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Ralph Hancock

Ralph Hancock (1893-1950) built gardens in the UK in the 1920s, 30s and 40s and in the United States in the 1930s. A few are well known - the roof gardens at Derry and Toms in London and the Rockefeller Center in New York, the garden at Twyn-yr-Hydd House in Margam and the rock and water garden he built for Princess Victoria at Coppins, Iver, England.

However, the majority of his gardens remain unknown and unrecognised.

A brief history

Clarence Henry Ralph Hancock was born at 20 Keppoch Street, Cardiff, Wales on 2 July 1893. His father Clarence Hancock worked for a company known as Evans and Hancock who were Auctioneers and Estate Agents based at Borough Chambers, Wharton Street, Cardiff. In 1917 Ralph married Hilda Muriel Ellis (known as Muriel) and moved to Augusta Road, Penarth, Wales.

Their first son, Clarence Neville Bramley Hancock (Bramley), was born in 1918 followed by their second son Denys, also born in Penarth in 1920. At this time Ralph's occupation was a Marine and General Insurance Broker working from James Street, Cardiff. What prompted his career change is unknown, however in 1926 he became a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Ralph and his family moved to Downside Road, Sutton, Surrey, England and in 1928 a daughter, Sheila Muriel was born. It was from here in 1927 that Ralph undertook the first of his more famous garden projects, designing and constructing a rock and water garden and also an Iris garden for H.R.H Princess Victoria at her home 'Coppins' in Iver, Buckinghamshire. Ralph was reported to be extremely proud of the garden and HRH presented Ralph “a little diamond and sapphire tie pin” one of his most treasured possessions. The main influences of this period was William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll and Ralph incorporated this "arts and crafts movement" into his designs.

America and 'The Rock'

On May 31, 1930, Hancock set sail for New York. In order to promote his work in the US, he published an illustrated booklet titled English Gardens in America in which he described himself as being 'Landscape Gardener to HRH the Princess Victoria of England'. The promotional booklet must have worked as Hancock went on to design an exhibition garden at Erie Station in New Jersey. He also staged exhibits at the Massachusetts Horticulture Show where he won several awards, including in 1933 the Presidents Cup. He was also one of the designers of the Lydia Duff Gray Hubbard garden in New Jersey which now forms part of the Garden Club of America Collection. But it was between 1933 and 1935 that Ralph was to embark on one of his most ambitious projects, the construction of spectacular gardens at the Rockefeller Center in New York.

Hancock's “Gardens of the Nations” emulated the cultural styles of gardens from Holland, France, Spain, Italy, Japan and England, where each garden had its very own hostess dressed in themed costume. 3,000 tons of earth, 500 tons of bricks, 20,000 bulbs, 100 tons of natural stone, 2,000 trees and shrubs were delivered by the service elevator or man hauled using a block and tackle up the side of the eleven floors of the building. The garden also required 96,000 gallons of water which was lifted by an electric pump.

Hancock was confident that what he had created would allow numerous opportunities for other similar gardens in the US. He declared that “the day of penthouse gardening are over and miles and miles of roof space in every metropolis in this country remain to be reclaimed by landscape gardening”. Throughout the project Ralph was in regular correspondence with both John D Rockefeller and Nelson Rockefeller.

As well as designing and building the gardens Hancock also ran the “Sky Garden Tour”. Visitors were charged a dollar a time. The enterprise did not prove to be profitable and lost approximately $45,000 per year. By 1938 the attraction had closed.

Much of the gardens no longer exist in their original form, these two images show the same scene 70 years apart.

The roof gardens at Derry and Toms

The gardens at the Rockefeller were visited by Trevor Bowen, the managing director of Barkers who had taken over Derry and Toms, a department store in Kensington, London. Bowen liked what he saw and employed Hancock to create a similar effect in the heart of London.

This time Hancock was to build three gardens, each with its own unique style and planting. The gardens were; a Tudor garden with herringbone brickwork, impressive Tudor arches and wrought iron. The Spanish garden complete with palm trees and fountains as well as Moorish colonnades. And a woodland garden, built with a cascade, a river and it's very own pink flamingoes.

Once again the logistics involved in the construction were impressive. Before planting and building could start a thick bitumastic base was laid on the roof, followed by a layer of loose brick and rubble that was arranged in a fan-like pattern to aid drainage. On top of this was a 36 inch layer of topsoil into which the planting was made. Water came from Derry and Toms own artesian wells. On opening day the gardens contained over 500 different varieties of trees and shrubs.

