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February 11, 2016updated 08 Jun 2023 10:47am

A Most Cursed Hill: Painshill and the Beginnings of English Wine

An observant traveler taking the main road out of London toward Portsmouth might notice near Cobham the top of a striking Gothic tower on an embankment to the left of the road. The structure contrasts strongly with its surroundings, for the tall, square tower, crowned with battlements, spire, and weathervane, looks out over the point where the A3 now crosses the M25. Built in the 1760s, the tower marks the western boundary of Painshill, a remarkable landscaped park fashioned out of unpromising Surrey heathland by an even more remarkable figure, the Honorable Charles Hamilton.

The Gothic tower is only one of several architectural features built by Hamilton to create a series of vistas within an idealized, romantic landscape. Elsewhere, the park boasts a Turkish tent, a ruined abbey, a mausoleum, and a grotto among other attractions. Sadly, the Temple of Bacchus, its ceiling thought to be the work of the distinguished Scottish architect Robert Adam, no longer stands. The temple housed a 7ft (2m) marble statue of the Roman god of wine, brought back from Rome by Hamilton on one of his two Grand Tours. Wine was clearly of more than passing interest to him, since he planted two vineyards at Painshill, selling the output on a semicommercial basis and attracting praise from contemporaries for his viticultural skills.

From Dublin to Rome to Cobham

Charles Hamilton was born in Dublin in 1704. The youngest of 14 children, he was the ninth and last son of James, the sixth Earl of Abercorn. As the last in line of so many children, he was less financially comfortable than his elder siblings, despite his aristocratic background. Hamilton was, however, fortunate in his friends, both at Westminster School, where he was a contemporary of Henry Hoare, and at Oxford, where he met Henry Fox. Hoare’s family were successful bankers, while Fox later became the first Baron Holland and amassed a substantial fortune as paymaster general during the Seven Years’ War. Both clearly valued Hamilton’s friendship and helped him, either with money or influence, at different times in his life.

During his two visits to Rome, Hamilton studied art and sculpture, drawing inspiration from the paintings of Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Salvator Rosa. Artists of the period were increasingly turning from religious themes to landscapes, and it’s easy to imagine their idyllic country scenes forming the prototype for Painshill in Hamilton’s mind. The death of his father in 1734 meant that Hamilton had to find an income. His sister, Lady Archibald Hamilton, was mistress of the Prince of Wales, and in 1738 her influence led to his appointment as a clerk of the household at a salary of £500. The same year, Hamilton began to acquire land in Cobham, including several farms and a house. A former landlord was the Marquis du Quesne, bankrupted by the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720. Henry Fox provided £3,000 of capital for the initial purchase, and by the early 1740s Hamilton had around 200 acres (81ha).

The land in its original state wasn’t particularly attractive. One contemporary account describes it as “so poor as not to produce anything but Heath and Broom.”1 But Hamilton obviously thought the place had potential, and using his natural flair for design, his interest in plants, and his ability to achieve impressive results from very little, he set to work. Burning the heathland and using the ash to fertilize the soil produced a crop of turnips, which in turn fed a flock of sheep. The sheep manure further enriched the soil to the point where grass could grow, “so that a good Sward of Grass is now upon the Land, where it was judged by most People impossible to get any Herbage.”2 The nascent park formed part of the Mole Valley, and Hamilton used water from the nearby River Mole for waterfalls and a lake, refashioning the broad inclines of the valley flanks to form a succession of landscaped tableaux ornamented with buildings and features. The aim was to create beauty without losing sight of nature, contrasting sharply with the more formal, symmetrical style of gardening popular in the late 17th century. Just seven years before Hamilton started acquiring Painshill, Alexander Pope had poked fun at this earlier, unnatural style in his “Epistle to Burlington”:

Grove nods at grove, each alley has a brother
And half the platform just reflects the other.

