In 1965, whilst photographing in Ireland for the book of the same name published in 1966, Edwin Smith visited the formal gardens at Powerscourt in County Wicklow.
One of the photographs he took there has always held a certain fascination for me and a trip to Ireland gave me the opportunity to visit the gardens and see this impressive place myself. Armed with a copy of this published version of his image on my iPad as a guide, I set out to try and photograph the view as it is today.
The dramatic vista that Smith portrayed is perhaps one of the strongest photographs in the book that ensued, evoking both the beauty and grandeur of the Irish countryside and the great tradition of formal garden landscaping. The garden was designed by Daniel Robertson in 1830 for the 6th Viscount Powerscourt.
In her accompanying description of the photograph Olive Cook noted that, according to Christopher Hussey, Robertson ‘a brilliant but dissolute character’, was one of the leading proponents of Italianate garden design, which was influenced by the terraces and formal features of Italian Renaissance villas. He designed the terrace nearest the house but the work ceased when the 6th Viscount died in 1844. It was not until the 1858 that all the terraces were completed, using a combination of Robertson’s designs and those of other landscape architects. Robertson is said to have suffered from gout and directed operations from a wheelbarrow, fortified by a large bottle of sherry. When the sherry was finished, work ceased for the day!
The enormous scale of these terraces may be seen in these views, taken from the bottom terrace looking back towards the house (left) and from the base of the first flight of steps in front of the house, looking down (right).
The actual terrace photographed by Smith is described by Olive Cook in the book: “From the first vast terrace, 800ft long, below the house, a broad shallow flight of steps leads down to a wide lawn, and beyond this tapis vert is the remarkable perron* with its cobbled ramps, the focus of the whole garden composition, going down to five further terraces and the Triton Pool. The striking black and white patterns of the paving are composed of pebbles from the beach at Bray, and the geometric configurations were devised for the 7th Viscount Powerscourt by Francis Cranmer, antiquary to the Royal Academy and amateur astronomer.”
* def: ‘an outside platform, with steps leading to it’.