‘”I started collaging as an escape from making meaning. I got tired of writing poems, of trying to make sense – verbal sense. It is a relief to make a different kind of sense – visual sense. One must think, of course, but it is an entirely different kind of thinking, one in which language does not intrude.”‘
– from Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, quoting poet Mark Strand
” An entirely different kind of thinking.”
This remark raises self-evident questions about how the human mind processes information and experience. Tom Stuart-Smith has spoken of Broughton Grange in words that take you to the very edge of language, then leave you there, waiting for the next step. As I see it, there isn’t a next step until you recognize the limits of language to express certain kinds of experience, and move on.
Of course we can write about the physical garden of things–its structure, its similarity to or difference from another garden, the success of its execution, its dimensions, its type, its planting style, its historical precedents, the ecology of the site, its value to wildlife and so on. But when one enters the realm of atmosphere, emotion, and other unnamed, perhaps unnamable, attributes, words won’t do.
Tom Stuart-Smith has said of Broughton Grange, “it was remote from the house … so there was kind of no point to it. It wasn’t a setting for a house, somewhere you all spill out and have a cocktail party and enjoy the view … it was absolutely something you made a pilgrimage to … and you got there, and the garden was the thing. I was immensely lucky to have this opportunity to make this garden that had no point.” (Italics are mine.)
What does “no point” mean here? I think simply that it exists as a garden, as a work of art exists, for silent observation and contemplation, as a field for the the free play of imagination, with absolutely no practical purpose or utility.
Thinking about my first visit to Broughton Grange has led me to consider two talks Stuart-Smith gave in 2014–one I attended at the New York Botanical Garden and another, a few months later, at the Garden Museum Literary Festival in the UK. Things he said at both events struck me in a remarkable way, with a meaning I find difficult to put into words, thus my reference to Mark Strand’s turn from one mode of “thinking” to another. In the case of Stuart-Smith, I don’t even suggest the garden need “make sense.” Rather, that it be like a door open to possibility and potential. (I should note here that Stuart-Smith’s words in double quotes are my own imperfect transcription of his spoken words, not direct quotations.)
The Garden’s ‘Push Back’
As shown in this top-of-the-wall photo from Tom Stuart-Smith’s web site (above), Broughton Grange is formally structured as three terraces that step gently down toward the landscape in the distance: the top terrace with gritty, low nutrient soil and plantings more or less in the Mediterranean style, the middle terrace with a large square pool in the center and luxuriant prairie-like plantings, and the lower terrace (hardly visible here) with a very unusual box parterre. The distinctive verticals of the the columnar yew topiaries on the top terrace and the bobble-headed beech topiaries on the second terrace break up the space into a kind of relaxed grid that contrasts appealingly with the lavish perennial plantings, that anchors them and fixes them in space. They also suggest human forms looking out into the landscape, and suggest a sense of prior occupation of the garden space.
I’ve admired the walled garden at Broughton Grange for years, but visited it for the first time only last summer on a cloudy and intermittently rainy day in July. I was already familiar with some of the garden’s most characteristic features from photographs–the central pool, stone-framed runnels and stepping stones, the narrow yew columns and beech topiaries, the view off into the valley.
On first entering, although the beauty of the garden was immediately apparent and I could take delight in the open view across, it was so laid out and so closely planted, I also felt a moment of confusion as if there were nowhere to go. Obscured by the profuse plantings, the many potential routes into the garden, the generosity of opportunity there, became a kind of psychological barrier. These feelings of emotional constraint transpired within a few seconds, and I was soon making my way through the top terrace. But I had experienced something new. The garden had gently pushed back and, in doing that, set itself apart as a special place. My initial confusion, in a place I expected to feel at home, awakened me to the garden.
A Different Realm of Experience
Tom Stuart-Smith seeks to enable a kind of experience we in America–so accustomed to usefulness and utility in all things–rarely expect, or even think to consider, of a garden: that a garden may have “no point,” meaning no purpose other than to be a garden. This is very different from the kinds of utilitarian gardens that have come down to us through the influence of such great American garden designers as Thomas Church through his book Gardens are for People, which essentially extended the house into the garden and filled it with utilitarian purposes.
“The garden was the thing.” “A garden that had no point.” These phrases resonate.
Speaking of gardens that influenced Broughton Grange, Stuart-Smith told a story of searching for a gardino segreto on the grounds of the Villa Farnese in Italy. He says, “One garden that remains a great inspiration to me is this extraordinary garden at Caprarola … it’s this complete fantasy garden made around a casino … It’s very possible to go to Caprarola and never discover this casino and its garden. We wandered through this pine grove, and I thought for a bit my garden-finding antennae had let me down, but then I saw this gleam of Carrara marble through the trees. You discover this extraordinary garden that has absolutely no reason to be there at all!”
