Chinese Boxes – ‘The Secret Garden’ in the Cliveden Water Garden

I once saw a production in which an eager theatre company installed a fake castle wall in front of a real one. Heartbreak’s production of The Secret Garden at Cliveden had the potential to feel like that. But it didn’t, or not quite.

Built by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham for his lover in the 17th century, Cliveden was inhabited by the aristocracy up to the Astors in the 20th century, and was continuously at the centre of politics and fashion (famous for Profumo’s meeting with Christine Keeler in the 1960s).

The Cliveden Water Garden (1890s), where the stage was set up, is theatrical in itself. Billed (dubiously) as ‘Oriental’ in the National Trust guide (Bullen 2012), the word encapsulates its dodgy mish-mash: having purchased a Chinese Pagoda made in Paris, William Astor named it ‘The Japanese Garden’ and planted bamboo, cherry blossom and irises.

The Pagoda was added in 1900, and was originally part of Paris’ Exposition Universelle (1867) as part of the major exhibit ‘France and its Colonies’, which occupied almost half the main building and central gardens.

The Chinese had refused to take part in the exhibition, so the pagoda was designed by French architect Alfred Chapon, who based it on a painting of a garden building in the Quianlong Emperor’s Summer Palace in Yuanming Yuan.

When the French and British forces destroyed Yuanming Yuan, during the 2nd Opium War, they not only looted the album of paintings, but also destroyed the original pagoda. (Martin 2019: pp.127-8)

Oblivious to this, the children making their way to the performance enjoyed the journey over its broad stepping stones, and distracting the fish swimming in its tranquil ponds.

Cliveden also has its own ‘Secret Garden’, filled with the warm scent of roses that are planted in a sweep where gold blushes into red, punctuated by white statues of wounded Amazons and half-naked youths.

There is an amphitheatre here, too, dating from the early 18th century. When Frederick, Prince of Wales was using the house as a retreat from court, he held a fête at Cliveden to celebrate the birthday of the Princess Augusta, and the accession of the house of Hanover. It was August 1st, 1740, and there were two masques, The Judgement of Paris and The Masque of Alfred, which linked Frederick with Alfred’s defeat of the Vikings, and both with pastoral idyll. It ended with the new song ‘Rule Britannia!’ (Bullen, 2012:12). The tone of his daughter’s birthday parties was evidently quite military for that of a toddler: the previous year, he had held a ‘Naumachia’ on the river, in which the battle of Gibraltar was re-enacted by a fleet of sailing barges, setting off a trend and expressing expectation of victory in warfare against Spain (Eyres 2007:177).

Heartbreak’s performance began in a very different key, introducing the Misselthwaite Flower and Vegetable Show and setting a more egalitarian tone than Cliveden, which has been self-professedly ‘entertaining the elite’ for centuries. Despite this contrast, it felt, from the start, completely in keeping with the surroundings. They presumed our enthusiasm for gardens; we, enjoying the elusive, but emerging sunshine, responded as if with assent. The general mood of pleasure in being out of doors and the story of the redemptive power of gardening felt at home.

I did wish there had been a bit more of an attempt at suggesting the secret garden scenographically – or alternatively, no attempt at all. The set barely changed from the wooden fencing decked with artificial ivy that was present throughout. The garden was created only through a bit of spreading out of the ivy and the introduction of a statuette. When it blossomed, some quite evidently artificial topiary and flowers were introduced. Yet the words told us that the garden was like something in a dream. Leaving it to the imagination is fine, and so is understatement. Just the plastic foliage next to real foliage doesn’t work – we are, in this instance, back to the redundant wall in front of a wall.

This was a loud and cheery production, rather than one that conveyed the pathos and wonder of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story. But the actors ably involved the audience in teaching Mary to skip and talking about the oddest things we’d found in our gardens. There was a sense of layered spaces, beginning with the introduction of a gourd from India (Mary’s first home), and implicitly mirroring Misselthwaite’s chilly, empty grandeur with the sunny elitism of the massive Cliveden House (now a hotel), and perhaps the moor with the parterre on which Berner Venet’s sculptures now frame the distant view (and provide unofficial slides for children).

It did get me thinking about my garden at home. Gardens on gardens: Mary’s dust and marigold garden in India; the book’s secret garden; the vegetable gardens where Ben Weatherstaff digs; the place next to a fjord, possibly a garden, where Archie Craven dreams of his wife (‘In the garden, Archie! I’m in the garden!); the gardens of Misselthwaite village; Cliveden’s water garden and its secret garden, amphitheatre, parterre, long garden and maze; my garden, your garden; gardens as dream spaces and sanctuaries and stages; gardens from which to plan a war.

The play did not express a preference. What it did suggest, though, was the importance of early engagement with growing things, the ‘wickness’ of gardens. I hope that baby Augusta ignored the ships doing battle on the river, and rolled in the grass of the amphitheatre, getting her dress thoroughly grimed with green.


Bullen, Annie (2011), National Trust: Cliveden, London: The National Trust

Eyres, Patrick (2007), ‘British Naumachia: The Performance of Triumph and Memorial’ in Performance and Appropriation: Profane Rituals in Gardens and Landscapes, ed. Michael Conan. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, pp.171-194.

Martin, Meredith (2019), Staging China, Japan and Siam at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867, in  Petra ten-Doesschate Chu and Jennifer Milam (Eds), ‘Beyond Chinoiserie: Artistic Exchange Between China and the West during the late Qing Dynasty (1796-1911)’, Brill: Leider and Boston, 94-122