Sir John, How Does Your Garden Grow?

This post is a followup to Great Scotts!, concerning the NCMA’s early British portrait collection.

Sir John Scott (1564–1616): Oxford-educated, knighted officer in the queen’s army, member of Parliament, knight of the shire … gardener?

Yes, Sir John Scott, whose portrait came into the NCMA’s collection in 1967, was a man’s man, busy with jousting, dueling, and fighting the Spanish, but apparently his real passion was his garden. He spent much of his fortune on it, even building a bridge for easier access across the Medway (a river inconveniently located in his backyard). Sir John’s 17th-century garden was no doubt a formal space, bent to the square and formal views of the times, and probably maintained by a small army of servants. The expense almost certainly added to his downfall. After his death much of his monumental manor house, Nettlestead Place, was pulled down, the salvaged building materials sold to pay his debts. Even the bridge was dismantled.

On a recent research trip, I visited the ancestral Scott stomping grounds in the county of Kent, known as the “garden of England.” I found Sir John’s house rebuilt and surrounded by beautiful gardens once again—full of modern art, no less. But like Sir John’s private garden, the present-day Nettlestead Place is a private home, off limits to all except family and guests.

Just a short walk away, though, I discovered a different garden, one that you could say grew from Sir John’s demise. Rock Farm House is a garden lover’s jewel, listed in many garden tour books of England. Not the product of the rich and entitled or the labor of servants, it’s the work of one tireless soul, Sue Corfe, whose husband, Paul, bought this farm some 50 years ago. Over the years they made their living growing hops and fruit but also from Sue’s plant nursery. Sue specialized in ornamental plants that would grow in the chalky alkaline soil of Kent. Today Rock Farm House is a B&B, and the gardens are open to the public during the summer.

In part Sue and her husband were drawn to this property because of the lovely Kent red brick farmhouse, centuries old. The interior walls of white plaster and half timbers seem the embodiment of old England. Set into those ancient walls, just above the huge fireplace, is a large plaque with the Scott coat of arms that clearly dates from the time of Sir John. It was probably salvaged from Sir John’s Nettlestead Place, like much of the rest of the materials used to build the house. So it would seem that Sue Corfe can tell us how Sir John’s garden grows. Her beautiful plants spring from the seeds sown by Sir John some 400 years ago, metaphorically at least.

—Perry Hurt is associate conservator at the NCMA.

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