Tag Archives: Tom Stuart-Smith

Pictorial or immersive gardens (part 2) – mostly immersive style because that is what interests us more

Part one is here.  You may wish to check the definitions of pictorial and immersive gardens. 

The designers whose work we seek out – often travelling great distances across England to do so – are Piet Oudolf, Tom Stuart-Smith, Dan Pearson, James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett with the work coming out from Sheffield University and, to a lesser extent, Christopher Bradley-Hole.

More pictorial than immersive – the Oudolf borders at Wisley RHS

We started with that giant of the New Perennials movement, Piet Oudolf. Who doesn’t? We have seen Oudolf’s work in several places – including Wisley, Trentham Gardens, Scampston, Pensthorpe and Bury Court. I like the controversial glasshouse borders at Wisley (though not so much on the last visit when they had all been freshly mulched in gravel which I found a bit too utility) though I acknowledge that they are more pictorial than immersive. Mark finds them a bit stripey. Our least favourite was Scampston which led me to think that he is probably a better plantsman than designer. Mark is given to describing some of his work as being ‘contemporary Gertrude Jekyll on steroids’ – particularly the large-scale work at places like Trentham and Pensthorpe.

Immersive Oudolf at Bury Court – also the difference between a domestic garden and public work

My absolute favourite is his very early commission on the walled garden at Bury Court. It really is magical and part of that is the scale which is much smaller, more detailed and domestic in nature. What designers create in private commissions is very different to what they do on large scale, public projects and it is interesting seeing both, even though our main focus is domestic gardens. The third aspect is what they do in their own private garden but we have missed the opportunity to see that with Oudolf. He closed his private garden, Hummelo, in the Netherlands last year.

On our July trip, we had scheduled in a visit to the much acclaimed new Oudolf gardens at the Hauser and Wirth gallery in Somerset as well as his early work at Potters Field in London that we have not yet seen.

Stuart-Smith at Mount St John in Yorkshire

We first saw Tom Stuart-Smith’s work at Wisley, too – the border plantings that edge the glasshouse lake. It was a bit early in the season and more recently planted, I think, and we weren’t blown away by it on that first visit. Subsequent visits have made us appreciate it more. The privilege of visiting his private commission at Mount St John in Yorkshire was different altogether. The sunny parterre immediately in front of the rather grand residence was sublime. Sure it was large scale and big budget. From memory, it is the home of a supermarket magnate. But it was a garden that invited you in to experience walking through it while it stretched out to the wider landscape beyond. My photos don’t do it justice.

More traditional  pictorial design at Mt St John – still the work of Stuart-Smith

Immersive design. The hedge at the far side is all that separates this garden from the more traditional one above

Just by way of illustrating the difference between immersive and pictorial gardens, look at these two side by side. It was the fully planted parterre that drew us in and made us catch our breaths in delight. Immediately adjacent to that, also in front of the house and looking out to the view was a more conventional lawn flanked by twin borders. Same designer, same location – two very different experiences. While admiring the horticultural excellence of the latter, it didn’t draw me in and make me want to linger as the more detailed and planted parterre did.

We have also seen his work at Trentham Gardens where most photos I have seen don’t do it justice. The photos I saw on line and in books all made those enormous parterres look very bitsy. In real life, the plantings are large and exuberant and they wrap around, obliterating that bitsy look that is a legacy of historic design features. Visiting a garden in person is a very different experience to looking at photos or videos.

On our July visit, we were planning to rush down from Shropshire to catch the Wednesday opening at Broughton Grange – another private commission of his. We really wanted to visit in person because we have only seen it in photos and it features that Stuart-Smith trademark of clipped caterpillar hedges undulating through a parterre. It was the inspiration for our own caterpillar garden at home which has nothing to do with caterpillars but is defined by the undulating internal hedging.

Bradley-Hole at Bury Court

So too was Christopher Bradley-Hole’s grass garden at Bury Court a direct inspiration. There is another private garden of his design and execution that is sometimes open by appointment. I found it last trip – in Surrey, I think – but we just ran out of time. I was planning to find it again and see if we could include it this time.

Early Pearson at Torrecchia Vecchia

We came to the work of Dan Pearson a little later. We have seen an example of his early work at Torrecchia Vecchia in Italy, his public sector work around the Kings Cross redevelopment in London and the perfection of a smaller, private commission in the Cotswolds. It is such gentle, but inspirational gardening. On this visit, we planned to go to Chatsworth Castle, specifically to search out his part of the garden. As I recall, it was a re-creation of this that won him gold at Chelsea a few years ago. Then we were heading north to see his ongoing work at Lowther Castle. My impression is that it is a softer, more English take on a romantic garden in the style of Ninfa in Italy but I have only seen photos.

Pearson perfection in a private Cotswolds garden. This was my first choice of image but then I went away and thought I have done exactly what I have referred to – picked the one section of the garden that is full of sharp detail and more pictorial in style.

Parts of the garden were like this…

and this. Maybe what made this garden so successful is the sensitive marriage of both pictorial and immersive styles in the one domestic space.

