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Archive for the ‘Gardens’ Category

Stourhead is one of the finest examples of an English landscape garden.

Inspired by politics, travel, literature and painting, the eighteenth century English landscape movement introduced a radical new style of naturalistic garden across England and, soon, across much of the world. Clipped, geometric gardens became viewed as static and old-fashioned, and were ripped out in favour of free-flowing romantic styles more directly inspired by nature, by designers such as William Kent and Capability Brown.

Stourhead and its Pantheon from Fenton's Tour of 1811.

Stourhead and its Pantheon from Richard Fenton’s Tour of 1811.

From 1744, Henry Hoare II laid out a garden in the new style at the estate he had just inherited at Stourhead in Wiltshire. Nestled in a valley, it remains today a perfect combination of seemingly natural water, trees and grassy slopes. Walking around the lake offers pleasing glimpses and reflections of classical temples and grottos.

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When we visited last month – even with the Pantheon temple obscured by scaffolding, the lake level lowered for maintenance work and the water covered in algae – it was still quite breathtaking.

Yet visitors this summer may come away with quite a different sense of the history of Stourhead. Its current owner, the National Trust, has decided to celebrate the story of “young Harry Hoare,” who briefly helped his family restore the house and grounds between 1911 and his death from wounds sustained on a distant battlefield in 1917. His story was chosen no doubt to mark the centenary of the start of WW1. It is told in large information boards at the visitor centre, in a massive mock book at the entrance to the garden, in panels on the zigzag entry path, and in the official map and guide given to visitors.

I am not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I am a great fan of history being seen as a continuum, with stories from various points in a garden’s life just as important as the tale of its creation. Recently I wrote in favour of exactly this approach at another National Trust property, at Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. In a way, it is good to hear about later members of the Hoare family and their time at the garden, to learn how Stourhead had become unloved and derelict before their stewardship.

And yet Stourhead is such an important example of such an important movement, it seemed to me bizarre not to highlight that part of the story. The casual visitor could easily be misled into thinking this was a late Victorian garden rather than a supreme example of an eighteenth century one. Only panels in the woodland with quotations from Alexander Pope (including his famous instruction to garden-makers to “consult the genius of the place in all“) make reference to the period when the garden was created. Even then, to grasp the significance, visitors would probably need already to be familiar with Pope’s influential role in the English landscape movement.
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Stourhead is an embodiment of one of England’s greatest contributions to the world of art. Relegating the story of its creation to a footnote in the tale of a later bit-player must surely be a disservice to the garden’s many visitors this summer. Or maybe that’s just an old-fashioned view from a pedantic landscape historian?

 

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Three years ago I wrote rather disparagingly about the jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé Pierre, in Paris’s 13th arrondissement. It is a new, self-proclaimed sustainable park, and I wondered quite what visitors were meant to do there, other than admire how desperately sustainable it all was.

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A second visit this summer has made me somewhat change my views. The park is still undeniably scruffy, with unremarkable native plants sprawling and straggling over the paths. Clumps of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica subsp. dioica) lurked right by at least one set of steps.

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But there is now a clearer contrast between the mown grass and the meadow areas, which make it clear that the park is meant to look like this, rather than (as a commenter on my initial review remarked) as if the city had stopped maintaining it four years ago. The plants generally had grown in and looked more settled, and thickets of guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) offered bright red clusters of fruit to enliven the otherwise overwhelmingly green palette.

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Plus water was now duly flowing and gurgling as intended in the many rills and channels around the site (my first visit was during a drought).

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And, most importantly, people were now present, doing … well, what people normally do in neighbourhood parks: sitting on benches chatting, pushing babies in buggies, people-watching (from the rather snazzy curved bridge over the site), even a group of kids playing a version of Pooh Sticks with leaves in the water channels.

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Maybe it was just that my expectations were lowered by that first visit, but overall I rather warmed to the jardins des Grands Moulins.

