Prince Charles' Postmodern Garden Design for Highgrove

The cover of The Garden At Highgrove by the Prince of Wales and Candida Lycett Green illustrates the postmodern character of even the central vista

The cover of The Garden At Highgrove by the Prince of Wales and Candida Lycett Green illustrates the postmodern character of even the central vista (the cedar tree has since died)

Gods bless the Prince of Wales

I once wrote that ‘Royal leadership in the art of garden design began to decline after the accession of George I in 1714‘. His successors lacked the garden enthusiasm of their predecessors. No one could say this of Prince Charles. With talent and resources, he is making one of England’s great gardens. Should he become Charles III, as I  hope, he will be the most talented garden designer ever to sit on the throne of England or Great Britian. He has substantial talents in garden design, landscape architecture and landscape painting. Charles is already The Green Prince. But will future historians state that ‘royal leadership in the art of garden design resumed when the Duchy of Cornwall bought Highgrove from Maurice Macmillan in 1980’? It is possible. But it is too early to judge. The Prince has, he tells us, put his soul into Highgrove. You can find a few images on the web and many in his book  but unless you manage a visit, as I was lucky to do, you will not get a good idea of the garden. With 6 full-time gardeners and 4 part-time gardeners, it is a fast-changing and, as yet, a rather admirably untidy place.

I will try to put my analysis into the standard format of a design critic and teacher: classifying the approach, saying what is good, saying what is not so good, and making suggestions re ‘what could do with further thought’.

The style of the Highgrove garden

The house dates from the 1790s and the design theory underlying the garden dates from much the same time. Humphry Repton, who once worked for a Prince of Wales, would have strongly supported the use of a compartmented structure and, unlike Arts and Crafts compartments, they would have had design themes.  I do not doubt that Repton would have approved the use of contemporary themes at Highgrove – and the view of Tetbury steeple from the front of the house is uncannily like a Reptonian sketch. But the visual character of Highgrove is uncompromisingly postmodern – to a far greater extent than the Abbey Garden in nearby Malmesbury by the brash postmodern developer-architect Ian Pollard. In detail, it may well be that Prince Charles has drawn inspiration from his annual visits to the Chelsea Flower Show and, perhaps, from Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta and from the work of Geoffrey Jellicoe.

What’s good about the Highgrove garden design

The Prince has been very brave. His skill with pen and brush have educated a discerning eye and a creative imagination, able and willing to work as a patron for talented craftworkers.  Individual compartments are highly experimental, with some notable successes and some requiring further thought. He also has a grand theme – sustainability-  which,  it must be hoped, will unite the compartments into what could become the greatest Postmodern Garden in Britain. At present Portrack, by Charles Jencks, is its chief rival.

What’s not so good about the Highgrove garden design

The Highgrove garden lacks spatial coherence. This flaw may be a consequence of its youth. But it may also result from the lack of a ‘master plan’ at the outset of the project. It is perfectly logical for a Postmodern garden to be without a master plan but its lack may diminish the eventual quality of the design.

Respectful suggestions for the Highgrove garden

I saw Highgrove in early autumn. It may be that a flowing springtime meadow, billowing  around the geometrical core, gives more coherence. But I doubt if this would be enough, even though Miriam Rothschild advised on the composition and management of the wildflowers. My first suggestion to Prince Charles is to get some feint outlines of the garden plan printed onto the best watercolour paper and then to lay some washes to create a shape and a pattern for this space. My second suggestion is to give some more thought to the pedestrian circulation. This should be done first by user analysis (records of walks: by residents, visitors, staff, animals etc) to plot desire lines, and then by the Prince, if he can find the time, doing a series of quick watercolours to show views along a ‘processional route’ (ie a recommend route for visitors). They should be arranged in sequence and used as a design tool for future projects. Eventually, it might be found that they can be edited to tell a story.

PS I use ‘gods’ instead of ‘god’ in the heading for this post for several reasons (1) Prince Charles has stated his desire to be the Defender of Faiths, rather than Defender of the Faith (Fidei defensor), (2) many ‘gods’ appear to be respected and represented at Highgrove, (3) Christianity has not been a fruitful religion with regard to garden design.

PPS I also liked the Orchard Room designed by Charles Morris and consider Jonathan Glancey’s piece on A royal bungalow in the Tesco style bigoted.

17 thoughts on “Prince Charles' Postmodern Garden Design for Highgrove

  1. Gordon Evans

    I used to love clients like this. Taken to the topiary section of Bruns nursery in Bad Zwischenahn it was sometimes difficult to restrain them, a heady experience when on a percentage fee. Despite one’s best advice, the results were often similar to the photo heading this blog. I am put in mind of a discussion about the Day of Reckoning I had with a prominent architect who remarked “well, at least I can tell Him that I never did Post-Modern”. I find the central vista a triumph of budget over good taste, not much more than an empty gesture. I am afraid that Jonathan Glancey’s piece made me laugh out loud, perhaps I have been ex-patriat for too long.

  2. Katrina Underwood

    Perhaps his “Royal Highness” might like to consider extending the visiting arrangements for “Jo Public” to visit the garden at Highgrove other than through organised groups and a waiting list of at least one year! In this way we could “all” more easily appreciate his “talent as a great garden designer”!!

