“It is a shame that Sir Roy Strong is subjected to the now-obligatory drivel about his being a ‘national treasure’, because this unthinking cliché diminishes his contribution, over more than 50 years, to our cultural life, whether as a curator or, in later times, as a gardener.” Simon Heffer in The Spectator 6th August 2011
Or: “As Prince de Ligne said of Neuilly, it would be ‘very beautiful if there were less of it, and if it were actually a garden.’” Sarah Salway
Recently I took a party of keen gardeners and garden professionals to see the Laskett for £10 a head. This garden has been widely praised and generally talked up, (see above) which may have contributed to the reaction of disappointment throughout the party.
Anne Wareham, editor
This week I had a last minute invitation to visit to Sir Roy Strong’s garden, The Laskett, in Herefordshire with some fellow gardeners. I did not have many expectations of the garden as it had not troubled my attention before but I imagined it to be fairly ornate, Italianate and to have one or two urns and statues and twiddly bits.
I could not have possibly imagined quite how many as it turns out.
The garden, which is set over four acres was designed, built and planted by Sir Roy and his late wife Julia Trevelyan Oman over the course of nearly forty years. However, since Julia’s death in 2003, the gardens have been apparently pruned and thinned out and some larger trees removed.
Excitement was mounting amongst my companions as we started our exploration with the garden at the front of the house, where I was alarmed to discover a mish-mash of a layout complete with bear statues, a raised metal viewing area, water features, hedges, standard topiaried trees, more hedges, chequered paving, urns on plinths and plenty more.
Some pink marguerites planted in pots jarred against the relative greenness of the Yew Garden, the pink fighting with the elements of yellow present. This garden needs editing. To my eye it was too much of everything. The structure and the layout of this garden are good and pleasing to the eye, but it needs the hand of restraint and adding the marguerites was the tipping point for me. The use of Stachys Byzantium and Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ were confusing as their glaucous colour were lost in the strong dark greens of the clipped yew hedges and buxus.
This theme continued throughout the garden. I realise that this is a very personal garden, planted by two people over the course of a lifetime and incorporating many objects with personal value. Two very artistic people have conceived this garden, but I couldn’t help feeling that sometimes it is not enough sometimes to create a garden without a real understanding of garden design and planting and how they fit together. I find that often interior designers or similar will take on garden design but as a designer I would not ever consider myself qualified to design a house, a stage-set or a pair of curtains.
There were many interesting elements
and many good details but the overall effect was of being overcrowded and somehow packed full to bursting. The garden takes the concept of garden rooms and turns it into something that has become cramped and claustrophobic. Tight paths and high hedges drive you to seek out open spaces,
of which there are very few. Alarming plant combinations sit aside a few interesting ideas, the orchard which we passed through as if driven down a alleyway was airless, small and felt overgrown and all along the way a relentless array of boy statues, more urns, finials and bits and bobs. It rather reminded me of Highgrove where various garden objects are all parked around like unwanted wedding presents.
I understand that the garden was also originally built on a budget and this shows in the cheap landscaping materials which abound, except in the areas where Victorian tiles have been reused. Otherwise I noticed cheap concrete finials, faded painted timber trellis and arches as well as very budget concrete paving around the house area. I realise I am particularly fussy on the subject of hard landscaping as it is an element of design which consumes my day. However, I felt that it really let the garden down. I would rather see simple hoggin laid in larger areas than a lot of concrete slabs.
The planting was inconsistent. Small snapshots of good planting showed a mix of stately Echinops partnered with acid yellow Ligularia but looking slightly ahead of this arrangement was a group of pink hardy geraniums that ruined the effect and clashed terribly. It was as if once the planting had been carefully considered and planned and subsequently other hands had added in, without much thought, a jumble of whatever planting was available.
A garden of this kind, particularly one modelled on Italian ideas and principles, needs to be a journey and to have a flow. I found that I struggled to work out where I was going without referring to the guide and that there was not enough flow. Rarely did I feel like sitting down to take in the atmosphere or ponder on an aspect of the garden.
I was not particularly expecting a weed-free garden. Having run an NGS garden myself, I know how amazing pernickety the garden-visting fraternity can be, but there were slightly more areas left to get on with it than I would have liked for somewhere open to the public. Behind many hedges and in many areas there were parts of the garden simply left scrubby and unloved.
