Boughton House – Kim Wilkie’s Orpheus reviewed by James Alexander-Sinclair

February 28, 2011

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

A while ago garden writers were invited to the launch of the Orpheus at Boughton House, and subsequently they all, as far as I can tell, wrote it up in tones of awe and amazement. We experienced our familiar mixed feelings when we visited soon after. Here James Alexander-Sinclair plays the small boy in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and tells you why we felt like that.. (sadly, the flower gardens near the house were dire too, when we visited in summer) See also Nigel Colburn’s tweet review.

Anne Wareham, editor.


Boughton House Orpheus design Kim Wilkie © Charles Hawes

I did some light garden visiting this week so I do not have to invent something dubious about which to write. I was invited by the garden world’s equivalent of  teen sensation Olly Murs: Mr Christopher Young, the ed of  The Garden, to accompany him on a visit to Boughton House which, conveniently, lies equidistant between our houses. For those who do not know, it is a whopping great pile owned by the Dukes of Buccleuch since the sixteenth century (although, of course, they were not Dukes at that stage of proceedings: those of you who wish to research their genealogy may peel off at this stage and go here. The rest of you, follow me…)

The landscape at Boughton is all about trees and views and water: originally there were lots of parterres and paths and formal ponds but over the years they have vanished. There are long rides that disappear off towards distant churches and a remarkable system of canals. These are a series of perfect rectangular waterways dug in the Eighteenth Century in order to divert the river into something rectilinear and formal. They had become a bit choked over the years so in 2006 a programme of restoration was begun: silt was removed, weirs and sluices repaired and the banks lined with oak. They are extraordinarily lovely and slice through the landscape with the litheness and elegance of a bonefish (except,obviously, a bit slower).

Boughton House canal  © Charles HawesAt the same time the Mount was cleared of trees (except a fabulous Cedar that is where the herons nest) and resculpted. Many of you will be aware that the very clever Kim Wilkiehas been doing stuff at Boughton, in particular an enormous hole called Orpheus. This is a peculiarly lovely piece of work  that in size and shape perfectly matches the mount: in negative. Orpheus descends, the mount rises.Badda-bing,Badda-boom.

Boughton House, Mound and Orpheus © Charles Hawes

Perfect, Impressive, Majestic and Splendid. It is the sort of thing that makes one sigh from the pleasure of it all. And I did..


As well as this arpeggio of austerity there is a further construction: just beside Orpheus is a stainless steel cubic framework and an illustration in stone and water of the Golden Section. The idea is to show the science of proportion and all that jazz. I think it is an unnecessary conceit that ruins the clarity of the earth works. It is like a magician who, after  performing a perfect illusion then proceeds to whip out a whiteboard and explain how very clever it all is. It removes the mystery of the landscape and should not be there. By all means show your workings, if you must, draw a map if you have to but do it somewhere else, not in the middle of one of the finest vistas in the country.


Boughton House, Orpheus designed by Kim Wilkie © Charles HawesApparently it is there in order to stimulate debate, if that is the case it has served its purpose. I contend that it should be elsewhere: that is my contribution to the debate. Go and see it to decide for yourselves, you will not be disappointed.

James Alexander-Sinclair

This piece first appeared on James’ blog and it appears here with James’ kind permission and assistance.


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