Janet Waymark, Thomas Mawson: Life, Gardens and Landscapes, Frances Lincoln, London, 2009, pp.240, ISBN-13: 978 0 7112 2595 4 (hbk.).

Walter Cook

Figure 1: Thomas Mawson in early maturity. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 6.

Figure 1: Thomas Mawson in early maturity. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 6.

Janet Waymark’s account of Thomas Mawson’s life and work includes copious descriptions and analyses of the gardens, parks, and towns he designed, well supported by plans and photographs. Mawson (Figure 1) was the first English garden designer to call himself “landscape architect,” and as a second string to his business he took up the emerging profession of town planning. In both garden design and town planning he gained a national and international reputation.

Thomas Mawson’s early life

Janet Waymark’s introduction deals with Mawson’s early life and the state of Britain at the time that he established his nursery business at Windermere in the Lake District in 1885. It is very much a rags to riches story typical of the Victorian period. The lives of architect and garden designer Joseph Paxton and novelist Charles Dickens are obvious examples that spring to mind. So also is the life of one of Mawson’s wealthiest clients and patrons, Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish born, American iron and steel millionaire for whom Scotland remained a second home.

Mawson’s father, John, died in 1877 and two years later in 1879, at the age of 16, like Dick Whittington, the largely self-educated Mawson was forced to leave home and seek in London, not only his fortune, but that of two brothers, two sisters, and a mother. This strong sense of family responsibility was combined with ambition, a liberal, protestant work ethic, and that great Victorian virtue of self-help. Family was important to Mawson throughout his professional life, and his business was very much a family affair that included brothers, sons, and at times members of his extended family. Between 1879 and 1885 he gained positions with several commercial nurseries in London and Somerset, and through this work acquired a training in horticulture, a knowledge of plants and plantsmanship, and some of the skills required in running a business.

It was during his time in London that Mawson met Anna Prentice, a trained nurse and the daughter of a doctor. They married in 1884 with the security that Mawson had been given a partnership with a firm that promised him the opportunity to train as a landscape designer. In the event the offer of a partnership fell through, and instead, he found land in the Lake District, and with the help of his brothers established a nursery, Mawson Brothers (later Lakeland Nurseries), from which he hoped to establish a landscaping business of his own.

Mawson the garden designer

The world which Mawson hoped to break into as a garden designer with no qualifications other than those of a gardener and nurseryman, was one ruled by rigid social hierarchy. The occupation of gardener was at the very bottom of the pile. This had not always been the case, and in the mid-Victorian period gardeners could become famous arbiters of taste, creating gardens, writing books, and sometimes overriding the wishes of their employers. But as the late-Victorian class system became more rigid and stratified, the gardener was relegated to the role of a servant, fit only to take instruction from the master, the owner of the estate. In the words of historian Brent Elliott, ‘the Victorian myth of the heroic gardener was replaced by the myth of the amateur plantsman, of aristocratic, or at least wealthy extraction, whose garden was informed by his own artistic sensibility, and whose gardeners have disappeared without trace in horticultural literature.’[1] Gertrude Jekyll is an obvious example of the new myth, a woman from a well-off middle class background, art school trained, who took up garden design when her eyesight began to fail. She was able to form partnerships with successful professional men of her own class such as architect Edwin Lutyens, and fill a role that in the recent past had been the preserve of professional gardeners. According to Janet Waymark, Jekyll’s attitude to Mawson, a man who had risen through the trade, was always rather distant and frosty, though she could not ignore him, and he was included in the book Gardens for Small Country Houses that Jekyll wrote with Lawrence Weaver, architectural editor for Country Life.[2] In the context of these realities, it was important for Mawson to be seen as a “landscape architect” rather than a landscape gardener with all the lower class connotations that being a gardener implied. But as well as this, it was also important because architects were getting in on the act, and leading the charge in modern British garden design.

