Last summer I visited gardens in The Netherlands as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour to see the work of Piet Oudolf and many practitioners of the garden design movement he largely created … the Dutch Wave, often called the New Perennial movement. My experience on this tour convinced me this is the best way to see gardens in distant places. The itinerary is well organized and packed with engaging destinations, and all the logistics of travel and lodging are taken care of for you. I’ve traveled on my own to see gardens but I find traveling alone, making multiple arrangements for transportation and lodging, even finding the gardens, very stressful and time-consuming. If you want to see gardens, this is the way to go. Click on carexTours for more information, and for a special price available until July 8.
Clouds and misty rain only amplify colors, form and atmosphere in gardens. On the day we visited Lianne’s Siergrassen, the subdued light and wet conditions actually deepened the colors of the plants in Lianne’s vast demonstration gardens. A phlox shining out from the darkness within grass heavy with moisture …
… or a fading Rudbeckia standing tall against a multicolored background of beautiful perennials, in fact everything, was saturated with subdued, evocative color .
The gauzy effects of the light heightened the diaphanous quality of some grasses, as here where grass makes an ornamental screen against the blurred background.
Because these are demonstration gardens, Lianne shows many ways to combine the plants she offers, sometimes growing them in large monocultural blocks, as with Hakonechola shown here …
… and in smaller, discrete blocks …
In other parts of the garden she uses mixed plantings to highlight similarities and contrasts in shape, texture, and color …
Nic and Sally, dressed for wet weather, but all smiles as they explore the riches of a nursery like few others.
Such beautiful combinations as this–do they come about through chance or careful forethought? I imagine the former, but sometimes you just have to let the plants do what they do, and appreciate the result.
Here a sea of mixed grasses, carex and sedum.
And Althea cannabina, a plant I first saw in the summer of 2015 in London, a miniature-flowered hollyhock, which has become rather commonplace in Europe, though I have yet to see it in the US (except on the High Line) seen here at full height …
… and here in close-up.
Here a matrix of grasses (Little bluestem) and perennials (Liatris and other things) patterning the ground surface …
… another mixed planting of a Solidago, Pycnanthemum, and grasses …
… and the bold foliage of a Miscanthus contrasted with a cloud of Sporobolus heterolepis in flower.
The combinations of grasses and perennials work at different scales. Below, the gauzy Sporobolus setting off the dark seedheads of what appears to be a Penstemon digitalis.
And Guara lindheimeri, its sharp white flowers ornamenting the soft grasses behind.
The bold seedheads of Veronicastrum offer a dramatic contrast with the background of grasses (and with the dark foliage of trees).
If you look closely, you’ll see Carolyn almost buried among the grasses.
Lianne’s Siergrassen is only one of many destinations on the Dutch Wave tour. You can also visit the iconoclastic Jac. P. Thijssepark, the Piet Oudolf-designed Vlinderhof, gardens of Noël van Mierlo, John Schoolmeester’s work at Kasteel Geldrop, Van Nature, Piet Oudolf’s own private garden Hummelo, Peter Janke’s Hortvs nearby in Germany, the historic Het Loo Palace, the Kröller-Müller Museum, Henk Gerritsen’s Priona garden, the gardens of Mien Ruys, Jaap de Vries’ Jakobstuin, and many other gardens, special nurseries, and other sites. For details, go to carexTours.
(I visited the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time in 2015, as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Chelsea Garden Tour, given by CarexTours. Carolyn is now offering a special price on this year’s tour, but the offer expires March 15th. You can check it out here. This year’s line up of gardens looks really exciting. I’ve been on two of Carolyn’s tours and I recommend them highly.)
It may have been with intentional irony that Dan Pearson chose the most problematic site at Chelsea for his 2015 Chatsworth garden–a roughly triangular plot surrounded on all sides by broad, paved walkways and completely open to its surroundings. The image above shows the garden as I first saw it, in the midst of a moving crowd. There was so much visual distraction, at first I couldn’t see it. That is …
… until I got up close.