“We have to step back to Broughton,” he continues, “and these topiary figures in the garden and why they are there. For me, they’re about giving some other presence to the garden, so when it’s not occupied by people, there’s almost a sense of prior occupation. It has that same quality as Caprarola where, when you arrive on the lower parterre, there are these extraordinary herme figures around the parterre. You really do feel you’ve interrupted some sort of mythic going on where everyone’s been frozen to stone as you come up the stairs.”
I do wonder if many people don’t have similar experiences visiting gardens. That feeling of “prior occupation,” of having interrupted some “mythic going on”. I know that feeling of contingency, where the quotidian encounters the miraculous. I used to call it epiphany, but you might equally describe the feeling as a sense of immanence in the garden, or in the mind of the visitor.
“I always use topiary in a sort of semi-anthropomorphic way,” Stuart-Smith continues, “to encourage the quality that the garden has other occupants, others than yourself, sort of an entirety. And many of the most wonderful garden experiences are about coming into these extraordinary spaces where you feel something has been going on … It doesn’t have to be a garden space. It can be a natural space as well … when you’re in a field of cowslips or coppiced woodland, particularly if the place is occupied by other animals or birds. I’ve always wanted that sense that you are a visitor in the space and observing what is happening.”
Rükenfigur and Vertical Topiaries
When I first heard Stuart-Smith speak at NYBG two years ago, he flashed on the screen, just for a second, a Caspar David Friedrich painting showing two Rükenfigur:
He used this same painting again to illustrate this point in his Garden Museum talk several months later, so one can infer this concept is significant. We see the backs of two figures as they gaze off into the landscape. It’s not pretty, but it’s powerful. Stuart-Smith has stated that the vertical topiaries punctuating the space at Broughton Grange are suggestive of Rükenfigur (literally “back figure”)–a human figure, always mysterious, unidentified, facial features invisible, looking away toward a landscape or distant view. On one level, this is a metaphor for how a garden can relate to its landscape–an echo of the 18th century English landscape garden that is well illustrated at Broughton Grange. But there’s more to it than that. Recalling Mark Strand, I suggest you let your eyes linger on the painting above; it may say more about this garden experience than any of the words in this post. Words are only pointers; the painting is direct experience.
Entering the Garden – Choices
So we enter the garden (below) through a symmetrical entrance sequence styled to suggest weight, solidity, stability and stillness, in contrast to the energetic plantings the visitor will find on the other side of the wall.
Once inside the garden, decisions await you. The entry path runs straight through the garden and out the opposite side. On each terrace, a group of pleached trees offers a stopping place, and a side path into the garden plantings.
Below, the stairs of the entry pathway from the opposite end, show quite clearly the levels of the three main garden terraces.
Apart from this direct path, which is a separate structural element off to the far side of the main garden, the breadth of the garden proper offers a beckoning view across to the distant landscape but no easy path through. The yew columns are like signposts, pulling the eyes downward into the garden, where you gradually begin to see many potential routes through. But the initiative to begin exploration is entirely up to you. There is no particular place or feature that says “enter here.”
As Stuart-Smith has said, the visitor to Broughton Grange is immediately confronted by the fact that he or she is not the center of things. “One of the most important things for me is that the middle of the garden is left empty. Because if the middle of the garden is empty, you can’t be there. It’s about the garden, and the processes of nature. The process of the garden takes primacy in the place. It’s about watching the descent down into the valley, and about watching the space which is the centrally defined emptiness framed by the garden.”
There are many pathways, and they force you to experience the garden to get to this center, which in a sense is both strikingly beautiful and a massive impediment. Once there, walking around it is difficult; there is too much in the way. Navigating a way around requires attention and thought, and full participation in the garden. Even those stepping stones across the water, though they look inviting, are difficult to use. They are unusually large, and not sized or positioned for easy walking across the water. I tried it and turned back. They seem intentionally sized to function more as barrier than walkway.
Complexity and Permeability
Stuart-Smith uses two words to make an important point about his understanding of garden experience: complexity and permeability.
“For me, a garden that is too instructive, and says that there’s only one way to appreciate it, is a garden that I immediately bridle at. I think that if someone comes to visit any garden that I’ve made, and they turn to me and ask what is the way around the garden, I put up my hands and say I genuinely don’t know. You must set off and see what happens. I think that this idea, which I call permeability, the idea that you can thread your way through a place and discover it, relates very much to the idea of complexity.”