While in the north, we were going to take in the historic topiary at Levens Hall because we are not only going to look at the modern gardens and experiencing some of the historical work gives  context to what followed. I would happily have gone back to see Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s private garden, Gresgarth, which is in the same area (roughly speaking) if time allowed.

The enchanting Hitchmough meadow at Wisley in its early days

I have written often about the magic of James Hitchmough’s Missouri Meadow garden at Wisley when we first saw it in 2009. Magic is not too strong a word, even 11 years later. It was enchanting. We also watched it disintegrate and lose all its charm on subsequent visits and that is what made us interested in seeing how some of these looser, more naturalistic plantings mature over time. It made us realise that no gardens are maintenance free though some are lighter on maintenance requirements. And different skills are needed to manage such plantings. Given that Wisley is staffed with some of the very best and keenest horticulturists in the country, I am sure that major lessons have been learned. We wanted to see what those lessons were and how management of these plantings has evolved both by the designers and those tasked with their ongoing maintenance.

More recently, Dunnett at Trentham Gardens

Hitchmough and his colleague, Nigel Dunnett, were both leading lights in the much-acclaimed Olympic Park landscaping which we visited several years later. Also Dunnett at the Barbican rooftop garden in London, though it was the unexpected discovery of his work at Trentham Gardens that was the greatest highlight. That has been extended greatly (Trentham extends most things greatly, really) and we wanted to see both the newly planted areas and how those original plantings had matured.

We were also planning to spend two nights in Sheffield to look at their public sector work on greening the grey of the inner city. But the real highlight was when I found that their private, home gardens were both opening one Sunday afternoon for the National Gardens Scheme. I structured the whole itinerary of our UK leg around that Sunday afternoon. This would complete the set of having seen public sector work, private commissions and how they choose to garden in their own space. Maybe even meeting them and being able to talk briefly. We were also planning to see James Hitchmough’s borders at the Oxford University botanic gardens which are reputedly excellent and lasting the distance better than his earlier meadow at Wisley.

Wildside – created by a master gardener and plantsman

Finally, we had arranged to return to Wildside, one of the most innovative and exciting gardens we have seen, created not by a designer but by a plantsman. We are really sorry to miss the opportunity to meet with Keith Wiley again, especially as he has now started work on the last area he had to develop.

Wiley at Wildside in 2014. Keith was explaining his plans for his last area to be developed – now under way.

When an unsolicited invitation arrived to visit the private garden of a leading designer – you don’t ask for such a privilege, you understand – we were a-quiver with excitement. In the end, we couldn’t make our dates fit so it was not to be. This is perhaps just as well because it would have escalated our disappointment to a whole new level when everything had to be cancelled.

And that was the trip that was not to be in this strange era we are living through.

NB: If you want to know more about any of the gardens or designers mentioned here, a Google search will bring up a wealth of information. Putting the name in the search box on the top right of this page will bring up more information and photos on most of them from our personal perspective. 

 

Alliums at Mount St John. It was interesting going through my photos. In pictorial gardens, I tend to have framed landscape views and vistas or photographs of man-made focal points. In immersive gardens, I mostly take photos on a close-up scale – and many more of them at that. My photos are much more about colour, plant combinations and plant forms.

 

A garden destination for all tastes and expectations? Trentham in Stoke-on-Trent

Trentham Gardens shows that it can get pretty close to being all things to all people. Even on a cool, grey Monday afternoon, the place was humming. Mark and I have a running gag about the “sense of arrival” at gardens. One day I will explain the origin of our cynicism about this but we worked out long ago that the greatest “sense of arrival” is a full carpark. And on this Monday afternoon, I photographed our rental car so we could find it again later. As an aside, you can have any colour of car you like in Britain, as long as it is black or grey. And one grey rental car looks pretty much like 80% of the other cars.

Trentham had a long and illustrious history before falling on hard times. Very hard times. The splendid Capability Brown lake apparently became the smelly, festering sewer for the Trent River and all who lived and worked nearby – especially the potteries for which Stoke-on-Trent is famous – resulting in the family vacating the grand home. When nobody wanted to take the estate off his hands, the 4th Duke of Sutherland committed an act of great vandalism in 1912 and had most of the house demolished. Why? Many must have asked that question down the years.

Why? The remains of the original house

St Modwen Properties certainly must have asked that question when they took over the property in 1996 and declared a brave mission statement:

“Regenerate and restore the historic Estate and gardens turning it into a premier tourist and leisure destination of national significance.” 

The shopping village – Swiss chalet naff?

Those plans included extensive gardens, monkeys, a luxury hotel on the site of the original house (yet to materialise) and a whole lot more. Are they on track? They sure are. Moving from the well-filled carpark, you first encounter the retail village. True, it is what I might describe as ‘Swiss chalet naff’ in style but it appears to pull the punters and I bet the main street retailers hate it. We are not good shoppers so we passed through quickly.