The suff ‘ring eye inverted Nature sees,
Trees cut to statues, statues thick as trees […]

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One of the first projects in the grand scheme at Painshill was the planting of a vineyard. The precise timing isn’t known, but the evidence suggests the early 1740s, since the vines were mature enough to produce grapes by 1748. An area of 5 acres (2ha) was planted on a steep slope overlooking an artificial lake fed from the Mole by a waterwheel. Other than the slope’s south-facing aspect and gravelly, sandy soil, there was little to tell Hamilton what kind of crop his vineyard might yield. He planted “two sorts of Burgundy grapes, the Auvernat [Pinot Noir], which is the most delicate, but the tenderest, and the miller grape [Pinot Meunier], commonly called the black cluster, which is more hardy,” and waited to see what would happen.3 By Hamilton’s own account, he first tried to make red wine from the young vines. This was done “in the usual way, by treading the grapes, then letting them ferment in a vat, till all the husks and impurities formed a thick crust at the top, the boiling ceased, and the clear Wine was drawn off from the bottom.”4 The result was disappointing. Hamilton described the wine as so “harsh and austere” that he wondered if he could ever produce something “fit to drink.” And yet, in characteristically positive manner, he saw grounds for optimism, sensing “a flavour something like that of some small French white wines, which made me hope I should succeed better with white Wine.”5

Work on the rest of the park proceeded as fast as resources allowed, and interest in Hamilton’s project began to spread. In 1745, he received his first visitor, the second Duke of Richmond, who dined with Hamilton at Painshill on Sunday, June 9. The first visitor to record his impressions of the park was the artist George Vertue, who mentioned a fine room with fine views and park in 1747. The following year, Horace Walpole came and was sufficiently impressed to write subsequently that Hamilton “has really made a fine place out of a most cursed hill.”6 It was also in 1748 that Hamilton took a step that would bring his vineyard on in leaps and bounds.

David Geneste was a Huguenot refugee from Clairac, southwest of Bordeaux. Born around 1692 in a region where making wine was a way of life, he’d left home for a less troubled existence among fellow Protestants in Britain. Little is known of his early years, but by 1739 he was in London, and a handful of letters to his sister back in Clairac provides a fascinating snapshot of a particular period in his life. On October 2, 1748, Geneste wrote that he was working for the Honorable Charles Hamilton at Cobham, the site of a fine park that the nobility visit and a vineyard of 15 cartonnats (around 5 acres [2ha]). How the two men met is unclear, but Hamilton’s employment of someone with experience in vine growing and winemaking was a turning point. The irony was that, despite his Bordeaux pedigree, Geneste’s knowledge of the vine was then rather vague. He asked his sister, who had married one of Clairac’s most successful wine growers, for advice on planting and cultivating the kinds of vines that Geneste had seen growing in his native land. “Few people understand wine growing here,” he wrote, so the vineyard at Painshill is in poor condition, though the grapes that year are very fine. He also asked for pruning knives to be sent, so that he might have them copied by a local blacksmith.

Geneste’s duties were to oversee the vineyard and plant a further 10 acres (4ha) the next year. By now, Hamilton’s own help on laying out gardens was being sought. In 1749, he visited Lord Poullett at Hinton St George in Somerset to advise on the grounds of Hinton House. Before long, he was also assisting his old friend Henry Fox with the planting at Holland Park. Geneste pressed on with the second vineyard, and in December 1750 he told his sister Marie of six red and white grape varieties planted at Painshill, adding that there were others, the names of which he didn’t know. The following vintage was a poor one, however. Persistent rainfall in the summer and an early frost meant the grapes didn’t reach maturity. Instead of the hoped-for eight to ten barrels, only two were made, and half of that was verjus, the sour juice of unripened grapes that won’t ferment to yield wine. Other English vineyards suffered similarly, Geneste told Marie in November 1751, but Hamilton was as positive as ever, ordering more vines to be planted that year.