“I’ve always felt that some degree of complexity is almost a moral necessity in the garden. I’m not saying as an absolute, but gardens which are completely minimal seem to be running against the grain of nature.” What does he mean by complexity? I think, as he implies, he simply means a garden that reflects the complexity of the natural world. And there is an ecological component to complexity; the garden strives to emulate the complexity of nature in some way …
… and the complexity of human experience. Drawing a parallel with literature, Stuart-Smith refers to E.M Forster’s book Aspects of the Novel in which Forster writes about the “incalculability” of a character …
He contrasts Dicken’s characters, “which are fully delineated and don’t have a kind of imaginative hinterland,” with Forster’s characters, which are “sort of partially drawn, … drawn as much from inside their character as they are from the objective eye of the author; they seem to live more in the imagination … I think that quality of not over describing things, not pinning things down too much, is quite important.”
Another telling phrase: “imaginative hinterland.”
Stuart-Smith wants the garden “to live more in the imagination,” to offer more than a simple visual experience of pleasure, or at least to offer, always, the possibility of more.
Stuart-Smith lowered two sides of this walled garden, making it, in effect, a ha-ha, so that he could preserve views out into the landscape. Here above, he goes further, centering the gravel pathway on the curve of a path and a highly picturesque group of trees in the distance. This view is constructed with precision. In such scenes as this–yet another example of Stuart-Smith’s use of layered complexity–in this case historical layers–a visitor is asked to reach back to gardens made almost 300 years in the past, and to such remarkable elements as William Kent’s “eye-catchers” at Rousham.
The Garden as an Entirety
The third and lowest terrace, the box parterre, is visually very different from the complex plantings of the two upper terraces. The irregular pattern of the parterre is derived from the cell patterns of leaves (as seen through a microscope) of the surrounding trees …
… looking at the images, it’s clear this parterre, so different from traditional parterres, adds yet another layer of complexity with its unpredictably sinuous lines suggestive of waveforms, or worms, or framed by a strict edge geometry, like a huge abstract painting.
About the unusual method of obtaining the patterns for the parterre, he says, “for me it’s not important for people visiting the garden that they know this particular story … that idea of suggestion for me is an important one. I will construct a garden around an idea or a series of ideas but for the most part I’m happy to keep those ideas below the surface.
As soon as they pop out and announce themselves on the surface, then you’ve kind of lost it. I think the garden is this territory of freedom and liberty to construct your own pathway, your own narrative. A lot of the historic gardens that I find most interesting are the ones where the meaning has become lost in algae and time.”
I was attracted to this garden many years before I was able to visit it. From the start, the stark verticals of the yew columns, which I’ve heard others disparage, were one of the elements that most powerfully drew me to this garden. Those were familiar when I first visited. Other things were not. For example, finding that the “stepping stones” across the water are actually very difficult to use, that walking around the perimeter of the central pool is an intense exercise in navigation, were total surprises.
I’ve said little about how I liked or disliked this garden, other than indirectly. So I perhaps should add that I see this garden as a masterwork of garden art. And I agree so completely with Stuart-Smith’s own explanation of the garden, I’ve thought it most helpful to use his own words. You can find them here:
How to end? Stuart-Smith speaks about a garden “with no point,” a garden where you feel “you’ve interrupted some sort of mythic going on,” a garden that, like Forster’s characters, offers an “imaginative hinterland,” a garden that is “an entirety.” “The garden is the thing,” he says–and it is.
He almost always uses some underlying thought process, which a garden visitor need know nothing about, but the result of that approach to garden design opens it to imaginative observation and exploration by the garden visitor, a process that ideally can take place without the interference of more quotidian concerns. In my case, I was familiar with the concept of Rukenfigür before I ever heard Stuart-Smith speak and make reference to it. So my experience of the garden is strongly colored by that concept, and by aspects of German romanticism with which I’m familiar. But that knowledge is not necessary for a full appreciation of the garden, nor is knowledge of the influence of the hidden garden at Villa Farnese necessary. His aim is to give visitors freedom to fully exercise their own imaginations and to find their own meanings, if they want meaning, or simply to experience being in the garden. The visit is open-ended, an exercise in free imagination.
Below the box parterre is this informal area of topiary and groomed lawn, which makes a gradual transition from the more formally tiered, intensely planted garden above into the landscape as it falls away, providing the only easily walkable open space in the garden. The spatial change is subtle and emotionally powerful. The topiary shrubs in conversation remind me of the “conversation” among the instruments in Beethoven’s Late Quartets. But that is my imagination at work. Your’s will be different.
* Note all quotations are actually paraphrased passages, not direct quotations, that I transcribed from a video on Tom Stuart-Smith’s website. You can watch it by clicking here.