The Botanic Garden concert hall

In recent years visitors to the Garden in July have been able to enjoy an array of live music at our weekly series of ‘Sounds Green’ concerts, part of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival. Taking place on the Garden's Main Lawn, with the Bee Borders and Glasshouses as a backdrop, concertgoers have been treated to a variety of performances, with this year’s line-up ranging from folk, dance and street music, to a brass quintet!

It’s interesting to consider that the ways in which visitors enjoy music and performance in the Garden could have been very different. Did you know that at one time there was the possibility of building a concert hall in the Garden? Not only that, but an open-air theatre, fashioned from yew hedging, was also envisaged. We know this from a series of drawings in the Garden’s Archive, which illustrate these and other possibilities.
The proposed concert hall and bandstand.The proposed concert hall and bandstand.
The drawings date from 1944, at which time plans were being made to enlarge the Garden. Up until then, due to financial constraints, only the western half of the land purchased for the Garden in the 1830s had been developed. The eastern half, known as the Garden Field, was let out, mainly for use as allotments. However, by the mid 1940s, following the death of long-term Garden benefactor Reginald Cory, who left a large part of his estate to the Garden, funds were available for incorporating the Field into the Garden.

Discussions began about what features this new area should have and how the developments might be carried out. For a period of around a decade we find frequent references to the project in the minutes of meetings of the Garden’s governing body, the Syndicate. On May 31st 1944 it was reported to the Syndicate that Professor Albert Edward Richardson, a leading British architect of the first half of the 20th century, had been approached about the possibility of being involved in designing for the new area. The minutes record that he “had not only replied in the affirmative but had produced a plan with sketches showing how the work might be done”.

It seems almost certain that the “sketches” referred to are these drawings, signed AER and dated 1944. They are accomplished illustrations in pen and ink with the occasional splash of watercolour, which bring to life the buildings and vistas they propose. As well as the concert hall (including bandstand) and open-air theatre, there are grand designs for landscaping and structures at the new southern and eastern ends of the Garden, and even for such details as benches and shelters.

In the end none of these features became part of the development on which work eventually began in the early 1950s. Nonetheless it’s fantastic that the designs have been preserved, and thrilling to imagine how very different the Garden might have looked, and sounded, had they been fulfilled!

Jenny Sargent
Cory Library Manager