The gardens were created in 1880 as pleasure ground for ‘public enlightenment and entertainment’ by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox. He inherited the Rushmore Estate rather unexpectedly from a relative, with the condition being that he added Pitt Rivers to his already long name. After a long and distinguished military career, Pitt Rivers had become a pioneering archaeologist, the first to develop scientific techniques of excavation and the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments, appointed in 1882.
The Rushmore Estate, part of Cranbourne Chase, surrounded Rushmore House, which was built in the early 19th century. It was extended and remodelled for Pitt Rivers by Peter Webb, and is today a school. With his keen interest in archaeology, Pitt Rivers was an ideal custodian of this landscape, which contained many important prehistoric monuments.
On inheriting Rushmore, Pitt Rivers set about creating the pleasure gardens with typical Victorian vision and extravagance. The gardens were planned as a collection of ornate buildings, majestic trees and intimate arbours. Work began in 1880, and the gardens opened to the public in 1885. One of the first buildings to be built was an octagonal temple, beside a small pool and with an inscription reading ‘Augustus Pitt Rivers/ erexit/ MDCCCLXXX’ (1880). The interior has a marble and mosaic floor.
Next six ‘quarters’ or separate buildings of Indian style were constructed. These were designed for picnics, set around areas of lawn, hedged with laurel. Four of these buildings were pavilions imported from North India for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, held in London in 1886. They were acquired by Pitt Rivers and re-erected.
In 1895, Pitt Rivers had the Singing Theatre built and designed by his estate workers, based on ones he’d seen on his travels. Its backdrop is painted with The Funeral of Phocion, a 1648 painting by Nicholas Poussin and painted by the scenery department at the Welsh National Opera.
By 1899, the gardens were attracting 44,000 visitors a year. Plays and poetry recitals took place, and in the field adjoining the gardens there was a racecourse, lawn tennis courts and a golf course. In the evening the gardens were lit with thousands of lights and there was dancing in the open air. Thomas Hardy, after dancing there in 1895, said it was “quite the prettiest sight I ever saw in my life”.
Following the General’s death in 1900 the gardens closed, opening only for special occasions. Some of the buildings collapsed and fell into disrepair. In 1991 Michael Pitt Rivers, his great grandson, set about restoring the gardens and in 1995 they were re-opened to the public. Today they are recognised as gardens of national importance and are used for various festivals and events.
And what of the name? What was ‘The Larmer Tree’? Apparently it was an ancient tree, which stood as early as the 10th century and which represented an ancient boundary between Dorset and Wiltshire. Tradition holds that King John hunted in this area and met with his huntsmen under the branches of the Larmer Tree.