The ‘Inverse Panopticon’ at Kensington Gardens

This is part two of a look at the ha-ha and The Mount in London’s Kensington Gardens. Part one is here.

The Bentham connection:

Panopticons as an idea, were ‘invented’ by Jeremy Bentham and later espoused by Michel Foucault, however the notion behind the idea of panopticism (the act of observing of other humans) has long been around. Castles were indeed a form of panopticion. In many cases sat in the centre of a city (eg Norwich, York) and a watchful eye could be kept on the inhabitants.

motte - The 'Inverse Panopticon' at Kensington Gardens
An early form of panopticion? Motte & Bailey. Source: Wikispaces

The idea of a panopticon was to allow, as Bentham said, prisoners to control their own behaviour. It was indeed a form of trickery, of mind control. In that case why not a ‘panopticion’ that controlled park visitors?

Well it had already been built – and it stood in Kensington Gardens!

The ha-ha at Heaton Hall - Source: Wikipedia
The ha-ha at Heaton Hall – Source: Wikipedia

The ha-ha and The Mount:

The ha-ha in Kensington Gardens is an essential part of this story. In part one of this series – London’s Ha-ha! in Kensington Gardens – I show that historical assumptions re the ha-ha were wrong. Although its attributed to Queen Caroline’s reign, the ha-ha’s construction in fact began under George I.

The former Royal deer park belonging to Henry the 8th with its wooded slopes leading down to a slow flowing river with numerous pools, was taken over by Queen Anne in 1702. She took on 30 acres and her later successor Queen Caroline acquired a further 300 acres c1727.

The Mount was built under Queen Caroline’s reign. William Kent based the design on other mounds or mottes of his around the country and it was built by Charles Bridgeman. The artifical mound clearly gave splendid views right across Kensington Gardens.

mountmap - The 'Inverse Panopticon' at Kensington GardensPart of 1833 Bridgeman map showing The Mount, ha-ha & south bastion. The ha-ha lies approximately where the Western Carriage Drive is now.

As well as Charles Bridgeman’s 1733 plan, The Mount can be seen on other period maps like Cary’s New And Accurate Plan Of London And Westminster 1795; Darton’s New Plan Of The Cities Of London & Westminster, & Borough Of Southwark, 1817.

All along the watch tower:

The Mount was to all purposes and intents a watch tower – the ‘inverse panopticon’ in question. The elaborate structure on top clearly served as a reminder that someone could be up there watching…

It was Jeremy Bentham who said panopticons were “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”mount - The 'Inverse Panopticon' at Kensington Gardens
The Mount in Kensington Gardens.

Clearly the Kensington Gardens arrangement was ‘a quantity hitherto without example’.

It preceedes Bentham’s ideas by more than forty years and perhaps later influenced him. Bentham regularly walked the Royal Parks whilst debating economics with others such as David Ricardo so there is some possibility Bentham may have noted how The Mount and the Gardens’ ha-ha combined to ensure people were enobled into controlling their unsavoury habits.

Unlike William Kent’s designs for similar at other English country houses, The Mount has no trees at it’s top thus denotes it’s intent as a special observation post – as well as one whose splendid views could simply be enjoyed.

mount - The 'Inverse Panopticon' at Kensington Gardens
The Mount – its approximate site roughly south of the Serpentine Gallery. The Western Carriage Drive can be seen at distance with the Mount Gate at left.

Not here, nor there – but at this very spot!

The Mount had to be high enough to be able to see the entire perimeter of Kensington Gardens. The Palace itself just did not sit in the correct place for that.

Clearly it was that The Mount had to be in the right place!

I have examined the Gardens’ layout and its elevations at length, as well as taken and analysed many photographs showing the views in different directions. It is evident The Mount stood at the one location where every inch of Kensington Gardens’ boundary could be seen.

One would argue if the idea was merely to serve as a pleasant view point, why not put it at the top of Buck’s Hill, as far away from the Palace as was possible. That would easily work as a panorama of notable stature, but would crucially miss the many key security points I have just noted.

