THOMAS H MAWSON 1861-1933

An Introduction to his life and work

by Chris Mawson

Thomas Hayton Mawson is often described as 'the leading landscape architect of the Edwardian era'. His work ranged from landscaped garden plans through to much larger projects such as civic parks and city plans. The bulk of his work dates from 1890 to 1920.

Mawson was born in Scorton, just south of Lancaster, in 1861. His father was a warper in a cotton mill, but later started business as a builder. Thomas developed an early interest in horticulture and following the death of his father in 1877, he headed to London where he worked for several landscape gardeners and nurseries. He was married to Anna Prentice in 1884 and following their honeymoon in the Lake District, the extended Mawson family moved from London to Windermere in 1885, and there set about establishing what later became Lakeland Nurseries.  Within a few years, it was decided that Thomas' fledging garden design practice be separated from the nursery business, which was now run by his brothers Isaac and Robert.  One of Thomas' most important early  commissions was the gardens at Graythwaite Hall near Sawrey (Cumbria), begun in 1889.

                        Right: Thomas H Mawson pictured in 1918 with his grandson Andrew Prentice Mawson (1917-2001)

During the 1890s, Mawson continued to build his business and reputation, the majority of the work being concentrated in the northern counties and Scotland. In 1898/99 he entered a short-lived but highly productive partnership with the talented architect/ designer Dan Gibson. The pair designed the house and gardens at Brockhole, Windermere, which today is the administrative centre for the Lake District National Park. The success of the partnership gave Mawson the confidence to write and publish The Art and Craft of Garden Making (left) in 1900. This became a standard reference in its day, and was revised and enlarged in four succeeding editions, all published by Batsford. 'The Art and Craft' also helped promote Mawson's views on garden design and helped generate considerably more work, which necessitated the opening of a London office.

More work and larger projects. Mawson had already benefited from the trend for Local Government boards to promote 'works of public utility' (i.e. public parks) to alleviate unemployment. Many organised design competitions and Thomas was successful in several, notably the parks at Burslem and Hanley (Stoke). Such projects went beyond landscape architecture and into the realms of town planning. Mawson's body of (unexecuted) work includes town and city plans for Athens and Vancouver. The most notable overseas project that was completed was the design for the Peace Palace Gardens in The Hague (1908), another project that resulted from a winning competition submission.  His book on town planning, Civic Art, was published in 1911 and is now an exceedingly rare book, notable for the detailed illustrations, many by architect Robert Atkinson.

In 1905/6, Mawson began work for his most important private client, Mr W H Lever, later Lord Leverhulme. The first project was to form a municipal park from 400 acres of moorland to the east of Bolton which Lever had won in an arbitration case (!). Another project, now restored, was the garden at The Hill, Hampstead, which featured an 800 foot terrace and pergola overlooking the Common, described in Pevsner as "amongst the most impressive of their date in London". These and other projects for Lord Leverhulme were of heroic proportions for their day.  By 1910, Thomas had been joined by his eldest son Edward (1885-1954), who had qualified after several years of architectural training in England and Paris. A talented architect and artist, Edward became the chief designer of the practice particularly after the Great War, in which Thomas lost a son, James. It was Edward who was responsible for revising the final edition of 'The Art and Craft of Garden Making' in 1926. By this time, Thomas was suffering from the onset of Parkinson's Disease, but he was able to dictate his autobiography, 'The Life and Work of an English Landscape Architect', which was published in 1927. The frontispiece of the book is a portrait of the author by Sir Hubert Herkomer, dated 1913.  Mawson accepted the portrait as 'payment' for designing the gardens of Herkomer's eccentric home ('Lululaund') in Bushey, Hertfordshire.  Whilst the house has long since disappeared, the Mawson-designed gardens have been restored and reopened in 2010.  The Life and Work is a rather infuriating book, written in a rambling and self-important way, with little reference to specific dates, although it is in broadly chronological order, and has an index of sorts. Despite this, it remains one of the key documentary sources for Mawson's work.  I have been shown a copy Mawson presented to W. Garnet Gibson (son of Mawson's erstwhile partner Dan Gibson) who pencilled in the following comments: "The whole of this book is written  'up in the air' . . . very misleading and almost entirely erroneous . . . notice throughout that each member of the family is referred to as a genius" (!)

After his death, Mawson quickly dropped off the radar of gardening history.  He had no clearly definable style, often being more than willing to listen to his client's suggestions, though it must be said that there are many gardening features such as long canals and elaborate pergolas which could be described as 'Mawsonesque'.  It didn't help that The Art and Craft of Garden Making, whilst illustrated with beautiful hand-drawn plans and drawings, featured photographs often taken in dull or flat light. This contrasts with the superb photos, often drawn from the Country Life archive, that were used in the books of Gertrude Jekyll, such as Gardens for Small Country Houses (1912).  Perhaps the most flattering example of Mawson's influence is the notion that Lawrence Johnston used The Art and Craft of Garden Making as his 'bible' when designing the gardens at Hidcote Manor.  An interesting fact gleaned from his autobiography is that around 1914 Thomas laid plans for a book entitled Small Houses & Their Gardens, which would have provided an interesting insight into his views on more modest garden schemes.  His publisher advised such a book could not be launched until after the Great War had finished, by which time the idea appears to have lapsed.

