2007–2012 Dartmouth Park Pavilion, West Bromwich (BPN Architects)
LINK: Phil’s Film
A History of Dartmouth Park, West Bromwich, October 2007
The following text is additional to the histories of Dartmouth Park already provided in the 2001 Statutory Historic Environment Designation GD3379, and in the Conservation Management Plan prepared by LDA in 2005. This new text corrects some factual errors, brings new information into play, and, usefully, provides a starting point for understanding and interpreting the original design for Dartmouth Park in West Bromwich.
“The park is naturally so fine a situation, with such good views and beautifully undulating varieties of ground and has already such great advantages from containing so many trees which give it at once a park-like character, that much less is needed or even desirable, in the way of planting than would otherwise be the case, this is doubly advantageous when the cost of planting is considered…”
– Exsuperius Weston Turnor
Exsuperius Weston Turnor, land agent from Brereton, near Rugeley [note 1], advised the 5th Earl of Dartmouth and the West Bromwich Improvement Commissioners on both the location for the park and on the appointment by competition of John Maclean, landscape gardener of Castle Donington [note 2], as the park’s designer.
Turnor’s assessment of the site’s “park-like” qualities is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it indicates something of the desired design aesthetic for the finished park. Good views, beautifully undulating ground, and many trees suggests something within the English Landscape tradition [note 3], summarised by Frederick Law Olmsted [note 4] as broad, sweeping lawns defined by groves of trees, with some trees standing apart from the main group so that their noble features might be observed; illusions of great distances created through the use of long vistas, middle-distance plantings; undulations in ground form for interest, winding, peripheral paths and drives, which gave the illusion of great breadth.
Certainly Maclean’s design for the Williamson Park in Lancaster, completed just prior to his starting work in West Bromwich, is very much in line with Olmsted’s palette of ingredients – and it is these same ingredients in Dartmouth Park that we can associate most closely with John Maclean.
Secondly, Turnor’s statement suggests that little additional work was required to create a public park from the 22.7ha of the Earl of Dartmouth’s estate set aside for the West Bromwich Improvement Commissioners in 1876 on a 99 year lease and at a nominal rent of £1 per year. That the setting out costs for the park came in at just over five times the original budget of £2,500 contradicts Turnor’s assessment of “much less is needed or even desirable” – indeed, this was obviously a case of much more being needed or desired for reasons not yet fully understand.
. . .
“The want of a public park at West Bromwich has long been felt and would indeed be a great boon to the hardy sons of toil whose life it is to dwell here.” [Reuben Farley to the Earl of Dartmouth]
It is unlikely that today’s visitor to Dartmouth Park would recognise the Avenue as either a work of art or as a mathematical conundrum. Or even as something of an enigma within the overall ‘natural’ ambience of the rest of the Park. The appearance of a particular landscape changes over time, it matures and moves further and further away from the intentions of its original designers. Dartmouth Park now appears more natural than originally intended, and this conceals the social and cultural agendas of its first authors and commissioners.
It is more than likely that the meaning and associative possibilities that may underpin the original design of Dartmouth Park are today obscured by our mass media induced need for the immediately intelligible. And anyway, a park is just a park. Isn’t it?
The idea of a public park today is still to do with social responsibility, citizenship and neighbourliness, and we still visit parks to be active or to reflect. We still need, as Woollaston said, the opportunity “to delight and invigorate [ourselves] whilst moralizing on the beauties of nature…”. Good design still engages with these issues.
1. Exsuperius Weston Turnor (1831-1909) was a ‘land agent’ or ‘estate agent’, and not a landscape gardener as stated in the Statutory Historic Environment Designation. He was the son of Michael Turnor, land agent to the Lane family estate at Abbot’s Bromley, near Rugeley.
2. John Maclean, landscape gardener of Castle Donington, was born in Scotland about 1833. Although he lists his occupation as ‘Market Gardener’ in the 1871 Census, in all other Census Returns and Directories he is listed as ‘Landscape Gardener’.
3. For the purposes of this text, the English Landscape tradition is understood as being the “progress of taste” associated with Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and the publication in 1780 of Horace Walpole’s “The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening”.
4. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) designed many parks in the USA, including Central Park and Prospect Park in New York. In 1850 he travelled to England to visit public gardens and was greatly impressed by Joseph Paxton’s Birkenhead Park (the first public park in England), and subsequently published ‘Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England’ in 1852. This text references Olmsted’s ‘Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns’ of 1870.