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William Robinson's garden at Gravetye Manor in Suyssex

The Neoplatonic principle that gardens should imitate nature slumbered during the middle years of the nineteenth century. Loudon's discussion of the subject merely confused his successors. They paid their respects to the theory but gave no active consideration to the question of how gardens should be made to imitate nature. Edward Kemp's attitude is representative:  

Readers who have travelled with me thus far will have perceived that I have had occasion more than once to refer to Nature as the great school of landscape gardening. It may be worth while, then, specifically to inquire how far the imitation of nature is possible and right. I profess not to be of those who would carry this principle very far, or into minor matters..... A garden is for comfort, and convenience, and luxury, and use, as well as for making a beautiful picture. It is to express civilisation, and care, and design, and refinement...... In these respects, it is fundamentally different from all natural scenes.  

So it was that Dame Nature slept. In the 1870s a prince came forward to awaken the sleeping beauty. His name was William Robinson.  Robinson was 29 in 1867 and spent the summer touring the parks and gardens of France as a correspondent for the Gardener's Chronicle. The weather was bad and English correspondents complained about the way in which their carpet bedding schemes were being ruined by 'cold nipping winds..... followed almost continuously by cold nights, an an unusually heavy rainfall' . Various suggestions were submitted for breeding tougher plants, for using foliage plants which would not decay in bad weather, and for using new patterns of circles and stars to delight the eye and ensure that 'our employers will inspect their neighbour's floral decorations again with pleasure'.  

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Subtropical Planting. William Robinson admired the bold foliage of palms and tree ferns but wanted to find a way of achieving similar effects with less expense.

One solution to the problem was developed in Paris. Monsieur Barillet-Deschamps experimented with palms, tree ferns and other sub-tropical plants which were less affected by the weather because they did not depend on flowers for effect. The foliage plants were also used in more natural groups than floral bedding. Robinson was impressed, though he noted on September 21st that practical men were saying 'This sub-tropical system will never do for England'.

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John Gibson tried out the system in Battersea Park during 1867. It was popular but expensive. Robinson gave a further account of the sub-tropical system in his Gleanings from French Gardens(1868) and said that equally natural effects could be obtained by using hardy plants: 'We have no doubt whatsoever that in many places as good an effect as any yet seen in an English garden from tender plants, may be obtained by planting hardy ones only!'. He particularly recommended the use of Pampas Grass, Yuccas, Bamboos, Crambe and Rheum. As he later wrote in the Wild Garden 'I was led to think of the enormous number of beautiful hardy plants from other countries which might be naturalised, with a very slight amount of trouble'. Thus was a new style born of the English weather, nature and economy.  

The frontispiece to Robinson's Wild Garden. The other illustrations in this group are from the same book Pampas grass used instead of subtropical plants.
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A border of hardy flowers. This type of grouping became immensely popular in English gardens. 'A colony of myrrhis odorate, established in a shrubbery with harebells here and there'. The quotati

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see www.gardenvisit.com/order_form.htm Robinson became a militant protagonist of naturalistic planting and an opponent of carpet bedding. He was equally against the use of tender flowering plants and to their arrangement in geometrical beds. His beliefs constitute an unwitting return to the principles of planting design which had been formulated by Sir Uvedale Price,. When Christopher Hussey remarked upon the ancestry of Robinsons's wild planting he was summoned to Gravetye Manor where Robinson told him that he had 'never heard' of Sir Uvedale Price. He saw Loudon as his great predecessor and devoted a series of articles to him in the first issues of his own periodical, The Garden. This was partly true: Loudon followed Price in liking natural groups of plants, providing they were well-grown and well-labelled. The point which Robinson missed or ignored is that Loudon's Neoplatonic conception of nature also led him to recommend geometrical flower beds. As M'Intosh noted: 'circular figures.... in laying out flower-gardens' were 'strongly advocated by the late Mr Loudon'.  

