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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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Google has just produced a ‘heatmap‘ of the places people most like to visit. It’s a fascinating if not entirely reliable snapshot of the world’s most popular sites, based on the number of images posted on the photo-sharing website Panoramio.

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Screenshot of Google Sightsmap from http://www.sightsmap.com/

The most popular place in the most popular city is perhaps surprisingly the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Nearby, Olmsted’s great Bethesda Terrace, the heart of Central Park, does pretty creditably as New York’s 5th most photographed site.

The most photographed place in Paris? Depressingly, it seems to be the super-touristy red windmill of the Moulin Rouge (original home of the can-can), followed by the nearby marble confectionery of the Sacré Coeur basilica. The great Paris parks (the Tuileries, the jardin du Luxembourg) limp in at number 52 and 31 respectively. More encouragingly, the palace of Versailles is more photographed than Disneyland Paris (although not by much).

Of course such a map raises all sorts of issues. How far are the users of Panoramio representative of the public more widely? What makes us take a photo of one place but not another? Does posting a photograph of a site necessarily mean it’s somewhere we liked visiting? I can’t believe, for instance, that the tourist bedlam of Piccadilly Circus is really visitors’ favourite memory of London, even if it is the place more of them photograph than any other.

Despite these questions, the Google Sightsmap is an interesting new perspective on how we see and value the world, and well worth a look. I am cheered to see Google putting some of its mass of data to use in novel ways – I’ve written previously about its Ngram viewer, which plots how words and phrases trend over time, and which continues to be refined – and I look forward to more such developments.

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I am delighted to have joined the rosta of writers at ThinkinGardens, a British website eager to encourage serious, stimulating and critical writing about designed landscapes.

My first piece is Worthy but Wasted? on the challenges of sustainable parks (and from which I’ve taken the title of this brief post). It has already attracted lots of interesting comments. Please do go over and have a look.

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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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It’s been described as a pagan love goddess, a gesture of environmental stewardship, the largest human figure in the world, an abstraction of the Cheviot hills, a recumbent partner of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, and much else.

Northumberlandia 02

Charles Jencks’ Northumberlandia may be all these things. Its vast female form is certainly a rather extraordinary version of land art (the sculpting of earth, rocks and water into designed forms), recently installed near Cramlington in the northeast of England. Jencks is an American designer and theorist, probably best known for his Garden of Cosmic Speculation, in southeast Scotland. The prone female figure of Northumberlandia shares some of the swoops and surprises of that garden, but is altogether rougher and less refined. She forms the centrepiece of a new, privately funded, but very public, park, and is apparently a quarter of a mile long, with 100ft (30m) high breasts, and a body made from 1.5m tons of rock, soil and clay. Like much land art, the plan is apparently to let the form evolve gently with little or no maintenance.

We visited on a cold, blustery July day, a few months after the park was officially opened, and spent perhaps an hour strolling along the many paths that curve and climb around the site. As with other examples of Jencks’ work, it is hard to capture the experience in words. All you are seeing are simple man-made mounds and lakes, and yet the views shift and change as you walk and climb, constantly offering new glimpses and perspectives.

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The most striking image hoves into view as you clamber towards that vast female face, when the adjacent Shotton surface coal mine suddenly becomes visible. Indeed, the mine is the sole reason for Northumberlandia’s existence, as Shotton’s owners created her to mitigate the impact of coal mining on the local community. As you descend, the mine disappears from view but remains in the memory, its steep, quarried cliffs and stockpiles of black coal serving as the industrial version of Northumberlandia’s grassy female form, similarly carved out of the land by big machinery. It reminded me of Robert Smithson (the great American land artist) and his fascination with creating modern art around what he described as “infernal regions – slag heaps, strip mines, and polluted rivers.”

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Our visit felt strange, almost like dreamlike, and made us wish to return, and experience the lady (and her coal mine) in other guises – at dawn, in late afternoon sunshine, in snow, in rain….

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Herterton House

Herterton House is a one-acre gem of a place in Northumberland. It has featured on the BBC’s Gardeners World and in national newspapers, and yet remains much less well-known than its popular neighbour, Wallington Hall, owned by the National Trust.

