Sutton Place

by Don Hyatt

The Gardens at Sutton Place

Finding the way into Sutton Place was as difficult as finding the way out of some complex and frustrating maze. This mansion and enormous estate of several thousand acres was the reclusive home of oil magnate J. Paul Getty until he died in 1976, so I suppose there was no incentive to erect road signs to attract the commoners. As we skirted the property for quite some time with no luck at finding the gate, we finally pulled into a gas station to ask directions. Men usually don't ask directions, so you can just imagine the level of our frustration. There was another customer at the counter who said that he knew, but directions were hard to describe. He was planning to visit his late mother's grave at a church nearby, so he suggested that we follow him. After what seemed like endless turns and twists down narrow roads, we arrived at an unmarked gate. We were at Sutton Place. We thanked the man for his kindness, and gave him a fine bottle of wine that one of our members had just purchased.

Traveling down the long driveway to the estate, we realized that this was a manor house of the grandest scale, the kind of home one might expect for one of the richest men of this century. The huge tudor mansion was built between 1520 to 1530 by Sir Richard Weston, one of the loyal courtiers of Henry VIII. Around 1900, Lord and Lady Northcliffe brought in Gertrude Jekyl to design the West Walled Garden, terraces, yew hedges, and the pool garden. Now under the control of the Sutton Place Foundation, the house and gardens have been going through significant restoration.

We had an appointment to meet with the head gardener, John Humphreys. After our introduction, we were given maps and allowed to wander as private guests around the estate. My first impression of excess wealth seemed was reinforced everywhere, especially in the garden sculpture. Here were huge marble urns bigger than my car, ornaments that were probably appropriate to the scale of a manor house of this size, but certainly not for me. One garden fountain had gargoyles spouting water from their mouths. As I looked at the sculpture more carefully, the faces of the gargoyles remided me of my principal back at school, frowning and expressing his displeasure over my decision to take this trip. There were lots of water features, ponds and other fountains. I watched my steps carefully so that I wouldn't fall into any of them as I had done at Hestercombe. There were not many rhododendrons here, and we did notice a couple of sickly plants that were rather new to the garden. On close inspection, we discovered the reason for their ill health. The plants had been set about three inches too deep. Rhododendrons have a very shallow root system, and their root systems will smother if planted too deeply. I thought of mentioning it to the head gardener, but decided that it would be out of place.

As usual, the Gertrude Jekyl designs were charming. She was certainly a talented lady, and no wonder most of Great Brittain's gentry sought her expertise. The iris and lupines in the West Walled Garden were putting on a grand show when we were there, but the Rose Garden would not be in bloom for several weeks. My favorite spot was a peaceful sitting room entwined with wisteria. Peering through the fragrant clusters of blue wisteria blossoms framing the Pool Garden, I imagined that J. Paul Getty probably came here when he wanted to forget the frantic pace of big deals and high finance. I found the rest of the gardens at Sutton Place impressive, but uncomfortable and ostentatious. They were not for me. It is a good thing I was not born into money.

Vistas of the Garden

Tudor Mansion

Fountain and Clipped Yews

West Walled Garden

Pink Lupines

Planted Too Deeply

Fountain with Gargoyles

Wisteria at Pool Garden

Iris and Yellow Perennials