Well loved – or totally forgotten? Russell Page Exhibition reviewed by Francois Gordon

May 14, 2015

in Articles, Garden Reviews, General Interest, Reviews

Russell Page is being honoured at present by the Garden Museum in London. To publicise the exhibition, Christopher Woodward, the director of the Museum, wrote a piece for the Telegraph  headed ‘The most famous garden designer no-one has ever heard of’.’

This struck me as totally untrue, because if you ever mention the book ‘Education of a Gardener’ to gardeners there always seems to be an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from  the book’s keen fans. (This may be amongst the thinkingardens quality of gardeners, I acknowledge).

But for anyone who has missed it, the exhibition may introduce them, and that is a happy outcome. And I am grateful to Francois for this review, which brings the exhibition and Russell Page to us here.

Anne Wareham, editor

Francois Gordon copyright P1020753

Russell Page at the Garden Museum: Good in parts, but far from a complete picture, by Francois Gordon

This isn’t really an exhibition, more a display of items from the newly-acquired Russell Page archive, plus some pictures and photos borrowed from the family and some photos from the Lindley Library.  It isn’t badly done – though it would have been better if they had thought to use double hinges to mount the large blown-up photos hanging on the wall so that they could be folded both ways – but there is virtually no attempt to put Page or his work into any kind of context.

Still, if you are an admirer of Page, there are interesting things on display, including original garden plans for Leeds Castle and for the garden at the Frick Museum in New York. The photographs include some taken by Page himself of his two Italian masterpieces, the Villa Silvio Pellico and the Villa Perosa, both described in some detail in The Education of a Gardener.

Education of a Gardener SAM_9980

I laughed out loud at one photo of a large pile of boulders underneath a cascade at La Perosa: in one of the few flashes of humour he allowed himself in his book, Page describes asking for boulders to be brought to the site, meaning to position them under the several waterfalls on site.  What happened – as recorded in the photo – was that several truckloads were delivered and dumped in a large pile under one waterfall, whence they had to be laboriously extricated before they could be individually placed by Page.

The original layout and planting plan for Villa Silvio Pellico is also on display, but I suspect that few visitors will appreciate that the genius of the design lies in the way that Page handled a steep slope running across the main vista, whilst simultaneously creating a stunning formal garden along a line which effectively incorporate into the garden the superb pastoral views of the Po Valley.  Granted, this isn’t an easy concept to get across, but the excellent (two-dimensional) animated film which which illustrates Chapter 13 of The Education, “My Gardenoffers a good starting-point.

There’s much less on display about La Perosa, where, starting in the early 1950’s,  Page created a large-scale water garden for Mrs and Mrs Agnelli. Page much enjoyed working on this site over many years, although his enthusiasm for change on a heroic scale sometimes exasperated Mrs Agnelli.  For example, he casually records in Education  that “the garden wall … was far too close. A public road just beyond it led to the church so we had to build a new road to reach the church from another side.”  Notwithstanding his personal frugality, you needed both patience and very deep pockets to implement Page’s plans!

Francois P1020754

The plan for Leeds Castle is interesting, not least because of the level of detail stipulated in what it a large-scale drawing, and there is another flash of humour in Page’s description of a small earth-mover as “a calfdozer”.  But visitors who haven’t been to Leeds and don’t know anything about the site or about Lady Baillie’s life there in the 1960’s would get a lot more out of it if there were a “before” plan (a blow-up of the two-and-a-half inch O.S. map, which in all conscience is readily available, would be ideal) and perhaps a short explanation of who the client was and what she wanted.

Ironically, just outside the exhibition – literally within six feet of the door – is one of Repton’s “red books” showing “before and (projected) after” for  Sundridge Park.  Very well worth looking at per se, it also prompts regret at the absence of anything  similar for Leeds Castle, or Villa Silvio Pellico,

The bottom line is that dyed-in-the-wool Page fans will enjoy the opportunity offered by this exhibition to learn a little more about his work and to glean fragments of information about the life of this ferociously private man. And they will enjoy Garden Museum Journal No 31(on sale at the exhibition, £5) which serves as a catalogue as well as containing fresh material and the promise of more to come as the archivists get to grips with what is a large collection of papers.

Francois pic P1020755

On the other hand, visitors who haven’t done their homework beforehand may well leave wondering quite what all the fuss is about. For anyone who wants to find out – and, make no mistake, Page repays study a thousand-fold –  you can go onto the Net and buy an ex-library copy of The Gardens of Russell Page  by Gabrielle van Zuylen and Marina Schinz for less, including postage, than the £7.50 cost of a ticket to this exhibition (there are concessions). It contains around half the material in the exhibition, and a good deal more besides.  Buy it and read it in your own garden.  If it inspires you to buy and read The Education of a Gardener, available even more cheaply, and then to go to the exhibition – which runs until 21 June – so much the better.

If you have access to the Financial Times website you may be interested in this further article by Christopher Woodward and this good news.

Francois Gordon

Francoise Gordon portrait P1010467

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