In the early 1630s Isaac de Caus created at Wilton near Salisbury a formal garden for the sophisticated, learned and hugely wealthy Philip Herbert, fourth earl of Pembroke. De Caus, a French Huguenot exile specialised in the design and construction of grottoes and waterworks and Lord Pembroke had been part of the embassy sent to Paris by Charles I to accompany his prospective bride, Henrietta Maria, to England. While he was in Paris, Pembroke resided in the Palais de Luxembourg with its magnificent formal gardens which were probably the inspiration for Wilton, one of the earliest examples in England of a garden in the French style.
Nine and a half acres of garden were enclosed by a wall and divided by a broad path. The garden with waterworks, statuary and parterres de broderie , flanked by arbours was some 400 feet wide and a thousand feet long. The River Nadder which ran across the site was included in the garden scheme and enclosed in a “wilderness” and the river provided water for the many fountains. The garden was studded with statues and a magnificent grotto at the far end of the garden was entered through a classical façade and contained spouting sea monsters, a table with hidden jets to wet the unwary, and hydraulically simulated birdsong. An elevated walkway from the grotto offered a view of the south façade of Wilton House.
Sir Roy Strong has described the garden at Wilton, as “a unique synthesis of the Renaissance Gardener’s art”, a “symbol of the halcyon days of the King’s peace” and “the greatest of English Renaissance gardens”.
The garden survived in this form until the 1730s by which time fashion had turned from the formal to the informal and a later earl of Pembroke had Lancelot “Capability” Brown sweep away the old garden and create a “natural” landscape in the English style.
The garden was illustrated in a set of engravings published by de Caus in the late 1640s. Entitled Wilton Garden the book is one of the rarest and most important books in gardening history. It is rare, because few copies are known to exist and important because it is one of a very few visual and contemporary records of an early garden scheme.
The copy of Wilton Garden in the library of Trinity College Cambridge is one of only four known copies in the United Kingdom. There are probably fewer than ten copies in the world. This book came to the library in 2016 as part of a substantial bequest of books by the late Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe. The book contains the bookplate of the Duchess’s father, the earl, later the marquess, of Crewe which suggests that the book was owned by Lord Crewe before his elevation to the marquessate in 1911. Other than this there are no indications of provenance. The book has its original binding. The text is in French and it contains an introduction, a table of contents and 27 plates. Uniquely, it contains a plate of the south front of the house before the fire of 1648. This is not known in any other copy.
Wilton Garden is currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.