Since Robinson's attack on carpet bedding was in tune with current artistic and scientific ideas it attracted widespread support in Victorian England. Robinson became friends with John Ruskin and found him an energetic ally in Nature's cause. At the age of twenty Ruskin (in 1839) Ruskin had in fact written for the Architectural Magazine and Loudon, forthright as ever in his judgement, welcomed him as 'the greatest natural genius that it has ever been my fortune to become acquainted with'. At the age of thirty Ruskin published the Seven Lamps of Architecture and identified nature as one of the main sources of beauty:  

I do not mean to assert that every happy arrangement of line is directly suggested by a natural object; but that all beautiful lines are adaptations of those which are commonest in the external creation....... The pointed arch is beautiful; it is the termination of every leaf that shakes in summer wind, and its most fortunate associations are directly borrowed from the trefoiled grass of the field, or from the stars of its flowers.

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Robinson was delighted to have such a powerful authority behind him and never tired of of reiterating the dependence of art upon Nature with a capital N : 'The work of the artist is always marked by its fidelity to Nature'. It was a restatement of one of the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement. William Morris was sympathetic to Robinson's point of view and wrote in Hopes and Fears for Art (1882) that: 

Another thing also too commonly seen is an aberration of the human mind, which otherwise I should have been ashamed to warn you of. It is technically called carpet bedding. Need I explain further? I had rather not, for when I think of it even when I am not quite alone I blush with shame at the thought'.  

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The Red House was designed by Philip Webb for William Morris
Morris home at Kelmscott House The Kelmscott Chaucer

William Morris commissioned Philip Webb, in 1859, to design the Red House in Bexleyheath. Banister Fletcher comments that 'The planning is informal and unconventional, but met the practical needs of its singular owner... The remarkable interior decoration and furnishings presage the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1880s'. The house takes in name from the unpretentious red brick and tiles with which it was built. The garden, likewise, has comfortable proportions and is designed for homely use rather than Victorian display. It can be regarded as the progenitor of the finest period in the history of English garden design.

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Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, admired by both. Blomfield and Robinson. Blomfield's illustration, left, emphasises the architectural terrace. Robinson's illustration, right, emphasises the cloak of romantic planting.

When Robinson found his attack on carpet-bedding had become a popular cause, his confidence grew and he began to criticise the use of all straight lines in gardens. This led him to oppose the use of terraces and architectural features as vigorously as Brown 's supporters had done in the second half of the eighteenth century. His enthusiasm for wildness and romance reached such a pitch that he came near to advocating the Picturesque Style.

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A young lady sketching at Kenwood, from Loudon's Suburban Gardener, 1838. Loudon believed that 'the improvement which, within the last fifty years, has taken place in landscape gardening, is, in a great measure, owing to the more general adoption of the art of sketching landscapes from nature, as a branch of female education'. Gertrude Jekyll was to give great force to this comment.
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Gertrude Jekyll's house at Munstead Wood.
Above, a hypothetical design by Jekyll, based on her visits to Italian gardens.
A water channel at the Villa d'Este, of the type admired by Jekyll
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Deanery Garden, Berkshire: a masterpiece by Jekyll and Lutyens. Photograph c 1912.
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The enclosed flower garden at Castle Drogo, Devon. The great yew hedge protects the garden from the winds which blast the hill-top site.

Robinson's views on carpet bedding were supported by arts and crafts architects but his views on terraces and other architectural features were not. Reginald Blomfield and J D Sedding, both architects and members of the Art Workers Guild, wrote books on garden design and advocated terraces. Sedding was comparatively moderate but a furious dispute arose between Robinson and Blomfield as to whether or not gardens should have terraces. Robinson had gone too far in opposing terraces and Blomfield went too far in opposing Robinson. Blomfield insisted that there must no natural shapes or planting anywhere near the house. It was a most surprising recurrence of an argument which had been effectively settled in the 1790s by Repton and the introduction of the Landscape Style. In the 1890s the mediator who stepped in to settle the dispute was a person destined to fulfil Loudon's prediction that nothing was likely to have such a good effect on the art of garden design as the fact that so many young ladies were taking up landscape painting.

