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November 23, 2020

It’s not considered cricket, and certainly not gardening, for an author to review his own book. But he has to please his publisher, and she is prodding him to tell his readers that Trad doesn’t only write about garden matters; he (or rather I. This is confusing, as well as embarrassing) has done a bit of writing about wine too.

This plug is for The Story of Wine, from Noah to Now. It’s not new, but over its thirty-odd years it has come to be regarded as a ‘classic text’, unique, timeless, blah, blah – and a new edition was overdue. There are critics who agree. Andrew Roberts, biographer of Napoleon and Churchill, has written a new Foreword. He evidently concurs. Jancisrobinson.com, an authoritative website, calls it ‘a romp of a read’. What pleases the author is that a rather stiff and weighty tome has miraculously become much lighter and more supple, not a paperback but one of a new breed of bed-worthy books. People actually stroke it – though its actual purpose is to be read. It makes a good present, too, for people who like wine. And who doesn’t?

NB This is the first ad in many years of Trad, and hopefully the last.

Covid time

November 17, 2020

In spring we want time to slow down. There is never the leisure to follow in detail all the beautiful revelations of nature. This year Lockdown in March and April gave us more and slower time than ever before, and more welcome quiet, to observe and enjoy. This winter we will want time to speed up, to get through the bare months as quickly as possible.

Time has all sorts of speeds, not subject unfortunately to our braking or acceleration. Covid has introduced a new one, a strange plodding repetitive rhythm indifferent to our hopes, plans and emotions. My reaction is to take a microscope to everyday life, to see (or rather try to see) like William Blake, a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. Or any flower.

A duel fought with parks

November 10, 2020

Home from a short break in the Norfolk of wide skies and huge houses, specifically to visit Houghton Hall, its Bannerman garden and the collection of creations (sculptures is hardly the word) by Anish Kapoor. Houghton and its vast park is not the place to exhibit fiddly little things: Kapoor takes the firmament with his vision, and the firmament plays along.

When the Hall turns its massive front (or is it back?) north towards the sea, an appropriately massive avenue stretches to the horizon. The French allée says it better than avenue: this is more Versailles than the park of an English squire. Plumb in the centre Kapoor has plonked a vast gleaming dish of a mirror, bringing the empyrean (a word I long to use without sounding trite) down into your reach. You can always, of course, throw your head back, scan the sky and follow the wandering clouds. It feels different, though, brilliantly focussed, when the sky is brought close to you in your natural field of vision. The intense blue, the clouds in their infinity shapes, textures, colours, flowing or shifting, are transformed into a solid object.

Most of Kapoor’s works here are shapes he has found hidden in stone. When someone asked Michelangelo how he carved his David he replied (or so someone told me) ‘I just cut off the bits that don’t look like a young man.’

Kapoor has no models for the shapes he liberates from great slabs of rock, some smooth, swelling and seemingly organic, some like brutal gashes made in anger, others like deliberate designs with a purpose (which is not revealed). The formality of Houghton’s park, spaces defined by trees, full-grown or tightly trained, forms the rooms in a vast open- air gallery. I was wondering what Sir Robert Walpole in his pomp, our first Prime Minister, glorying in his power and wealth, would make of his great showpiece reflecting a world he could not imagine. But then, of course, nor can we without Kapoor.

Awesome as the scale of Houghton is, its neighbour and rival Holkham Hall puts it firmly in its place. Coke challenged Walpole to a duel, with parks as the weapons. Is there an avenue, or indeed allée, anywhere as ambitious as the north drive at Holkham? It marches three miles dead straight over hill (admittedly modest hill) and dale (also modest) from a triumphal entrance area to the great frowning front of the Palladian mansion, punctuated by an obelisk which is scarcely a lesson in modesty.

The units of this grandiose approach are not mere single trees but clumps of a dozen evergreen oaks at a time, spaced to allow vistas of Coke’s famously fertile farmland as you pass. The house (‘palace’ fits it better) does not exactly smile a welcome. As a dozen other Norfolk rural mansions of the 18th century testify, a Norfolk squire can do haughty as well as any prince.