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There are a plethora of possible treatments available for historic properties. Experts talk about preservation, conservation, safeguarding, protection, restoration, adaptive re-use, repair, stabilisation, maintenance, rehabilitation, reconstruction. It can seem baffling.

So it was good last week to see a very clear example of preservation, at Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland. English Heritage defines this treatment as essentially preserving from harm, while the US standards explain it as the “retention of the landscape’s existing form, features and materials.” Put simply, it means keeping what you have.

Seaton Delaval Hall- the North (Entrance) Front by John Joseph Bouttats c.1750

Seaton Delaval Hall – the North (Entrance) Front by John Joseph Bouttats c.1750

Seaton Delaval Hall was acquired in 2009 by the National Trust in rather extraordinary circumstances, with a great outpouring of local sentiment and funds. The Trust then decided against its typical approach of restoration – which would have meant putting the house back to its original eighteenth century state. This was partly because, after a major fire in 1822, the main hall was no longer structurally strong enough to support lost floors. More generally, there was not always sufficient detailed knowledge about original features to allow for their informed reintroduction. But also there was a sense that subsequent history of the house was at least as important as its creation, and that the community needed to be involved in deciding how the estate should be conserved and used.

So at Seaton Delaval there are no plans to put the estate back to how it once was, no programme of works with a defined timetable and a finished state. The National Trust is simply engaged in preserving what is there.

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The hall, designed by Sir John Vanburgh from 1718 in the English baroque style, and possibly the finest house in the north of England, is being made safe. The main section was under scaffolding when we visited but, even when that is gone, it will remain a shell, with the bones of its structure revealed through the holes in the walls that once supported floor beams.

The west wing is being kept as it was when the last owners, Lord and Lady Hastings, lived there, with a dining room in what was originally a laundry in the servants’ quarters.

Early paintings suggest that the landscape around the house was originally laid out with a formal courtyard and curved watercourse at the front (see first image above) and, in the fashionable style of the day, a park of undulating grassland and mature trees to the rear.

View of the South (Park) Front of Seaton Delaval Hall by William Bell 1775

View of the South (Park) Front of Seaton Delaval Hall by William Bell 1775

1860 OS map

1860 Ordnance Survey map, showing Seaton Delaval Hall and its grounds

At least one of the original trees survives, a vast weeping ash, planted 300 years ago when the estate was new.

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In the second half of the twentieth century, small-scale, geometric features were added around the west wing of the house, including a rose garden, a laburnum walk and a parterre designed by Jim Russell, a self-taught landscape gardener and nurseryman. New plantings of trees and shrubs also date to this time.

Seaton Delaval 10 Seaton Delaval 11 Seaton Delaval 12All are being preserved by the Trust, with no attempt to return these parts of the landscape to their eighteenth century form. The parterre in particular is described by the Trust as “a firm favourite with visitors” and is being presented as an important part of the estate. Fashionable meadowland to the east of the house replaces what would originally have been lawn.

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The estate has been open to the public since the preservation work started, with temporary car parking and ticketing arrangements, and local volunteers on hand to explain the hall’s history. Craft and gardening activities in the grounds and informal musical concerts in the hall are designed by and for the local community.

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Some will disapprove of this approach, arguing that such an important house and estate deserve to be restored to their glory days. But I like the way you can see many elements of the property’s subsequent history, from the nineteenth century fire to later twentieth century attempts to restore the dwelling to a home. It is a fine example of history being seen as a continuum, rather than a moment in time, and a splendid case study in the role of a local community in saving and defining its own heritage.

 

 

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Redoubtable is a word that easily comes to mind when seeking to describe Marylyn Abbott. In her native Australia, she was for many years marketing manager for the Sydney Opera House and developed the garden at Kennerton Green in New South Wales. Under her tenure, it was the most visited garden in the country.

Since 1993 she has also been restoring and developing the gardens at West Green House in the south of England. The house itself is charming, an early 18th century structure restored by the National Trust in the 1990s after an IRA bomb exploded in the forecourt. It is also, fortunately for me, within walking distance of our home in Hampshire, and so we have been frequent visitors to the gardens over the years, observing and enjoying the ever-changing planting and new additions. We were last there a year ago, in June 2013.