There was also a battle of horticultural styles emerging which would include an assertion by architects that as they were the professionals trained in design, they were best qualified to design gardens, especially in relation to the house. In part this was a reaction to the natural, or wild garden promoted by William Robinson. Followers of Robinson tended to abandon form and design in favour of a paradise wilderness in which the native British vegetation was enhanced by colourful hardy exotics. To counter this, architects such as John Sedding and William Blomfield proposed a return to formal gardens, which should be seen as extensions of the house and even enclosed by walls and hedges from the landscape beyond. Mawson was one of the garden designers of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who resolved this dichotomy by developing gardens in which formal elements were not only associated with the house, but also thrust out into, and included, the immediate landscape or surrounding woodland which could also be enhanced in the manner of the natural garden.

The intellectual background of garden design in Britain

Another aspect of the new formal gardens lay in a political and cultural shift in late-nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain and Europe that historians have subsequently dubbed “romantic nationalism.” In Britain, empire was a large part of this– more particularly, the imperial destiny of the Anglo Saxon Race. Janet Waymark deals with this in the person of the politician and arch imperialist, Joseph Chamberlain, and the political idea of “Greater Britain.” She suggests that, for Mawson, its cultural implications related to his town planning activities outside Britain, especially in Canada, and ‘the danger that Englishness would be adopted without any consideration that settlers in new lands would want to evolve styles of their own’ (17). Certainly the city he projected for Calgary, Alberta, was a grand imperial fantasy for a frontier city in the throws of what historian James Belich calls “explosive settlement.”[3]

Another aspect of romantic nationalism was the belief that national cultural characteristics were rooted in ancient traditions. This led to movements in architecture and design throughout Europe and beyond that promoted vernacular traditions as a source of modern cultural expression linked to national identity. Architect Reginald Blomfield’s book The Formal Garden in England (1892), as well as trouncing landscape and natural gardeners in favour of architects, was also intended to demonstrate that, unlike the mid Victorian view that British formal gardens existed only as a local response to those of Italy and France, there was a distinctive native tradition reaching back to Tudor times and beyond.[4] This was to lead to the revival of the old English formal garden that became very popular with another movement that fed into romantic nationalism and the search for a vernacular based modern culture.

The Arts and Crafts movement arose from the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris, both of whom were protesting against the industrial revolution and the factory system in particular. This protest included utopian ideas for an anti-liberal, communal, green, post-industrial future for Britain, predicated on an idealised view of a supposed green, communal, pre-industrial past. In practical terms it was a factor in the development of the garden suburb and the idea of the garden city, and inspired a generation of architects, many of whom designed gardens with their houses, to study local building traditions, crafts and trades, and to design houses that fitted the locality in terms of traditional styles and materials. The Arts and Crafts movement was a strong influence on Mawson, especially in the gardens he designed in the 1890s and early 1900s. He went into partnership or association with arts and crafts architects Dan Gibson and Charles Mallows, who also designed gardens, and used local stone for dry stone walls and facing terraces, or brick if stone was not available, wood for garden furniture and trellis work, and hand made wrought iron gates designed by Gibson. He also absorbed and made use of those features of the old English formal garden favoured by Arts and Crafts garden designers, such as spaces enclosed by clipped hedges and topiary forms as features within formal garden spaces.

The other source of inspiration for modern formal gardens in Britain from 1890 to 1914 was a return to the Italian Renaissance garden as a model. This favoured less baroque examples of Italian gardens than those that informed the work of Charles Barry, for example, from the 1840s to 1860s. The new Italianate gardens were particularly associated with the work of architect Harold Peto, whose reputation in the style even won him commissions in Italy.

The old English formal garden and the new Italianate garden brought structure and form back to the modern British garden of this period in a new way that stood out from the rest of Europe. In the opinion of Edward Hyams, writing around the late 1960s, ‘in France, Germany, Holland, South Africa, Japan, and above all in the United States, advances in scientific horticulture were great; but there were none in the art of composing a garden, except in Britain.’[5] He goes on to claim that what emerged was a style that would accommodate, in a unity, the picturesque, the Italianate, the architectural, and plantsmanship. Thomas Mawson’s career as a garden designer was in the thick of this development (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Detail of the upper terrace, Rydal Hall. Designed in 1909 this garden has been recently restored. In spite of the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement on him, Mawson was not above using moulded concrete for the balustrades and the large pots. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 46.

