Tag Archives: Tim Richardson

“A garden is really the gardener”

The woman on the left looked a little underwhelmed by Sissinghurst too

I have always felt I needed to whisper rather than shout that, while we enjoyed our one and only visit to Sissinghurst, it did not inspire us to return. Considering the huge influence this English garden has had throughout both the UK and, more surprisingly, little ol’ New Zealand, I have wondered if we were being overly critical, maybe “gardened-out” when we visited it.

The thyme lawn was not a crowning glory when we visited Sissinghurst

It seems not. I was just going to share the link to English landscape designer Dan Pearson’s latest blog  on our garden Facebook page  but then I thought there is a bigger context for this interesting post of his. Pearson is writing about his advisory work with the head gardener at Sissinghurst to re-personalise that famous garden, restoring some of the energy and also the intimacy of what started out as a very personal garden. Over time, Pearson observes, “The way the garden became was ultimately driven by the need to provide for increasing numbers of visitors and, in so doing, the intimate sense of place was slowly and gradually altered.”

And there is the conundrum when a private garden enters the public domain following the deaths of its creators. If it is successful and well-resourced, the expectations of the visiting public play an ever-larger role in determining how the garden will be presented and maintained.

… but the Sissinghurst tower did not disappoint. However, it is structural and therefore a permanent feature

I had been reading some debate about this in the book by Tim Richardson, “You Should Have Been Here Last Week”. As far back as 2004, he was sounding the alarm bells about Sissinghurst. Writing for the Garden Design Journal, he said: “Every day, coachloads of people turn up at Sissinghurst to experience Vita Sackville-West’s garden, yet what they get bears no relation to the original in terms of content or atmosphere”. Further on in the book is his 2015 update, welcoming the appointment of Troy Scott Smith as new head gardener with Dan Pearson in an advisory role.

We have watched with interest the developments of the “regional gardens” in Taranaki – the ratepayer funded gardens of Tupare and Hollards (both created as very personal visions with owners long dead now) and Pukeiti. When the takeover was first being promoted by the regional council, I wrote several strong pieces for the local paper (see below), frankly alarmed at what was being proposed, let alone the budget. In the years since, we have backed off expressing our views publicly about what is happening in these gardens. All I can say is that in my last visit to Hollards, I felt that the originators, Bernard and Rose Hollard, had pretty much disappeared, bar some faded photographic display cut-outs of Bernie.

The faded life-size cut-out of Bernard Hollard is a little poignant

I don’t think these gardens are a victim so much of their own success – we simply don’t get enough garden visitors to Taranaki to put extreme pressure on gardens. I think they are a victim of the drive to attract numbers of general visitors to justify the expenditure. If that means sacrificing the original ambience and character of these gardens, then so be it.

Matched by faded information boards, purportedly written in the first person. Was the term “food forest” even heard of when Bernard Hollard was still alive?

Mark knew Bernie, as he was known to his family and friends, personally and is adamant that he would never have grown yams in an old tractor tyre and indeed his tidy vegetable garden was hidden away from public view

Pearson captures it in a nutshell, when he writes: “Even when the blueprint is strong, gardens can easily assume a different character, for a garden is really the gardener.”

Hollards’ modest home was demolished to make way for a visitor centre, designed in the style I call “Utility Department of Conservation”

Earlier published columns on the topic of regional gardens:

1) A letter from a ratepayer. Published July 2010 I am not sure I would be brave enough to publish this piece in the newspaper these days. I must have been more fearless back then.
2) A tale of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and ratepayer funding Published March 2010.
3) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 1 – first published late 2004
4) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 2 – first published, apparently January 2005 – the best piece of writing for those who can’t be bothered wading through the lot.
5) And Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 3 – which rather tells about the treatment of an unsolicited submission. (first published 2005). When in doubt, levy accusations of self interest.

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You Should Have Been Here Last Week by Tim Richardson

The subtitle is “Sharp cuttings from a garden writer” but eagle-eyed readers may notice that the secateurs on the front cover look as if they have been through the compost heap and are anything but sharp

Tim Richardson first came to our notice with his lavish book The New English Garden. We used it as a guidebook for our last garden visiting trip in that country because we wanted to see more contemporary work.  “You Should Have Been Here Last Week” is a much more modest publication and as a result, a great deal more convenient for reading. It is a collection of writings for various publications – Country Life, Daily Telegraph, Gardens Illustrated and half a dozen others. And what an interesting collection these are.

Topics range widely and the writer does not hesitate to put forward a measured opinion, at times well apart from the Establishment. People, places, trends, theories – he will analyse the lot. His critique of the New Perennials movement, the Sheffield School and modern directions in planting struck a particular chord with us and conveyed with clarity where he considers it has developed beyond the Northern European/Piet Oudolf movement (‘Immersive not pictorial’ was particularly succinct). But if that is not your interest, maybe the politics of self-sufficiency, gay gardening, the efforts to “Re-Vita-lize” Sissinghurst and the perils of public ownership of formerly private gardens will catch your interest. Those who are aware of my opinions on the matter may laugh when I say I feel totally vindicated by his critique of the stranglehold the Arts and Crafts garden style has held over gardens for too long. Modern design does not escape his scrutiny either – his views on Suburban Modernism (Sub Mod) gives some very good advice to those who live on smaller, town sections.

There is lots of meat (or maybe high quality protein, if you prefer) in these short pieces – plenty to think about, discuss, and to challenge your thinking about gardening. And he is a good writer rich in quotable passages, sometimes cutting, controversial even.

It is worth buying, this book and it is not even expensive. I wish there was more garden writing of this quality. I did a brief search on the author and came up with this gem:

Tim Richardson, author of Sweets: The History of Temptation, is the world’s first international confectionery historian. He also writes about gardens, landscape and theatre and contributes to the Daily Telegraph, Country Life, The Idler, House & Garden, Garden Design Journal and Wallpaper. He lives in North London.”

It is an unverified Wikipedia entry and I understand he no longer writes for the Garden Design Journal – sacked, or “let go” as they say, over a satirical paragraph in a column that was too hot to handle for that publication. If you want to read the previously unpublished column, it is in this new book. Being a bit of a flibbertigibbet, I was entranced to think of him doubling as the first international confectionery historian.  He is clearly a man of many talents.

You Should Have Been Here Last Week by Tim Richardson. Pimpernel Press 2016