In August 2002 “The Garden” published a “Viewpoint” piece by me suggesting that we need serious garden criticism of the kind that applies to books, pictures and the theatre. I invited the garden press to respond, – and the RHS journal, “The Garden” responded by offering space for such a review, written by myself and the well known author and critic, Sara Maitland, in dialogue with each other. This is the original version, as it was before editing by “The Garden”. (The exercise was sadly never repeated.)
Anne Wareham, editor
Sara and Anne:
We both believe that gardening is a serious art form. However the gardening community has exempted itself from the disciplines of the other arts – including a lack of forward-moving critical commentary. This is not healthy for any art form.
We are very grateful to Graham Robson and Alan Gray, who have let us use the East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden in Norfolk.
East Rushton Old Vicarage, Norfolk
East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden surrounds an Arts and Crafts house built in 1913 and is situated close to the north east coast of Norfolk. It is owned by Alan Gray and Graham Robson, who also designed it, and the garden was sixteen years old at the time of the review.
AW: At East Ruston there are twenty or more gardens or gardened areas in twenty acres – and more being developed. I found this too much. This seems a very odd idea: how can you have too much of a good thing? Yet there are too many good – and less good – things at East Ruston. A garden doesn’t have to be to a human scale – I just imagined, for example, a Brobdingnag garden, where everything was enormously too big. It could be great fun to suddenly feel dwarfed. But this is not as exciting as that, it’s just rather exhausting. I think a garden should be a bit like a film or a concert – something you take in at one time over two or at most three hours. If longer is needed, as with the ‘Lord of the Rings’ it gets divided up into digestible portions. But even if you were to give three days to East Ruston, you would still start at the entrance and so you would for at least some of the time retrace your steps. Having tried that, I discovered that my attention was still avid for the gardens nearer the entrance, fading out as I tired and before I was exploring new territory.
SM: I think you’re talking here about scale. Like you, I felt it was “too big”. Or at least too big to be gardened like this. It was exhausting. But can a garden be too big? What is the maximum size? There are bigger gardens that don’t give me this exhausted feeling. (For example Inverewe, Stourhead, and Versailles) This is what I mean by scale: the individual “rooms” are too small for the whole. This was underlined for me by the fact that the site is so flat. There is no point at which you can be monarch of all you survey; the garden cannot be experienced as a whole. At times this felt quite claustrophobic to me. I longed for a mound, or tower, or something – so that one could both see the structure of the garden and see out to the countryside. I wish they had made the pond in the S.E. corner much bigger – a lake even. Their approach worked wonderfully for the areas around the house, but I don’t think it was just your attention span that made the garden beyond that difficult.
AW: There are a lot of quiet, still places, providing the essential contrast to the heavily planted, full spaces: but there are far too many of them, so that they actually cease to be peaceful and become instead part of the overall relentlessness. I found the garden as a whole overwhelming and unnurturing as a result; a massive collection of things which lacked integrity.
SM: Integrity of intention perhaps. Thinking of large modern gardens I sense some are “intended” as public space (Alnwick is a blatant example) and some as a deeply personal expression of their creators’ individualities (Charles Jenck’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation leaps to mind.) I was left really uncertain and therefore uneasy about which sort of garden this one wants to be. Peaceful, private rooms with enormous benches in them! I’m with Francis Bacon here. : I want a “private” garden to tell me something about its makers, beyond their horticultural abilities. Who are they? What interests or amuses them? (just as I do with any other artist.) From a “public” garden I want a sense of community, expansiveness and variety.
AW: But, for all these difficulties, there are some real treats here. I liked the “enormous benches”,- solid and sculptural, and I loved the Holm Oak Walk with the amusing sculpture of ‘the Paper Lady’, which is a focal point to the Walk, but also a wonderful surprise as you emerge from the Acacia Avenue. The little triangle with a discrete but stylish steel cable fence, filled with Pyrus ‘Chanticleer’ with an underplanting of ivy is good, and so is the small rectangular space with the tree ferns and box of hellebores. All these are simple, understated and very pleasing. Places which I lingered in, enjoying the shapes and patterns.
SM: Yes. And the series of small walled-and-topiary gardens nearest to the house. I thought there were some nice planting ideas here – the small bed with big-leaved glaucous hostas now, but clearly crown fritillaries before, because their fat seed heads rose above the hostas – clever; some humorous palms appearing over the well kept yew hedges (lovely topiary all over the place) and a sense of enjoyment and enthusiasm. Plus the apple walk – good scale, beautifully planned and presented – the cordoned apples were a nice touch.
SM: Me too. I thought it was bold, unexpected, the right scale and interesting.