Its creators, Frank and Marjorie Lawley, have made the five gardens here over the past 37 years, using their art history background and love of colours and plants to turn agricultural fields into thoughtful, inspiring places.

The first spot to visit is a physic garden, with herbs and other medicinal plants laid out in geometric beds all edged with a striking dwarf London Pride (Saxifraga x urbium).

Herterton House physic1 Herterton House physic2 Herterton House physic3

Next, at the front of the house, is a peaceful formal garden, with clipped shrubs and some confident plantings of bleeding heart, foxgloves and asphodel.

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The third space is a flower garden, a delightful mass of colour and form in early July.

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Next comes a deceptively simple ‘fancy’ garden, with parterres laid out to be viewed from the windows of a splendid two-storey gazebo.

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Finally comes the nursery garden, a fine selection of mainly perennial plants, which Frank describes with knowledge and quiet passion, and will happily dig up for anyone who wishes to buy.

Herterton House nursery1

The gardens are laid out around a partly Elizabethan house that is rented from the National Trust. Frank told us that he and his wife had at first planned to stay as tenants and keep the gardens going until they were aged 75, but that milestone is now long past and they wonder if 80 might be the time to stop. Apparently the National Trust has indicated it would maintain the gardens as an attraction after their departure, but Frank is clearly unpersuaded that the Trust will understand the character and spirit of the place. He is planning to produce a book which will chronicle the history and nature of the gardens, to serve as a record of what he and his wife have created.

So many gardens created by individuals seem to fade and wither once an institution takes on their management; I hope that is not the fate of Herterton. Visit while you can: it is open every summer afternoon except Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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The year 2016 will mark three hundred years since the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and plans are being put in place to celebrate this greatest of England’s landscape designers. Today I visited his birthplace, at Kirkharle. It was here in this small corner of Northumberland that Brown first learnt to appreciate and understand the countryside that was to inspire his work.

First signs at Kirkharle aren’t promising. The small house where Brown was born is now a car park. The grand Hall, for which he designed the grounds, was largely demolished in the nineteenth century, leaving just a wing that became a farmhouse. Since then, a major road has sliced the small estate in two. In any event, Brown’s  design was never installed.

And yet Kirkharle proved a delightful half-day visit. The old agricultural barns and byres that surrounded the farmhouse have been saved from dereliction and turned into the Kirkharle Courtyard, a collection of small workshops, galleries and a nice little café all branded under the Capability Brown name, and accompanied by a small but informative exhibition about Brown’s work at Kirkharle and elsewhere. Kirkharle courtyard 1 Kirkharle courtyard 4 Kirkharle courtyard 3 Kirkharle courtyard 2Most interestingly for me, the unrealised Brown plan for the grounds at Kirkharle has now been installed. Starting in 2010, his distinctive proposals for a serpentine lake, groups of broadleaf trees and conifers, undulating turf and carefully composed vistas were finally laid out in the fields behind the courtyard. Unlike the painstaking installation of another unrealised Brown plan at Heveningham Hall, the work at Kirkharle is more a modern interpretation of his intentions than a close rendering of the original plan. But it seemed to me a commendable exercise to take a fairly slight Brown project and consider how the great place-maker might have laid out the grounds if he were alive today. The site is developing well and a circular walk encourages its exploration, with helpful – if woefully ungrammatical – signs.

Kirkharle lake 1 Kirkharle lake 3 Kirkharle lake 2

Of course such a project does not come cheap, and a mass of sponsors and supporters has been necessary to fund everything from the restoration of the barns and the exhibition to the newly laid-out lake. I wish the Kirkharle Lake and Courtyard project well. The tercentenary of Brown’s birth in three years is an important opportunity to revaluate Brown’s contribution to British, and indeed international, landscape history; this thriving little venture at his birthplace in Kirkharle can only help the celebrations.

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The splendid website ThinkinGardens hosted a discussion a while ago on sculpture in the garden. One commenter argued that a garden setting can enhance a sculpture, but that she had never seen sculpture enhance a garden. Instead  “as you drop a sculpture into a garden setting, it takes centre stage shouting ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ … The garden becomes a backdrop.”

