Category Archives: Historic garden restoration

Wrest Park Garden is a stylistic hybrid – and all the better for it

The central axis of Wrest Park Garden is one of the best examples of the High Baroque Style of garden design in England

Wrest Park is not as well-visited as it deserves. The garden was restored in 2011 and, faced with the question ‘when should it be restored to?’, English Heritage took the sensible decision to restore separate parts of the garden to different dates: the Baroque section to the Late Baroque period, the perimeter canal section to the Serpentine Style of the  mid-eighteenth century, the Victorian section to the Mixed Style of the mid-nineteenth century.  Visitors may well find it necessary to consult the style chart to understand the design. I agree with Tim Richardson that Wrest Park may appear in a future stylistic classification as a prime example of a ‘National Trust restoration’.

Michelham Priory Medieval Garden

Michelham Priory Garden is a delightfully tranquil moated manor house in East Sussex. What I like most about it is the recreated medieval garden. And what I like most about the medieval garden is the ‘flowery mead’ and the turf seats. Our knowledge of Michelham – and of medieval gardens in general – is not enough to say whether or not the details are accurate. But, to me, these details feel right and this is not a feeling I have about comparable recreations, either by the Garden History Museum or National Trust. Nor do I have this feeling about cathedral cloister garths. They are all managed with lawn mowers and this device was invented in 1830. The usual problem with medieval recreations is that their designers are muddled about the differences between medieval, renaissance and baroque gardens. So they use clipped hedges, which were a baroque feature, to make renaissance-style knot gardens. It does not make sense!

Michelham Priory Medieval Garden

The ‘flowery mead’ in Michelham Priory Medieval Garden

Shalimar Bagh Kashmir: historic garden conservation

As a generalisation, the condition of historic gardens in most countries is getting better. They enjoy more expert attention, more visitors and more resources. Shalimar Bagh in Kashmir is an exception. When I saw it in 2006, it did not seem to be in quite as good condition as when Susan Jellicoe (black and white photo above) photographed it c1970. And when I saw it again in 2012 (colour photo, above) it seemed in even worse condition. Oddly, there were also far more visitors than in 2006. Does anyone know what the problem is? Lack of money? Lack of will? A concern for the bugs which enjoy rotting timber? A lack of concern for India’s Islamic heritage?

Political Landscapes

Soviet Memorial, Treptower Park

Located in East Berlin, the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park is the last resting place for 7,000 Russian soldiers. Planned in 1945, finished in 1949, the design was chosen in a competition to which 33 submissions were recorded. The winning design came from an artist’s collective that included the architect Yakov Belopolski, the sculpter Yevgeni Vuchetic, the painter Alexander Gorpenko and the engineer Sarra Valerius.The memorial was completely restored between 2003 and 2009, including the shipping of the 70 ton, 12 metre tall main statue – a Red Army soldier holding a child and standing over a shattered swastika – to the island of Rügen and back for repair. The memorial is ca. 570 metres long, 150 metres wide, and the main statue with its base mound stands 30 metres tall.

I am always very impressed with designs that rest heavily on trees for their main spatial definition. The Soviet Memorial relies on plane trees – now around 30 metres high – to define its outer boundary, with pleached limes – now around 15 metres high – used to step this scale down as an internal edge. There is an amazing avenue of weeping birches, now with crown diameters of up to 15 metres, planted at 25 metre centres. The western end of the axis is closed with lombardy poplars. One would look far today for a client that would be prepared to countenance a design that would first be ‘realised’ 40 years and more after its actual completion. As the point of the memorial is to convey everlasting glory upon the fallen soldiers, this aspect of the design makes it for me particularly moving.

The detailing of the memorial is superb. Students of landscape design should be encouraged to visit it to learn the importance of step, edge and paving details, and the enormous power of simplicity when ‘writ large’. It is a living memorial, fresh red carnations are strewn throughout on the statuary, and the room below the main statue is filled with flowers and garlands. There is a complete absence of religious symbolism.

Many people will not like this memorial, or this kind of political landscape. I was surprised myself that I found it very moving. Though most visitors were simply out enjoying the sun, one overheard many conversations on political themes, so it does seem that this piece of landscape design is still engendering debate.

