Friday, April 2, 2010

Ralph Hancock: the story of a garden in the sky

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the Roof Gardens in Kensington. Robin Hull, who is an expert on Ralph Hancock (pictured left), the designer of the gardens, commented on my blog and I asked him if he would like to write a guest post. Not only has he written a fascinating account, but he has also provided me with some wonderful pictures. Enjoy!

If you read Trevor Bowen’s book, A Garden in the Sky, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was Sir Trevor who had designed and built the world famous roof gardens on top of what was then the Derry and Toms department store on London’s fashionable Kensington High Street.

There is one, single, reference in the book that leads the reader to the name of the man who actually designed and built was has become the Kensington Roof Gardens. And that is Ralph Hancock. So, it is with no surprise that after Hancock’s untimely passing in 1950, his name, his work and, more importantly, his legacy is little known to the gardening world.

(Clarence Henry) Ralph Hancock was born in Cardiff in 1893, the eldest of three sons to Clarence Hancock, an auctioneer and estate agent. His unremarkable early life gives few clues to the man he was to become - an ambitious self-starter who, after moving his young family to Sutton, Surrey in 1927, found himself gardener to Princess Victoria, daughter of King Edward VII.

Just three years later, in 1930, Hancock was in the United States, making stunning gardens and winning major competitions for his innovative designs. A well-known figure on the lecture circuit, he was also a favourite on the radio where he regularly gave talks about horticulture.

A founder member of the North American Rock Garden Association, he built gardens for JJ Newberry, the east coast rival to FW Woolworth and for Lydia Duff Gray, a New York Socialite. That garden now forms part of the Gardening Club of North America. In 1935 he found himself working for John D and Nelson Rockefeller on their ambitious skyscraper project on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Hancock had been commissioned to design the
Gardens of the Nations (above) on the eleventh floor of the Rockefeller Center. These incredible roof top gardens were inspired by garden designs from Europe, Japan and America.

As well as his internationally themed gardens, Hancock built a 200ft babbling brook complete with a menagerie of wild animals that he imported from upstate New York. The designs also included a modern geometric garden and his own private piece of old England, with turf shipped from across the Atlantic. He even brought stone for his rock garden from the Cumbrian Lake District and his trademark Cotswold stone for his low retaining walls.

He was also responsible for two other ‘low level’ roof gardens on the International and the British Empire Buildings as well as the famous street level esplanade.

Soon, Hancock was recalled to England to design similar roof top gardens for Trevor Bowen, the managing director of Derry and Toms. Bowen had been in the US on a fact-finding trip and had seen Hancock’s designs at the Rockefeller Center. He wanted the same for his flagship London store.

This time Hancock designed three distinct gardens. A Spanish garden based on the Alhambra with a court of fountains, Moorish pergolas and the well of St Theresa; A walled Tudor garden right out of Hampton Court; and a woodland garden planted with native British trees. And just like his gardens in New York, Hancock also had a stream, this time with spectacular cascades made from stone brought from Pennsylvania (ideal for London’s pollution) and crisscrossed by two bridges and stepping stones. A pond, complete with gnomes and goldfish greeted visitors as they emerged onto the roof from the store below.

The gardens opened in May 1938 and over the next three decades the shilling (5p) entrance fee raised over £120,000 for local hospitals – that’s the equivalent of 2.4 million visitors. Meanwhile, the gardens thrived. Shoppers at Derry and Toms would take tea in the pavilion and promenade in the three gardens. Stopping to write one of the many postcard designs available to buy.

During the Second World War they became a focal point for raising comforts for service men and woman. Hollywood’s finest movie stars could regularly be seen partying in the gardens.

Two visitors' books, now housed in Kensington library, contain the signatures of the celebrities of the period including Sir John Gielgud, Leslie Howard, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Ivor Novello. Royalty too were often seen at Derry Gardens. The green Moroccan leather books also contain the signatures of Queen Mary, King Haakon of Norway, Queen Marie of Yugoslavia and Prince Bernard of Holland.

Enemy action, in the way of air raids, resulted in some damage to the gardens. A 250lb bomb exploded in the Spanish garden destroying the campanile, while a 1,000lb parachute mine landed on the tea pavilion but failed to detonate.

After the hostilities came to an end, the gardens were replanted and the bell tower repaired. They remained largely unaltered until 1973 but were soon to see dramatic changes. More about that later.