Since first writing the text for this site there have been suggestions of renewed interest in Mawson's work.  Television exposure has helped, with two Mawson-designed gardens featuring in TV garden-restoration programmes. In 2001, Monty Don was involved in the partial restoration of the garden at Dunira for Channel 4's Lost Gardens, whilst in 2004, Chris Beardshaw's programme Hidden Gardens featured Boveridge in Dorset. The most remarkable discovery of the latter programme was that whilst Mawson had laid out the gardens, Gertrude Jekyll had been consulted (most probably by post) as to the planting schemes. So perhaps without knowing it, these two heavyweights of Victorian/Edwardian garden design, never the best of friends, had unwittingly collaborated on a garden!  Coincidentally, both Boveridge and Dunira were amongst Thomas Mawson's last major private garden designs, both dating from circa 1920.  In 2006, Chris Beardshaw's Mawson-inspired 'Boveridge Garden' won a Gold Medal at the Chelsea Flower Show. 

In September 2006, author Elizabeth Kissack published a biography of THM, the first of its kind. (The Life of Thomas Hayton Mawson).  This is an attractive 100-page paperback book, well illustrated, and largely written from a Lake District perspective.  Far more substantial, and virtually definitive, is Janet Waymark's biography published in 2009 (Thomas Mawson: Life, Gardens and Landscapes, ISBN 9780711225954).  This was the result of some five years research not only in this country but also in Greece, Canada and elsewhere, aiming to answer the question posed at the outset, namely "How is it that the most prolific garden, park and civic landscape maker of Edwardian times, Thomas Hayton Mawson, has remained on the fringes of published appraisal?"  Profusely illustrated, and featuring a comprehensive list of commissions, Janet's book will doubtless become an invaluable resource  for Mawson's work.

Thomas H Mawson died at Hest Bank, Lancashire, in 1933, aged 72. He clearly wished to be remembered as a 'landscape architect' (rather than 'garden designer') and indeed he is credited with coining the term in its modern sense. His schemes were often designed on a grand scale, such as the many civic projects he undertook and work for important clients such as Lord Leverhulme. He relished designs on challenging sites for they lent themselves to great terraces and pergolas, 'architectural' features in a garden context.  Many of Mawson's projects have been altered or destroyed, but notable examples remain at The Hill in Hampstead, Brockhole in Cumbria, and Dyffryn Gardens in South Wales. Many of his civic schemes survive, including the parks in Stoke and Stanley Park, Blackpool, although the design and execution of the latter owed more to his son Edward.

Following the closure of Thomas H Mawson & Sons in the early 1980s, an archive relating to Thomas Mawson was established by the Cumbria Archive Service in Kendal, and the material therein is available to view by appointment.


GALLERY

 

Above left: The Hill, Hampstead, photographed 2006.  Mawson's extensive garden design, begun around 1906, was added to the existing Inverforth House, which later became a nursing home before being conveted to apartments.  The scheme was laid out for W H Lever, later Lord Leverhulme. Other schemes Mawson completed for him included Thornton Hall (in The Wirral) and the extensive landscaping of Rivington Pike, Lancashire.  ( Chris Mawson.  Yes I was in a helicopter, and feeling a bit green about the gills!)

Above right:  Part of the extensive pergola at The Hill.  This and adjacent pergola walkways are open to the public. ( Chris Mawson)
 

Above: Two of Robert Atkinson's attractive illustrations for Civic Art (1911), after designs by Mawson.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Above left: A view of the gardens at Dunira, Perthshire, designed by Mawson circa 1920.  Part of the garden was restored for a Channel 4 programme featuring Monty Don around 2000, but since then this has quietly sunk back into dereliction. 

Above right:  The design for the public park at Hanley, Stoke on Trent, a scheme completed in 1897. 
 

Above left: Rydal Hall, photographed from the air in 1947.  Mawson redesigned the terraced area shown here in 1909.  Like an increasing number of Mawson gardens, this has been restored recently.

Above right:  Kearsney Court, near Dover, Kent.  An archive photograph showing a typical Mawson garden with formal terracing, leading to a transitional area of (tree) planting which acts as the buffer zone between the formality of the garden and the natural landscape beyond.  Mawson believed strongly in an architectural / structural approach to gardening and in many of his gardens the planting is very much subordinate to the structure. This contrasts to the approach of Gertrude Jekyll and other garden designers of the Victorian and Edwardian era.  The garden was designed circa 1901 for E. P. Barlow.
 

Right: A rare informal shot of Thomas Mawson, flanked by Hilda Bowhill
(left) and her sister Florence, right.  Hilda married Edward Prentice
Mawson in 1913.  On the right is James 'Cliffe' Mawson who died on
23rd April 1915, at the Second Battle of Ypres.

Site compiled by Chris Mawson, THM's great grandson,  2002-11

I do not profess to being a great expert in Mawson's work, and simply intended this site as a short introduction to his work and the opportunity to publish a few previously unseen photographs. I can be contacted by clicking here.  Please note I do not have access to some vast untapped archive of documents, nor am I willing to provide useful or commercially valuable information free of charge.

Text and illustrations Chris Mawson 2011