it wasn’t mentioned by name).
1. Andre Mollet: Le Jardin de Plaisir. 1651
2. Amherst (1) p.186 / David Green . Cl.1956 pg.15
3. David Green . Cl.1956 Le Nôtres plan found in Paris in 1955.
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