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For me, the highlight is always the walled garden, restored to its 1770s layout and planted with a glorious mix of trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and fruit.

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The potager within the walled garden changes dramatically every year.

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Structural planting contrasts with some sophisticated colour combinations, often using lilacs and purples in early summer. Her flower choices are eclectic, and include unfashionable perennials such as lupins and delphiniums next to more trendy poppies and alliums. Rather refreshingly, the only grasses to be seen are in the lawns and meadows, not in the flower borders.

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From the walled garden, a moon gate leads to a water stairway and view of a nymphaeum designed in the 1980s by Quinlan Terry (often described as Prince Charles’ favourite architect).

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Other highlights include the lakefield with its naturalised bulbs and unceremonious perennials:

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the little courtyard garden outside the tea shop (whose former Alice in Wonderland theme is now only visible in the topiary teapot):

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the artfully arranged glasshouses:

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and the lovely trails of iris sibirica through a stream:

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Marylyn Abbott is a great traveller and brings back ideas from all over the world for her gardens. Some of these, such as a Chinese peasant style garden in the potager one year, are delightful. Some seem to me to work less well, including the Paradise garden, a geometric arrangement of water, trees and grass, inspired by Islamic gardens. It sits oddly next to the wild garden and for me lacks the lusciousness and fragrance so essential to a real Paradise garden.

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Set pieces such as this, and new Dragon Garden near the entrance, detract from the distinctive sense of place that is so strong elsewhere at West Green.

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One splendid feature of these gardens is their use in summer for open-air opera productions. Indeed West Green is now being marketed as The Opera Garden. We have enjoyed black-tie evenings with fancy picnics watching a cackling Don Giovanni meeting his end near the lake, and a lovely performance of Traviata in the Green Theatre. This year there will be a week of music and garden-related activities during the long July and August evenings.

Marylyn Abbott must be well into her sixties, but her passion for the new and the quirky continues. She has this year designed her first Chelsea Flower Show garden (inspired by the courtyard garden shown above and winner of a silver gilt medal) and no doubt has more experiments to try and developments to add at West Green House.

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Veddw is a modern garden, laid out among the gentle hills of the Welsh borders. It has an unusual genesis: not a plantswoman’s garden, not a gardener’s garden. Instead, its creator, Anne Wareham, was driven by a fascination with the garden as art form. With her photographer husband Charles Hawes, Anne has spent 25 years developing Veddw from meadowland.

We visited last June and found lots of things easy to enjoy and admire.

The garden is full of big confident sweeps of plants and patterns of hedging. This is not a timid place, fiddling around in details. It makes bold marks on the landscape.

Veddw 12Veddw 16 Veddw 14 Veddw 01 Despite its confidence, Veddw is not a garden with airs and graces – you take it as you find it, from the home-made sign on the door to Anne (maybe) offering builders’ tea, no cake, and a gossip after the visit. It is full of contrasts, between wild flowers and clipped shrubs, light and shade, open vistas and secret pathways.

Veddw 02 Veddw 19 Veddw 09There are words in the garden – a quirky, modern use of inscriptions – from the apt Wordsworth quote on a bench:

Veddw 15to lists of common plant names in the cornfield garden, stamped in gold lettering on wooden railings. Here I learnt the delightful phrase “snotty gogs” and discovered that it is a child’s term for yew berries.

Veddw 17 Veddw 18The garden is not seen as settled or finished, but is constantly undergoing review and refinement. Since we were there, Anne has announced plans to chop down the trees at the end of this pathway and replace them with a bench as a better focal point.

Veddw 22Although the garden’s most famous feature, a reflective pool, left me rather cold (feeling too self-conscious, too much of a stage-set):

Veddw 24there is a delightful smaller stone pond near the house. It is firmly rectangular and makes no pretence at being natural but, surrounded by mossy stones and seemingly self-seeded alpine flowers, it manages somehow to look like it has always been there.

