Folie de la pierre

April 19, 2021


Do you ever wonder how seriously the Georgian creators of monumental gardens took all their temples to the gods, their statues and sacred groves? They had all grown up with the classics at school, may have gone on Grand Tours to Rome and come home with dreams of Arcadia, or at least the Campagna. But what are gardens for in real life? To entertain your friends, show off and have fun. Imagine the conversations – ‘I bet that cost you a bob or two’. Perhaps a Latin tag, and then ‘I rather fancy her; reminds me of ….’

Why such profane thoughts? I’m reading the prospectus for one of the most famous French 18th century gardens, written by its designer, a military engineer and man-about-the-salons who called himself Carmontelle. In the 1770s he was commissioned by the royal duc de Chartres, the king’s nephew, to design and build a park or pleasure ground for him at Monceau, just northwest of the centre of Paris. Carmontelle was a wit; irony was his trade mark. It is easy to think he was pulling energetically at his patron’s leg;. he stuffed it so full of follies.. His brochure takes it all very seriously, discussing the key viewpoints to survey a bizarre, to modern eyes rather ridiculous, assortment of pavilions and sham ruins, bridges, columns, temples, cascades, water- and wind-mills, Turkish tents, an Isle of Sheep, a wood full of tombs, arcades, an Italian vineyard and a Naumachia, or theatre for mock sea-battles, all scattered around artificial lakes and streams, over an area of flat land with no natural elevations, no prospect beyond this crazy Disneyland. The present Parc Monceau is just a surviving fragment. Twenty luxurious engravings with solemn captions were sold to be framed (hence the brochure). But if you read Carmontelle’s Introduction he rather gives the game away.

‘What do we actually do in the countryside?’ he asks. ‘We make it our business to please the ladies….but it is difficult to persuade them to go for a walk, and it is always late when they go out, then, deprived of bright light…..features lose much of their charm… and dampness, as well as persecution by insects, brings the walkers back….but what does it matter? – we talked, we laughed, we were gay’.. Hence, perhaps, the shortness of the walks at Monceau, and the number of ‘features’.

The temptation to overdo it is familiar to most gardeners, and a big budget only makes it worse. When some plutocrat started building and didn’t know when to stop the French speak of ‘la folie de la pierre’. Carmontelle was having a lot of fun.. Did the duke never say ‘Hold on a minute. Another ruin?’ You can overdo it with plants, of course, too. Nurserymen would have a lean time without enthusiasts who must try everything. Curiosity is a great gift to possess, but matched with a fortune (still more with indecision) it can rapidly lead to absurdity. Nor is building follies a thing of the past. I’ve been there myself, in the days when yards of reclaimed building materials were quite common.. But that’s another story.

The first English translation of Garden at Monceau was published recently by The Foundation for Landscape Studies in New York.

Ask Euclid

April 2, 2021

The Woolton oak

‘I’ve bought a tree, with a house thrown in’ was Charles Brown’s announcement when he bought Woolton House – and indeed the oak makes a bigger first impression. It stands on the lawn, almost a caricature of The Mighty Oak, in silhouette a perfect dome, in close-up and craggy grey tower spreading into a vast green cloud. It must have been planted, perhaps five centuries ago, on a mound of earth thrown up for the purpose – and so was another oak, only slightly less huge, a hundred yards away. Why, no one can say, but the planters knew what they were doing; in a region of rich soil with grand trees everywhere, the Woolton oak seems like a deliberate monument.

The Browns were Hong Kong pioneers, buying a house on the Peak in the days when Hong Kong meant textiles rather than international banks. Charles was an architect, Rosamond Brown a painter of spacious landscapes. What they have created together in Hampshire is one of England’s most original gardens.

The oaks came first, but there were the relics of a pukka Edwardian garden: spreading lawns, sheltering walls, greenhouses, orchards, space for leaf mould and compost on the grand scale. The rose garden surrounds a great square stone reservoir of a pool, sunk below stone balustrades of the kind favoured in the 1900s. The Browns consulted one of France’s top designers, the late Pascal Cribier. Together they have produced a positive playground of original ideas that is somehow coherent, one enclosure leading to the next in the approved manner of garden rooms, but each room a painting so powerful it comes as a shock.

