A review of Remaking a Garden by Roy Strong.
Sad to say we have another thinkingardens reviewer who is less than enamoured of the Laskett. An interesting and challenging review by Clare Hoffman of ‘Remaking a Garden- The Laskett Transformed’ by Sir Roy Strong and Clive Boursnell.
Anne Wareham, editor
The entrance hall to Sir Roy Strong’s Victorian villa in Herefordshire is decorated with a mural of his garden, in fresh, fresco-light colours. The painting has a dream like quality of suspended time. It shows an event that looks in part like a dedication of the Strongs’ “V&A Temple” to Victoria and Albert who stand there personified. In part it borrows the 15th century iconography of annunciations, with a figure with a well-turned leg, perhaps Sir Roy himself, holding a feather quill aloft as if it was a single white lily. Sir Roy describes this painting as a ‘capriccio’, a term that was used in the 17th century for fantastical architectural and landscape scenes.
This Laskett capriccio feels like a homage to Veronese’s famous frescos at Villa Barbaro, which also drew on the capriccio tradition. Veronese’s frescos present a series of illusions that play with the boundary between art and nature, ideals and reality:
First, and most obviously there are the tromp d’oeil illusions which ask you to believe that the solid stone walls of Villa Barbaro are actually fragile balustrades framing views to the decorative pleasure gardens beyond. This illusion is literally punctured by real windows set into the same wall, which give a view through to the real but intensively landscaped ground outside. Thus the illusion of nature is set against a view of real nature, where real nature is herself an artifice modified by the gardener’s hand.
Secondly, the character illusions; there stand members of the Barbaro family and their pooch, presented within the same iconographic tradition as the classical muses, flattering the patron by the device of situating real people in a place previously reserved for literary ideals.
Sir Roy would say, and in fact does say, that the Laskett gardens are very much about fantasy and illusion: that the renaissance visual games that toy with the space between the ideal and the real, between illusion and reality are the subject of the Laskett mural and also of the Laskett gardens.
The gardens were conceived and designed jointly with his wife, the theatre designer Julia Trevelyn Oman who worked in the ‘verissimo’ school of highly researched realistic scene setting. They express her theatrical design skills and give rein to Sir Roy’s own thwarted design ambitions. The fabrication of faux renaissance monuments from cheap modern materials, which I would call kitsch, he fondly calls ‘fudging’. The transformation of the ordinary rendered Victorian villa into a Georgian ‘dolls house’ with a fake colonnaded façade is part of this verissimo style of illusion which appears in throughout the garden.
But Illusion depends on the willing suspension of disbelief. At the Laskett my disbelief was vigorously tethered to the jarring planting combinations, the fake monuments and the tacky materials. A walk around the garden feels like walking beyond the proscenium arch and seeing the back-side of the flats.
The garden is billed as “the largest private formal garden to be created in the post-war period” but unlike pre-war formal gardens its owners did not have the wealth to lavish labour on the expensive business of formalizing nature. Sir Roy acknowledges that the garden was built with very limited funds and asks for forbearance for the state of maintenance, the holes in the hedges and the places where formality, the essence of the garden, has disintegrated to informality. The impecunious formal garden becomes one of the narratives of the garden. Gardens within the garden are named after the job of work that generated the fee that paid for it, hand to root.
It turns out that the “largest private formal garden” is about the idea, but not the execution, of a formal garden. The analogy with tromp d’oeil murals is uncomfortably close. The garden functions through its representations much more than through actual experience. There is now a new painting of the garden, this time reflecting the late 17th century topographical style of Johannes Kit or Wenseclaus Hollar, a style that purported to document estates but also flattered the estate of the commissioning land owner.
The garden is also documented by Julia Trevelyn Oman’s ninety volume garden archive, by Sir Roy’s book ‘The Laskett: the Story of a Garden’ (2003) and now by a new book, ‘The Re-making of a Garden’ (2014). That all of this documentation, the art, the books and the archive surrounds a garden that is not open to be viewed, other than by people who can gather themselves into a pre-paid group of 20 or more on a week day, re-inforces the sense that this garden is more subject than object.
There is something pleasingly ironic about a garden that is intended to reflect renaissance ideas about illusion and fantasy being itself an illusion painted by its own publicity. I hoped that I had got the right joke and turned with interest to the new book.
‘The Re-making of a Garden’ is the story of the changes that Sir Roy has made to the garden in the decade since the death of Julia. The book sets out its stall as being a photo-documentary record of change in action. Clive Boursnell’s photographs and Sir Roy’s text are intended to give the reader an insight into the changes that have been made and why.
This could have been a really interesting project, and perhaps a similar project will emerge from the changes afoot at Sissinghurst or Gravetye Manor. I expected to see before and after shots from the same vantage point, perhaps even shot in the same season so that I could see the change and then read the text to understand the thinking behind it. Instead, as the reader, I had to work hard to reconcile the photos and the plans with what the text told me had been done, trying to work out which direction the photo was facing and which photograph showed the changed “thing”. This laborious process in visual and textual reconstruction was made unnecessarily difficult since, surprisingly, very few of the photographs are dated. I often had no idea if I was looking at the “before” or the “after”. There are a lot of pictures of men with wheelbarrows, men with wheelbarrows and turf, men with wheelbarrows, turf and shovels, and so on. The ordinariness of the labour of change is recorded in detail.
In between the wheelbarrows there is another moving story. This other story is the one about his determination not just to continue the garden after bereavement but to make it something new, a new life and new priorities. The pictures of brutally chopped yews reminded me of the habit of an extreme hair cut when unwelcome change makes it essential to be the active agent in some other form of change. This type of change has included the removal of many of the features which were particularly Julia’s and which presumably represented the compromise between a married couple building a garden as a joint venture: 148 varieties of malus have been removed and re-planted at various bus stops and verges in the area. This act of guerilla gardening adds a new dimension to Sir Roy’s persona but it is also an uncomfortable record of the brutality of thought and action required to stop sentimentality holding you in the past. This part of the story is impressive and gives force to the project of recording change.
The book’s failure to do what it said it would do seems to me to be a part of the disappointingly illusory quality of everything about this garden. It didn’t make me want to go back to look at the real garden and it didn’t answer any of my doubts about the attempt to build a three dimensional capriccio on a limited budget. The real subject of the book is a moving account of bereavement where a shared garden holds the imprint of that person. The constant condition of all gardens is change, the gardener contributes to the direction of change as best he can, preserving retained memories or pushing life forward to new experiences.