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John Fairnington, Cement Menagerie

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Visiting Information

The garden is open to the public during the summer tourist season and otherwise by appointment.

About the Artist/Site

John Fairnington had a joinery workshop in the small village of Branxton in the north of England, not far from the border with Scotland. He married at the late age of 50 and some three years later, in 1936, the couple’s son, Edwin, was born. Although the child suffered from cerebral palsy, his parents cared for him themselves instead of admitting him to an institution; he reportedly had a happy life in the village, enjoying cycling around and delighting in the friendliness of the villagers.

Soon after Fairnington retired in 1961 he began making sculptures to be displayed in the garden at the rear of the family home. He was almost 80 years old, and since nothing in his earlier life had pointed to an interest in any creative activity, some researchers postulated that he did this to amuse his son Edwin, who at that time was in his late twenties. But a text found on one of the garden paths reads: This garden is to the memory of Mary which she loved for 28 years to 18 September 1963.

The desire to amuse his son, later complemented and enhanced with the idea of creating a memorial for his suddenly deceased wife, may have motivated Fairnington to create such an extensive art environment beginning at such an advanced age. He worked on the garden until 1971, the year Edwin died. When he stopped at age 88, he had completed some 300 sculptures for the garden, created in only around 9 years. A memory corner dedicated to his son was Fairnington’s final creation.

Initially assisted by fellow villager, William Collins, who after some time moved away, and then by James Beveridge,a colleague from the joinery workshop, Fairington primarily concentrated on the design and creation of animals. He apparently drew full-size sketches, and then formed chicken wire around stuffed paper supports, finally covering the whole with layers of cement and then painting them in appropriate colors. The smaller animals and figures were constructed in a workshop, but the larger ones were constructed on-site in the garden.

The garden includes domestic animals like horses, sheep, and cattle, but also more exotic creatures such as a zebra, crocodile, ostrich, rhinoceros, and more, all generally in correct proportion. Randomly scattered around the grounds, all have their eyes fixed on Fairnington’s house. His use of cement gave rise to the name Cement Menagery.

To a much lesser extent the garden also displays figural sculptures, including those of local people but also more illustrious and well-known public figures, including Winston Churchill, an ensemble depicting  T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) riding a camel, and the Scottish poet Robert Burns.

Surrounding the whole, as befits a proper English garden, are exuberant plantings of flowers and shrubs, and some of the flowerbeds are demarcated by inverted botlles inserted into the ground.There is also a large collection of garden gnomes.

The garden has various text panels, instructing and enhancing visitors’ appreciation and understanding of the site. For example, one near the entrance reads: “Now welcome to view the entire stone jungle, very expensive to make and maintain. Please help us by silver collection. Many thanks.”

John Fairnington died in 1981 at age 98. He had remarried but his second wife died in 1979 and, without offspring of his own, he had bequeathed the property to a number of charities. Eventually the site was bought back by a nephew, John Fairnington Jr. (1922-1990), who, with his wife, was fond of the site and was prepared to make efforts to preserve it. Currently the site is being cared for by the couple’s daughter, Muriel Fairnington.

Time gradually takes its toll, and although most sculptures still appear in generally satisfactory condition, the garden shows signs of some decay, including fading of the panel texts. However, visiting the garden remains a unique experience. It may be the only one of its kind still extant in England

The garden is open to the public during the summer tourist season and otherwise by appointment.

~Henk van Es



Map and site information

Not Exact Address
Branxton, England, United Kingdom
Latitude/Longitude: 55.629143 / -2.1706

Visiting Information

The garden is open to the public during the summer tourist season and otherwise by appointment.

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