Thoughts on hearing a Tom Stuart-Smith at NYBG

On my way home … after a Tom Stuart-Smith Lecture

This is sunset on Thursday as I drove through the Rosemont Valley nearing my home and garden in the country. It called to mind an image Tom Stuart-Smith briefly showed in his lecture at the New York Botanical Garden earlier in the day.

I’ve passionately admired Tom’s gardens since I first saw them (unfortunately only in photos). Though I think his work is among the best there is, I wasn’t expecting much, lectures usually being disappointing rehashes of things I already know. I was entirely wrong in this case. His two hour talk was an intense experience of nonstop discovery and exhilaration.

The image he flashed on the screen, literally for no more than two seconds, was a Caspar David Friedrich Ruekenfigur. I’m not certain if it was this one …


… it may have been this, or another.


He showed the Ruekenfigur (literally “back image”), a human figure, always unidentified, facial features invisible, looking away toward a landscape, to illustrate an important principle of his design approach:  a garden should link to its landscape. (He also mentioned an early infatuation with German Romanticism; I believe something of that still permeates his work, thus the Ruekenfigur reference.)

In the past few months, I had read Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape by Joseph Leo Koerner–an astonishing tour de force, a “reading” of Caspar David Friedrich’s work–so seeing the Ruekenfigur, though only for a couple of seconds, drove his point powerfully home. I felt it as shock, almost like a punch in the gut. In that instant I grasped the significance of the view out, the way out, of refuge and prospect (Tom also referred to this). The concept of a garden linking to landscape is nothing new, but Tom’s description of this, using a series of images and archetypal metaphors, conveyed something very deeply felt, something far more than simple visual openness to the surrounding terrain. You see this over and over in Tom’s work, and it has deep historical roots as well, in Italian Renaissance gardens, for example, in nature, in vanishing aspects of the natural landscape. I don’t think I’ll ever see a Tom Stuart-Smith garden in the same way again.

His client originally wanted this North Oxfordshire garden (below) to be enclosed inside a wall. Tom convinced the client the garden should connect with the landscape and take advantage of the view. So the garden is designed as a series of steps, each level different, dropping down to reveal the countryside.

North Oxfordshire

I think it’s not going too far to see echoes of the Ruekenfigur in the vertical beech topiaries and yews, their backs turned forever toward the viewer, looking out into the landscape.

The title of the lecture was The Modern Garden: Finding a Language, and there was much more in it than I’ve touched on here. I’ve taken a small piece of the talk, one mentioned only in passing, as I said, because it happened to be evoked by that Rosemont sunset I saw on my way home. But in retrospect, the Ruekenfigur seems to be a very important sign post to a central theme in his gardens, the engagement not only with the landscape, but also with the larger world of culture and history and the living of every day.

(The last image is from Tom Stuart-Smith’s website where you can see many examples of his extraordinary work.)



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28 thoughts on “On my way home … after a Tom Stuart-Smith Lecture

  1. James,
    I think you are exactly right about the vertical yews and human figures. Personally, I have always thought his yews were too thin and out of proportion but now they seem perfect and make sense to me. Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape is now on the top of my reading list.

    I had gotten permission to remove some trees from my neighbor’s property (a rental property, not well-mainatined) about 10 years ago to create a view of our local mountain, Mt Monadnock. The trees are beginning to grow back and obscure the view and now there is a new, very uncooperative, owner of the rental property. You have convinced me that it is essential to use the most effective diplomatic tactics I can muster in order to retain my view of Monadanock and my magnificent link to the landscape. Thanks for making the importance of that link so clear and nudging me in the direction of conversation, making peace, and diplomacy.

    1. Michael,
      Tom flew past that image so fast I almost missed its significance. Only in reprospect, and being familiar with the concept of the Rukenfigur (how do you type an umlaut on a blog?), did its meaning come clear. I have no doubt that if anyone has the diplomatic and social skills needed to negotiate with a difficult neighbor, you do. Good luck. This is important, very important.

      1. Umlaut? Cheat with copypasta, or use ue, which looks clunky.
        Borrowed scenery can add so much to a garden, if the gardener wishes it so.
        We need to trim 3 trees and retrieve our mountain …

        1. I’ll have to find out what you mean by “copypasta.” Perhaps I can find vowels with unlauts in the Word symbols. Seems rather a primative way to accomplish such a simple task.

          1. I snatched this from “The good thing about them shortcuts is that what it basically a single combination of keys works with all sorts of umlauts and accents: for umlauts, press Ctrl + : (i.e., Ctrl + Shift + ; ), release the control and shift keys, press a, o, u, i, even y. for uppercase umlauted letters, just add Shift in stage two. the same works with the apostrophe for regular accented letters and with the tilde key for accente-graved letters
            HTH” I am curious–does it work? I have a Mac book so I can’t test it…

  2. Tom is by far my favorite designer at the moment. His built work is without peer. The mix of modern and romantic, of intellect and emotion, of structure with ephemeral whimsy is so moving to me. So glad the lecture was great. I’ve always wished he would write more. There’s clearly quite a bit going on in his designs and I’d love to understand his process better.

