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Levens Hall, 1962

Justine Sambrook

Plantagenet fortress to country house

Originally a medieval pele tower, one of a chain of Cumbrian defensive structures built to repel Scottish raiders, Levens Hall was transformed from a Plantagenet fortress into an impressive country house in 1590. It was acquired by Colonel James Grahame, a favourite of the court of James II, after the revolution in 1688, allegedly as the spoils from a game of cards. Grahame brought with him the King’s ex-gardener, Frenchman Guillaume Beaumont who had studied at Versailles, to plan a fashionable garden for the house. The resulting highly formal garden survived the 18th century taste for natural landscaping and is now a rare example of an original Elizabethan garden with some of the oldest topiary in the world.

Edwin Smith photographed the house in 1962 for Peter Coat’s book Great Gardens and his images demonstrate his new-found delight in shooting gardens. He had empathy for both humble cottage gardens and grand formal landscaping as well as an ability to combine, according to fellow photographer Walter Nurnberg, ‘the lyricism of broad scenic views with commanding elements of architectural forms’.