The Italian terraces where the main plantings are by Tom Stuart-Smith

We were there to see the Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf gardens and then we found there were extensive new plantings by Nigel Dunnett. Three modern stars of the gardening scene is pretty good. And add in the David Austin rose border to make it four stars. But if ever there was a destination that fitted the “but wait there is more” descriptor, it is Trentham. There are summer concerts (see my footnote *). We did not go to the Monkey Forest (with real monkeys). Nor did we find the maze or the show gardens or go on the model railway. We should have taken the boat ride because the walk around the lake was closed for some reason so we could not get access to all the new Dunnett plantings. But honestly, there is enough there in the gardens around the site of the old house to keep most of us happy.

Looking across the Stuart-Smith plantings to a surviving original gateway

Tom Stuart-Smith planting

Put briefly, Tom Stuart-Smith has been given free rein on the original Italianate terraces. The planting is typical of his signature style that we have seen – big, bold and handsome combinations. The phlomis, Stipa gigantea, eryngiums, geraniums, tall campanulas and thalictrum all  come to mind at this time of the year. We saw his beautiful terraces at Mount St John in Yorkshire a few years ago and the Trentham plantings are in a similar mode but on a much bigger scale. The earlier photos I had seen of the Trentham terraces had looked a bit bitsy but these have matured to generous plantings that envelop the visitor.

More signature Oudolf than “Floral Labyrinth” and we were a little too early in the season to see its full glory

The Piet Oudolf gardens are styled as the “Floral Labyrinth” – do I detect the earnest hand of the marketing wing of Trentham in that name? Stylistically, they were similar to his work we saw at Pensthorpe in Norfolk on our last visit. Mark describes it as Gertrude Jekyll on steroids – carefully composed clumps of large perennials which will hold themselves up and not require ongoing dead heading, knitted together in a harmonious flow. When I say large, I mean a fair swag of them are shoulder or head height but no taller and a clump may be more than two metres across. We were just a little early for the full glory of peak flower but the veronicastrum and geraniums were lovely and there was plenty of other interest.

Piet Oudolf’s “Rivers of Grass” at Trentham

The Rivers of Grass were charming in a much lower key way. I deduced these were also the work of Piet Oudolf because there is a similarity to the meadow at Bury Court so I was pleased to be proven correct on that. Then I realised that Scampston in Yorkshire also has its Oudolf drifts of grass, though I was unconvinced by that one in a more rigid layout. All seem to use molinia which has a shimmering quality, seen at its best at Trentham on the day we were there, with the subtle inclusion of other flowering plants to add richness.

Dunnett at Trentham

More Dunnett and his Sheffield team at Trentham

The newest plantings are those of Nigel Dunnett and his Sheffield team. The photos tell the story. These are so fresh and deceptively simple. Just a joy. It is the first time I have seen a Sheffield planting that is so tightly colour-toned as the blue border. Consumer demand? Further round the lake, I understand it is more woodland which would have been interesting had the path not been closed because we have only seen Sheffield plantings in full sun so far. What a delight they are. I see their branding is as “Pictorial Meadows” which seems an appropriate descriptor.

The ‘Upper Flower Garden” – oops

What is really interesting on this massive project is that a private business has looked to some of the top designers and practitioners working in the field of contemporary landscape, design and gardening to turn a very old site into a modern attraction. We are lucky indeed that St Modwen, as owners of Trentham, had the vision to go well beyond the obvious Victorian bedding plant tradition. It is a brave decision. If you are looking at a mass market, the reality is that the average Joe or Josie Public is going to be quite happy with bedding plants of the floral clock genre – lots of tidy colour planted in patterns. These are not entirely lacking at Trentham, as witness the “Upper Flower Garden”. I raised my eyebrows at these but I bet poor old Tom Stuart-Smith has to avert his eyes in horror when he stands on this top terrace to get a long view of his plantings out to the lake. But in the hands of a less visionary investment company, this could have been the story of the entire place.

My photos are entirely ‘of the day’ – a snapshot in time. When top-flight plantspeople are given free rein, they are not planting for a small window of time. These are plantings that are designed to take the gardens through the seasons, or at least three seasons from spring bulbs through to autumn colour with a more static picture of winter rest. This is a high level skill but never more so than in public plantings predominantly of perennials, where one planting must gently age and fade gracefully as the next wave of plants takes over. Which is to say that should you visit a month or two months later, the gardens may look very different but should still look as if they are at or close to their peak.

There is a really complex entry charge system, depending on which areas you want to visit (the gardens count as one area). Goodness me, you can even use Tesco Clubcard vouchers (Tesco being a supermarket chain). It is worth looking on line – I found a two for one weekday voucher there though I then felt a bit mean when I used it.

Postscript *I do not want to overstate the evening concerts. In fact I looked at the programme boards and wondered if it was just the one contracted band in different guises. The amphitheatre stage was but modest. Maybe they are catering to a specific local demographic, this year at least? On our last visit we saw Hatfield House in London preparing for a major concert. U2? Or was it UB40? I have waited three years to use my photo of the portaloos at Hatfield. Trentham is not trying that scale of concert at this stage but give them time. I am sure they will be looking at it for feasibility and profitability.

Portaloos at Hatfield House in 2014

Because I had many more photos than I could use on this post, I have added an album on Facebook.