Figure 2: Detail of the upper terrace, Rydal Hall. Designed in 1909 this garden has been recently restored. In spite of the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement on him, Mawson was not above using moulded concrete for the balustrades and the large pots. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 46.

The business of landscape design

Mawson established his business at Windermere at a propitious time. The Lake District, in spite of protests from conservationists, was being connected to the British railway network, which opened the area for development. Wealthy industrialists from nearby cities in search of country estates and sites for country houses were attracted to the area and its long established scenic reputation. It was from this group that Mawson gained most of his early commissions for gardens, and once in, satisfied clients passed his name on to others. This combined with Mawson’s cultivation of connections and promotional abilities, enabled him to grow his business beyond the Lake District, first throughout northern Britain, and finally, nationally. By 1901, as well as his nursery and home base in the Lake District, he had a head office in Lancaster, and a subsidiary office in London. Over the next 10 years, as well as designing gardens, he established himself as a maker of urban parks and a town planner, with offices in Canada and Greece. During this period, he also gained three very wealthy clients, two of whom facilitated his first opportunities to work outside Britain. One was Andrew Carnegie mentioned above. Another was the furniture manufacturer, Samuel Waring; the third, William Lever (Lord Leverhulme), who had made his fortune from Sunlight soap.

In 1897, Carnegie bought himself a permanent home in Scotland, Skibo Castle in Sutherland, and commissioned Mawson to improve the landscape. But more importantly for Mawson’s standing in his profession, was Carnegie’s decision after his retirement in 1899, to turn his fortune into a foundation for welfare, education, and peace. In 1903, he gave $1.5 million U.S. to build the Peace Palace at The Hague. When work on the Palace finally commenced in 1908, Mawson, as one of three invited competitors, won the commission for the laying out the grounds. Through the influence of Samuel Waring, Mawson got the job of designing the garden for Queen Alexandra’s holiday home in Copenhagen. Both of these commissions were important for Mawson’s professional reputation. The first established him as a leading garden designer in the context of Europe, and the second enhanced his status in class-conscious Britain. Janet Waymark also suggests that the royal commission, given Queen Alexandra’s links with the Greek Royal family, may have been an important factor in King Constantine’s decision in 1913 to select Mawson as the man to provide a town plan and a park system for Athens as well as work on designs for the Palace gardens. This was a commission on which Mawson and his firm could use all of their accumulated skills in garden and park design and town planning (Figure 3).

Figure 3: A pergola of Pompeian splendour designed by Mawson for the garden of The Hill, Hampstead, for William Lever. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 54.

Figure 3: A pergola of Pompeian splendour designed by Mawson for the garden of The Hill, Hampstead, for William Lever. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 54.

Town planning

Mawson became a pioneer town planner via park design. In the early 1890s, to give his business another income stream, he decided to enter competitions for the design of public parks. It was through one of these projects that he connected with the guru of the early town planning movement in Britain, the Scotsman, Patrick Geddes. In 1903, he and Geddes were invited by the Carnegie Trust to prepare plans for a park in Pittencrieff, Dunfermline, on land given to the town by Andrew Carnegie. In

the event Carnegie rejected both proposals, but offered Mawson the job at Skibo Castle. Mawson’s illustrated report on the park was published, and through this his reputation reached North America and was important in relation to his future work there. For a brief period Mawson and Geddes considered working together, but as each man’s approach to design was so very different, it is not surprising that this never eventuated.

City improvement was not unknown in Britain before the 1890s. From the middle of the century this had been instigated by civic leaders, and patrons, and motivated by public health and sanitary concerns. Industrial cities like Manchester, Glasgow and Halifax had cleared central city slums and created new urban centres with grand town halls, museums, art galleries, and even parks. Effecting these improvements was in the hands of architects and civil engineers. Along with this, an understanding of the causes of disease had been growing since the 1830s, and from the 1860s this had instigated a great age of drain laying. London was provided with 1,100 miles of sewage tunnels and subsidiary drains in the 1860s, and by 1883 the factories of Doulton’s of Lambeth, for one, were churning out each week 37 miles of salt glazed stoneware drain pipes for use in British towns and cities.

