Tree sculptor transforming Ickworth’s dead trees into a record of the area’s heritage

PUBLISHED: 13:35 18 September 2018

John Williams tree carving at Ickworth

John Williams tree carving at Ickworth


Tree sculptor John Williams has embarked on an ambitious storytelling project in the Ickworth House gardens | Words & Photos: Suzy Stennett

The National Trust has stumbled upon a novel way to make use of a small selection of trees at Ickworth House which have been identified as dying – a pop-up history guide featuring the work of local wood artisan John Williams.

The guide, along The Erskine Walk and Lady Geraldine’s Walk in the north garden, is John’s most ambitious project to date as he chisels through a total of 450 sq ft of wood.

Carving four diseased oaks, he is encapsulating the complex history of Ickworth Park, the house and its occupants, the Hervey family. Each of the oaks is dedicated to a specific era and they all feature locals or workers from the estate, alongside members of the Hervey family.

John Williams tree atin IckworthJohn Williams tree atin Ickworth

The story begins when the Ickworth Estate consisted only of a church, a half-timbered house – the original Ickworth Hall – a small hamlet, a deer-hunting park, and a source of water.

Ickworth park was originally created by Thomas d’Ickworth, who was granted the right to create a deer-park on land belonging to the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in 1253. The Herveys took over the estate in the mid 15th century, when Thomas Hervey married Jane Drury, whose family then owned it.

John picks up the story with over life-size portrayals of Thomas Hervey and Jane Drury carved almost the entire height of the opening 12ft trunk. His second trunk features the 1st Earl of Bristol John Baron Hervey (1665 - 1751), who inherited the estate from his uncle.

John Williams tree atin IckworthJohn Williams tree atin Ickworth

With a successful career in politics, serving as a Whig MP, Baron Hervey dramatically expanded the Hervey estates by marrying two wealthy heiresses. He had plans to build an impressive pile to replace the neglected and uninhabitable Ickworth Hall, but Lady Bristol was incurably extravagant, and his large family too financially burdensome.

Frederick Hervey 4th Earl of Bristol (1739 - 1803), commonly known as the Earl Bishop, and his youngest son, Frederick William 5th Earl and 1st Marquess of Bristol (1769 - 1859), are the subjects of John’s third trunk, two heirs who finally realised the ambitions of the Hervey family to build the grand house that we know today as Ickworth House.

The fourth trunk takes the story to the end of the Harvey era with Frederick William Hervey, 4th Marquess of Bristol (1863 – 1951) and the Marchioness Alice Frances Theodora Wythes (1875 – 1957).

John Williams tree atin IckworthJohn Williams tree atin Ickworth

The Marchioness will be carved larger than her husband in recognition of her money and influence that brought the estate back from the brink of insolvency.

In 1956 the house, gardens, park and contents were handed to the treasury in lieu of death duties, then passed on to the National Trust. The Hervey family continue living in the East Wing under a lease.

John Williams tree atin IckworthJohn Williams tree atin Ickworth

So, the last Hervey to be portrayed on John’s last trunk will be Frederick William John Augustus 7th Marquess of Bristol (1954 – 1999). Known as John, Lord Bristol, he was a troubled soul, who squandered the remainder of the Hervey fortune on cars, helicopters, misguided business ventures and partying, and was forced to sell the lease on the East Wing back to the trust.

John hopes to complete the project by October 2019, so if you happen to be there while he’s at work you may be able to see him carving his way through history!


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