During the war, Ralph served as a Captain with the Pioneer Corps in North Africa. His wife, Muriel, drove ambulances during the Blitz and his two sons served overseas. Like many other families during the war, Ralph and Muriel lost a son in action. Denys, aged just 21, was killed in a tank battle against Rommel's forces in Libya.

When the war ended Ralph went into partnership with his remaining son, Bramley. The two forged an incredibly successful team. (Later, Bramley became the sole importer of aluminum greenhouses and made a fortune.) The 1949 Chelsea Flower Show guide shows Ralph pictured with the King and Queen confidently explaining his formal garden. As Hancock and Son, he and Bramley gained numerous commissions from their exhibition work including a walled garden for Welsh entrepreneur David Evans-Bevan at his home in Margam, just outside Port Talbot. Another project was a Rose Temple for the Festival of Britain built on land donated by the bloodstock company, Tattersalls, at Knightsbridge Green, London.

Ralph Hancock with Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother) at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1949

Sadly, Ralph never fully recovered from the death of his youngest son, despite his continued success and popularity. He died in 1950 after a short illness linked to diabetes and his ashes were scattered on the Thames by his wife and daughter, Sheila, at Charing Cross embankment.

Today the Gardens of the Nations remain only as pictures in old postcards and guidebooks and the memories of those lucky enough to have visited them. They were drastically altered sometime in the 1970s to make way for television transmitters. But in London, the 72-year-old roof gardens at Derry and Toms thrive. They were awarded Grade II status by English Heritage in the 1980s and today they form part of Virgin Limited Edition and are the playground of Sir Richard Branson, their current owner.

The Derry Gardens today

During the second half of the 20th century, the department store Derry and Toms - along with Barkers and Pontings - had been operating as three separate independent stores within the John Barker Company. But after the purchase of the company by House of Fraser it was quickly decided to sell off the stores. Pontings shut in 1970 and Derry and Toms soon after in 1971. Barkers closed in 1973. The site at 99-101 Kensington High Street was sold to British Land - Dorothy Perkins for £4 million.

There soon followed a brief revival in the fortunes of the Derry and Toms building when Biba, the smart boutique owned by the flamboyant designer Barbara Hulanicki purchased the property as part of their expansion. In a furious five months the interior of the store was transformed by Markwell Associates, better known for their theatrical and television work. Escalators were installed and many whimsical features introduced. During this short period the gardens once again became the place to be seen. Music stars such as David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and Marc Bolan were regulars at this modern Babylon in the sky.

Over £14 million was spent, but the investment proved rash. Having opened in a blaze of glory in 1973 the store closed just two years later. When Biba left the site in 1975 the store itself was divided into separate retail outlets. The roof garden became the property of Rama Superstores, which meant they only received the minimum of attention. In 1976 Kensington and Chelsea Council placed a Tree Preservation Order on the now mature trees to ensure that unnecessary removal or harmful pruning works were not carried out.

In 1978 the gardens became the subject of a redevelopment. The tea pavilion gave way to Regine’s restaurant and night club. New lifts were installed, destroying the rear part of the garden and necessitating the removal of a bridge across the river. The cascades went too (their Pennsylvania rock was later used in an unattractive grotto opposite the new entrance to the roof gardens). The addition of a new air conditioning chiller unit also destroyed the line of the Tudor (cloisters) walk.

Root penetration from the maturing trees started to cause problems for the floor beneath.

In 1981 the Virgin Group, headed by Sir Richard Branson, purchased the gardens. Regine’s was replaced by the Babylon restaurant and a members-only night club. In 1986 the gardens were awarded Grade II listing by English Heritage. This meant that no work could be carried out without permission and under their supervision.

Today, 72 years after they were opened, the gardens have been restored to their former glory. Thanks to head gardener David Lewis, and a small team of volunteers, the Derry gardens look as they did when Hancock designed and built them.

Robin Hull

Above, Hancock's design for the English Garden at the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Note the similarity to the stonework detail in the Tudor Gardens at Derry Street, below.

Yet more similarities between the Spanish Garden at Derry Street, above, and the Spanish Garden at the Rockefeller Center, below.

The Spanish Garden as it looked during the Biba era, nearly 40 years ago and, below, as they look today, following an extensive restoration by Virgin.