The scale of the vineyards now meant Geneste needed help in tending them, and in a letter dated September 1752 he mentioned that a new servant was expected from Clairac to help him prune the vines. His brother-in-law recruited the man, who was supposed to succeed Geneste when Hamilton had secured the latter a government post. Two further vine dressers arrived the following year, one of them Geneste’s cousin. Luckily, the vintage that year was better. Four barrels were produced, two of which were to be sold as vin de Champagne at 50 pièces each. Hamilton was by now clearly having better luck with white wine than he’d had with red: “The very first year I made white Wine, it nearly resembled the flavour of Champaign; and in two or three years more, as the Vines grew stronger, to my great amazement, my Wine had a finer flavour than the best Champaign I ever tasted.”7

It is uncertain how close to today’s interpretation of Champagne Hamilton’s efforts were, though he maintains his wine “sparkled and creamed in the glass” like Epernay’s finest.8 Even the Duc de Mirepoix, then the French ambassador in London, “preferred it to any other Wine,”9 asserted Hamilton. He knew that his compatriots might be skeptical about wine made in Surrey but felt confident enough to tell Lord Ilchester in a letter of June 1754: “You are such an infidel as to my Vineyard I hardly expect to convert You, even when you taste it, but Lady Ilchester who liked my first so well will be in Love with this; and I’ll answer for it ’twill make Miss Cheek laugh and quicken her low spirits.”10

Geneste confirmed to Marie in March of the following year that Painshill’s winemaking star was firmly in the ascendant, Hamilton having sold the ’53 vintage for 50 guineas a barrel. “It is esteemed the richest wine of its kind ever seen,”11 stated the Huguenot vigneron. Possibly emboldened by this success, he asked his master for a pay rise, adding that if his request were refused, he would have to leave. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hamilton was annoyed by the ultimatum and dismissed Geneste. The two had quarreled previously — in 1751, according to Geneste’s letters — but this latest dispute was not the end of a fruitful, if sometimes fractious partnership. While working out his notice, the Frenchman was summoned by Hamilton to taste the ’54 wine. It was evidently a good year, both in quantity (ten barrels — five red, five white) and quality. Master and servant alike pronounced the wine very good, and the former said he could not believe the latter was really to leave. Geneste replied that he had no wish to, preferring to “finish his days there,” but could not live on such low wages. After more than an hour’s negotiation, agreement on an improved salary was reached. “And thus I shall still be a vine grower, and if I have the good fortune to make a good harvest this year I hope it will turn to my profit, seeing that there are several gentlemen who are considering planting and I am the only one who can supply the stock.”

Geneste told Marie there were then 30,000-35,000 vines at Painshill — more than in his brother-in-law’s vineyards back in Clairac. One can imagine further heated debate, with Hamilton questioning Geneste’s right to sell cuttings from this rootstock, though the absence of further letters means we shall probably never know exactly what happened. The Painshill vineyards were clearly capable of producing wine good enough to sell when the weather cooperated, but there was still a lot to learn about tending the vines. Geneste admitted as much in this last letter to his sister, dated March 30, 1755. The vines, he said, grew almost too vigorously, being sometimes 10-15ft (3-4.5m) high and “as thick as your thumb,” becoming so overladen that many grapes either dropped off or failed to ripen. He asked for his brother-in-law’s advice on how to “prevent the wood from growing too strongly.” After this, we hear no more from the Huguenot vigneron, though he was probably still at Painshill in 1757 when a son, also David, was christened in Cobham that year.

Relations between Britain and France

Doubtless aware that further help was needed with his vineyards, Hamilton looked again to France. The month before Geneste last wrote to Marie, a letter arrived unexpectedly for Hamilton from the Abbé Nolin in Paris.12 Charles Pierre Nolin (1717-?) was an arboriculturalist and director of the Roule nursery, one of two royal nurseries in Paris that supplied plants for Versailles and the other royal palaces. Word of Hamilton’s endeavors at Painshill had spread. The French abbot shared Hamilton’s interest in trees and shrubs, offering his fellow plantsman seeds or cuttings of his many different varieties, including vines. Hamilton must have responded quickly, for Nolin’s next letter is dated April 7. He mentions seeking a vine grower for Hamilton, presumably at the latter’s request. Nolin also said he had sent Hamilton some seeds via “M des Mirepoix” (the French ambassador?), the beginning of several such exchanges that would augment Hamilton’s fast-burgeoning collection of plants. In July, we learn that Nolin had interviewed 30 candidates in response to Hamilton’s request for help in filling two vacancies for wine growers. The Abbé had also found him a book on cultivating vines and making Champagne, published in Reims in 1722. By September, the two recruits recommended by Nolin had left France for Cobham and the promise of £12 per annum if they worked well.