Quite a debate was sparked by Dan’s Chatsworth garden at the time. Media coverage focused on the the actual transport of a piece of the Chatsworth estate’s landscape, including trees and huge boulders, from the north of England to London. (This hyped media story “had legs,” at least in the British media.) Some said this wasn’t a garden at all, that it was simply a natural piece of landscape moved to a new and novel place. Others said it certainly was a garden, not just a page torn from nature. In fact, it was both, and it was most definitely a designed garden.
In recently re-reading Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, I came across this passage, which set me thinking about Dan Pearson’s garden again:
“The irony of creating plantings that evince a sense of nature is that it requires a high degree of artifice. Literally transposing thirty square meters of a forest into an urban courtyard may not create the feeling of a forest at all … Exaggeration is at the heart of this process. Natural landscapes have impact because of their massive scale and the repetition of key patterns and processes over hundreds of acres. By comparison, our urban and suburban sites lack the size and context of their wild counterparts. In the wild, all of the details— sky, rock, soil, water, and plant— work together to create a rich sense of place. In contrast, buildings, roads, and cars often surround our designed landscapes. Our towns and cities are visually complex. In fact, our gardens are more likely to be surrounded by streetlights and power lines than waterfalls or boulder outcroppings. So in order to immerse a visitor in the feeling of a forest or grassland, we have to turn up the volume, creating designed plantings even more intense than their natural counterparts.” *
So in this “visually complex” site full of crowds and movement and distraction, I found perhaps one of the most peaceful gardens ever made. Once I focused my attention on the details of the garden, though the crowd didn’t fade away, I felt I was a participant in another world. Dan is noted for his sensitivity to sense of place, and here, in the turmoil of a busy day at Chelsea, his garden existed as a separate place, “creating designed plantings even more intense than their natural counterparts.”
Dan created pools of water, silent streams, miniature vignettes that, though they look entirely natural, combined plants from at least three continents. The plant selections were most definitely “exaggerated” in the sense that they intensified the experience of Chatsworth’s “nature.” Below, at left a Mahonia, a native of North America (‘Soft Caress” I believe) and at right a delicate Disporum, a native of China.
One might call this a garden of extreme artfulness, or exaggerated subtlety (irony abounds). Specially planted wildflower turf was grown on a thin substrate, brought to the site, and carefully adhered to the natural rocks. Below you can see the edge of the wildflower turf exposed slightly by the beating rain on the day I visited.
And here, American camassias with native British plants.
Creation of this artificial stream took great skill and knowledge.
This intriguing walkway, which goes nowhere, evokes many associations with the British past (some religious, some cultural).
I’ve read that some wept seeing this garden.
I was trying to take photos in the rain, with crowds buffeting against me; conditions could have been better.
If you want to see some fabulous images, just look at the main page of the Dan Pearson Studio website, where you will see a selection of full-screen images (without the crowds).
Of course the garden won “Best in Show.”
*Rainer, Thomas; West, Claudia (2016-02-04). Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (p. 146). Timber Press. Kindle Edition.
As a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour in August 2016, I joined a simpatico group of international garden travelers with a special interest in the work of Piet Oudolf and many practitioners of the garden design movement he largely founded … the Dutch Wave, often called the New Perennial movement. The carexTours itinerary gave us an intense overview of Piet Oudolf’s work and Dutch Wave design, as well as glimpses into work of several other major garden designers–including two gardens by one designer very atypical of the Dutch Wave, Noël van Mierlo, the subject of this post. Seeing the two van Mierlo gardens was a revelatory experience, making us think about what a garden is, and giving greater insight into the distinguishing characteristics of the Dutch Wave.
For more information on future tours, just click on carexTours.
I didn’t know what to expect the morning we started out on our visit to two Noël van Mierlo gardens. My Dutch-American friend Carrie Preston, who has lived in The Netherlands for many years, had told me a bit about him, that his gardens has received several national awards … but coming after a visit to Piet Oudolf’s very different Vlinderhof only the day before, I certainly didn’t expect the architectural, highly choreographed gardens we were to see. Van Mierlo’s stunning gardens are a dramatic break from the Dutch Wave style that has been flourishing in The Netherlands for the past two decades.