Veddw 20What I admired most about Veddw was how the garden sat in its time and place: the way the curved hedges echo the rolling hills beyond the garden:

Veddw 27the retention of ancient meadow:

Veddw 21the little tombstones in the wild garden with their inscriptions of lost local names:

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the casually displayed collection of objects found when the cottage was partially rebuilt – allowing us to imagine the former life of the site.

Veddw 13Anne invites visitors to suggest one improvement. I immediately and erroneously plumped for an area in the north garden, full of contrasting grey cardoon and purple heuchera and cotinus. I found it leery and brash; she clearly does not. It did not need improvement as such –  it just didn’t appeal to me (although I know Anne scoffs at the idea that we should explain away critical comments as just a question of different tastes).

Veddw 05 Veddw 04On reflection I think a better suggestion for improvement would have been the grasses parterre (in the background of the photo below). I really wanted to like this area: low hedges are laid out in the pattern of the 1841 local tithe map, and the resulting ‘fields’ are planted with ornamental grasses. It seems a great idea, another novel way of referencing the history of the site. But I found it impossible to understand on the ground. It just looked puzzling and slightly scruffy, like it was trying to tell you something but you couldn’t work out what.Veddw 10

No easy solution springs to mind but, given the use of quirky inscriptions elsewhere, I wondered if the tithe map could be more explicit? Or the area made more aesthetically pleasing in its own right, so that knowledge of the map as its inspiration becomes just a bonus?

The garden is a joy, always changing and growing, and worth repeated visits. Just don’t simper to the formidable Anne that you think it all vaguely “lovely” – and don’t expect roses or cake!

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Before on this blog I have written about the mysterious French designer Elie Lainé, and about the placing of modern artworks in historic gardens.

So I was delighted to see the two come together this Christmas, with the installation Winter Light in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor. Contemporary artist Bruce Monro placed six large light-based displays in the glorious landscapes of Waddesdon, which were laid out by Lainé in the 1870s.

The most interesting of the six for me was Field Of Light, a geometric wave that swept down a valley between Lainé’s majestic trees. In the photographs here (from a set by Eamonn McCormack), you can see how, in the late afternoon, the 6,500 tiny lights looked like of a swathe of Spring bulbs; by sunset, they were more reminiscent of a lustrous peacock’s tail; and then a great river of liquid chlorophyll. I like that, close-up, you can see the glass fibre and spheres, understand something of how the display is created, and yet still its magic holds.

Field of Light was not conceived for Waddesdon. It had already been displayed in various locations, in England and the States, and is currently in its first urban setting, in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh. It seems to me to have worked beautifully at Waddesdon, with both Lainé’s confident Victorian landscape and Monro’s contemporary artistry enhanced by the temporary juxtaposition.

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Worth a thousand denials?

Ronald Reagan (I think) said that one picture was worth a thousand denials. Although digital photography has rather blurred the issue of course since Reagan’s day, we still have that sense that photographs are – or ought to be – somehow more reliable and truthful than the written or spoken word.

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I was struck by this belief during a visit last summer to London’s Bankside Gallery to see the winners of IGPOTY – the International Garden Photographer of the Year awards. Many of the exhibition images were in fact created by blending two or more photos. The handsome picture of the mole below, for instance, appears to show his right paw in motion from the efforts of digging – but the effect of movement was apparently created by merging together more than one image.

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This felt at first like fakery. But all digital images are ultimately manipulated, by what the photographer chooses to include in the shot, when he/she takes it, choice of camera, lens and settings, and how the image is processed afterwards. Professional photographer Charles Hawes has more interesting things to say on how all of the IGPOTY images will have had “quite a bit of work done.” Indeed, the US garden photographer Saxon Holt frequently reminds his students that “the camera always lies.” Maybe there is an argument that such manipulation allows us to see a greater truth? Or at least that professional photographers ought to be allowed to use hard work and expert skills to improve what would otherwise be just a snap?