The final image, included for contrast and to encourage comment, is taken in Budapest’s Memento Park, a collection of statuary from the Russian occupation of Hungary. The statue is of Stalin’s boots, all that remains of a massive sculpture of him that once stood in the centre of the city, after the population sawed off the rest of it and pulled it down.

Does Greenwich Park have the oldest avenue of trees in England?

The most important avenue in Greenwich Park, because it is grass, not tarmac, and because it has so many ancient chestnuts, is blocked by a Royal Bin Store for the cafe (above left - also note the design of the picnic tables, and sigh). When the bin store is removed the view on the right will be revealed. Queen Elizabeth I was born in 1533 in the palace of Placentia, in Greenwich, and learned to ride a horse in the park (not in this avenue, which was not planted until 1660-1, possibly on the recommendation of John Evelyn).

The candidates for ‘oldest avenue of trees in England’ include:

  • The yew trees in Westbourne said to have been planted in 1544.
  • The Bucklebury Oaks, also known as The Queens’ Avenues, which may have been planted to commemorate a visit by Queen Elizabeth I as well as a later visit by Queen Anne
  • Joris Hoefnagel’s drawing of Nonsuch Palace makes it look as though a line of trees leads to the entrance and there was a similar feature is shown on reconstructions of the Palace of Beaulieu

But the ‘correct’ answer depends in the interpretation of the question:

  • the processional route at Stonehenge is often described as an avenue and probably passed through trees for some or all of its length. Other stone circles (eg Callanish) also had what are assumed to be processional routes, as did Egyptian and Mesopotamian temples
  • the word ‘avenue’ (from the French avenir) was not used in English until the mid-seventeenth century. A similar feature made before this date would probably have been called an alley (from the French aller)

So on a strict interpretation of the word ‘avenue’, the oldest avenue in England may be in Greenwich Park. The chestnut trees, which survive, were planted c1660 and John Evelyn, who is recorded in the OED as the first English author to use the word ‘avenue’, may have advised on the layout. He had an avenue, which does not survive, in his nearby garden (at Sayes Court in Deptford). The best-looking avenue of old trees in Greenwich Park runs north from a point near the intersection of the Great Cross Avenue with Blackheath Avenue. The view along this avenue was blocked a few years ago by the erection of a ‘hit-and-miss’ fence round an outdoor rubbish dump for the park cafe. It makes one think that the Royal Parks, who manage Greenwich, either have no knowledge of garden history or no interest in garden history. So one does not know whether to conclude ‘forgive them, Oh Lord, for they know not what they do’ or whether to conclude ‘forgive them, Oh Lord, for they know exactly what they do’. But I regard the positioning of this rubbish dump as unforgivable. When an airplane crashes, an accident investigation team is established. There is a need for a similar investigation of the Royal Parks Agency. The Commission of Enquiry should have plenipotentary powers to call for papers, to summon witnesses, to take evidence under oath and to make binding recommendations, if necessary for the future involvement of expert garden historians and landscape architects in decision making for the Royal Parks. How many managers of Royal Parks have qualifications in garden history? Are there any qualified garden historians on the agency’s payroll? Several excellent landscape architecture firms have given advice on Greenwich Park but, so far as I know, no trained designers or historians have had a role in the Greenwich Park management hierarchy. And it shows. Greenwich Park is to be closed for a month in 2012 for the Olympic Equestrian Events. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the rubbish dump were removed as part of the Olympic legacy to Greenwich Park?

Garden design and the history of art

Developments in gardens parallel developments in the fine arts

The top pictures show a medieval statue, Michaelangelo’s David and Bernini’s David.
The lower pictures show a medieval garden, a renaissance garden and a baroque garden.
The pairs represent the devotional attitude of the middle ages, the static calm of the renaissance the drama of the baroque.
I think there are closer parallels between the histories of gardens and fine art than between the histories of gardens and dynasties, which makes me doubtful about the categorisation of British gardens as Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian etc. Nor do I think kings and queens have had a leading role in the development of garden design. So why are royal names so popular in Britain? Are garden historians flunkies? And how do the Irish manage without royal names for garden styles?

Are garden historians flunkies?