Why are van Mierlo’s gardens so different? Dutch Wave gardens emulate the look of nature … rather, they take their inspiration from the look of nature and intensify that look. They are about display of perennials and grasses, and an intensely emotional response to those plants, about the biological entities, the plants themselves, in all their glorious variety and multivariate forms through all seasons. They seem to work on some primal emotional level. Trees, structure, stone, water are not necessary, or even representative of the Dutch Wave–the focus is on the herbaceous perennials and grasses–though they may be present, and important parts of, individual gardens.
Japanese Water Garden
Noël van Mierlo’s Japanese water garden, in marked contrast, is about structure, texture, line, shape, about complexity (a complexity made to look simple), not about an emotional response to plants. It is a cool, meditative garden, a garden for musing. (It is also very much a continuation of the house, a series of outdoor rooms well suited to private enjoyment or social occasions.)
The garden is quiet, contemplative, observant of small details, almost opposite to the delight, exhilaration, and high-pitch of feelings often evoked by Dutch Wave plantings. It subtly juxtaposes natural and manmade morphologies to create a unified experience.
Van Mierlo conceives the garden as a series of rooms and frequently refers to its floor, walls, ceiling. When I asked him for names of designers he admires, he mentioned Lake Flato and Tom Kundig–both architects–architects known for designing structures that sit easily in a natural, often wild, landscape, and for artfully crafted structures. You see architecture in the impressive use of the huge wooden bollards that form the entrance portal, in the refined lines of the modernist, yet sensuous, tea house, in the carefully selected and positioned rocks used to anchor the garden in the landscape, in the sensitive selection of trees with great character (trees too are part of the architecture of this garden) …
…in the thick steel plates that gracefully bridge the pond, appearing to be suspended just above the water’s surface (quite a structural engineering challenge), designed in collaboration with noted Dutch metal artist Xander Spronken …
… and in attention to appropriateness of materials and to the smallest details, as in this carefully crafted transition from gravel to lawn.
All through the design and construction process, he strives to find and use the finest craftsmen available for garden pavements, finishes, lighting–and planting.
Because this garden is a dramatic departure from plant-centric Dutch Wave gardens, it was a powerful reminder to those of us on Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour that gardens take many, and vastly different, forms.
So did carexTours add the van Mierlo gardens as a “palate cleanser,” perhaps, served between courses of Dutch Wave gardens? I don’t think so. Carolyn wanted to make us think.
Strangely, although it is certainly an architectural garden, full of complicated structural challenges, a garden difficult and costly to create, requiring heavy equipment, expensive materials, and precision in construction …
… it is a garden about ecology, far more so than most Dutch Wave gardens are … a garden that, in fact, creates habitat.
Opportunities for Novel Ecologies
Among its many other attributes, this is a garden for a connoisseur of plants and ecological design though, ironically, van Mierlo does not select the perennials in his gardens. That’s not really such a strange concept if you compare garden making to other art forms. Think of him as the director of a theatrical performance or a film. He is the artist, the director, as well as the curator of expertise, and he has a talent for working with others. As with all garden challenges–architectural, structural, construction, Van Mierlo knows and uses experts and highly skilled craftsmen. In this case, his expert is an extremely talented plantsman, Ruurd van Donkelaar. (Van Mierlo does take a direct role in selection and placement of distinctive trees, the “walls” of the garden and the pillars holding up the sky, the ceiling of the garden.)
Look at the care van Donkelaar used in designing this water’s edge habitat. The rocks, gravel and plants are composed to create a “natural” transition from the water to the land, with a finely graduated differentiation of novel habitats to cover the pond liner and create a natural-looking transition, over a distance of only about three feet, of plants selected for suitability to their positions in water or on the drier edges; note the attention to scale in the planting, with miniature plants growing even between the small pieces of gravel. The design is elegant, restrained, possibly more natural than natural (a “created natural”).
Only compare this to the crude transition below, one I recently photographed elsewhere …
… which, I think, makes the artfulness of the van Mierlo garden clear.