City improvement did not constitute town planning as it developed from the 1890s. Slums may have been cleared from areas undergoing improvement, but tenants were simply evicted and left to regroup where rents were low, reconstituting the slums out of sight of the new urban centres. Nor did city improvement espouse an overall plan with zones for the various functions of the city. Britain also continued to urbanise throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, placing continuing pressure on the services and facilities of cities. By 1911, 80 per cent of the British population lived in cities and towns. It was in the context of these realities that town planning emerged as a profession designed to deal holistically with cities and towns and their various functions and communities.

The sort of town planning espoused by Mawson went by the name of “civic art.” It dealt with practical issues such as traffic circulation and zoning , but was strongly influenced by continental examples of urban renewal such as took place in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, and through the teaching and styles of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Practitioners imagined ideal cities imposed on exciting urban landscapes. This vision brought with it difficulties

in liberal democratic Britain and Canada, where elected governments and local bodies were of temporary duration, and dependent on a voting public with a strong interest in their own property rights and the spending of public money. These schemes needed the miracle of democratic consensus, or a ruthless dictator with vision, security of tenure, and a strong stable economy. It is notable that the only British example of this sort of city was not achieved in their homeland, but in India where they ruled as imperial autocrats: New Delhi’s construction did not depend on permission from the representatives of a voting public. Mawson had experienced these sorts of difficulties as a result of his proposal for Pittencrieff Park. His plan included ‘driving new streets right through the town and destroying nearly half the buildings including the new baths’[6] and the house of the chairman of the Carnegie Trust who had commissioned the plan. Thus its rejection was probably a foregone conclusion. In Britain, the situation was never going to allow the sort of makeover that Baron Haussmann implemented in Paris during the reign of Napoleon the Third.

Janet Waymark characterises civic art as a mixture of town planning and park building, and Mawson’s version of it as a concern with the aesthetics of town planning. It was an approach where town planners spent most of their time considering the appearance and arrangement of buildings, leaving local authorities to take care of water, sewage, and electricity. Waymark also presents Mawson as being strongly influenced by the American “city beautiful” movement and the writings of its promoter, Charles Mulford Robinson. This movement flourished from 1893 to 1903 and remained an influence on town planning during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

In concert with the rise of civic art and the city beautiful, there was a revival of classical architecture that superseded the various free historical styles of the 1870s to 1890s. In Britain this was manifested in a revival based on baroque and renaissance models for public buildings, and a return to Georgian domestic architecture, which had entered the cannon of “British vernacular” (Figure 4). Mawson took to this change, approving of its formal discipline and order, and through this style gave expression to his vision of the ideal cities that he planned for Canada and Greece. In 1910, his eldest son, Edward, joined the firm. By that time Edward was a qualified architect trained in Britain and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1913, he was given the job of running Mawson and Sons’ office in Greece. Mawson’s second son, John, qualified in town planning at Liverpool University where a department of civic art had been established in 1908 funded by a grant from William Lever. John was to take charge of the Vancouver office in 1912.[7]

Figure 4: Robert Atkinson’s presentation watercolour of Mawson’s gardens for the Peace Palace at The Hague, 1908. The unexpectedly high cost of preparing the site meant that most of the architectural embellishments were abandoned, and stone was replaced by brick. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 65.

Figure 4: Robert Atkinson’s presentation watercolour of Mawson’s gardens for the Peace Palace at The Hague, 1908. The unexpectedly high cost of preparing the site meant that most of the architectural embellishments were abandoned, and stone was replaced by brick. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 65.