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    Gordon, the central section is a relic of when the garden belonged to Harold McMillan’s son, Maurice and the topiary was the only ‘garden’ he had. Prince Charles allowed a selection of gardeners to re-fashion one yew each.
    Katrina, they have a large number of visitors but the demand is very great. When one thinks how many houses and gardens are completely closed to the public (like Badminton), and the security problems at Highgrove, the present arrangements seem very generous to me.

  4. Teresa

    I am visiting the UK early 2010, I would love to tour the part of the garden that grows the fruits and vegetables, as i eat ‘Dutchie Organics’ when I can get them here in Australia, I am an avide organic/biodynmaic ‘foody’ and teach environmental education.
    Would you please email me a list of dates you have when a tour to this part of the garden is planned for the public…
    Thankyou Teresa Rutherford

  5. Adam Hodge

    I visited Highgrove this week. It is an intriguing amalgam of HRH’s own preferences and interests with an assortment of influences from other,no doubt eminent advisers, most obviously the Bannermans of Hanham Court near Bristol.

    It is evident HRH loves trees especially Fagus, as there were many interesting varieties throughout the grounds we had access to. He also loves Hosta’s as there are areas where they were planted a-plenty ! He also has the task of placing a myriad of well-meaning gifts around the estate such that they sit well in the landscape. To that effect one is aware of a plethora of assorted ornaments throughout. In some instances i.e. a column from a station he,as imaginately recommnended by the Bannermans, has added a fine sculpture of a large bird, wings in full spread. It works !

    Amusingly as one advanced around the woods and areas where the Bannermans have had considerable influence I couldnt help being reminmded of Marie Antoinette and her various garden amusements. It seems the Bannermans have a delightfully charming, agressively romantic perspective on gardens such that the various temple-like structures ,stumperies and other fancies pull one into a la la land adrift of today’s reality of life.

    There were many good features all over the gardens , and yet my one abiding sense was that within the expanse he has to play with it was some all somehow rather intense and tight. One wanted to just prize open the avenues to be wider,moderate some of the Yew hedges of the intense and almost excessive ornamentation, broaden the paths and views in the woods, use his passion for ferns as a counterbalance to the Hosta fest’s ..perhaps using one or two types of fern as an underplanting of textural background to the substantial leaves of Hostas, to name a few.

    All in all it was a pleasing garden because of the richness of planting, but I would tend to exercise a margin of restraint when it comes to the shabby chique looks the Bannermans have probably recommneded on some of the paved terraces. Whilst Alchemilla ,Thymus and other plants growing amongst the paving looks relaxed it also errs on looking a mess [and I’m not the tidiest person] .

    At the end of the day it is his garden, it is managed and developed with a generous wallet and he’s been good enough to let us punters look around it. So, Thanks !

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    Thank you for the comment. We classify music into chronological periods and into types (folk, military, soul, classical, church, etc). Gardens can be placed in parallel categories. At Highgrove, I equate the Bannerman’s contribution with folk music (Adam: do you think their work is better decribed as romantic?) but I think HRH sees own work modern classical, and that he probably regrets not being able to produce a religious garden, though he also likes to chuck in some humourous lyrics.

  7. Adam Hodge

    I would class HRH’s style as post-classical and the Bannermans as post-Baroque or maybe faux-Victorian. Having seen and hugely enjoyed the plantings around the main lawn at Hanham one can but smile at the dreamy romantiscm of their creations. I cant say I ‘get’ the Stumperies or the temples with the faux stone effect in wood, but so’s what they like and evidently the HRH as well.
    What is refreshing is the constant examples of tongue-in-cheek touches..even as far as the sign that says This is an Old Fashioned area ,or however it’s worded. One can so easily slip into a slightly anal seriousness about styles and how right or wrong the place of assessment matches up.
    HRH has the opportunity to do what he likes in a decent sized space and has grasped the opportunity with gusto, even if a few of the dimensions are or where a bit timid.i.e the Tilia avenue beyond the golden Yew walk is showing it wasnt planted wide enough, so now the trees are crowding together and obscuring the feature at the end.

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    I have not been to Hanham, yet, but of course I have no objection to tongue-in-cheek-in-garden, or to folk music in a garden. But I also like the seriousness of Baroque music (which I do not often find in Baroque gardens) and I would like so see HRH having a bash at this ‘style’ of design – by putting style in quotes I mean that I would like to see a garden with a more serious moral and artistic ambition than folk music. I am not talking about visual style. Perhaps I mean an attitude of mind.
    On the general point, I think HRH is by far the most interesting garden patron his family has ever produced.

  9. Adam Hodge

    As the Bannermans have influenced HRH with a ‘folk music’ style who is there that he would respect and commission with a Baroque flavour to their landscape design work ? I wonder how one could translate Rameau or Charpentier, Pachelbel or Bach, Vivaldi or Cimarosa into a garden ?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      There are tours of Highgrove throughout the summer but (1) you have to be a member of a group to book a tour and the other people on your tour need to belong to the same group (eg a garden club, a WRI group, a church group, a photographic society) (2) the tour has to be booked a very long time in advance of the tour date.


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