The plantings demonstrate deep knowledge of ecology-based planting as well as plant sociology (plants’ preferences for growing in large or small groups, solitary plants, and so on). Anyone familiar with the German habitat-influenced perennial movement will recognize such groupings as these, which consider both plant ecology and sociology: “solitary plants along the water’s edge in moist gravel,” “bog and pond plants,” “plants for moist conditions in small groups,” “solitary grasses and ferns,” “backyard bulbs in small groups between groundcovers,” “solitary plants under trees,” and plants for use in various depths of water. (These are my rough translations of the Dutch labels on the planting plans.)
Some of the plants are so unusual (to me) that I misidentified them. What do you think the red-leafed plants in this photo are?
I thought I was seeing a new Heuchera with a ground cover of green Tiarella cordifolia. I was wrong. It’s a Saxifrage (Saxifraga cortusifolia ‘Rubrifolia’). And look at this miniature bit of nature between stones and a steel bridge plate. Viola, moss, baby ferns, seedling Saxifrages …
… these plants aren’t just surviving, they are reproducing and creating habitat in a garden less than two years old.
The Garden Entrance
The entrance to the Japanese water garden is subtle and understated. We might call it an example of Wabi Sabi, appreciation for the beauty in the lowly and humble.
From the entry passage, used wooden bollards block the view into the garden, then gradually break apart into an abstracted series of verticals, giving glimpses in.
These solid, bulky forms (they are seven or eight feet tall) are given an elegance and visual interest by plantings of carex and low shrubs at ground level and red berried Euonymous europaea (Spindle tree) that catches the eye and carries it upward. A very Japanese characteristic–the display of subtle variations of color and texture across the worn surface of the wood, the play of light and shadow, is another Wabi Sabi touch.
From the other side, the Euonymous are even more colorful, and beautifully offset by a few low grasses.
Van Mierlo works to achieve a balance (he uses the word “unity”) between the many different elements of garden composition …
… the floor of the garden (paving, water, ground covers, pathways, bridges, rocks, turf), the walls and furniture of the garden (structures, plants, seating, sculpture, trees), and the garden’s roof (tree canopies and sky). This striving for unity of effect is visible, too, in his placement of such “added” elements as the client’s sculpture–for example, this mysterious piece, seen above and more closely below …
… the black figure has been positioned before the water, in an emotionally meaningful context of grasses and shrubs that suggest a figure in hiding, waiting, musing …
… and so too, with this grouping of small tree trunks sloping in the shade, van Mierlo captures the eye with a subtle effect achieved as part of many elements in balance. Walking the garden is a richly sensory experience. Note (below) how gracefully the garden moves from a naturalistic path to a more formal passageway, which is necessary to accommodate space limitations at the border of the residential property …
… bringing the garden visitor around to this lawn, and then the house and its outside entertainment areas.
Even on the utility, or entertainment, side of the garden, artful plantings and simple appointments continue the contemplative atmosphere.
The Japanese water garden is very much a journey. Movement from the entrance is choreographed by landscape and structural elements to carry the visitor into the garden, across the bridge of steel plates to the tea house, then around the far side of the pond on a simple path embellished by ecological plantings, around the back of the property, onto the lawn and entertainment precinct of the house …
… that journey can continue across the pond again, with resting places in the tea house, and around the lawn. It is a compact journey, but it offers compelling transitions in mood.
To see a video showing how the garden was built, click here.
The other garden we visited, the Stream garden, contains many of the same elements, and it too uses water and rock as principal elements of composition.
The Stream Garden
The other van Mierlo garden we saw was newly constructed and very recently planted. The Stream garden is located in front of the owner’s house in the polders (low land rescued from the sea), and it is surrounded, at a distance, by high dykes. It appeared to be a difficult site for a garden, offering little of interest.
Since such land is intrinsically lacking in interest, though it does has its own sense of place, van Mierlo’s client specifically requested a landscape that would bring him to another place …
… one that reminded him of his many summers walking rocky streams in the mountains of Austria. When questioned about that, the client said, “Have you seen Lord of the Rings?” That was enough of a clue.
