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Archive for March, 2012

Recent discussions on this blog about the merits or otherwise of historical restoration reminded me of an interview I conducted a couple of years ago with noted British designer Kim Wilkie. We discussed how Wilkie had done something more controversial than restore or reconstruct the past: he had installed a long-lost design that had never been executed historically. The fact that the design was by England’s greatest landscape designer, Capability Brown – and that the site was one of the most important country houses in England – only makes the story more fascinating.

Capability Brown’s 1782 plan for the grounds at Heveningham Hall, which lay unimplemented and forgotten for 200 years. Image used with permission from kimwilkie.com.

Applying eyeshadow is not a common analogy for the craft of landscape design. But it is a striking image used by landscape architect Kim Wilkie to explain the genius of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Wilkie is well-placed to know: he is responsible for the implementation at Heveningham Hall in Suffolk of a Brown plan which had lain abandoned since 1782. Wilkie rejects the common description of the eighteenth century place-maker as an ‘improver’ of landscapes, and argues that he is best understood as someone who was ‘clarifying’ nature. Hence the eyeshadow analogy: English topography is often so gentle, argues Wilkie, that Brown made just enough changes to bring out the intrinsic nature of a site, but leaves us admiring the work of nature, rather than the efforts of the designer.

‘Brown’s real genius lay in being able to understand the way land is formed by water, probably more so than anyone I’ve encountered,’ he explains. ‘He had such a feeling for undulations, valleys, ridges, and how they all form together in such an English way. He was able to understand how to work with the underlying sense of geology and geography.’ This is why Wilkie believes that so many Brownian parks survive in such good shape today. In contrast, Brown’s successor Humphry Repton, although a great landscape portraitist, ‘didn’t have those underlying understandings – his parks have decayed much faster than Brown’s.’

Capability Brown at Heveningham Hall

Wilkie’s enthusiasm for Brown’s work is catching. So it seems inconceivable that one of Brown’s last, great plans, for a 200-hectare landscape park at Sir Gerard Vanneck’s country estate at Heveningham Hall, in rural Suffolk, was never fully implemented. Renowned scholar John Dixon Hunt has described the 1782 plans for Heveningham, which included a series of lakes over a mile in length along the valley floor, as a consummate example of how Brown rejected the contrived designs of his predecessors and instead wished to organise natural phenomena to create an enhanced version of nature.

It is not clear why only a small start was ever made on the proposals. According to Brown’s biographer Dorothy Stroud, his grand plans were met with criticism from neighbouring landowners. Conservation expert David Lambert has suggested more recently that the reason why the work quickly fell into abeyance may have been cost, flooding upstream, or perhaps just loss of momentum following Brown’s death the following year. In any event, when Gerard Vanneck, owner of Heveningham, died unmarried and childless in 1791, the whole estate then seems simply to have stopped developing. Wilkie calls it ‘an arrested moment.’

The house remained in the Vanneck family until 1970. Apart from a parterre added on the south side in the 1870s, no further work was done. In the first half of the twentieth century, declining family fortunes meant that parts of the estate were sold, and the house gradually fell into disrepair. It was further damaged by a 1947 fire. After a spell in public ownership, a failed attempt at restoration by a foreign businessman, and a second fire in 1984 (which gutted the east wing of the Hall), Heveningham was in a sad condition, its future uncertain.

Rediscovery of the Brown Plans

The grounds at Heveningham before Wilkie began work, from kimwilkie.com.

The estate was bought in 1994 by Jon Hunt, owner of the Foxtons property chain, who wished to turn it back into a private family home. Kim Wilkie was one of many landscape architects that Hunt interviewed about designs for the grounds, and admits to being at first somewhat wary of the new owner’s motives. ‘I was honest with him,’ he recalls now, with a smile. ‘I was rather suspicious of an estate agent buying a country house. I did not want to be used as a front for some development that I was unaware of.’ Undeterred, Hunt took Wilkie to see the estate, and persuaded him to take on the project.

Although the owner had already had plans drawn up for the lake in the grounds, nobody appreciated that Capability Brown had once been involved at Heveningham. Wilkie remembers: ‘It was only when we did the historical research, that we realised what we had.’ He praises Hunt for his immediate enthusiasm about Brown’s abandoned proposals.

I wondered whether he was surprised that this 200-year-old plan still seemed the most relevant and appropriate approach for the landscape. ‘No, not really,’ he replies. ‘We grew with it, and came to appreciate how subtle Brown’s work was. He had such a good eye, and a familiarity with geology and geography – and an understanding of construction. They were perfect, perfectly accurate plans.’

Gaining Approval

Wilkie did not seek easy options at Heveningham. As well as proposing the long-delayed implementation of Brown’s plans on one side, he recommended ripping out the Victorian parterre behind the house, and installing sweeping new grass terraces in its place. These were dramatic changes for the setting of a Grade I listed house.