Now the winners of this year’s IGPOTY have just been announced. It’s interesting that the overall winner (the lovely shot below of a prairie garden by Rosanna Castrini) is particularly praised by the judges for being a “straightforward rendering … in lovely light and with no tricks.” I wonder what sort of interventions the judges consider trickery? And why they feel the need to deny that anything somehow underhand has taken place? 

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Judge for yourselves the extent and acceptability of the trickery involved as exhibitions of the winning photographs tour the UK and further afield.

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It may be the only time that historic garden conservation has been compared to a flaky French pastry. But use of the term mille-feuille was not the only unusual thing about the 1990 plans by Bernard Lassus for the Jardin des Tuileries, that magnificent processional space between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde in the middle of Paris.

Originally created as riverside pleasure grounds for a palace, the gardens have over their 450-year history been the playground for monarchs and emperors, the site of many important events in French history, and a reflection of changing fashions and trends in landscape design.

In the 1980s, with the implementation of French President Mitterrand’s grand projets, the gardens became part of an extended axis through the city. A controversial glass pyramid in the Louvre courtyard created a new focal point at their eastern edge; beyond the western edge, the axis that had continued up the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe was extended to the vast new Arche de la Défense in the city’s business district. At this time, the French government decided to renew the gardens themselves, and invited nine firms to put forward proposals.

The competition

The shadow of Le Nôtre’s work in the Tuileries clearly loomed over the nine designers, and encouraged rather cautious, reverential proposals. Most of them aimed to conserve as much as possible of the existing gardens, and focused on preservation work such as repairing statues and restoring planting.

The proposal from Bernard Lassus stood out. An experimental artist and theorist, Lassus was known for his pioneering ideas on landscape design. He had already won two competitions to create public gardens that celebrated the history of their settings in novel ways and, in 1984, had proposed a remarkable—some said unbuildable—plan for a vertical garden at the new Parc de la Villette in Paris.

His proposal for the Jardin des Tuileries was thoughtful, subtle and utterly radical. With his fascination for spatial depth as a metaphor for the passing of time, Lassus was inspired by the way that the new Louvre pyramid had gone underground, slicing its way through the archaeology of the ancient site, to create a new, subterranean entrance to the museum. In doing so, it had revealed the densely packed history stored there. Lassus proposed the same approach for the gardens, cutting away the historic layers to create a mythic archaeology that exposed the main design periods for the Tuileries. Still rectilinear, the site would become deep, using its strata or layers to reveal and reinvent the garden’s history, maintaining and celebrating its many memories and associations.

Views of the Lassus plans for the Tuileries. From http://www.bernard-lassus.com

Views of the Lassus plans for the Tuileries. From http://www.bernard-lassus.com

Details of the Lassus plan

Five layers of the Lassus plan.

Five layers of the Lassus plan.

The proposal split the garden horizontally into areas and vertically into strata, representing the five main eras in the history of the gardens. The oldest, and lowest, layer would correspond to the walled garden created from the 1560s by Catherine de’ Medici, widow of Henry II, which was a place of variety and surprise. Designed in an Italian style, this garden had been divided into regular compartments, with parterres, a maze, groups of fruit trees, lawns and vineyards. This is shown as dark grey on the Lassus plan, and would be reconstructed and, where necessary, reinvented 80 centimetres below the current surface of the gardens.

One of the so-called Valois Tapestries, depicting a ball held by Catherine de' Medici at the Tuileries Palace, Paris, in 1573. Image from wikipedia.

The jardin des Tuileries in 1573, during a ball held by Catherine de’ Medici. From one of the so-called Valois Tapestries; image from wikipedia.

Visitors could then step up to the next layer (the dark red area on the plan). This would be a box parterre and large fountain, dating from around the turn of the seventeenth century, and said to be designed by Claude Mollet, gardener to Henry IV and one of a great dynasty of French gardeners.

Up another level, the middle stratum (lighter red) was to be the celebrated work of André Le Nôtre who, from 1664, redesigned the gardens in a monumental style. They contained the grand central axis for which the gardens are now perhaps best known, marked by fountains and large ponds at either end.

