Extracts from “Gardens of Illusion” by Sara Maitland & Peter Matthews

by AnneWareham on March 10, 2011

Box Ball, front garden, Veddw, copyright Charles Hawes

“Most people consciously and unconsciously respond to the larger topography in the making of their gardens. Often it is to something simple – a slope, a curve, a mature copse, a single tree or (lucky gardeners) standing or moving natural water. If something is there, ready and waiting, and particularly if getting rid of it would be difficult, it influences the picture of the garden that we work through in our heads, as we think about making our landscape.

The garden writer Anne Wareham, whose own garden at Veddw House has been one of the bonuses of the researches for this book, has a particular and informed sensitivity to place; a kind of knowledge that is not only aesthetic; but also historical and topographical. Rather as Thomas Church did in northern Mexico, she has found ways of “pulling the landscape into the garden.” This gives meaning and structure to her design, but also makes one look carefully at the wider frame within which her garden sits.

The whole garden at Veddw is on a fairly steep slope, opening up views of the valley and mixed farm and woodland rising on the opposite side, offering a landscape that is agricultural and mellow but with a fairly near horizon of curved and bumpy hills. The central axis of Anne Wareham’s garden copies, on a smaller scale, the larger scene: a valley runs down the garden, at right angles to the big valley, leaving two facing slopes just like those in the larger scale landscape. She describes her strategy thus:

“I have covered a hillside with my tribute to the local landscape. The garden has a small valley. On one hillside, well situated for viewing from the opposite side, I have planted box-hedging, using the pattern of field boundaries on the local Tithe Map. I am filling in the “fields” that this makes with grasses and some hardy perennials, hoping to echo the appearance and subtle colours of the fields in the distance. It is, of course, an adaptation of a parterre. The box hedges are too small yet, and the whole thing is too newly planted to know how effective it will be, but I hope it will look good in winter as well as summer, with the fading flowers of the grasses framed in the pattern of the box hedges….In our guide to the garden I have included some information about the history of the land and the people who lived and worked here, because I am fascinated by the traces of the past that I find, and I think some other people will be too. Cueing them into that theme may help them notice other signs of the land’s history – the bilberries which are the remnants of the heath, or boundary banks and ditches.”

This is a very sophisticated approach to landscape; it acknowledges how much its history, including its previous owners, has shaped the land, and it honours that rather than trying to disguise it. It is a kind of thoughtful responsiveness which is, sadly, all too rare. Out of that response Anne Wareham is creating a garden (or part of her garden) that is both original and deeply embedded in it’s specific location, and in the whole history of gardening itself.”
Pages 38-39

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“In a novel by Margaret Drabble, one character asks tentatively, “Do you think I’ve gone too far?” and another replies, “Can you go too far in the right direction?” We would like to see more of this attitude in modern gardening; it is about boldness and following an instinct a little beyond where you would expect to stop; but it is also about “lightening up”, not taking yourself or your garden quite so seriously.

Or, at another level, more seriously. As Anne Wareham, the gardener and garden writer, points out, we are terribly earnest about flowers but shy away entirely from the more intellectual aspects of gardens. We no longer expect, or even want, a garden to make us think, to give us ideas; we just want to look, to be “given” a garden directly to our physical senses, while leaving our intellectual capacities strictly alone:

In the 18th century people deliberately set out to stimulate thought, with the idea that this would enhance the experience of parts of the garden by exaggerating a particular mood. A gloomy woodland part might have a statue reminding the visitor, through shared knowledge of classical references, of the transitory nature of beauty and life. A sunlit garden full of roses might refer the visitor’s thoughts to love and courtship by means of a cupid. Perhaps, elsewhere Bacchus might encourage thoughts of leaving for the nearest pub? Now we have not only lost most of this particular shared reference system, but any interest in having a garden stimulate thought.

In response to this set of ideas Anne Wareham has included in her garden a number of jokes about gardens. These are of a subtler, indeed in the 17th-century sense of the word “wittier” kind than the artistic, visual jokes of Judy Wiseman. Anne Wareham is very concerned with exposing some of the confusions of our current ideas about what is “natural” or “wild”. So she plants tulips in her “wild flower meadow”, mentioning- and we suspect this is the key- that “large daffs of the public roundabout type would have made the thinking point just as well as the tulips, but I’m only prepared to play these games if they add to the pleasure of looking at the garden.”

Elsewhere she has a “natural” planting of bluebells, buttercups and poppies – the traditional flowers of the countryside – but instead of using field poppies she has used oriental ones. At the aesthetic level it works very well, with the same glowing primary colours, but it is a lovely humorous reminder that “natural” is not natural; that mowing and weeding and care and knowledge are needed to get this relaxed result. To make the point Anne Wareham also has a formal garden: a proper “room” enclosed by clipped yew hedges, laid brick paths and six rigorously rectangular brick-edged raised beds in which she grows massed “wild flowers” – the traditional field flowers, blue cornflowers and field poppies – cavorting as “garden” species.

Wareham manages her area of woodland in the same spirit. It is carefully designed not to look as a woodland “used to look” when it was coppiced or had animals grazing through it. “It looks like most of us think woods used to look. Making things look natural is a vastly underrated skill.” And then, in the depths of this pretend natural environment, Wareham pulls the plug on you – attached to some of the trees are little enamel plaques with poems on them; a 1-metre(3-foot) long lizard made of enamel disks like scales crawls up a tree; and in a glade in the magic forest a television set sits on a tree stump inviting viewers.

You have to be “in the know” to get these complex jokes, but there is nothing wrong with “in-jokes” (providing their humour is not predicated on the idea that other people’s ignorance is in itself funny), especially at the moment when so many of us have had our intellectual sensibility dumbed down by a century of debate about the natural versus the formal, conducted as though there is a simple and unambiguous distinction.

The television in the woodland is a very simple joke: it is the humour of incongruity which is, and always has been, a potential source of laughter. Moreover, it has the marked advantage of being relatively cheap to introduce into the garden – while many of the best garden jokes require either considerable artistic and creative skill or a substantial financial outlay, placing a broken television in a wood requires little effort or money.

But even when the chosen objects are not free or almost free, they still require little design or hard landscaping commitment. You get a great deal for your outlay. The effect is so simple – or seems to be, there are snags – that it is quite remarkable that this device is not used more often. A moment of incongruity not only makes people smile, but also makes them look at the garden afresh, makes them see better.

Anne Wareham tells a rather interesting story about a small child in her woodland who discerned in the plaques and ornaments clues to a treasure hunt, or trail, although none had been intended – his eyes alerted he started to look at the whole garden in a new way, noticing details in perfectly natural plants and structures that he would never have seen without the original artifice. The incongruity of enamel plaques in woods, of television sets in glades, woke up his mind and with it his eyes to the “natural” environment in an entirely fresh manner. ( Pages 55-57)

These extracts are from Gardens of Illusion by kind permission of the author, Sara Maitland.

 

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