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Gertrude Jekyll was born in 1843, the year in which Loudon died. When young she had studied painting at the Kensington School of Art and became an admirer, later a friend, of John Ruskin. Her whole approach to life and work was that of arts and crafts movement. Had the Art Workers Guild permitted lady members she would doubtless have joined and might have restrained Blomfield at an earlier date. Jekyll was skilled at numerous arts and practised each with a loving care for craftsmanship, naturalness and beauty. One of her arts was gardening and, with Robinson's help, she began to contribute to the horticultural press. Jekyll wrote with great authority and became a highly respected figure in the gardening world.  

In 1896 she considered the arguments which had been advanced by Robinson and Blomfield and pronounced judgement: 'both are right,both are wrong'. You could, Jekyll believed, have a terrace near the house, but you should arrange your plants in natural groups. She thought both the disputants hot-headed but was somewhat more inclined to Robinson's side, and added the comment that Blomfield seemed to be saying 'there is no garden but the formal garden and I am his prophet'. Blomfield accepted her judgement and in the third edition of his book sheepishly referred to 'a somewhat acrid controversy' between landscape gardeners and architects in which 'there was a good deal of truth on both sides'. Robinson bought an estate at Gravetye in Sussex which needed a terrace and Blomfield an estate on the island of Jersey which lent itself to the design of a wild garden.  

In plan terms the dispute was resolved by an updated version of the Landscape Style. The contestants agreed that the ideal arrangement was to have a broad walk or a terrace near the house, and then a transition, first to an open lawn and then beyond to a woodland garden or a fine view. The three elements of this sequence are shown on the diagram. It represents a garden of about five hectares. Jekyll considered this to be 'small'- her own garden at Munstead Wood was seven hectares, which she could manage with the help of eleven men. Few property agents would consider seven hectares unduly small but even one hundred and seven hectares would have been tiny for one of the old estates for which the Landscape Style was developed. Since Repton was the chief professional advocate of the transition it is worth noting that Jekyll and Sedding both praise him. Jekyll wrote that Repton teaches us 'to see how to join house to garden and garden to woodland'; Sedding that 'the best advice you can give to a young gardener is - know your Repton'. 

 

Jekyll became the most powerful influence on the revival of British garden design at the turn of the century. Her own taste for terraces probably dated from her youthful tours of Italy and the Mediterranean. Jekyll's second book, Wall and Water Gardens,contains photographs of the Villa D'Este and a plan for 'one small section' of a garden which 'I have ventured to describe and figure in detail'. Her design was for an elaborate terraced garden with rills of water running down both sides of a flight of steps in the Italian manner. The geometry of Italian gardens, then as now, was softened by a profusion of evergreen plants. The delightful combination of straight and irregular lines attracted Jekyll's eye and became a feature of the Arts and Crafts style. An indication of how it was interpreted in an English context with different vernacular traditions can be gained by placing Robinson and Blomfield's illustrations alongside one another. Blomfield shows the types of space which characterised the style and Robinson the vocabulary of hardy plants in natural groupings which were used to adorn the spaces.

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Jekyll's influence on garden design came about through her books and through her partnership with a third arts and crafts architect: Edwin Lutyens. They met in 1890 when he was only 21 and she was 47. Jekyll and Lutyens formed friendship which developed into a most productive working partnership. It was founded on a genuine 'closeness of minds' and shared a belief in 'the divinity of hard work'. Jekyll had fully absorbed Repton, Price, and Knight 's theories of outdoor design (viz Chapter 3) and passed this knowledge on to the young Lutyens. When merged with their joint love for the vernacular arts and crafts it produced an approach to house and garden design which is described by Christopher Hussey:  

The whole approach of the young Lutyens to architecture, through his study of the landscape, traditions, and vernacular techniques of his home county, was in the romantic tradition that regards buildings as properly the product of their soil and of the country craftsman's lore; and their planning as properly ordered by the circumstances of the site and the needs of their inhabitants. At the begining and again at the end of the nineteenth century these principles were habitually qualified by another, that the resulting building should possess the qualities of picturesqueness, that is, 'compose' picturesquely both as a design and in its setting. . 