Hamilton’s correspondence with Nolin starts during a period of worsening relations between Britain and France with the approach of the Seven Years’ War, and this would affect Painshill in a number of ways. The two French vineyard workers hired through Nolin were back in France by December of that year, 1755. The priest said their swift return was apparently spurred by both a dislike for English beer and the fear of war between the two nations, making them believe they might never see their homeland again. For their English employer, however, they had nothing but praise, saying they were “pleased with his goodness.” In the same letter, Nolin provided the solution to the problem Geneste had mentioned to his brother-in-law back in March. In temperate countries, the vine should be stopped after 3-4ft (0.9-1.2m) of growth and the tendrils carefully removed, he said, otherwise the grapes were liable to fall off, the vine producing too much wood but little useful fruit.

In 1756, the tension between Britain and France boiled over into war. Minorca, an important British naval base, was lost to the French, and with it Hamilton’s position as receiver general of His Majesty’s revenues for the island. Since his appointment in 1743, Hamilton had overseen the collection of receipts and the payment of local officials via his deputy in Port Mahon. By the early 1750s, the Treasury derived a net income of around £20,000 per annum from the island. For his services, Hamilton earned £1,200 per annum. This substantial income must have financed the development of Painshill, as well as servicing the interest on the loans and mortgages obtained from his old friends Henry Fox and Henry Hoare. Its loss would have seriously threatened Hamilton’s ability to continue with his ambitious plans, but once again his friends’ intervention proved invaluable. Through Fox’s influence, Hamilton was granted a government pension equivalent to his previous salary, though the former’s help was not entirely disinterested. A bankrupt Hamilton could never have repaid his debts.

A rare letter from, rather than to, Hamilton in April 1756 tells us a little more about the man.13 He wrote to Nolin in a confident, elegant hand. His command of French largely justifies the abbot’s earlier assertion that Hamilton “has perfect knowledge” of the language. The writer regretted that two of his earlier letters didn’t reach Nolin, especially since one of them contained some primrose seeds obtained from a collector as a special favor. The two men obviously sent each other plants and seeds on a regular basis, despite the difficulties of getting fragile packages across borders, especially between hostile nations. Hamilton wrote of actually meeting Nolin “when peace returns” to swap ideas on agriculture and horticulture. We also catch a glimpse of Hamilton’s aesthetic sense, central to the creation of Painshill, when he expresses his views on bosquets. These are formal, square-shaped plantings of trees, crossed by paths and sometimes incorporating flowerbeds.14 Such contrived arrangements, popular in France for some time, would hold little appeal for an advocate of a more natural style, but Hamilton’s point is a practical one: “As for your bosquets for each month of the year, were I enough of a Grand Seigneur for this, I would certainly have them […] but vast gardens are needed for that, since when in flower, it is their quantity that appeals to me, and when the flowering is over, each bosquet then seems worthless to me for a long time.”

The final letter in the correspondence dates from April 1759, with Nolin expressing his distress at the “wretched event that had put Hamilton’s health in danger.” While the precise nature of the event is unclear, Nolin’s comments suggest it might be some form of metallic poisoning. He recommended cow’s milk as a remedy and prayed for the prompt restoration of Hamilton’s health. Happily, the master of Painshill survived.