He remembers that, when presented with his proposals to install the abandoned Brown plans, English Heritage at first was not sure how to react. ‘There was an initial intake of breath. It was difficult because it was not restoration, not reconstruction; it was philosophically new to them.’ Fortunately the preservation body did not demand the conservation of the existing landscape: Wilkie recalls appreciatively that ‘English Heritage had the courage to say, “Just because it’s old, it doesn’t mean it’s good.”’ They recognised that ‘Brown’s plan had a value of its own,’ and quickly came to view the proposals as ‘exciting.’

Wilkie’s sweeping terraces that replaced an unsuccessful Victorian parterre behind the house. Image used with permission from kimwilkie.com.

The removal of the parterre and its replacement with contemporary grass terraces, perhaps surprisingly, proved less challenging. Wilkie explains that ‘the area behind the house had always been unsuccessful.’ Even the young La Rochefoucauld brothers, whose detailed praise of the Hall in 1784 helped inform the restoration work at Heveningham, had described the then flower garden as being ‘as ugly as it is out of place.’ The subsequent Victorian parterre, according to Wilkie, made things worse, having been built badly and at a scale too small for the grand house. On this issue, he remembers, English Heritage was ‘fantastic,’ giving agreement for the first time for the demolition and replacement of a historic garden beside a Grade I listed property. He thinks it helped that his contemporary design of sweeping terraces ‘was not a pastiche, but a design working with the characteristics of the land. It was of our own time.’ Although he did not see this new design as a necessary counterpoint to the old, Wilkie remembers that ‘it brought a lot of pleasure to be implementing 200-year-old plans on one side of the house and a contemporary, new design on the other.’

Learning Lessons

It was perhaps a unique opportunity, to install a Brownian landscape for the first time, and Wilkie feels he has gained much from the experience. ‘I learnt really useful things: for instance, that a curve on a plan can look insignificant; I almost had the idea that it would need to be exaggerated. But the opposite was true: something you almost can’t read on the plan is very powerful on the ground. The gentle curves of Brown’s lake are much stronger in reality. Things like how light works.’ He pauses, reflecting. ‘It was a learning of subtlety.’ He seems almost embarrassed by the phrase, but it clearly captures well his immense admiration for Brown’s design.

I ask if Wilkie is comfortable with the fact that Heveningham is now routinely being described as ‘a Capability Brown landscape.’ He has, after all, previously worried that his work at Heveningham was ‘troubling’ historically, and has said that it could even be described as ‘fake Brown, in a way.’ He starts by accepting that what he installed ‘will inevitably have been different’ from what Brown would have done. Crucially, a farmhouse that the 1782 plans incorporated into the landscape has since been demolished. He never considered rebuilding the farmhouse, but tried instead to imagine how Brown would have dealt with the same situation. ‘So it’s not identical. But it is so close. The plans were so accurate – Brown had even sketched the profile of each tree, so you could tell the species. It doesn’t feel fake. It does feel like his plan.’ Perhaps most tellingly, Wilkie says that there is nothing he regrets about his work at Heveningham: ‘I would do it again exactly as I did.’

The Heveningham estate after the implementation of Brown’s abandoned design. Image used with permission from kimwilkie.com.

Wilkie’s work has arguably helped refresh our understanding of the genius of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and appreciate anew how his subtle designs strive to clarify the land that contains them. At Heveningham, Brown’s composition of grassland, trees, water and gentle sky has – after two centuries in abeyance – finally been revealed as a masterful distillation of the English countryside.

A longer version of this interview was first published by Gardens and People

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... or why we should(n’t) put the nose back on the Sphinx.

The merits –  or otherwise – of historical conservation was the subject of a splendid debate last week at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Delhi.

In one corner was Sam Miller, BBC man and author of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, who argued in favour of a gentle sort of conservation that quietly shored up picturesque ruins, preserved only what was genuinely historical without replacing lost elements or incorporating new additions, and that paid full regard to the importance of personal memory and nostalgia. In a sentence, his position was perhaps that old places should feel old.

In the other corner was Ratish Nanda, project director at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, who contended that the original intent of the creator was the most important factor in preservation, and that on occasion it was appropriate to use traditional skills and materials to restore a site to its original state. In other words, old places could be best served by becoming new again.

The recently restored Humayun’s Tomb.

The main example both men discussed was the area around Humayun’s Tomb, a sixteenth century world heritage site in Delhi, where Ratish Nanda has been leading a major programme of conservation. His work has been criticised for ‘too much use of the paint pot,’ with formerly crumbling Mughal buildings becoming suddenly dazzling white and red. He showed us a number photos to illustrate the work he has been doing (drawing some gasps of horror from the journalists in the audience):

One of the buildings in the Tomb complex before restoration (left) and after.
Image from the project website.

It was easy to sympathise with those who chorused the restored buildings looked too bright, too new, too like images (as Sam Miller said) on a chocolate box lid.

An archway before restoration…

…and afterwards. Both images from the project website.

