The villa of J. S. Burton Esq., in Regent's Park — "The Holme," designed by Decimus Burton for his father James in 1818 (see Bowdler). Source: New York Public Library, image ID EM13290, in the public domain.

The Regent's Park, as it is properly called, is one of London's eleven royal parks. Once the hunting ground of Henry VIII, it is located in the north-west of London, and is the largest of the parks in central London (Tate 83). With the passage of time the area had become farmland — but it was too near the city for its potential to be overlooked for long. Early in the nineteenth century, John Nash was commissioned to lay out an estate here. He envisaged a new, upmarket residential area with parkland at its heart. The scheme as a whole was a grand one, with a Great Circus (now Outer Circle) of grand terraces and a less defined Inner Circus (now Inner Circle) of exclusive villas in a central landscaped setting. Like many of the buildings, the park itself is Grade I listed.

Of the fifty-six villas originally proposed, only eight were built, of which only four remain, along with several lodges. The Holme, shown above, was the first villa to be built for the Inner Circle (see Weinreb et al. 410). It stands close to the centre of Nash's plan for the park, overlooking what is now the boating lake. Wings were later added to the villa, and the dome gave way to a balustrade (see Allinson 134); it is now the property of a wealthy Saudi Prince. But, for all the subsequent changes, nowhere is Nash's basic conception clearer: like the nearby Park Villages (Park Village East and Park Village West), the development was an early and highly influential attempt to create "a rus in urbe," by translating "town houses into an idyllic landscape" (Weinreb et al. 688-89).

Such a grand scheme could not be the work of a single man, however talented and ambitious. Vital to its success was the financial backing of builder James Burton: it "effectively guaranteed the success of the project" (Bowdler). His son Decimus designed not only the Holme, but most of the other villas, and Cornwall and Clarence Terraces in the Outer Circle. An early contributor to Nash's thinking about the park itself was Humphry Repton (1752-1818), with whom he had worked closely between 1795 and 1802: "the influence of this association is reflected in the design for Regent's Park, especially in the positioning of groups of trees and the use of ornamental water running through parkland" (listing text). As part of this initial plan, a new branch of the Grand Union Canal, called the Regent's Canal, was intended to run through the park. For the tricky engineering work involved, Nash was assisted by James Morgan (c.1773-1856), whom he had early on brought in as a partner (Tate 84). The canal was eventually routed along the northern edge, but is still an important feature of the park. Later, Prince Albert called on lansdscaper William Andrews Nesfield to redesign Nash's original Broad Walk: it was Nesfield who laid out the beautiful formal Avenue Gardens, as seen in the contemporary illustration below, already thronged with visitors. Nevertheless, the main credit for the Regent's Park development as a whole belongs to Nash himself.

Regent's Park as an Amenity

Some of the original zoo structures, illustrated by G. W. Bonner (Kidd 50-52). Left to right: (a) The "rustic entrance lodges" to the Zoological Gardens, (b) The Cattle-Shed. (c) The Aviary.

Work began on Regent's Park in 1811, and was completed, at least in its original form, in 1827. The eastern part was opened to the public in 1835. At first it served as a fashionable retreat from the city, but the land not used by the unbuilt villas was soon put to other purposes. Founded in 1824, the Royal Zoological Society bought land in the northern part of the park in 1828: Burton laid out the gardens for it, completing them in 1841 (see Allinson 134), and designing some of its structures. London Zoo was opened to the general public in 1847. The Toxophilite Society acquired another area of the park for archery, as did the new Royal Botanic Society. Here again, Burton was much involved, and laid out the society's gardens (this part would eventually become Queen Mary's Garden, famous for its thousands of roses). By now, nearby Primrose Hill, a grassy open space with extensive views over London, had also been opened to the public and made easily accessible from the park, via a bridge built in 1843. Regent's Park had now evolved into an amenity for everyone. A plan of 1850 shows fences and paths which indicate this increased use: "The image of Regent's Park was being transformed and the park was no longer one of the more fashionable areas of London, the ground being used increasingly for recreation" (listing text).

Victorian Improvements

"Garden Improvements in Regent's Park" (looking towards the Griffin Tazza in the centre of the Avenue Gardens). Source: Illustrated London News, 1 August 1863: 121.

The illustration in the 1863 Illustrated London News represents, according to the account which follows it:

the centre of the new and beautiful flower garden recently completed in the Regent's Park, which is laid out in the French-Italian style. On each side of the garden a row of handsome trees forms a grateful shade from the heat of the sun and a pleasing background to the brilliant denizens of the parterre. The garden is in the form of an oblong, divided into three principal parts. Entering at the end nearest to Ulster-terrace, we have before us a most brilliant coup-d'oeil. A broad gravel walk here divides the garden into equal parts for about a fourth of its length; a continuous border forms the outer portions of this part of the ground, the extreme edge of which is bounded by a low hedge of hornbeam (a tree which greatly resembles the beech, and is often mistaken for it); this border is planted with variegated laurels, hollies, and, at equal distances along its length, groups of standard almond, laburnum, and hawthorn trees. Beds are cut in the turf, alternating with elegant vases standing in raised beds surrounded by stonework; these are planted in ribbons of scarlet geranium, lobelia, calceolaria, variegated and ivy geraniums, etc. ["Flower Gardens, Regent's Park," 142]

The account of the planting strategy continues for some time. It is very detailed and sometimes critical, indicating the great interest of the Victorians in this subject. The concluding comments concern a second and less formal garden in this part of the park, to the east — an English one, under the care of Nesfield's son. When this was finished, the writer said, it would "doubtless form one of the most delightful in London." Already, the writer hastens to add, "it must be a source of great delight to those living within easy access of it; and we have but to see the crowds who flock thither on a Sunday afternoon to know how fully such places are appreciated by the public" ("Flower Gardens, Regent's Park," 142).

Images scanned by the author. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.

Related Material


Allinson, Kenneth. Architecture and Architects of London. London: Architectural Press, 2008.

Bowdler, Roger. "Burton [Haliburton], James (1761–1837), builder and developer." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 25 November 2019.

"Flower Gardens, Regent's Park." The Illustrated London News, Vol. 43 (July-December 1863). 19 September 1863. 120-22. Hathi Trust. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 25 November 2019.

Kidd, William. Kidd's New Guide to the "Lions" of London.... Illustrated by G. W. Bonner. London: William Kidd, 1832. Hathi Trust. Contributed by Harvard University. Web. 25 November 2019.

"Regent's Park." Historic England. Web. 25 November 2019.

Smith, Denis. "James Morgan." Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, 1500-1830. Vol. I, ed. Alec Skempton et al. London: Thomas Telford Publishing, for the Institution of Civil Engineers, 2002: 452.

Tate, Alan. Great City Parks>. London and New York: Spon Press (Taylor & Francis), 2001.

Weinreb, Ben, Christopher Hibbert, Julia Keay and John Keay, eds. The London Encyclopaedia. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 2008.

Created 25 November 2019