AW: Though sadly the shine was taken off my first encounter with this mass of Californian sunshine by the pinkish/magenta rugosa rose which edged its way into the picture at the garden’s entrance. It was too incidental both in position and proportion to set up an exciting argument with the orange – one small bush against a whole garden, and set right at the outside. In fact, I found the handling of colour in plant associations very unsatisfying generally.
There is a ‘rondel’, for example, with a Graham Stuart Thomas rose (rich buttery yellow) above what I believe was ammi majus, a bitty, white flowering annual rather like cow parsley. Together with this there were pink oriental poppies, which didn’t look awful with the rose, but didn’t enrich it either, and at the bottom Alchemilla mollis. The bitty white of the ammi majus, and the lime green of the alchemilla looked very anemic with the rich yellow of the rose (I have looked at a similar combination in my own garden for far too long – this rose really should be kept away form all other yellows, I suspect). The forms and types of plants put together like this didn’t work for me either – the fat, domesticated rose sitting over a refined hedgerow plant, with the really telling leaves of the alchemilla and the poppy, which might have made a satisfying setting for the rose flowers, way below and so a bit lost.
The Mediterranean Garden unfortunately combined some purply pinks with some orange kniphofias. This could, I suppose, have made a Christopher Lloyd eye smacking cacophony, but it was too half hearted for that – the kniphophias were only on the left of the garden and the planting was generally thin. Instead of offering a celebration of colour – an effect so stunningly achieved overall in the ‘Desert Wash.’ The structure of this garden though, with its committed layers and symmetry was a treat.
In fact I think the major strength and pleasure in the garden as a whole is in the use of symmetry and the glorious vistas. Over and over I encountered satisfying views and glimpses: for example, an entrance to the Walled Garden, where a large pot containing a standard plant was precisely framed by the brick doorway, or where a glance through a yew arch revealed topiary pyramids framed by the arch.
SM: Within the garden I agree with you, but I felt hemmed in. There’s a problem here, because obviously the wind dictates the need for a solid wind break, but I want a dialogue between a garden and its situation. This one is interesting because of the brilliantly designed vistas offering precise views of objects like a church spire or lighthouse. But in every case these “windows on the world” are so tightly framed – the minimum size possible – that they add to the sense of the countryside being hidden rather than related to.
AW: They have specifically rejected their site – the introduction to their guide complains about the landscape having become a “prairie”.
SM: I feel that as a limitation. I think a good garden is a meditation on the relationship between “nature and culture” and for that to happen you have to see at least something of the larger landscape. For example their flowering corn-field, which I love, would have been even better if you could have seen the over-cultivated, flower-free cornfields of the “prairie” outside. It could have been a flamboyant critical comment. This is about scale again: a hortus conclusus, a little private space, is one thing; twenty acres of enclosures within enclosure is another.
AW: Within the garden, I enjoyed the views both ways from the massive timber structure in the New Exotic Garden. The overview from there of the Sunken Garden was delightful – a great view of the turquoise and metal sculpture, and in the other direction the fountain of the New Exotic Garden looked good and dramatic. If the palms on either side had been flourishing they would have offered another pleasing framing. But their foliage was dead.
SM: I personally didn’t like those wooden structures – neither here nor at the top of the terraces. I thought they looked like upmarket climbing frames. However they may just need a little more time: from earlier pictures I had seen I thought I would loathe the brickwork – all garish and orange, but I thought a lot of it was wonderfully crafted and will certainly go on getting better.
AW: This is a strange garden, it isn’t clear what era it belongs to, with its references to Hidcote, in the formal gardens near the house and the Garden Pavilion, but late 20th century touches in the sculptures and Cornfield and Desert Wash.
SM: I thought it was a curiously old-fashioned garden: I have the Hidcote guide here and you could swap some of the pictures over without anyone noticing. This seems to me a central problem with many contemporary gardens: they are “nostalgic” and sentimental. In any other field of art a major new work would be appraised, to some extent at least, on grounds of originality and development, not just on technique and execution: no one would be applauded for reproducing – however well – a George Eliot novel. I know there is modern statuary, planting etc. but not on the whole being used in a very modern way. This seems a pity.
AW: Yes, and a great garden is more than a collection of bits, however delightful those bits might be; it has to work as a whole, leaving the visitor with a clear sense of what it is about.
SM: More than that. It needs swagger. This has nothing to do with size: Leonardo da Vinci and Jane Austen both have swagger. It is about saying, “This is mine. Only I could make it. You are lucky to see it.” I thought this garden was intriguing to write about because it raised all the right questions, but it did not seem to offer any real swagger in the sense of new answers, or a strong personal vision. Samuel Johnson once reviewed a book: “This work is both good and original; but the parts that are good are not original and the parts that are original are not good.” I think that is what I feel, though probably should not say.
Sara Maitland’s website
Veddw House Garden website