I realise that although I may have not particularly felt comfortable in or enthralled by these gardens, garden style is a subjective thing and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, there are also some basic rules in gardening and design. There were many details which showed a lack of experience or knowledge on behalf of whoever gardens there, including frequent bare patches of soil, random planting schemes and small landscaping details such as strange raised beds under trees planted with dying hellebores, and of course the aforementioned weed issue.
I have to critique gardens for a living and visit at least three to four a week for private clients and I’m well used to finding fault. When I visit public gardens, which I do frequently, I tend not to have my critical head on: I do it because it energises me and inspires me for my own work as a designer. But I came away from The Laskett with too many lessons on how not to design a garden. There were many beautiful and interesting elements in this garden, but for me, it was a case of less would definitely have been more.
Comment from Chris Young:
I very much enjoyed Emma’s review of The Laskett, as well as Alison and Tim’s blog. They raise some really good points – the route around the garden, some of the planting being jumbled, some views not being defined/sharp enough – and as a great fan of The Laskett, I am sad that their expectations weren’t met. I have known this garden for many years, and like some of the writers, have always appreciated the story and history behind the garden. As with its creators, it is a garden that divides opinion, and I am pleased that it still has the lure to demand discussion.
The garden you see in these pictures is a very different one from three years ago, and more so again from six years ago. As with all good gardens, The Laskett continually evolves – and that means some places are spot on, others are scraggy or rough round the edges. Sir Roy has always made it totally clear that this is a domestic garden, made for the pleasure of he and his late wife. Now that it is open to the public on certain days, it should still be viewed as a domestic (albeit large scale) space where some bits ‘work’ and others don’t. Who doesn’t have tatty areas behind a hedge? Who doesn’t have some bits of paving that may look out of date or need replacing?
My one comment on this review is the photographic selection. I take no issue with what Emma is saying, as the whole point of this website is to promote discussion and differing views. But I feel that the selection of images focuses more on the bad than the good. Emma says “there were many interesting elements” yet the pictorial summary doesn’t indicate that. Maybe these were the key visual ‘take home’ memories that she has of The Laskett, and if so, then (sadly) fair enough.
But my memory of the place (and I was there in April) is not one of this. It is of a place with history, design ideas, some quirky elements (that do or don’t work, that I like and dislike), and of a domestic garden – with all the challenges that such a large space demands. But my over-riding thought of The Laskett is of a place undergoing huge changes, and with an owner only too willing to embrace new ideas and try different techniques.
Maybe a revisit in a few years will see whether Sir Roy’s (and the gardener’s, Shaun and Philip) enthusiasm for change makes for a more defined and wholesome visitor experience for Emma and the other garden visitors.
Chris Young, editor of The Garden
Response by Anne Wareham, editor,
With regard to the photographic representation: I do think it was a fair reflection of both Emma’s comments and of the general consensus about the garden.
I note this comment from Alison Levey on her blog :
I realised when I was looking at my photos I had made a basic error; I had largely photographed what I liked and not what I did not because I generally photograph to remind me of ideas.
That is an ordinary bias, which newspapers and magazines are full of and which would not attract your criticism. On the basis of fairness and honesty, it ought to.
A majority of the gardens open to the public are ‘domestic’ and ‘personal’. when they open for money this should not cause us to lower our expectations. A private visit to a friend’s garden is, of course, different.
Anne Wareham, editor
Comment by Charles Hawes,
I visited at the same time as Emma and I agree with her observations and assessment of the garden. Unlike her, I did have high expectations of the garden. These had been built up over time – partly by the glowing write up from Chris Young in an article he wrote for The Garden, and partly through a book having been published about the garden (The Laskett: the story of the garden).
As a photographer of gardens I should have been prepared for things not looking as good as the photographs I had seen. My own photographs of gardens are always intended to flatter a garden- that’s what editors want. Sadly, “honest” garden photography has no place in our press. (see article ‘Are Garden Photographs Art?’)
I was able to take a lot of photographs that might be publishable. But I achieved that by putting considerable attention into editing out aspects which were not looking good and by not photographing many of the parts which Chris describes as “scraggy”.
The Laskett is a very large garden with many small areas or “rooms”- far too many in my view and way over-decorated with sculptures, urns etc. I agree that 9 photographs are not adequate to try and give a sense of the place. Neither would twice as many. But of the selection offered here, 4 or 5 are perfectly ordinary snaps ( a little dull, perhaps but it was a dull day). The others show clearly aspects of the garden that were poor. As such the selection has balance. We would all be better served if garden magazine editors were willing to offer us such a balance in their magazines.