This is largely a linear garden built along a very natural-looking artificial stream, with wider areas encompassing the residence and associated buildings and a pond at one end, and a play area outside a terminus marked by great wooden bollards, at the far end. The trees used here are, like those in the Japanese water garden, selected for unique form and character.
Stone, which is not normally present in The Netherlands, is a prominent feature in both the Japanese water garden and the Stream garden, but more so here, and its artful use is an essential element in the success of this garden. It is used to …
… create sense of place in a site that is essentially a blank canvas. But the stone does more. It makes the gardens “belong” in the landscape by virtue of its sheer physicality. Stones are selected with great care for shape, for how well they work in groups, for color, texture, size. And the stone helps to unify all the elements of the garden floor–gravel, wood, plants, paths, water.
Stone adds an element of mystery too, a primal sense of presence, much as we experience in ancient sites such as Stonehenge, or at many lesser ancient sites.
They also suggest (as above) the natural geologic processes of nature (here an artful illusion), processes that work over millennia, and thus introduce a sense of the immense time scales of geologic processes (hints of Lord of the Rings here?). Strewn across the landscape, they suggest they might have had a glacial origin. It’s all sleight of hand, of course, but a very effective magic show. The rough, worn surface of the wooden walkway continues the color of the stone in an alternative material, an organic material, that again suggests the concept of Wabi Sabi.
The stonescaping, and the intentional irregularity of the wooden walkway, create a strong sense of place, which will “mature” as the rocks and wood age in place.
The log wall (above) will age to a color that approximates the grey of the stone and of the three vertical wooden bollards. This wall is essential; on the other side, is an active marina, operated by the owner of the garden.
A line of wooden bollards, a common sight along waterfronts in The Netherlands, demarks the far end of the garden, separating a children’s play area from the garden proper. Even here van Mierlo uses mounded sand, rock, and grass to suggest a feeling of seaside play.
One of our tour members couldn’t resist this swing.
Van Mierlo says his gardens are about making connections. Just as his design approach is one of collaboration, a bringing together of parts, making many creative talents work in unison for a single goal, so too he aims for all the parts of the garden–stones, trees, structures, paving, water, plants–to achieve a unity of effect and feeling. I think he certainly achieves that end. These are extraordinary gardens.
* Photographs 1, 2, 10, 27 and 28 of the Japanese water garden were provided by Noël van Mierlo.
As a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour in August 2016, I joined an extraordinary group of international garden travelers with a special interest in the work of Piet Oudolf and many practitioners of the garden design movement he largely founded … the Dutch Wave, often called the New Perennial movement. The carexTours itinerary gave us a superb overview of Piet Oudolf’s work and Dutch Wave design, as well as glimpses into work of several other major garden designers, all packed into a week of two garden visits (sometimes three) each day. We also visited a couple of magnificent nurseries, a museum, a garden tool maker, and a palace. Over the next few months, I’ll be telling you about my own experience on this great tour.
I’ve been in love with Piet Oudolf’s gardens since I came across a copy of Designing with Plants by Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury while browsing in Barnes & Noble in 1999. I’d never before seen the kinds of startlingly romantic, lush, naturalistic, absolutely stunning plantings I found in that book. I was smitten, and I haven’t gotten over it since. So when Carolyn Mullet, a well known garden designer from the DC area, gave me the opportunity to join her carexTours‘ Dutch Wave tour last August, I jumped at the chance.
The following article by Gillian Vine is from the Otago Daily Times online edition – 17 January 2016 – on the history of Gravetye Manor, home of William Robinson, one of the early progenitors of the naturalistic tradition in gardening. (Thanks to Facebook gardening friend Scott Nickerson of Queenstown, New Zealand, for posting it there.)
Rousham was the last of many gardens I visited in May as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s spring tour of English gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show. Rousham was the only eighteenth century landscape garden on the tour. In that sense, it appeared to be an outlier, but it turned out to be a key to understanding all the gardens we had seen.