The gardens were completed in 1938 at a cost of £25,000 and were officially opened by the Earl of Athlone in May of that year. Visitors were charged a shilling (5p) to tour the gardens and over the next 30 years over £120,000 was raised for local hospitals.

Today, the three gardens look virtually as they did in the late 1930s. Many of the original trees, now covered by preservation orders, remain.

Family, the Chelsea Flower Show and World War II

By 1936 the Hancock family were living at 110 Sloane Street in London's fashionable Kensington, as well as owning a country house at Horne, Lingfield, Surrey. Ralph had purchased the derelict 16th century farmhouse in a dilapidated state and set about restoring the property to its former glory. He also designed and built one of his trademark gardens using many of the features that have become familiar, such as a herringbone brickwork path.

Ralph and his young family took to the country life. Ralph decided to keep pigs and, although he employed someone to look after them, he even purchased a pig keeper's white coat, much to the amusement of the family. The family house at Horne was sold by Ralph in 1941.

Ralph continued to be a very successful exhibitor at the Chelsea Flower Show, winning gold medals in 1936, ’37 and ’38. The gardens constructed at Chelsea had moved away from the naturalistic rock garden style towards the arts and crafts style that is now more associated with his later work. One of Ralph's specialities became the use of Moon Gates, which he used both at Chelsea and a number of other garden projects. His 1938 Chelsea garden was particularly popular. A review in Amateur Gardening said, “Mr Ralph Hancock had one of the most ambitious schemes in the garden avenue; a model of an old mill cottage, complete with millstream and sunken garden, the whole construction being carried out in a most realistic manner. It was a centre of attraction throughout the show.”

As well as designing gardens, Hancock also wrote a book titled When I Make a Garden, which was reprinted in 1950 and updated to include images of the Derry and Toms roof gardens as well as later work. He also exhibited gardens at the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1936, ’37 and ’38. Each of the Ideal Homes gardens was required to conform to a theme. In 1936 the theme was Gardens and Music. The garden was to feature 1,200 plants that were brought over from the USA. The 1937 theme was Gardens of the Lovers for which Ralph took as his inspiration Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire.

The theme for the 1938 show was Novelist and their Gardens for which the designers had to take as inspiration their favourite living author. Ralph chose as his inspiration Rafael Sabatini. Sabatini was famous for his tales of high adventure such as Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, all of which became successful motion pictures. Captain Blood was produced in 1935 and gave a young Errol Flynn his first ever Hollywood starring role.

The show catalogue for that year hints at some form of collaboration between the author and the architect. Although of Italian birth Sabatini was living in Hereford. Ralph's garden tribute to Sabatini featured a half-timbered cottage and also his trademark herringbone brickwork. The planting consisted of rhododendrons, heathers and aquatic plants near a winding brook. In 1939 Ralph won a silver cup at Chelsea for a Formal Mediterranean Garden.

Gardens and beautiful landscapes were put on hold with the advent of World War II. Ralph, Denys and Bramley all joined the military, even Muriel drove ambulances.

Ralph, who had previously served in the Great War, was re-activated. Second Lieutenant Denys Hancock, who was to tragically lose his life in November 1941 at the battle of Sidi Rezegh , North Africa joined the Royal Tank Regiment and Captain Bramley Hancock served as an Artillery FOO (Forward Observation Officer). Sheila, who was only 11 when war was declared, was sent to neutral America to stay with friends.

Back home in England, Derry and Toms was damaged during an enemy air-raid. However, after the war ended it was rebuilt. Although the garden was restored to its pre-war splendour neither Ralph nor Muriel fully recovered after the death of their youngest son, Denys.

The latter years

After World War II, Ralph began to work with his son Bramley. Together they constructed the Gardens of Peace at Temple Newsam, Leeds, England as well as many other projects. Nineteen forty-seven saw the Chelsea Flower Show restart. Hancock returned with a rock garden and a formal garden, he also had an exhibit in the garden designers section.

It was at one of these post-war Chelsea shows that Sir David Evans Bevans commissioned Ralph and Bramley to build the gardens at Twyn-yr-Hydd.

Ralph had also purchased a little cottage at Chailey Green, near Lewes, Sussex. He had planned to restore the cottage and had drawn-up plans to do so. Ralph died before work started and it was left to Bramley to complete the restoration.

The gardens at Twyn-yr-Hydd are probably the last gardens that Ralph designed and completed before his death. Ralph died in 1950.

Books by this author

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