Charles Hawes garden photographer
Comment by Elizabeth Buckley:
When someone knows a garden, its history and its owner well, has seen that garden change and evolve over time and is very engaged with it then I can understand why they might focus on the positive. I can even understand that this love for a garden may bestow the viewer with rose-tinted, or possibly ‘green-tinted’ glasses. Therefore, maybe they are not the best person to write a review of that garden as this bias does not help readers of garden reviews and potential visitors to gain an accurate picture of what to expect.
When this is compounded by publishing only pictures of ‘the good bits’, visitors expectations are raised even higher. It’s rather like movie trailers. The promoters choose twenty seconds’ worth of the most exciting parts of the film edited together to tempt us to go and see it but we all know how misleading movie trailers can be! Thankfully these days, unbiased garden reviews by people who have parted with their money to see them are becoming more and more accessible in blogs and on sites like this, although sadly not in the established garden media.
Like most people I do not visit a garden actively wanting to find fault with it nor do I expect it to be to my taste. I understand entirely that ‘The Laskett’ is a ‘private’ and personal garden that was designed and made by two people over time and that changes have been and are still being made. As such, the garden was not designed to be shared with the public. However it is now open to pre-booked parties (which of course in itself takes organisation and planning) who are charged £10 per person.
As a co-visitor on the same day as Emma Bond and others, I can say that I had absolutely no preconceived ideas of ‘The Laskett’ and visited with a totally open mind. For the sake of brevity, I won’t add my own review here but would say that Emma, Alison and Tim’s reviews are totally fair.
Had I had the extremely high expectations that some in our party held I would have been even more disappointed than I was. With regard to Chris Young’s view that the photographs here only focus on the bad rather than the good, I have to disagree. Yes there were other very good parts of the garden that may not be shown above but this applies in equal measure to the poor parts.
What I am trying to say is not about ‘The Laskett’ per se, it is about the way that gardens that one has to pay to see are reviewed and presented in the garden media. I cannot get away from the feeling that there is an unwritten rule somewhere that says, “Only visit if you promise to like it and say only nice things about it.” This perceived constraint does not apply to anything else in life that I have to pay to see, yet with gardens it always feels ‘ungracious’ and somehow ‘simply not cricket’ to offer any kind of intelligent or constructive criticism.
Elizabeth Buckley garden designer
Comment by Alison Levey
I was not going to add further comment to this debate as my blog has been linked already and Anne has also quoted one of my further comments. I am not however known for keeping quiet.
I did want to address the question though of the choice of photographs used in Emma’s review. One of the most interesting things for me since we went on this garden visit is to see the similarity of photographs used. I have now seen the same subject in three separate photographs (the pot with mosaic floor) and all three are from a slightly different perspective.
What might need to be made clear is that whilst we were all on the same visit, we all made our own independent journeys around it. We might have bumped in to each other at stages around the garden but certainly for me it was an individual journey and it was only when meeting up to go on to the Veddw was there a conversation about what we had thought about the garden.
Unlike Elizabeth I did go to the Laskett with pre-conceived ideas. I had gone there to love it and be inspired by it. At times I found areas I did really like, but there were bits I did not. Some of the bits I liked others did not (I rather liked the dancing bears), which shows how opinions on gardens are very individual. However as Anne has said several times there was a general consensus about the garden and that was rather sadly agreed by me.
I have been to other high profile gardens and sometimes come away similarly disappointed. Sometimes they just cannot stand up to the hype that surrounds them. No one is going to visit a garden that is advertised as ‘good in parts’ or ‘well its ok, but not very exciting you will have seen this time and time again’ and yet that is often how I feel when I journey home. I fully appreciate that these garden owners have their living to make and need to promote their gardens as highly as possible. I do not think that people need to be rude about gardens they visit and as gardeners we all know that gardens can vary from time to time. The sad truth is (and I know I keep saying it is sad, but I actually felt this) that I was disappointed by the Laskett and possibly even more disappointed that just because a few of us said this we are potentially being seen as distorting a view of the garden.
The big question that no one has asked is whether any of us would go again to the Laskett. I certainly would not go again for a while, but maybe in about five years I might give it another go; probably after reading a glowing report of it in a gardening magazine as I am curious now as to how the garden will develop. Gardens change and develop, that is their attraction.