Finding finances

After the correspondence with Nolin, we hear little more of the Painshill vineyards. Work continued on implementing Hamilton’s plan for the rest of the park, though. Between 1760 and 1763, many of the buildings and features punctuating the Painshill landscape were constructed. Such a frenetic outburst of activity may have had as much to do with the sporadic availability of financing as any sudden creative urge on the part of Hamilton. The cost of bringing his vision to life is difficult to imagine. Even if some of the seeds and cuttings of the countless plants and trees dotted around the park’s 300-odd acres (some 120ha) were given by fellow enthusiasts, most would have been bought. Many of them must have been expensive, being exotic curiosities brought back from North America and other parts of the New World. Norman Kitz, who lived at Painshill in the 1970s, points out that the park probably represents the first example of artificial landscaping in Europe, requiring vast quantities of manpower.15 Kitz also suggests that some of the buildings were initially made of wood to save money. Without a fortune of his own, Hamilton had to rely on his friends and whatever income could be earned. This might be from royal or government posts where his tenure was subject to personal whim (he was dismissed from the Prince of Wales’s household staff in 1747) or geopolitical events, such as the French capture of Minorca. In such circumstances, even the sale of several hogsheads of Painshill wine at 50 guineas a piece was significant.

An account book from Painshill for the period 1760-73 shows a staggering quantity of bricks and “pantiles” bought by Hamilton, all carried to the park by “broad-wheel wagon.”16 It’s no great surprise, then, that in 1766 he sought a further capital injection from the bank owned by his old friend, Henry Hoare. On March 20, the Money Lent ledgers of C Hoare & Co show a mortgage of £6,568-8-0 taken out by Hamilton at a rate of 4 percent. He managed to make several payments of interest to the bank, including a sum of £568-8-0 in November 1772. Yet the expense of realizing his vision at Painshill proved too much, even for one as resourceful, optimistic, and well connected as Hamilton. It is from John Wesley, who visited Hamilton in October 1771, that we learn of the latter’s decision to sell the park: “And now, after spending his life in bringing it to perfection, the grey-headed owner advertises it to be sold! Is there anything under the sun that can satisfy a spirit made for God?”17 In July 1773, Hamilton sold Painshill to a Surrey landowner, Benjamin Bond Hopkins, for £25,000. On the 20th of that month, Hamilton paid off the mortgage with C Hoare & Co before writing to his old friend Henry (now Baron) Holland on the 22nd “next week I go to Bath.”18

At the age of 69, Charles Hamilton moved to the Royal Crescent in Bath, then nearing completion. It would be a mistake to think he had done with gardening, however, since he also bought some land on a slope behind his house at number 14. There, on what is now Northampton Street, he grew rare plants and vines. He probably continued to advise others on their gardens, too. Indications suggest that he helped with several estates around Bath. Indeed, his international reputation meant that his work post-Painshill still attracted visitors from overseas. In August 1779, a letter from Henry Hoare’s secretary asked Hamilton to receive “a young artist Piper who is sent by the King of Sweden to study the culture of Lands for Gardening in England.” The visitor was apparently anxious to see “the disposition of Mr Hamilton’s grounds at Bath, which he is most desirous of, having been to study at Painshill.”19 And while he may no longer have been making wine, it’s evident that an interest in growing vines remained. Alex Eadie, running several errands for Hamilton in London during 1778, wrote that, apart from executing bills of exchange and securing green silk for a nightgown, “I think your Honour said you hade got vines enough, so that I did not see for any more.”20 Hamilton died in Bath in 1786, aged 82, and is buried in the Abbey.

New owners, new vines

What of his vineyards at Painshill? The new owner, Bond Hopkins, continued to have them tended until his death in 1794. While there’s nothing to suggest he made wine, one wonders what he did with the rich crop of grapes yielded when the weather allowed. Subsequent landlords at Painshill showed little interest in the vineyards, however, and they fell into neglect. JC Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening, published in 1834, relates that “some of the vines which formed this vineyard may still be seen on the original site, now covered with a grove of Scotch pines.” Happily, the park, including one of the vineyard sites, was acquired in 1981 for the Painshill Park Trust, which began the mammoth task of restoration. Stephen Skelton MW, a leading light of the resurgent English wine industry, advised on the vineyard overlooking the lake. This was cleared of its now 200-yearold Scots pines in the winter of 1988, and new vines were planted. Skelton opted for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both classic Champagne varieties. Seyval Blanc was also planted, better suited to the vagaries of the English climate.21 Almost 2 acres (0.8ha) are under vines now, and each October, 20 Trust staff and volunteers hand-pick enough grapes to produce around 3,000 bottles of white, rosé, and sparkling wine. The harvest lasts the length of a morning, and the grapes are taken to the winery at nearby Stanlake Park for vinification and bottling. The results are on sale to the public at the shop at Painshill — likewise open to visitors. The present French ambassador has yet to pronounce on the Painshill Park sparkling wine, but it certainly stands comparison with much of the “Champaign” on sale today.

