Edward Kemp was one of the most prolific and influential landscape designers of the Victorian era. Perhaps the name doesn’t ring a bell but if you live in the North West you may already know his public parks and cemeteries.
September 2017 was the bicentenary of Kemp’s birth. He grew up in South London and his father was a tailor. He started his training at the Horticultural Society Gardens in Chiswick, and was then selected to work for Joseph Paxton, best known for designing Crystal Palace, at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
Kemp would have learnt about planting tree collections, constructing rockeries, fountains and greenhouses. Impressed by the young Kemp (aged just 25); Paxton got his protégé appointed as Superintendent to oversee the works and management of his design for Birkenhead Park, Wirral in 1843.
Birkenhead Park was a prestigious and cutting-edge project; comparable to winning the commission to design and create the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
It was the first publicly funded civic park in the world. From a bare site, Kemp and his team used their Chatsworth training to construct two lakes. They created islands and low hills with rocky outcrops and then planted trees to frame the lakes and circuits of sinuous paths. When it opened in 1847 it was an immediate hit and its design influenced park developments including New York’s Central Park.
In 1849 , Kemp moved to develop his career as a professional garden designer and writer. He negotiated to carry on living at the Italian Lodge in Birkenhead Park and continued as Superintendent in an unpaid role.
Within a few years Kemp published his first books, most importantly ‘How to Lay out a Garden’ in 1858, which proved a great success and went to be republished several times up to 1911. There was a great appetite for garden books and adverts for Kemp and Paxton’s books feature in popular fiction serials like Charles Dicken’s ‘Bleak House’. Kemp also wrote regularly for the Gardener’s Chronicle magazine, reporting on new garden designs.
The strap line for the book reads ‘Intended as a guide to amateurs in choosing, forming or improving a place’. For the nouveau riche of the Victorian era, Kemp was your designer of choice.
Kemp’s clients included a Liverpool timber merchant, a Chester flour miller; owners of wire-drawing works; manufacturers in soap and alkali and engineering tools; and local MPs. The commissions stretch from Devon and Hertfordshire to Cheshire. There were terraces, rose and flower gardens, ferneries, winter gardens and American gardens; new water features, summerhouses, and greenhouses. Everything a fashionable garden of the mid-19th century needed.
Kemp was also much sought after for commissions for public parks and the landscaping of municipal cemeteries. They are some the best surviving examples of his designs and many of are in his home region in the North West. On his death in 1891 Kemp was buried in the Flaybrick Memorial Gardens on the Wirral, which he had designed 30 years earlier in 1864.
Kemp’s influence on landscape and garden design was both instant and lasting, inspiring the likes of Thomas Hayton Mawson, another prolific designer closely associated with the North West and who was to become the first president of the Landscape Institute in 1929.
Kemp’s designs are recognised on the National Heritage List for England (the List) with 17 sites registered for their national importance in telling the story of landscape design. You can add your own photos and additional research to the National List via Enriching the List.
Written by Chris Mayes and Jenifer White, two of Historic England’s chartered landscape architects working on the protection and conservation of our parks and gardens’ heritage.