Jekyll and Lutyens enjoyed touring Surrey together in a pony cart and liked to discuss the materials, design and construction of the things they saw. Jekyll later asked Lutyens to help design a new house in her garden at Munstead Wood. Construction began in 1895 and the project became a masterpiece. It is easy to think that Lutyens designed the house and the Jekyll the garden but this appears not to have been the case: it was a joint project. Lutyens had the technical knowledge but Jekyll had the strongest feelings concerning the character and proportions of the spaces which ought to be made. This applied equally to house and garden.  

The close working relationship which produced Munstead Wood grew more distant as the years passed but in the two decades before the First World War they created a number of houses and gardens which are amongst the most delightful ever to have been made in Europe. They have a rich charm which satisfies a deepfelt yearning for a civilised life in the country. One can  place them in the same 'quality bracket' as the gardens of ancient Egypt, sixteenth century Italy and seventeenth century France. When compared to the stately pleasure grounds of so many over-pretentious mansions, the gardens of the Arts and Crafts Movement  come closer to the Homeric and Virgillian idyll of rural retirement to a place of bounteous peaceAbraham Cowley, in the seventeenth century, wrote of his dream that:

I might be master at last of a small house and large garden, with moderate conveniencies joined to them, and there dedicate the remainder of my life only to the culture of them and the study of nature.  

He would surely have found contentment at the Red House, Munstead Wood, Orchards, Deanery Garden or Hestercombe. They are country retreats where the gardens provide a perfect setting for the houses, and the houses a perfect adornment to the gardens. Jane Brown describes them as 'the gardens of a golden afternoon', and contrasts them with the later projects on which Jekyll was less involved and often did no more than a planting plan - sometimes without even visiting the site. Without his partner's guiding influence Lutyens' garden designs tended to become bleak and formal. Grandeur took the place of charm. At Gledstone Hall (1922) and Tyringham (1924) the gardens are ornaments to the buildings with little use or beauty of their own - Lutyens did not enjoy gardening, or even sitting about in gardens.

 Castle Drogo, which was completed in 1929, is a particularly interesting Lutyens' project. One feels that the ghosts of the three squires might have had a hand in its conception. Price, would have guided the client to chose the Picturesque site and Knight his selection of the castellated architectural style. Judging from an early sketch, which is on display in the castle, Repton guided Lutyens first scheme for the garden: it steps down a hillside like the garden which he designed for Bayham Abbey. However Repton followed Vitruvius at Bayham and recommended the avoidance of hilltop sites because they are too exposed. Castle Drogo sits astride a hilltop and the wind forced Lutyens to lay out an enclosed garden which lurks behind a great yew hedge in an attempt to find shelter.

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The style which was brought to perfection by Jekyll and Lutyens achieved great popularity with amateur and professional gardeners. Its leading professional exponent, T H Mawson, was eight years older than Lutyens but started his career as a garden designer at almost the same time (c1890). He lacked Lutyens' genius but was a competent and prolific designer. Mawson took Repton and Kemp as his models and quoted Repton's principles for achieving 'formality near the house, merging into the natural by degrees, so as to attach the house by imperceptible gradations to the general landscape' . In 1900 he had the idea of publishing a book on The Art and Craft of Garden Making which caught the mood of the day and provides us with a name for his style: Mawson interpreted the old English tradition of garden making in terms of the arts and crafts movement. The book was handsomely produced. As Mawson proclaimed on the title page, it was 'Illustrated by photographic views and perspective drawings by C E Mallows and others, also chapter headings designed by Mr D Chamberlain, and one hundred and thirty plans and details of gardens designed by the author'.  