Not only that it would miss out Rotten Row – the safe passage needed for Royals approaching from Central London.

The view from the Palace:

IMG 6415sc1 - The 'Inverse Panopticon' at Kensington Gardens

The view above, taken in the winter from the upper level at Kensington Palace, shows just a bit of Buck’s Hill and part of the Middle Bastion can be seen. Buck’s Hill summit, at 86ft above sea level, would have been obscured by trees at all times of the year.

The only part of the whole Kensington Gardens ha-ha that could be seen from the Palace would have been a tiny bit by Bucks Hill.

MG 9768 - The 'Inverse Panopticon' at Kensington Gardens

The next two views from the Palace’s upper level shows its very difficult to see detail at Buck’s Hill. Windows in other parts of the Palace, as shown below, were no better:

MG 9831 - The 'Inverse Panopticon' at Kensington Gardens

The Palace had poor sightlines despite its upper windows being aligned along the 87 foot elevation mark. The Mount evidently compensated for these short comings.

The ‘all seeing eye’:

The ha-ha was Kensington Gardens’ physical boundary, yet didnt stop people attempting unauthorised visits into the Gardens and these intrusions occurred quite regularly. The Mount, combined with the ha-ha, formed a kind of ‘seeing eye’ which attempted to control any intruders.

William Kent (1685-1748) Source: Wikipedia
William Kent (1685-1748) Source: Wikipedia

The man who designed the ha-ha, William Kent, was said to be one who liked to trick, or even control the mind. It seems William Kent was aware of masonic legends for he utilised these at Stowe House gardens. The pyramid atop William Kent’s Temple of British Worthies is calimed to be an ‘all seeing eye’:

Temple of British Worthies, Stowe by Jase Wickham on 500px.com

The Mount would have been the ‘all seeing eye’ at Kensington Gardens and it certainly must have gave others the idea they were being watched. On that bais the notion of an inverse panopticon system in Kensington Gardens is easy deduction. The Mount’s location is the giveaway. As I have shown, it was the only means of scrutinising the whole Kensington Gardens boundary because it was in exactly the right place for this.

The alcove:

IMG 7284 1 - The 'Inverse Panopticon' at Kensington Gardens

The shelter at the top of The Mount is remarkably like Queen Anne’s Alcove at the north end of the Gardens. The alcove originally stood on the south side of the Gardens near the Palace Gates – evidently that on The Mount was a copy of sorts, nevertheless it was very unique.

As historic sources tell us, it was more of a temple or a ‘chair’ rather than an alcove, and now we get more confirmation that this was an all-seeing eye keeping a watch over the kingdom of Kensington Gardens.

topmount - The 'Inverse Panopticon' at Kensington Gardens

According to contemporary reports it turned about its axis and was enabled as such to “turn at pleasure, to afford shelter from the wind.” What an excellent convienence, able to rotate, turn, and focus exactly upon whichever direction it was thought expident to do so. Of course it wasnt just about the weather!

The idea meets its end:

During the 1820s the present Serpentine bridge and the north-south carriage road were built by John Rennie, whilst the substantial perimter brick walls that ran all the way round the park were replaced with railings to Decimus Burton’s design.

The public were being made more welcome than ever before at both Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Nevertheless this increased public presence also doubled as a self-imposed form of security. Coupled with London’s new Metropolitan police, these all seeing eyes were now everywhere.

The 1820s Serpentine bridge designed by John Rennie
The 1820s Serpentine bridge designed by John Rennie

In this increased period of openess, neither The Mount nor the ha-ha had any further purpose. Clearly the panopticion had met its end. Its a surprise The Mount was neither retained nor the ha-ha kept.

In the light of these changes the fact an inverse panopticon had existed in Kensington Gardens – and whether it had influenced Jeremy Bentham – shall at best remain an entertainable thought.

(Updated 14th March 2016)

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