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The new country garden

In this latest age of austerity, expect a return to the pastoral idyll

25 August 2012

6:00 AM

25 August 2012

6:00 AM

Like Nostradamus, the vision is flickering but I believe I have glimpsed the future — at least, the future look of garden and landscape design. I wonder whether, in these dark times, we are at the threshold of a new enlightened age.

There were two great moments in the history of garden and landscape design: the first was the introduction of naturalistic planting pioneered by William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll towards the end of the 19th century; and second, before that, in the first half of the 18th century, the landscape movement as exemplified by William Kent and Capability Brown.

Both movements — ‘game-changers’ at the time — were preceded by events not dissimilar to those which we have recently experienced: a severe financial crisis and what one might call ‘cultural bloat’.

In 1720 the South Sea Bubble burst, fortunes were lost and the reputations of many people and institutions were ruined. Even the great rationalist Isaac Newton, well aware of the folly of it at the time, speculated and lost heavily. But from the rubble, something new and potent emerged — indeed my own Lutyens ancestors, incoming German economic migrants, did very well.

Around 1700, gardens were formal and labour-intensive — Badminton, Boughton and Hampton Court — with lots of gravelled parterres, clipped lawns, hedges and fantastical topiary. Further out, broad, straight avenues marched to the horizon and beyond. This was ‘power gardening’: a physical expression of the subjection of nature to the will of man, or rather, to the will of a few rich and powerful men. Yet within a few years, much of this had gone, swept aside by a green tide of lawns grazed by sheep and cattle that rolled right up to the windows of the houses themselves. Clumps of trees softened the straight lines which, as Kent said, ‘nature abhors’. Regimentation was out; John Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau were in.


Adjusting to the new economic realities, fashion followed. Whilst a revolution, it was in fact a return to the good life, nature fecund and productive.

The next great leap — Robinson, Jekyll and the arts-and-crafts movement — was prompted by a similar sentiment, though the economic circumstances were very different. It was a reaction to the grandeur and pretension of the High Victorian age, where nature had once again been suppressed, regulated and sterilised. It was an age of excess — everything bigger and better; carpet bedding by the acre; grotesque statuary; bright new plants from the New World; and horticultural ‘improvement’ which often selected for colour, size and curiosity over fragrance and natural vigour. Much of it was the legacy of the Great Exhibition in 1851, where new technologies were celebrated often at the expense of art and taste: ‘Can we do it? Yes, we can’. Robinson et al threw open the greenhouses, rejecting plants that were too tender for the British climate and looked for plants that were better suited. They planted in drifts (like Brown’s clumps but on a smaller scale), achieving a ‘look’ that, while contrived, was both natural and artistic.

Does any of this sound familiar? I think so. There has been a financial crisis, very like that of 1720, which has had a devastating effect on people’s pockets, rocking the foundations of the biggest institutions (commercial and political) and prompting us to question not just our spiritual values but the financial value of almost everything.

Now take a snapshot of some of this year’s cultural offerings: the Shard near Tower Bridge, the tallest building in London; and the ArcelorMittal Orbit at the Olympic site, Britain’s largest sculpture: both defy nature, both celebrate technology. And then there is Damien Hirst — ‘Britain’s most famous artist’ — at the Tate; the Herzog & de Meuron pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery; and the main gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show this year. What marks them all is that they are self-referential, vacuous and very expensive — in short, examples of ‘cultural bloat’.

But rather than being depressed by it, I’m quietly encouraged. If this were a fever, then right now must be its peak — how much more of this can we take? Recovery, albeit slow, cannot be too far off.

Nature will never rest, nor will our need to manage it and surround ourselves with it. I predict that in this climate of austerity our reaction will be to reject clutter, ostentation and needless extravagance — which is bad news for garden centres but good news for those modest garden professionals (gardeners and designers) who provide good, practical advice combining value and delight, and a return to the ‘eternal verities’. The designs will include grass, hedges and trees: grass both long and mown; hedges for division and to frame views; and trees to provide shelter and shade; and for colour, the planting principles of Robinson and Jekyll. The kitchen garden will rejoin the main garden; animal husbandry will experience a renaissance; as will all those rural skills we love but are losing.

And have I actually seen this? Yes, I believe I have. In Wiltshire, the designer Catherine FitzGerald, faced with a large and dilapidated Edwardian garden, divided it in half (thereby halving her commission), built a ha-ha, turned one half over to parkland grazed by red cattle, and filled the other half  with lawn, flowery mead, an orchard, rolling evergreen hedges and broad borders full of bold, hearty plantings; and a rustic bower made from the dead branches of oaks growing nearby. All of it was made by local craftsmen using local materials.  

Almost as bucolic, but in the centre of London, there are the new landscape gardens at Kensington Palace remodelled by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, in which, it is rumoured, sheep will graze. And then there is Fernando Caruncho, whose best work in a vernacular idiom — fields of wheat, olive trees and dark green cypresses — transforms Spanish farmland into rural set-pieces that are both eye-catchingly contemporary and reminiscent of our 18th-century pastoral elysiums. He is, I believe, currently at work in England and it will be interesting to see whether his sensitivity to his own land will translate to our softer, greener countryside. If this is the future, I embrace it.


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