Alison Levey (blog)
Comment by Sacha Hubbard
I can only write for myself and of you all, I was the lowest amateur. I liked the Elizabeth Tudor walk. It was, for me, the only peaceful and uncomplicated, allowed-to-speak-for-itself, bit of the garden. I can certainly agree that all gardens have tatty areas and in fact, I thoroughly dislike over-manicured gardens but the entrance fee of £10 does not justify peeling paint, haphazard planting, too many weeds and entirely bare areas. This may sound grudging but The Laskett isn’t an easy garden to access for most of us and for many, it will involve a drive of many miles and (as it did for us) an overnight stay, with all those attendant costs.
The Abbey garden on Tresco is about 17 acres and whether the style is to one’s taste or not, the wealth of plants and the glorious setting are a very good tenner’s worth. Of course, they have a large staff while the gardeners at The Laskett must struggle ferociously to cope with all that topiary, as well as weed, propagate, plant and tidy everything else. I take my hat off to them!
My reaction to the garden was one of melancholy. I think we all know that Lady Strong died not very long ago and what a blow that was to her husband. Perhaps this is why the garden seemed to me to be in a sort of limbo. It felt like a rejected pet, wanting to offer solace but being ignored.
My chief impression was one of restlessness, of trying to do too much in a way that meant the ideas had outgrown the available space. The eye is bombarded by statuary at every turn and while I well understand that much of it is personal to the owner of the garden, it confuses the eye and distracts it from the garden itself. I think it says everything that I came away with the overwhelming memory of lots of bits of stone things and not of the garden and its plants.
Indeed, we were told that it is undergoing something of a renovation. If that is the case, my own view would be that it might be better not to open the garden just at present because surely it would be better for visitors to see it at its best and come away with a good impression? Would I go again? Yes, but I’d wait three years.
Just as a PS to Emma’s comment on the ‘things’ in Highgrove garden – when we went round we were told that “the trouble is people will keep on giving him things”! And of course, diplomacy requires he displays them…so perhaps she’s on the button with her remark!
Sacha Hubbard Hill House Nursery
Comment by Tim Matcham:
Interesting to read Chris’ comments on Emma’s blog.
The first couple of paragraphs make a valid introduction – of course the gardens are changing. Shaun alluded to that in his introduction. Clearly everyone understands that it is a private space – and whose garden isn’t?
The key issues for me are that for a garden that is open to the public it doesn’t really measure up. It’s not that some materials are out of date or shoddy or poor quality, it’s that most of it falls to this. I would love to be able to send you the usual deluge of digital photographs showing some good bits – I have trawled through the ones that I took several times now and aside from a few attempts at some arty type pictures have failed to come up with anything significantly different from those accompanying Emma’s piece – this concurs with several of the other visitors that day who noted that finding any more than one position from which to take a photo of a particular aspect of the garden was nigh on impossible.
Now I’m not a garden photographer particularly but there were people on the trip who were.
Whether or not the photos do justice to the garden isn’t really a substitute for visiting. But a picture paints a thousand words.
If Sir Roy is keen to develop the gardens and I have no doubt that he is, I would urge him to focus on a few areas, maybe even one at a time and really make it sing. The garden has an underlying latent potential – let’s see it!
Tim Matcham Blog
Comment by Roy Pittman
Having been fortunate enough to spend almost a week at The Laskett I must admit I was surprised to read the plethora of negative comments published in this Blog. I found it [The Laskett Garden] to be an amazing piece of work; it was clear that it had drawn inspiration from many schools which were combined in a manner that could appear busy and without a recognisable ‘route’ but I think that was the whole point. How many of us have an approved logical and atheistically balanced route through our gardens?
On the comments about the planting and weed control, we should be more honest, unless we are obsessive professional Gardeners we will have areas of our own gardens that are in need of re-design and a bit of TLC, but I found that with ‘The Laskett’ the evidence of ‘decay’ or ‘clashing planting’ added rather than detracted, I would call it ‘weathered’ and ‘contrasting’ anyway 🙂
I have no formal garden training and I suppose my comments will be dismissed by those ‘who are expert’ but it [The Laskett] is what it is, we should be grateful for the opportunity to view it rather than fault finding and criticising.
As an aside maybe we should think (as a comparator) about the numerous RHS Chelsea Show gardens that contain piles of drift wood; stainless steel balloons and concrete troughs, each of which has received some sort of award…
(Man who plants or prunes stuff and waits to see what happens…)
Comment by Anne Wareham
I am struck though by how you appear to be applying the standards you’d expect of a private garden to one with two professional gardeners and a so say ‘national reputation’ (see Simon Heffer’s comment at the top) and which opens to the public for £10 a head.
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