A unique exhibition celebrating two great gardens, one Chinese and one very English, opens at Castle Howard on Monday. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

WHAT does one of England's finest stately homes have in common with a 'humble' garden in the Chinese city of Suzhou?

Quite a lot, actually.

For a start, the 'Humble Administrator's Garden' in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou isn't all that humble. It dates (in its present form) from about 1510, and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in China. Something like four million people are thought to visit the gardens every year.

And just as the grounds of Castle Howard, designed at the end of the 1600s, are a classic example of British landscaping , so the 'Humble Administrators's Garden' in Suzhou, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a classic example of the Chinese 'scholastic' garden. Like the grounds of Castle Howard, it was designed as a place of retreat and repose.

York Press:

A lake pavilion in the 'Humble Administrator's Garden', Suzhou

The 'humble administrator' after whom the gardens are named was one Wang Xiancheng, a Ming Dynasty imperial official and scholar-poet. He seems to have had an up-and-down sort of life, in which he was promoted then demoted repeatedly. His last official post was as magistrate (for which read governor) of Yongjia county - a fairly undistinguished sort of posting.

From there, he retired to his native Suzhou to design his garden.

Suzhou at the time just happened to be one of the greatest cities in the world. Wang, who enlisted the help of his friend Wen Zhengming, a renowned artist, wanted the gardens to express his refined taste. The garden was named after a verse from 'An Idle Life', a famous Chinese prose poem of the time. "I enjoy a carefree life by planting trees and building my own house," runs a line from the poem. "I irrigate my garden and grow vegetables for me to eat...such a life suits a retired official like me."

The gardens Wang and Wen created have been reworked down the years. But they still carry the distinctive stamp of that original vision. Today, the gardens cover about 13 acres. Hidden away behind a wall and a typically and genuinely humble entrance gate, they consist of lakes, delicate arched Chinese bridges, rockeries designed to mimic mountain landscapes, walkways, pavilions and teahouses. Like so many classical Chinese gardens, this is a 'world within a world', an attempt to recreate natural landscapes in miniature which is secluded from the real world behind its walls. Yet within its comparatively small space the garden contains tantalising 'glimpses of infinity', says Christopher Ridgway, the curator at Castle Howard.

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The Humble Administrator's Garden in winter

In many ways, the story of Castle Howard is quite similar. Charles Howard, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, for whom the house and grounds we know today were designed, was a successful politician who served as an MP and, for a brief period, as First Lord of the Treasury.

Towards the end of his life, however, he retreated from public life and busied himself with the development of his great new house and its grounds. The 1,000 acres of landscaped parkland include lakes, woods, statues (18 of them) follies and temples (such as the Temple of the Four Winds).

The grounds of Castle Howard are much larger and more expansive than the Chinese garden in the heart of a huge metropolis, of course. But they have much in common, Christopher insists. The Castle Howard grounds, he says, are effectively 'gardens without walls' - but no less a place of retreat and repose for all that. "While drawing on different traditions and techniques, both gardens exhibit the craft of making landscape, architecture, flowers, trees and water work in harmony," he says.

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Castle Howard seen from the lake. Photo: Hon Nicholas Howard

The two have something else in common - they have both played a huge part in classic literature.

Castle Howard is, in many ways, the 'star' of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

The Humble Administrator's Garden, meanwhile, is thought to have been the inspiration for the great garden which is the central focus of arguably the greatest work of classical Chinese literature - Cao Xueqin's Dream of Red Mansions.

Castle Howard is already a firm favourite of Chinese tourists, thanks to the fact that in 2015 the Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou, who is huge in China, held his wedding reception there.

"Hundreds of coaches carry Chinese tourists to visit this stately home every year," says Will Zhuang, a York businessman who has been working hard with City of York Council, Make It York and others to build relationships between York and China.

The Chinese tourists are bowled over by the house, its grounds, and its collections of art, Will says. And, because Castle Howard is right on York's doorstep, Chinese visitors are getting to know more about York, too. "And that's fantastic for the local tourism economy," says Will.

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Businessman Will Zhuang, left, with Visit York marketing manager Michelle Brown

With York and North Yorkshire keen to forge closer links with China, it made sense to build on the connection between Castle Howard and Suzhou.

Last autumn, a photographic exhibition entitled 'A Celebration of Gardens and Landscapes' was held in the Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou. It combined photographs of the Suzhou garden with photographs of the grounds of Castle Howard. The Lord Mayor of York, Cllr Keith Orrell, was there to help declare the exhibition officially open.

Now, that same exhibition has transferred lock, stock and barrel to Castle Howard.

It will be officially launched on Sunday evening in the great houses's stable courtyard gallery. The Lord Mayor of York will be there for the launch - along with a high-level delegation from Suzhou and the Humble Administrator's Garden.

Then, from Monday, the exhibition will be open to the public - with admission entirely free.

"In the same way that Castle Howard's dramatic landscape was a revelation to Chinese visitors in Suzhou, so it is hoped these spectacular images of the Humble Administrator's Garden will excite and enchant visitors in Yorkshire," says Christopher Ridgway.

Let's hope so...

  • The 'A Celebration of Gardens and Landscapes' photographic exhibition opens to the public in the Stable Courtyard at Castle Howard on Monday. Admission free.