How should one visit a garden? I had imagined I’d be alone on my first visit to Rousham and, surprisingly, I was. Our tour group quickly dissipated in its vast space and hidden, shaded pathways. So I wandered mostly alone, but I had a mission: to match what I had read about Rousham with the garden’s geography. I wanted an interior map, to know how all the pieces fit together.
As to my personal thoughts and feelings on first seeing Rousham, I wasn’t alone at all. I had Dan Pearson and Tim Richardson at my elbow. My experience was filtered through my reading, so I’ll quote directly from Dan Pearson’s Spirit: Garden Inspiration and Tim Richardson’s The Arcadian Friends, both of which I recommend to you.
Dan Pearson: “Rousham is restful, spacious, timeworn and beautifully paced and whatever season you visit, the garden always reveals something afresh. Charles Bridgeman’s design for the gardens was originally completed in 1737 and shortly afterwards General James Dormer commissioned William Kent to further enhance and carry forward the garden. It is remarkable for the fact that it has remained in the same family since then and it is one of the first landscape-gardens to blur the boundaries between the garden and the pastoral English countryside beyond.”
Only in retrospect do I ask myself what would one do on a return visit, after becoming familiar with the layout and topography, and given time to appreciate the garden’s subtler points and vanishingly beautiful design, which I did see in spite of my busyness.
Dan Pearson: “… a formal lawn is dropped slightly below a mossy gravel apron from which the facade of the house rises without hesitation. The views out and over the land below introduce you to the connection with the landscape and, although they set the scene for the informality beyond, the lawns in front of you are the most formal element that you are to experience. The ground in front of the house is spare. There are no borders, the building meets gravel. The gravel is mossy in the shade and crunchy out in the sun, where it moves away to frame the formal lawn.”
William Kent’s background in architecture, and in interior and theatrical design, was clearly evident in subtle manipulations of atmosphere and space. First off was what he chose to keep of Charles Bridgeman’s original design—the grand, expansive bowling green spreading out from the grand and somber house, a formal, though simple space, completely empty, that allows time to prepare for other more intimate experiences to come. The house, seemingly immense, rests on an austere and extremely flat plane, with no plantings around it–such restraint making the buildings and green expanse all the more starkly effective, making the human form appear to be insignificant in this vast scale (you can see two of my tour mates almost invisible on the right path).
Once away from this grand space, however, that relationship is reversed, and the human scale becomes the focus of the Rousham experience.
The immense bowling green flowing out from the house extends the view into the distance, to a dramatic sculptural focal point, then across a sudden and invisible drop in elevation to the distant countryside beyond, hiding for the moment any view of the River Cherwell, which meanders quietly below and marks Rousham’s boundary. The landscape in the distance is outside the garden, though Kent went to some trouble to make that more distant view appear to be part of the garden, the classic “borrowed view.”
Tim Richardson: “This is an exceptionally savage tableau, with the lion sinking its jaws into the back of the screaming and collapsing steed. It creates a note of tension right at the start of one’s journey through the landscape, a violent confrontation silhouetted starkly against the landscape of agricultural fields seen beyond the end of the smooth, empty bowling green behind the house …”
“In a strikingly managed example of a ‘borrowed landscape’, Kent effectively extended the boundaries of the estate–which is comparatively modest in acreage–by customizing an existing building, Cuttle Mill (in the middle distance), with a modest Gothick gable end and other decoration, and by placing a three-arched eyecatcher on the brow of the most distant hill. The statues and temples within the garden are mainly classical in theme and style, while these more distant buildings are Gothick and therefore ancient and English. So perhaps it was not so much a case of Kent extending the imagery of nymphs and deities into the surrounding countryside, but of his trying to convince us that we have indeed entered a mythic plane, a parallel world, where the ‘normality’ beyond the estate’s boundary is in fact an English Gothick domain of goblins and faeries.”
When you encounter the violence of the sculpture, you wonder what was William Kent’s intent in commissioning this work for this central place in the garden.