It’s an interesting notion, and I decided to test it by an entirely unscientific trawl through my photo archives, looking for images of sculptures in gardens. These are not sculptures designed and installed at the same time as the garden, where you might expect a thoughtful balance between the two; they are pieces added subsequently, most of them as temporary exhibitions in established gardens.

First, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 16-day display The Gates in New York’s Central Park in 2005 (OK, it’s not a garden, but it’s a good match in other ways). I was lucky enough to discuss the project with its creators shortly before installation (see photo of the duo with their plans). They intended the 7,500 saffron-coloured structures weaving through the park to encourage people to look at this iconic landscape in a new way. Sadly it seemed to me not really to work. The boxy shape of the gates did offer an interesting mirror of the rectangular skyscrapers around the park, but the thousands of structures somehow seemed like they had just been plonked in the park, shouting “Look at me!” without adding any new perspectives.The GatesThe Gates 2 The Gates 3Here’s a more successful example from summer 2011: woven willow and chestnut structures by the American Patrick Dougherty at the chateau of Trévarez in Brittany, northwest France. Some of Dougherty’s works do undoubtedly overwhelm their surroundings, but at Trévarez it seemed to me the organic structures helped you look afresh at the garden.The shape of this temporary shelter offered a sinuous modern version of the adjacent stone building, and the windows framed surprising and pleasing views of the sumptuous planting.

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Another set of willow structures, this time by Tom Hare, was installed at Kew Gardens as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations. They represent seeds – some of them more interesting than this one of a devil’s claw – and they have a nice sinuous quality. But for me they don’t really enhance our appreciation of the surrounding garden, especially with that rather naff little barrier to keep the sculpture decidedly separate from its setting.

Kew1Another temporary display in a botanical garden, with another intrusive barrier, is this 2012 example of dancing figures by Zadok Ben-David, in Singapore. The figures are smaller than you might think, much smaller than actual size, and seem somehow fiddly, and disengaged from their surroundings by that distracting chain barrier.

Singapore Botanical Garden3 Singapore Botanical Garden2 Singapore Botanical Garden1Here’s another figurative set of sculptures, but I think these work much more cohesively in their surroundings. These are some fine Rodin figures, installed as a temporary display in the square outside the CaixaForum art gallery in Madrid. The building is a striking mix of oxidised cast iron and brick, set off by a large Patrick Blanc vertical garden to one side. The traditional figures provided a lovely counterpoint to their contemporary setting and make us admire both the building and the green wall all the more.

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A very simple example next, from Le Nôtre’s vast gardens at Sceaux, south of Paris. The sculpture by René Letourneur is not temporary, but it is a late addition – being installed around 1950 in this seventeenth century landscape. Called L’Aurore (dawn), it is positioned carefully to catch the morning light in a shady corner, and makes us notice and admire a quiet space that otherwise would get lost among the grandeur and dazzle of the rest of Sceaux.

Sceaux1Here’s a very different use of sculpture in a Le Nôtre garden, this one by Takashi Murakami at Versailles in 2010. I wrote at the time how much I loved the juxtaposition between the obscene extravagance of the Sun King’s palace and the mad plastic manga creations displayed incongruously in its midst. The snarling Oval Buddha in the gardens offered wonderful visual links with the gilded fountains and gates of Le Nôtre’s great design, and a thought-provoking contrast with its many baroque statues. Not many places could stand up to that vast gleaming sculpture, but it makes us admire Versailles anew that these gardens definitely could.

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Versailles 3  Versailles1Versailles 4Le Notre gardens

Here’s my final example: it’s a temporary exhibition in a traditional display space, not a garden at all. But for me it illustrates perfectly how even the most enormous, preposterous installation that shrieks “Look at me!” can still profoundly enhance its surroundings. This is Anish Kapoor’s bonkers Leviathan sculpture that filled the Grand Palais in Paris for five weeks in 2011. It was a vast purple rubber cathedral swelling up into the belle époque exhibition hall, making the visitor gasp at its size and audacity. But it did not overwhelm the setting; instead its mad shape and size drew equal attention to the beautiful ironwork and glass of this most majestic of spaces.

Monumenta3 Monumenta2 Monumenta1These are personal choices and views of course. I’d be interested to know what others think.

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