Les Jardins des Tuileries, as laid out by Le Nôtre c.1670, drawing by Israel Silvestre. Image from Gardens of Illusion by F. Hamilton Hazelhurst.

Les Jardins des Tuileries, as laid out by Le Nôtre, c.1670, drawing by Israel Silvestre. Image from Gardens of Illusion by F. Hamilton Hazelhurst.

The hexagonal pond and monumental curved walkways created by Le Nôtre at the western end of the gardens.

The hexagonal pond and monumental curved walkways created by Le Nôtre at the western end of the gardens.

The fourth layer in Lassus’ proposal (shown in yellow on the plan) consisted of the nineteenth-century additions to the gardens, including the twin pavilions at the western edge, and the jardin réservé (private garden), with its water features, flower beds and statues, created for the restored monarch Louis-Philippe, and subsequently enlarged and much enjoyed by Emperor Napoleon III.

The Orangerie, one of a pair of classically styled pavillions added to the gardens by Napoleon III in the mid- nineteenth century.

The Orangerie, one of a pair of classically styled pavilions added to the gardens by Napoleon III in the mid-nineteenth century.

Finally, Lassus proposed a new, fifth stratum of contemporary design. Just as the Louvre pyramid and the Arche de la Défense created a new axial geometry for the city, Lassus wanted the gardens to include a distinctive contribution of our own time. So, at a level some 170 centimetres above the current surface, he proposed a modern jardin d’eau or water garden (shown as pale blue on the plan). The new reflecting pools and cascades would appear to bring the Seine, running along the southern edge, into the gardens, as well as making a link with the existing pools and the new fountains in the Louvre courtyard.

Different surfaces would mark the different periods in the gardens’ history: for the Medicis garden there would be terracotta and grass; for Le Nôtre, compacted sand; for the nineteenth century layers, gravel. These changes underfoot would set up a rhythm for visitors to help them discover what was being revealed. This would be further supported by glass engravings showing the full garden plans of each period, and stone inscriptions marking the site of important events.

Thus, the Lassus proposal was for a layered landscape, with a mix of styles and histories on show; a veritable mille-feuille. Rather than giving one age precedence over another, his approach recognised the multiple significance of the Tuileries; they were, as he described them, “the sum of the thickness of places and events” and provided the opportunity to create “a space exploring time.” Freeing the gardens from what might be seen as the too imposing precedent of Le Nôtre also allowed new opportunities for people’s interaction with the landscape, which might include travelling shows and temporary works by modern-day artists.

Competition results

The Lassus proposal was not successful in the competition. Instead, the French Government picked the team of Louis Benech and Pascal Cribier, who essentially spruced up the existing gardens, with modern watering systems, restored garden features and new perennial plantings.

Mixed perennial beds today on the site of the nineteenth century jardin réservé.

Mixed perennial beds today on the site of the nineteenth century jardin réservé.

Belgian designer Jacques Wirtz was invited to rework the Jardins du Carrousel at the far eastern end of the Tuileries (which had not formed part of the Lassus plans), with a design of radiating yew hedges, today widely viewed as a failure.

There are those who might criticise Lassus’ proposals as a Disney-esque version of the gardens, deliberately (and wrongly) giving the impression that each stratum continued under the subsequent layers, and arguably creating a false sense of history by combining features that never existed together historically.

Yet his plans would have been a bold and thought-provoking way of treating these gardens. Landscape historian John Dixon-Hunt has argued that the Louvre pyramid forced us to see the historic space around it differently, and required an equally challenging garden to complete the design: something as demanding, as deep, as exciting. But, in the end, France’s courage seems to have run out with the pyramid, and the iconoclastic Lassus proposals for the Jardins des Tuileries will remain forever unrealised.

A version of this article originally appeared in Gardens and People, as part of a series I wrote on ‘Gardens That Were Never Built.’

