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A Lost Landscape - Matthew Boulton’s Gardens at Soho

Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) was one of the leading figures of the early Industrial Revolution. He was responsible, with his business partner, the engineer James Watt, for developing new applications for steam power and supplying steam engines for industrial processes throughout Britain and Europe, and as far afield as Australia and the Americas. His Soho Manufactory in Handsworth, on the outskirts of Birmingham, where jewellery, silverware, ormolu, coins and medals were produced, attracted flocks of early industrial tourists, who came to gaze at its machines and the hundreds of employees at work – and then took tea in the tea-room alongside the aviary.

 

Boulton’s interests ranged far and wide over the natural sciences and the arts. The new fashion for landscape gardening particularly appealed to his imagination and from the 1760s, when he and his wife went to live at Soho House, he set about creating his own landscape with woodland, lawns, colourful flower beds and borders, water features, garden buildings and walks.

 

After his death his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton, continued to develop the garden. Not initially knowledgeable about horticulture, he became more engaged with the subject and his notebooks contain much of interest to historians and to growers of early varieties of many fruits and vegetables. Following his death, Joseph Chamberlain attempted to turn Soho’s gardens into a public park, but the idea was rejected in favour of building leases, and bit by bit Matthew Boulton’s landscaped park was replaced, first with upmarket villas and later with terraced housing, a railway coal yard and workshops and other premises, as Birmingham’s industrial heartland spread outwards.

 

In the 1990s Soho House and the remaining small garden were restored and developed as museum. This, the first history of the garden, throws surprising light on a lost and intriguing aspect of the city’s heritage. A number of drawings and watercolours made by John Phillp in the 1790s are included and provide the only surviving contemporary visual evidence for how the garden once looked.

A LOST LANDSCAPE: Matthew Boulton's Gardens at Soho

By Phillada Ballard, Val Loggie and Shena Mason

Published 2009 by Phillimore.

ISBN 978-1-86077-563-5