    1. Thomas,
      Judging from his lecture, he would have a lot to write about. I wish he’d write more too. On a practical level, he mentioned several times the use of different soils for different types of planting. Where he wants a dense, low, or a Mediterranean style planting, he uses lean soil with no compost, lots of grit, and plants densely; in other plantings where he wants abundant growth, he uses lots of compost. He often does both in different areas of the same garden. Michael Gordon of The Gardener’s Eye came down the day before and, while we were walking on the High Line, Michael turned and I heard him saying, “Hello.” He was speaking to Tom and his wife, who had just arrived in town, and were seeing the High Line for the first time. They indulged in some friendly chat, then went on their way. Interesting to run into Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith on the High Line. It was a beautiful day (predicted rain didn’t come) and the plantings were beautiful even at the end of January.

  3. Ditto everything.

    I wonder why he hasn’t put more into print. Apart from ‘The Barn Garden’, it’s too lean on the book front.

    Strange that his client wanted a walled garden, losing that view onto the cotswold hills. I’ve seen the photo many times as I’ve clicked through his website. It’s extraordinarily beautiful.

    1. The title of the lecture was The Modern Garden: Finding a Language. Of course he started with the Italian Renaissance garden. He’s obviously gathered in much of his British cultural gardening legacy and transposed it into this highly contextual and culturally sensitive gardening response to place. I think the sensitivity to context, though also an old idea much the same as “sense of place,” has much to do with what is modern in his work. Also his use of modern materials, such as Corten steel, and the contrast of the modern with the softness of the plantings. He also uses empty space very effectively. Often you see a pool of water in the center of the garden, essentially an open space. In parts of his home garden you also find hedges making rooms that are kept empty, adjacent to abundant plantings.

  4. That makes so much sense, the yews as abstractions of people gazing outward. Tom is a major source of inspiration for me, but I only have images to go on, so I am envious of your attendance at the lecture. Thank you for sharing that snippet, I hope he writes a book.

  5. Thank you for sharing the Tom Stuart link. I have not heard of him, hopefully that does not make me a clod. I am going to share the link with my boss, who is a bit of a anglophile when it comes to garden design. He will appreciate it.

    1. Check out his web site. I think you’ll like his gardens too. I do admit he seems to work for people with a lot of money to spend. Some of those garden budgets must be in the millions.

      1. His gardens at Broughton Grange, often described as his best work, is home of the very wealthy banker Stephen Hester. Hester lost his job the day after I visited earlier this month… who knows what will follow. (I’m guessing Mr Hester will land on his feet.) The garden there includes open water as empty space on the second terrace and a rill on the upper terrace, a necessary resting place for the eye in such a tightly planted area. The lower terrace was a play on a three-part parterre: the design was based on the cellular structure of oak, ash and beech. A great success.

          1. I was leading a small group touring many gardens, all set up months ago, and sometimes with great difficulty. Broughton Grange wasn’t one of the tough ones, and arrangements were made through an English agency. I believe the garden is open on NGS charity days but you’d have to check.

            The one garden I have bombed out on is Sutton Place, designed by the incomparable Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. I’ve tried every route, pulled every string, but no luck. The property is now owned by a Russian oligarch who doesn’t like unknown visitors. I don’t know if he is maintaining the garden — I hope so.

          1. I’d be happy to meet you and will certainly let you know about future trips. I’m glad to hear the Saturday open day went well. I had a smaller group — about 60 people — tour the same day. We were lucky with the weather: hot and muggy but at least no rain.

    1. I loved the book and wish he wrote more. He did point out in the lecture that his garden is different from the gardens he designs for clients. He, for example, allows self-seeding. He also grows some huge perennials. One of them is among my favorites at the moment–Inula racemosa ‘Sonnerspeer’. Note what he says about that plant!

  6. Tom Stuart Smith is also my favorite designer. I have noticed for a while now that there are two types of (maybe more) gardeners. The “collector” who has to have every plant and builds their gardens around their collection and then 2nd more driven by design and an imitation of nature. I put Tom in the 2nd category because he uses the and repeats the same variety of plants over a large area ( like a meadow there by creating a cohesive design. Sometimes both qualities are achieved in one person ( Rosemary Very for example) but I think it’s rare. My favorite garden is Tom’s garden.

    1. Your blog was recommended to me by a friend who also has a garden in the Catskills, though rather east and south of you. I’m certainly a plant person but, when it comes to the garden, I try to use plants as design material, in groups and masses, very much a naturalistic look, and certainly in imitation of nature–though there’s a vast difference, I think, between nature and a garden. I agree that Tom’s own garden is one of my favorites. Wish I had the appropriate place for some of that formality. I have noticed that he shares my fondness for a crazy plant, the huge, almost cartoonish Inula racemosa ‘Sonnerspeer’. I’d love to come to your Open Days garden opening, but google maps tells me you’re almost a four hour drive from here.

  7. James,

    I am really interested in your approach to your garden and what your doing. I have given over areas of my garden to experiment with native plants and I continue to move in this direction.
    There is a wonderful herb nursery out your way and a friend has been promising to take me so I might try and arrange to see your garden at the same time- just not quite sure if it will be in the fall or next spring! I am going to explore your blog more and possibly if your interested I’d like to write a piece about you for my garden column & blog. Like you I am drawn to species rather than cultivars. My last article on ‘Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden’ is very much along these lines. Look forward to your future posts and seeing your garden. Best, Don

    1. Don, I do hope you get down this way and come to visit. I think I know the nursery you mentioned though the name escapes me at the moment. I think Rosemary Verey used to visit and give talks there years ago if I’m thinking of the one your friend knows. Most of my blog content in still on my old Blogger blog at I had problems and had to move to WordPress, but can’t afford to pay someone to move all the content. If it appears I’m ever coming to your part of upstate NY, I’ll contact you. I’d really like to visit your garden.

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