The seasons

October 13, 2020

Spring is a sequence of more or less predictable events – buds swelling, shoots emerging, flowers appearing, from primroses to snowdrops and crocuses to tulips and daffodils. Meanwhile the canopy is unfolding, until the beeches cast the bluebells into shade. You can’t quite pace the autumn like this. While spring can be accelerated or delayed by a matter of days, its rhythm is driven underground. What tells the crocus to push its little nose in the air? Who can tell?

Autumn is driven by all-too-palpable forces. Leaves have lost their freshness and strength: their withered frames are vulnerable. Wind and rain tear at them, a frost starts to change their chemistry, their sugars retract into the shelter of the soil, or their woody structure of twigs and branches. The metabolism that grew their roots closes down and either sleeps or dies. They have formed their seed and sown it, fat apples, or grains almost too small to see, have been launched to start a new generation

The seasons are the theme of an exhibition (open till January 9) at the St Barbe Gallery in Lymington that is worth travelling a long way to see. Indeed all their exhibitions, and the little gallery itself, are worth visiting. There is a school, or tradition, of English painters of the 20th century that really lacks a label, but is perfectly recognisable. You could call it Romantic Realism, perhaps. It lives outdoors, obsessed with nature and the activities of country life. Some of its best artists dwelt on the hard labour of farming, jobs that have now disappeared but whose machinery is still vaguely familiar from the hulks of wagons, harvesters or threshing machines that hang around old farms. There are works here by Nash, Ravilious, Badmin, Sutherland, Leighton, Dunbar, Tunnicliffe, Tanner, Laura Knight, Grant, Cedric Morris, Reynolds, Minton, Hitchens and several more.

Clare Leighton’s, woodcuts of farming in the 1930s tell the story with an extraordinary muscular simplicity. Great artists internalize their subjects, then remake them in a kind of reverie, guided by their medium, whether chisel or pen or brush and dense oil or the transparency of watercolour. A poet waits for words to fall into place, then manoeuvres them; a composer, sounds. The artists in this exhibition have absorbed the sights of the seasons and processed then through their souls. The result is an almost spiritual record of the English year as it once was. I could sob at the sights we have lost.

Déja vu

September 30, 2020

There are worse ways of garden visiting than virtually, online. There are better, too, and the best (short of IRL) is memory – supposing, that is, you’ve been there before. Memory needs booting, though. It operates best, I find, if I fix my thoughts on a particular spot I remember clearly and walk myself round from there. It can be surprising how the details come back. “What happens if I turn left here?’ is a subconscious thought, but the subconscious can do what it’s told, turn over a page of memory and reveal the plants, the steps, the bend in the path that are stored there. Or maybe not. Then try turning right, or return your steps to where you spoke to someone, or put your money in the box.

This presupposes, of course, that you were paying attention. I admit mine switches on and off. It switches on when it recognises a plant from my own garden, but most strongly when it doesn’t.

Can anyone keep their attention at full alert all the way round? The problem with written descriptions of gardens is the danger of being too inclusive and banging on regardless. The writer doesn’t want you to miss anything. They glance from left to right, turn this way or that, enumerate the plants and feel a duty to explain the layout at the same time. What is the answer? To subdivide the garden and take one bed, or compartment, or feature at a time? The danger is losing the full wrap-around experience. Analysis, if it has a place, should come after submersion. On the second visit, as it were; not on first acquaintance.

And first acquaintance, ideally, should come as a surprise. Read too much about a garden in advance, or look at too many pictures, and the risk is of seeing it with other people’s eyes rather than your own. Of course this can apply to any of the arts, any place – indeed any experience. Should you prime yourself by hearing an expert view, or submerse yourself in all innocence?

It depends, in reality, on how much time you’ve got. Most organised garden tours, in my experience, try to pack in far too much. Three gardens in a day is not uncommon. In cases like these it is often your camera, rather than your eyes and your brain, that records the experience. Can you really look at and appreciate a garden through a camera lens? It will be frozen in two dimensions; that will be the image you take away, bereft of the scents and sounds, the chill of the wind or the warmth of the sun; a mere token, indeed, of the work of creativity and hard work that you came to see.

You can’t listen to a symphony or an opera in the few moments you have to spare. It dictates its pace. A well-designed garden has its allegros and andantes, its rallentandos and even fortissimos too. Like all worthwhile experiences appreciating a garden takes time.

