Although once a farm house, Denbies became the symbol of the success of one Jonathan Tyers, owner of the famous Vauxhall Gardens in London. The pleasure gardens, originally called New Spring Gardens, opened in 1661 but had subsequently declined until Tyers took on the tenancy of the Gardens in 1728 and, with William Hogarth (the painter), revived their fortunes after a grand re-opening in 1732. The gardens attracted royal patronage, and with the music, illuminations, walks, pavilions and much-admired plantings, were immediately successful. They provided sufficient wealth that in 1754 Tyers bought a farm house in Surrey and rebuilt it as a gentleman's residence.
Denbies was a modest, two-storey Georgian house sited at the top of a small ridge, looking out over the South Downs. However, the house was regarded as too small - G.F. Prosser, writing in the 1820s, described how 'the apartments, though not spacious, are convenient'*.
Despite the house being nothing out of the ordinary, the same could not be said of the gardens. To the surprise of those who toured them, rather than the delights of Vauxhall, Tyers took a darker, more macabre, inspiration when it came to his own gardens. He decorated them with momento mori (or 'reminders of death') such as statues of the Christian and the Unbeliever in the last moments of their lives, a small temple decorated with 'many inscriptions of a serious character' (Prosser) which also contained a book with verses about death, and even two human skulls, male and female, gazing down from pedestals at the end of one of the walks. Another statue represented Truth trampling the mask of illusion underfoot - perhaps a comment on the frivolity of his London enterprise.
Tyers enjoyed his eccentric surroundings for another 13 years before he died in 1767. The house was then sold to a succession of owners before it was bought by a Joseph Denison whose son eventually sold the house and estate to Thomas Cubitt in 1850. Cubitt built a new house on the same site - also called Denbies - and then demolished the first house soon after he moved into the new house in 1854.
* - 'Select Illustrations of the County of Surrey' G.F. Prosser (1828) - quoted in 'Lost Houses of Britain' Anna Sproule (1982)
Further information about the history of the Denbies estate