My impression is that it is like a theatrical thunderclap announcing the opening of a drama. It catches your attention with a dramatic flourish–think of the bravura overture to an opera–then passively waits for you to find the next stage in the unfolding drama, a dark path into the woods off to the left of this central scene. This obscure path is, in fact, the entry point into the “real” Rousham, a naturalistic garden, all curves opening to views of hidden delights, lawns and woodland, light and shadow, temples, statues, rills and pools and, of course, gently brushing its edge below, the River Cherwell.
Once you enter this path, there is a quietude and stillness about Rousham, and carefully placed classical features, that intentionally recall the antiquity of the Augustan Age, for Rousham was most definitely envisioned as a reawakening and recreation of the spirit of that Roman age of enlightenment. (William Kent was a close friend of Alexander Pope, was well schooled in Roman art, the antique Italian landscape and gardens, and he sprinkled Rousham with numerous architectural and sculptural allusions to this golden age so emulated in 18th century England.)
Nowhere about Rousham does one find the riot of plantiness, the studied, self-consciously “arranged plantings” of so many English gardens of more recent vintage–the planted garden rooms of Arts-and-Crafts gardens, for example. Rousham is the great progenitor of the English Landscape Garden, and recognized for being one of the first gardens to open itself to the surrounding countryside. Capability Brown would come after, and would do much more to wed landscape and garden, though perhaps not as well as Kent, depending on your own taste.
To use a metaphor for its emotional effect, Rousham is like a single, bare armature onto which one might wind thoughts and feelings that arise on visiting the garden. But what kinds of thoughts and feelings? It seems to offer a “negative capability,” become an empty vessel into which you can pour whatever emotions arise. It’s quite austere. Intensely quiet, so quiet you easily hear the chickens making chicken noises in the unadorned entry courtyard. Can you imagine a scene such as this one, with rustic, wooden chicken coops in one of the great English landscape gardens? Rousham is owned and lived in my the descendents of the same family that occupied the house when William Kent began making the garden in the 1730s. What a wonderful statement of intent to “keep it simple.”
Rousham makes you want to be silent, or speak softly.
Tim Richardson: “Perhaps the single most satisfying feature at Rousham is the arcade called Praeneste, named after the much-visited Roman ruin which Kent would have known first hand … Praeneste marks the transition between the austere bowling green and the mythic woodland below, with good views down to the river.”
For me, Rousham was a key to understanding all of the many gardens we visited, because at Rousham William Kent established the British landscape garden as a governing type for the next two centuries. In Horace Walpole’s words, “He leapt the fence and saw all nature was a garden”–an exaggeration, perhaps, but one that makes the point in memorable words.
What followed much later was reaction to this “English Landscape Garden,” which Capability Brown would push to the max. Most of the other gardens we visited, many extremely well known, such as Hidcote and Great Dixter and Sissinghurst, exemplify the “garden room” structure so typical of Arts-and-Crafts gardens, and many of them almost completely turn their backs on the outside landscape (of course, with exceptions).
So our tour of gardens became, for me, a kind of meditation on how gardens are opened and closed to their surroundings, and by extension, how gardens use artifice to create the illusion of various modes of what we might call “the natural.” On the coach ride back to our hotel, lines from a poem that puts this open-closed-open metaphor to powerful use came to mind, and I looked the poem up immediately on our return. It is by Yehuda Amichai, and I admit it may say more about how I see gardens than about gardens themselves:
Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed within us. And when we die, everything is open again. Open closed open. That’s all we are.
The distance between this poem and Rousham, a garden, may seem a wide leap for some. I see all gardens as very much about life, about death, about memory, and about meaning. The experience of Rousham was a metaphor of opening and closing and opening again, moving from dark to light, light to dark, punctuated by temples, statues, pools and other ornaments and devices that marked and shaped the experience.
This image of the famous rill and bathing pool below shows how Kent created a sense of closure with shadow and the openness with light. This scene has a powerful presence, an immanence, though it’s essentially empty.
Note the subtle changes in light on the surface of the gravel path, the reflections in the water, the glowing light in the space around the bathing pool.