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As you might expect, the British Library has an extraordinary wealth of archive material, including much that is essential study for the serious landscape historian. Its strap line, with some justification, is “The World’s Knowledge.” Yet it is far from my favourite repository, partly for its dreadful website, and partly for what might charitably be called its rather high-end charges for image reproduction and permission to publish.

But it has just done something to gladden the heart of every researcher. It has published a Flickr photostream of over a million images from some of the books in its collection. Examples include this lovely 1881 drawing of the gardens at Versailles, entitled “Plan des Bosquets à l’Epoque actuelle” [contemporary plan of the groves] from page 529 of Le Château de Versailles. Histoire et Description by Louis Dussieux.

11143880845_c44f5db04d_kAll the images are in the public domain (the books are from the nineteenth century or earlier) but for most of them this is the first time they have been available online at such high resolution – or indeed at all. Many are of good enough quality for print publication, a rare occurrence for images on the internet. And the British Library makes clear that the images are available for anyone to “use, remix and repurpose” as they see fit. There is no charge; the Library would just appreciate an attribution.

The purpose of releasing them – and there are delightful hints that many more are to follow – is to explore ways of navigating, finding and displaying these currently rather hidden images. At the moment, finding them is hard, even now they are on Flickr. Only the books’ titles and authors are tagged in the photostream. So search for “Taj Mahal” for instance, and there are no results. But search for “India” and – among hundreds of other images – are ones like this, from Our Life and Travels in India by William Wakefield, which shows how very different were the gardens around the tomb in the 1870s:

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and this even more detailed one from the following decade, which appeared in Sir Edwin Arnold’s “India Revisited … Reprinted, with additions … from the “Daily Telegraph:””

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Searching in this way, by broad geographical sweep or topical area, produces all sorts of splendid surprises. So among the many India images, I found this one from the 1860s of Chandni Chowk, the main street through Old Delhi, labelled interestingly “Main Native Street” and utterly different from the chaotic thoroughfare of today:

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and this one of Humayun’s Tomb and its gardens from a Pictorial tour round India; with remarks on India past and present, alleged and true causes of Indian poverty, supposed or real, twelve means available for promoting the wealth of the country, etc. by John Murdoch, p47, published in Madras in 1890, seemingly available nowhere else on the web, and certainly new to me:

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But searching (as researchers tend to do) for a specific subject is frustrating. None of the visible text in the images is indexed, so even clear image titles (such as “Humayun’s Tomb” above) are not found in searches – you simply have to wade through books with possibly relevant titles and know what you are looking for. And even more frustratingly, the details of the source volume do not seem to be stored with the image: so if you download a picture without keeping a proper note of its source at the time (as I did with the Chandni Chowk image above) it can be all but impossible to find it again afterwards, or know where it came from.

All to be played for, then. The British Library is planning a “crowdsourcing application” in early 2014 better to identify and describe these million images. It is an exciting, potentially hugely important project for researchers, and the Library is to be applauded for embarking upon it.

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The Royal Horticultural Society’s monthly members’ journal The Garden is a predictable mix of plant profiles, gardening tips and lists of UK gardens to visit. It is glossy and pleasant and pretty safe.

So it was heartening this month to see it branching out into a different kind of journalism, with Edens beyond the razor wire, an article on gardens in the war zones of Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel. The photographs, by Lalage Snow, are stunning, showing how people will plant gardens in tiny inhospitable places and while under the daily threat of death. The title is eye-catching and one of the photos heads up the contents list on page 3 (it would have been even better on the cover, rather than the usual macro shot of seasonal plants). My only gripe would be that the accompanying text could have done with some firmer editing (for instance, one of the men interviewed is described as “Mohammad, aged 105,” with no comment at all on that improbable length of life).

As a longtime RHS member I was cheered at the decision to take a different, thought-provoking look at what drives us to garden. May such off-beat articles become a regular feature of all gardening journals.

Edens beyond the razor wire, photograph by Lalage Snow, from RHS The Garden, December 2013.

Edens beyond the razor wire, photograph by Lalage Snow, reproduced with permission, from RHS The Garden, December 2013.

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