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The garden at Graythwaite Hall, in the Lake District, was designed by T. H. Mawson in 1896. It is a classic example of the style which Mawson expounded in The Art and Craft of Garden Making, published in 1900 and dedicated to the owner of Graythwaite. Mawson lacked Lutyens' genius but he was a prolific designer, as well as being the man who named and popularised the Arts and Crafts Style of garden design. He believed in local materials and traditional detailing.
The Hill, Hampstead, designed by T H Mawson for Lord Leverhulme in an Italian version of the Arts and Crafts Style.
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A bridge at Roynton Cottage, Lancashire, built of local stone. It  is in the 'cottage garden'  designed by Mawson for Lord Leverhulme.

The use of photographs in a book on garden design was an original idea which many publishers copied. A great series of picture books from Country Life , The Studio and other publishing houses followed. They have left historians with a fine visual record of the state of British gardening at a time when vast resources were available for the construction and maintenance of country houses and gardens. This was the twilight hour of the wealthy landowning class which had so long patronised the art of landscape design. Like aging fruit trees which know they will not survive into another season, the country landowners of England produced one last crop of magnificient gardens before succumbing to income tax, estate duty, and war.  

In the early years of the Arts and Crafts style, garden detailing was based on a patriotic admiration for the old English gardens which inspired the engravings of steps, walls, gateways and other features in Blomfield's book.

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Further research showed the origin of many of these details to be Italian and the style tended to drift into a third period of Italian influence over English gardens. Inigo Triggs major study of Formal Gardens in England and Scotland (1902) contains many examples of gardens which were made during the seventeenth and nineteenth century phases of Italian influence. They stimulated further historical research and new garden designs. Sir George Sitwell admired Blomfield's and Triggs' books and also knew that his family had owned an Enclosed garden in the seventeenth century. He spent many years studying Italian gardens, wrote a book on the subject, and then spent a fortune laying out two gardens in an Arts and Crafts version of the Italian style - at Renishaw in Derbyshire and at Montegufoni in Italy. Clients were attracted to the Italian style by its air of grandeur and it was adopted by a large number of Arts and Crafts designers, including Inigo Thomas, H A Tipping, Oliver Hill and Harold Peto. Thomas Mawson laid out an elaborate Italian garden for Lord Leverhulme which survives in good condition (now known as The Hill Garden). He also designed a 'cottage garden' for him in Lancashire, formerly known as Roynton Cottage and now as Rivington Terraced Gardens. It was built in the Arts and Crafts style but using stone instead of brick in a most imaginative way.  

Gardeners who undertook their own designs tended to remain loyal to the English version of the Arts and Crafts style. The owner-designers of Great Dixter (Nathanial and Christopher Lloyd), Sissinghurst (Vita Sackville-West), Hidcote (Lawrence Johnson), and Kiftsgate (Heather Muir) employed the style with great flair, and showed a sustained brilliance in their use of plant material which can scarcely be equalled by a designer who is not in residence.

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The designers of Arts and Crafts planting followed in the wake of Gertrude Jekyll, who was also an owner-designer and, as Hussey justly observes, 'the greatest artist in horticulture and garden-planting that England has produced'. Jekyll's theory of planting design can be traced to the three authors who published their first books in 1794. She combined Knight 's admiration for native woods with Repton 's idea of creating different compartments, and and with Price, 's idea of basing the composition of planting schemes on landscape painting. Her interpretation of these three themes is expressed in the following quotations from her most successful book, Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden:  

On woods: I am myself surprised to see the number and wonderful variety of the pictures of sylvan beauty that displays throughout the year. I did not specially aim at variety, but, guided by the natural conditions of each region, tried to think out how best they might be fostered and perhaps a little bettered.  

On compartments: It is extremely interesting to work out gardens in which some special colouring predominates...... it opens out a whole new range of garden delights..... besides my small grey garden I badly want others, and especially a gold garden, a blue garden and a green garden.  

On garden pictures: When the eye is trained to perceive pictorial effect, it is frequently struck by something - some combination of grouping, lighting and colour - that is seen to have that complete aspect of unity and beauty that to the artist's eye forms a picture. Such are the impressions that the artist-gardener endeavours to produce in every portion of the garden.  