But Ratish Nanda explained that years of substandard restoration work to the buildings – often using cement – had led to waterlogging, structural cracks, and corrosion. After extensive research, his team had removed the ill-advised materials, and uncovered and repaired many original features. Nowhere had been painted – the bright whites and reds were coloured plaster which exactly replicated how the Mughals themselves had first decorated the buildings. After two or three monsoons, the colours would soften and start to look more mellow and appropriate. But Ratish had resisted calls for the plaster to be made ‘biscuit’ coloured from day one, as white and red was the authentic scheme.

Sam Miller maintained his position that such extensive restoration was a kind of fakery. At the very least he argued that any new materials or repairs should be clearly marked, so that people knew what was original and what was contemporary work. Ratish Nanda agreed that, in some cases, simply preserving what was left would be the best option. But so much of Humayun’s Tomb had survived the centuries, and it was so significant a site and so well-documented, that full restoration in this case, he argued, was the most appropriate action.

After all this discussion and dispute on Humayun’s Tomb, the two men did agree on one thing: neither of them would put the nose back on the Sphinx.

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Today we visited the sumptuous Mughal Gardens that lie behind the President’s Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan) in New Delhi. Normally private, the gardens are opened free of charge to the public for just a few weeks every February and March, when flowering in the gardens is at its peak. [Sadly, for security reasons, cameras are not allowed, so I am using images from other sources for this post.]

Aerial view of the main part of the Mughal Gardens, with the palace in the background. Image from India Perspectives Vol 24.

A successful mix of Indian and European influences, the fifteen acres of gardens were laid out by Edwin Lutyens, the British architect who designed the palace itself and much of the surrounding colonial city of New Delhi in the 1920s and 30s.

Plan of the Mughal Gardens, from Irving, Indian Summer.

As this plan shows, the gardens divide into three areas: first, the grand section immediately behind the palace with its lotus fountains and spectacular stepped geometry. At the other (western) end, there is a more private butterfly garden around a gentle circular pool and, joining these two together, is a long narrow walled garden, edged on both sides by tennis courts, and planted with roses and bougainvillea.

Lotus fountain and flower beds in the main garden, January 2010, from the Aga Khan Visual Archive.

The circular pool, in January 2010, from the Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Pergola and rose beds in the narrow walled garden, from the Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Lutyens was famously not a fan of Indian architecture (or indeed of Indians). He described the former as “cumbrous, ill-constructed… the building style of children” and dismissed the latter as “odd people with odd names.” With such views commonly held, Lutyens and the other Brits involved in the creation of New Delhi debated how far Indian influences should be reflected in the design of their colonial capital. For the palace gardens and other landscape features, the issue was coloured by two important books published during the time New Delhi was being built, and both probably deliberately seeking to influence the debate in favour of traditional Mughal elements: first, Constance Mary Villiers Stuart’s Gardens of the Great Mughals, published in 1913; and second, Indian Gardens [Indische Gärten], also by a woman, Marie Luise Gothein, which appeared in 1926. Certainly Lutyens’ original plans for an artlessly planted English-style garden behind the palace were to change dramatically.

The plan he finally produced for the site, inspired by gardens he had visited in Agra and Kashmir, reflected the pleasing geometry and balance of Mughal gardens, their beautiful stonework, and the plentiful use of water in rills and fountains to divide the gardens into quadrilateral patterns. These ideas were to some extent a natural progression for Lutyens from the arts and crafts style he had established in his English designs, such as the delightful garden at Hestercombe in Somerset. To these Mughal influences at the palace gardens Lutyens added two very British lawns designed for entertaining, and many large geometric flower beds usually described as English in style (although originally many Mughal gardens would have had similar masses of colourful flowers). To provide year-round structure among the flowers, the main garden is punctuated by clipped specimens of the fragrant native maulsari tree (Mimusops elengi) and by columnar cypress.

An aerial image of the palace shortly after it was completed, showing the new gardens in the foreground, as part of the grand axis along which New Delhi was being constructed. Image from the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge.

British garden historian Tom Turner (whose wry blog at Garden Visit I highly recommend) has been critical in the past of these gardens. In an article in 2005 in Historic Gardens Review, he wrote disparagingly of the inappropriately coloured tiles in the pools, the spotty old-fashioned planting and the poor standard of maintenance, citing leaking basins and obtrusive plant supports.

Many of these issues seem to me to have improved since 2005. Today I saw no sign of leaks and very few plant supports, and the flowers, while traditional in choice, were spectacular in colour and range (although the pool tiles did perhaps still have something of the swimming pool about them).

My one big criticism of these gardens would be that, apart from the sandstone pergola in the long walled garden, there is a decided lack of shade. The trees in the main garden are too fastigiate or too clipped to provide any meaningful shadows, and elsewhere there are only low flowerbeds and lawn. Even today, before the Indian summer has really begun, it was too hot to linger for long among the garden’s delightful fountains, flowers and intricate geometric patterning.

The shade-giving pergola in the walled garden. Image from Irving, Indian Summer.

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