In 1767 Thomas Wright purchased the lease of a house in Dulwich, immediately replaced it with Bell House and spent the next few years extending and improving the grounds. Despite Wright’s enormous wealth, Bell House was a modest villa: the original Georgian house comprised the two bays either side of the front door; the rest of the house was added later.
The garden, however, was huge: over sixteen acres, comprising the garden we know today together with meadows stretching far into what is now Dulwich Park and Frank Dixon Close.
Georgian gardens were for showing off. Gardening was an illustration of your taste and status, and merchants like Thomas Wright aimed to copy, in miniature form, the larger estates of the landed gentry.
Gardens included ‘contrasts’ such as formal and wild areas, ‘surprises’ such as follies or statues (people could, and did, fake them by placing painted boards at the far end of their garden), and concealed boundaries to make the garden appear bigger than it was. Plants began to be prized for their decorative qualities rather than their usefulness, with flowers like auriculas becoming highly fashionable.
Wright spent a lot of time planting his garden and corresponding with the Dulwich Estate about things like the garden water supply and the purchase of additional plots of land. He introduced highly fashionable features such as the ha-ha, winding paths and the wilderness area. The ha-ha was designed to keep animals out of the flower garden while being invisible from the house itself; and it concealed the boundary by ‘borrowing’ the landscape of land further afield. Curving paths were designed to show off the grounds and to allow for surprises just around the corner. The wilderness was a transitional area between the formal gardens and the meadows or pasture.
Today, our garden volunteers are reinstating some of these features. They have put back the convoluted paths. They have rescued the ha-ha from a thicket of Victorian shrubbery and they are recreating the kitchen garden using the original house leases as a guide.
In 1798, Thomas Wright died, aged 76, during a walk in the garden when he had an epileptic fit. We hope he would be delighted to see an educational charity sharing his garden with the local community.