Hamilton’s achievement at Painshill in creating Europe’s first landscaped park has ensured his place in the history of English gardening. For those interested in English wine, however, he leaves another legacy. In producing wine good enough to be sold, and doing so consistently for more than two decades, Hamilton proved that viticulture was possible in the United Kingdom. There were years when the weather didn’t cooperate, of course, but the same can be said of most northern European vineyards. Until Hamilton’s success at Painshill, there was great skepticism about the possibility of making any wine “fit to drink” in Britain. The year before David Geneste arrived in Cobham, Philip Miller wrote in his Gardener’s Dictionary: “Such was the Prejudice most people conceived to any Attempts of producing Wine in England that, for some Ages past, every trial of that kind has been ridiculed by the Generality of People, and at this day very few Persons will believe it possible to be effected.”22 It would be an exaggeration to say that Hamilton singlehandedly converted the “Generality” who refused to take English wine seriously. Rather, his contribution was to quieten at least some of the ridicule, so that Sir Edward Barry, the author of Observations Historical, Critical and Medical on the Wines of the Ancients and the Analogy between Them and Modern Wines, was able to write in 1775:

“There are not wanting in this country several gentlemen of fortune who make the improvements in agriculture their favourite study and practice. To such no experiments could give a more reasonable and elegant amusement than cultivating and planting a small vineyard in a favourable situation. Nor could the fruits of any plantation afford that cheerful pleasure which they would receive from drinking fine wines of their own production. The prospect of some success even from the first trial, seems almost certain, if concluded by the rules given by Mr Hamilton and Mr Miller, with the necessary assistance of a good vigneron, well versed in the mechanic operation of this press. Neither is it improbable but that in some time several vineyards may be propagated on account of the profit arising from them, and this country supplied with native wines very superior to many of those which are now imported.”

The last word belongs to Charles Hamilton himself. He contributed an account of his winemaking experience to Sir Edward’s book. While he doesn’t make light of the challenges he encountered, Hamilton is characteristically upbeat in his conclusion:

“I am convinced that much good Wine might be made in many parts of the south of England. Many parts are south of Painshill, many soils may be yet fitter for it, and many situations must be so: for mine was much exposed to the southwest wind (the worst of all for Vines), and the declivity was rather too steep; yet with these disadvantages it succeeded many years. Indeed, the uncertainty of our climate is against it, and many fine crops have been spoiled by May frosts, and wet summers; but one good year balances many disappointments.”23


The author thanks His Grace, the Duke of Abercorn; the deputy keeper of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland; Painshill Park Trust; and the Surrey History Centre.


1. Daniel Defoe, Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1742) III, pp.293-97.

2. Ibid.

3. Sir Edward Barry, Observations Historical, Critical and Medical on the Wines of the Ancients and the Analogy between Them and Modern Wines (1775), pp.471-76.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Letter to George Montagu, August 11, 1748; Christopher Thacker, Building Towers, Forming Gardens (2002), p.11.

7. Barry.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Hugh Barty-King, A Tradition of English Wine (1977), p.99.

11. Barty-King, p.99.

12. Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), Abercorn Papers D623/A/8.

13. Ibid.

14. Patrick Taylor, The Oxford Companion to Gardening (2006).

15. Norman Kitz, “The Right Hon. Charles Hamilton at Painshill”; talk given to the Cobham Residents’ Association, March 5, 1974.

16. PRONI, Abercorn Papers D623/A/9.

17. Thacker, p.26.

18. Barty-King, p.102.

19. PRONI, Abercorn Papers D623/A/10.

20. Ibid.

21. Stephen Skelton, The Wines of Britain and Ireland (2001), p.17.

22. Barty-King, p.84.

23. Barry.

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