Dan Pearson: “The rill … is supremely minimal, like a rivulet in a wood but drawn, like a pencil line into this landscape. The sliver of water snakes away and draws you into the trees. It is completely modern and timeless. Dark yews cast shadows so that the water in the rill glimmers as it picks up the light. The water is green under the canopy but silver where it emerges into the open and you follow it as it murmurs towards a break in the cover. Emerald green laurel lightens the mood around a bathing pool where the water slows and is held still before moving on. It is completely enticing and you want to strip and plunge to feel the water on your skin. The octagonal form is unexpected and it formalises this clearing for a moment. You move on into the darkness again as the path snakes through the arc of foliage that frames the walkway.
You can never see the whole rill at once. The silence is only broken when you emerge into light and the rill drops into the still of the lily pond. This is the first sound of running water, a contrast to the silence of the river, and an echo is held in the bowl of the hill …
You rest here to take in the soft depression at the head of the little valley. Your walk unfolds in your mind’s eye whilst you ponder whether you want to make your way back into the real world.”
Here the rill has almost run its course, and is about to enter the large pool in the Vale of Venus.
Tim Richardson: “Further on … next to a paddock where handsome Longhorn cattle now graze, is a simple classical gateway flanked by statues which was the public entrance to the garden. Just to one side of it is a castellated Gothick seat–a deliberate act of architectural disorientation by Kent, juxtaposing the classical with the Gothick in this way. Perhaps here, at the garden’s boundary, it was imagined that Roman nymphs might cavort with English elves.”
It’s a trick.
Again, Kent uses technique, in this case a ha ha, to create the illusion of an open walk to Rousham House, then prevents that walk and forces the garden visitor to search out another way. He plays with the ideas of openness and closure, making a game of it. Life sometimes becomes play at Rousham. You are forced to slow down, give in to pleasure, contemplation, stillness. Possibly to think about the light and the shade, and wonder what meaning they have, if any.
Or to think about mortality. If you go directly around a wide circle on the most direct route to the house, you will encounter this statue of a dying gladiator.
Or go deeper into the garden and come upon this statue of Apollo. You’ll probably first see it from a distance, through the long, green corridor behind him. Everywhere you’re reminded that the civilization that made Rousham is the equal of the golden age of Augustus, not in Italy of the Romans, but in England’s green and pleasant land.
Go further, and find the River Cherwell …
… and in the distance, the 1255 Heyford bridge.
Walking back up to Rousham House, this path leads between the backside of the great hedge and the walled garden, which dates to a much earlier period. The main entry to the walled garden is through the great hedge.
Dan Pearson: “The walled gardens, which sit privately behind the volume of the hedge, are vast and only partially gardened. There are two areas and the smaller of the two is where most of the produce is grown today. The walls are made from brick, in pattern, and overlaid by centuries of lichen…”
“A Gothic arch in a box hedge, smelling catty but of gardens, leads you to steps up into an orchard around the dovecote. A well-trained cherry wraps the curving walls of the dovecote to the north side and a pear catches the warmth where it falls to the south.”
The dovecote was a source of food when originally built …
… and it’s located in a 17th century garden parterre, in a style popular long before Kent came to Rousham.
At this point our Dutch guide Hans came in search of me. It seems I was the last to leave the garden more than one time.
As we departed, we got a good view of the Longhorn cattle that make Rousham their home. This is still a working farm.
Tim Richardson: ” And so we emerge blinking and transfigured after our tour of Rousham garden. Kent can be considered the greatest individual exponent of the landscape garden because he clearly had the ability to visualize the entire garden in his head before he started working, just as a great composer might with a symphony. It was Kent alone who devised a landscape style that set the standard for all subsequent garden-makers; it was Kent who successfully blurred the edges of the landscape-garden structure to inject a true sense of mystery and poise … Kent’s visual genius meant he was able not only to design remarkable architectural caprices, but also to take a tone or atmosphere and imbue it through a garden by moulding physical space and by creating complementary rhythms. He understood that a garden works as a progression through spaces as much as it does from static viewpoints. In terms of its planting, and also in the dynamism of its structure and ornamentation, a landscape garden was, for Kent, a living thing.”