Not to like

September 16, 2020

‘What’s not to like?’ is an expression that makes me cringe. It usually comes as a smug conclusion to a list of virtues or benefits. I found it passing through my brain this morning, though, taking a before-breakfast walk through Holland Park, glowing, if not perspiring, in a temperature in the high 20s. The sun shafted through the tall woodland trees making shade hard to find. What was not to like was the memory of the programme the previous night when David Attenborough listed the existential threats to the natural world. Of course we know them all in theory. It was his illustrations that made them scary, and scarily urgent.

The most shocking to me was the plunder of the oceans, with fish being ‘harvested’ in unimaginable quantities, like gravel from a gravel pit, whales wiped out, the ocean floor bulldozed bare. The squabbling over ‘our’ fish resources, not based on how to sustain and multiply them but on who gets the biggest share, seemed worse than obtuse. Indeed, obscene.

And the previous evening a friend in California told me that the night-time temperature in St Helena had not fallen below 104 degrees. ‘What did you do?” I asked. ‘We stood in the shower wrapped in a towel.’ Will there always be enough water? There is a lot not to like.

A boring story

September 15, 2020

I vividly remember my brother boring for water in the Maremma when he started to garden on the steep slopes of Scansano. He had gone to Tuscany to paint, but soon started to plant. The local supply, it quickly became evident, was simply not up to his needs. Then a friend visited with a hazel rod. It twitched. ‘There’s water down there all right’, he said. ‘A long way down. But I reckon it’s an underground stream.’

So Brian consulted a borehole engineer, swallowed hard when he saw the estimate, and went ahead. They calculated 60 metres. We were waiting for them that morning: a lorry loaded with 2-metre lengths of the drills (at so much per length). Their machine bored all morning, bringing up nothing but pale dust, the colour of the local roads. 50 metres. 60 – still pale dust. The family got into a huddle: how many more lengths (at so much per length) should we risk? Another two metres, more dust. Two more: was the dust just ever so slightly darker in colour? Two more and it turned brown, then suddenly Eureka! The hole was gurgling dirty brown water that quickly cleared to crystal. The garden water problem was solved. My brother only allowed himself a green lawn the size of, say, half a tennis court. The water was not squandered, it just made the establishment of any new plant less of a gamble.

The neighbours, though, heard the news and soon plotted the course of the underground stream. First one, then another, bored down into it. The water supply dwindled with each new borehole until the pioneer was left with not much more than a dribble.

And the relevance of this story? Our son-in-law in the New Forest is investigating boreholes. The water garden we are making has spent the summer without the help of rain. The farmer on the land that used to top up the natural springs has dug new drains taking the water away in a different direction. And the Isle of Wight malevolently steers the rainclouds away to the south. A bore? It certainly is.

It’s a fake

August 27, 2020

I’m nervous of experts; their say-so can easily backfire on you. There is the kindly squash: Roy Lancaster, inspecting the leaf of what I thought was a rare Mexican oak: ‘I’m sorry, Hugh, but I’m afraid it’s a hybrid’. And there’s the expensive put-down, the speciality of the fine art business. A plant is merely a plant, but with art huge sums can ride on questions of authenticity. It matters millions of pounds whether it was Titian’s brush or his assistant’s (it could even have been the same brush, borrowed) that laid on that stroke of paint. It can look pretty venal, too, when the decision can only be made by one expert, living in Switzerland and charging fat sums for an opinion.

How much does authenticity matter? Would no one go the British Museum if the Elgin marbles or the Benin bronzes were perfect replicas? Is there a palpable aura about a pharaoh’s granite head that no reproduction could ever evoke? We must admit that fakes can work – until they are rumbled. Personally I would be happy to hang a fine reproduction of, say, a Stubbs (I’d love a Stubbs), the real thing being far out of reach. In fact we do have a watercolour copy of Claude’s Hagar and the Angel, done when it was given to the National Gallery in 1828 by Sir George Beaumont. Beaumont was so loath to part with his Claude that he travelled with it as his ‘carriage painting’ (it is surprisingly small) when he went to his house in Leicestershire or to the Lakes to see Wordsworth. Constable copied it, too, to use on his lecture tour to Worcester – indeed I believe ours is Constable’s own copy. But no expert will go out on that limb.

Stanley Holloway nailed it, when his hero Sam Small, at the Tower of London, says ‘It’s ‘ad a new ‘andle, and perhaps a new ‘ead, but it’s still the original axe’.

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