Mawson and Sons’ involvement in town planning projects in Canada and Greece lasted for about four years. In Canada the firm worked on town plans for Ottawa, Vancouver, Regina, and Calgary, and on plans for the universities of Saskatoon and British Columbia. Ultimately, I am left with a sense of frustration that so much was planned and so little realised. Local politics, local competitors, and an emergent Canadian nationalism were part of the problem. The other part was Mawson himself and his idealistic approach to town planning. His vision of the imperial city beautiful bore little relationship to the realities of frontier states that in the case of Saskatchewan and Alberta were not far away from tents in the wilderness. Their priorities lay ultimately in establishing viable economic bases, and Mawson’s vision was too expensive to implement. Alberta was still experiencing a settlement boom when Mawson arrived on the scene. In just 12 years Calgary had grown from a town of four thousand to a city of 44,000. The situation was volatile and potentially unstable, even without the disruption of the First World War. Of Mawson’s supporters in Canada, Janet Waymark writes ‘they were the leaders of society and higher education … [who] either admired or were intensely patriotic to empire and its roots in the crown’. Mawson himself, notes Waymark, ‘could write of the malls he planned for Vancouver that these were places for viewing royal processions, without a flicker of doubt that this might not be appropriate’ (164) (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Calgary as the imperial “city beautiful.” Frontispiece to ‘Calgary’, Mawson’s report on his town plan for the city. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 160.

Figure 5: Calgary as the imperial “city beautiful.” Frontispiece to ‘Calgary’, Mawson’s report on his town plan for the city. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 160.

The situation in Greece was also a political minefield and the country was unstable. The new Athens planned by Mawson exists only on paper. In 1917, his patron, King Constantine, went into exile and his younger brother took his place as a puppet of the nationalist goverment. Anti-royalist feeling in the country and parliament left Mawson high and dry without any support for his scheme. But in the same year, he was invited back to Greece as part of an international team brought together by the government to formulate a plan for rebuilding Thessaloniki, a large part of which had been destroyed by fire. The resulting plan was a fusion of the generically similar schemes of Mawson and the French member of the team, Ernest Hébrard. It is only in Theasaloniki that a shadow of Mawson’s formal city beautiful can be seen today (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Modern Thessaloniki. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 181.

Figure 6: Modern Thessaloniki. From: Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 181.

The Greek venture was Mawson’s last commission outside Britain. After the First World War the firm worked, as before, on town plans, parks, and to a lesser extent, gardens, but Mawson’s schemes for cities like Bolton foundered as they had in Canada and Greece. He died in 1933 just as the new international modernism was beginning its rise to world dominance. It was also the year that Hitler came to power, so he missed the experience of Europe’s most extreme manifestation of romantic nationalism, Nazi Germany.


Janet Waymark’s richly detailed study of Mawson’s life and work is a valuable addition to our knowledge of a period of culture that almost vanished from human consciousness after the Second World War. The last 40 years has seen its slow emergence from the closet. It was a time when the modern English garden and the English house were widely admired throughout the western world and Mawson played an important part in these developments. Though he may not have achieved his ideal cities, he helped to humanise urban environments through designing and building parks, and perhaps without his visionary town plans, which also contained a good deal that was practical, the city leaders involved would not have been challenged to consider possibilities beyond the pragmatic and immediate. This is often the main purpose of the consultant’s work.

The twentieth century with death duties, world wars, economic depression and rising labour costs has not been kind to Mawson’s gardens. Of those featured in the book only a few have come through largely intact. One has been recovered through restoration, and given the extent of Mawson’s archive more may be revived from their original plans.


[1] Brent Elliott, Victorian Gardens (London: B.T. Batsford, 1986), 216.

[2] (London: Country Life; New York: C. Scribner & Sons, 1914).

[3] Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo World, 1783-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] (London, Macmillan, 1892).

[5] Edward Hyams, A History of Gardens and Gardening (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1971), 299.

[6] J. Howard Whitehead, Carnegie Trustee, quoted in Waymark, Thomas Mawson, 194.

[7] In 1926, Parliament passed New Zealand’s first town planning act. In 1928, John Mawson was appointed as the second Director of Town Planning in this country, a position he held until 1933. Caroline Miller, ‘A Prophet in a Barren Land: the New Zealand Career of J.W. Mawson’, in The 21st Century City: Past/Present/Future, Proceedings of Seventh Australasian Urban History/Planning History Conference (Geelong: Deakin University, 2004), 258-271.