J M W Turner was the landscape painter Jekyll most admired. Her main border at Munstead Wood, and a great many of her other planting schemes, were designed to create a sequence from blood-red in the centre, to golden yellow, to lemon yellow, to the white of the moon and to the pale blue of the sky. An identical sequence can be found in 'The Fighting Temeraire' and many of Turner's later paintings. The influence of the French Impressionists on Jekyll's planting schemes has been very much exaggerated.  

The near-destruction of Jekyll's garden at Munstead Wood is a great loss to the nation's heritage which is hardly compensated by the restorations which are in progress at Hestercombe, Great Maytham, New Place, and a number of other gardens.  

Sissinghurst, Hidcote and Great Dixter are in the Jekyll-Lutyens style. These gardens have attracted enormous numbers of visitors since 1946 and contributed to the continuing popularity of the style amongst amateur gardeners. The allegiance of such authors as G E Whitehead and Brigadier CE Lucas-Phillips, who have written for the amateur market, is revealed by their choice of illustrations - though they have interpreted the style with a marked lack of imagination. Garden styles are classified baldly as formal or informal. The Brigadier advises: 'If you aim at a very formal design, straight lines are the thing, but otherwise think in terms of soft, smooth-flowing curves,..... but no snakey wriggles, please'. They have also been reluctant to use new materials. Whitehead observes: 'There have been many changes since I first started. Materials are different. Instead of natural stone we must use artificial pavings more often than not'.  

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Kelmscott Manor Photograph © Kelmscott Manor

The continuing popularity of the Arts and Crafts style in the 1980s can best be explained by its wide cultural base. The arts and crafts movement embodied an approach to life and work which is especially close to the historic gardening ideal of combining use with beauty, profit with pleasure and work with contemplation. This philosophy was adopted by William Morris's Firm and by the community which he describes in News from Nowhere . It was an ideal pastoral community, which operated without laws or money. Morris enjoyed gardening and explains something of his approach to life and gardening in the following letter, written at Kelmscott, to Mrs Burne-Jones:  

I am just going to finish my day with a couple of hours work on my lecture but will first write you a line...... Yet it sometimes seems to me as if my lot was a strange one: you see, I work pretty hard, and on the whole very cheerfully, not altogether for pudding, still less for praise; and while I work I have the cause always in mind...... Well, one thing I long for which will certainly come, the sunshine and spring. Meantime we are hard at work gardening here: making dry paths, and a sublimely tidy box edging .

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Great Dixter. A fine Arts and Crafts garden with a wild-flower meadow by Christopher Lloyd

The Arts and Crafts style has also been able to satisfy the scientific interest in nature which has grown with such speed since Darwin's time. William Robinson was the first to advocate the conservation of wild-flower meadows. In The Wild Garden he asks 'Who would not rather see the waving grass with countless flowers than a close shaven surface without a blossom?' As the proud possessor of a handsome Victorian beard he was able to add that shaving one's grass was as foolish as shaving one's face.

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Robinson also encouraged an appreciation for the old gardens which were attached to that best-loved of British building types: the country cottage. He toured cottage gardens and illustrated them in his books and periodicals. In 1892 Robinson started a magazine on Cottage Gardening and announced that 'To those who look at a garden from an artistic point of view the cottage garden is often far more beautiful than the gentleman's garden near it'. Brenda Colvin's garden at Filkins is a lovely example of a modern cottage garden by an owner-designer. It has a Robinsonian flower-meadow and is planted in the Arts and Crafts style. Her partner, Hal Moggridge, described the garden as follows:  

It is a subtle blend of many different plants held together by a strong overall composition; at every time of year the rich textures of foliage are lightened by many flowers always in perfect colour relationship to one another. To obtain this balance of form and colour individual plants have always been treated with determination.  

The treatment of plant forms, textures and colours as compositional elements foreshadows the Abstract style. 

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Above: Brenda Colvin's garden at Filkins in Gloucestershire
Below: cottage planting in other gardens: Delphinium, Regal Lily, Iceberg Rose, Goat's Rue, Salvia sylvestris, Viper's Bugloss

 

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