After the rose garden comes the potager, a huge space that may well be trapezoidal – you’d have to ask Euclid – painted in the manner of Mondrian, with blocks of colour separated by straight lines. Mondrian used the primary colours, which nature doesn’t. Vegetables, though, have a pretty pungent palette, from beet red to leek blue and marigold yellow. Cribier’s cunning is in the repetition of tramlines, parallel lines in mediums so different that it only dawns on you slowly why it all feels coherent. The choice of plants and their colours is Rosamond’s, with her two gardeners, Ian and Yvonne. They don’t do timid. One walled enclosure is red; red trellis posts, red brick floor, red roses – all under ropes of green vines. Another is tramlines of cacti in paving; another, tramlines of scarlet geums in a perfectly level lawn. The rose garden round the pool has no inhibitions of any kind; Bengal Crimson roses dip down into the water, agapanthus and verbascums swamp the paths and steps, an anaconda of a wisteria is busy destroying the stone balustrades. Hostas and daylilies are the sober elements in a maelstrom of colour surging round the roses. Nearer the house, though, on a higher level, the palette is limited to yellow and the black grass, ophiopogon, and the only pleached ginkgos, I wager, in Hampshire.

It’s strong stuff, intoxicating for a conventional gardener like me, lying like a rug from the East in a green setting of parkland and meadow, great oaks and preoccupied sheep. Go when it’s open for the National Gardens Scheme; you and your garden could have a change of mind.

Peak Magnolia

March 30, 2021

It’s Peak Magnolia in Kensington. The heats are over; we’re in the finals now: every street in these leafy parts is fielding a tree or two. The finals end just as the wisteria heats are getting going. And meanwhile the cherries are scattering their confetti on pavements and cars.

Magnolia x soulangiana is the people’s choice, and I’ve just stumbled on the fact that the year 2020 was its 200th birthday. In 1820 people were just getting excited about two recent imports from the Far East: Magnolia denudata (because its white flowers appear on naked branches) came from China, and Magnolia liliiflora from Japan. ‘Liliiflora’ is a bit fanciful; magnolia flowers are more like tulips.

It was a retired Napoleonic officer who thought of crossing them to produce a hybrid. Etienne Sanlange-Bodin had a role in the Empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison before he retired to a village not far from Fontainebleau to start a nursery. The hybrid was a triumph, combining the white of M. denudata with the purple of M.liliiflora in all sorts of interesting ways and adding the vigour that often comes with hybrids.

There must be twenty variants in cultivation today, from the customary pinky purple one you see everywhere, with its fleshy cups of flowers, to a pure white (‘Brozonii’ is a beauty) through pale blushes with various darker veins or stripes to dark purple and even nearly red.

The magnolia collection at Kew is at its peak just now, too. It started a good month ago with the tall M.campbelli, the pride of Cornish gardens so often nipped in its prime by untimely frost. Fifty feet of bright pink against a blue sky draws the crowds. Kew’s own cultivar, M. Kewensis, is a big stout tree by magnolia standards, but my own favourite is a stately white M. kobus labelled ‘Borealis’ – though I’m not sure why. ‘Borealis’ means northern. For some reason icy white appeals to me more than lingerie colours.

Hourglass of spring

March 23, 2021

The weeping willow is my favourite hourglass of spring. Bulbs are brighter, cherries more cheerful, but the quiet colour change, from the buff yellow of the winter curtains of a willow to a faint tinge of green as little catkins emerge with the first pale leaves, is something that grabs me in March every year. I go to see the willows that surge up from below the bridge over the Serpentine. You can lean over the parapet and touch their branches. There is energy and repose in the long curves of the branches and the green torrent of subsidiary shoots.

I used to be brutal in pruning one I planted beside the wellhead in the courtyard at Saling Hall. It spread in twenty years or so to fill half the yard with its tresses. One of our granddaughter’s favourite (perhaps only) memories of Grandpa’s old house was of standing on the wellhead, grasping a strand of willow and launching off to swing out and back through the greenery.

Whether it’s true or not, I love the legend of the arrival of this uniquely elegant tree in England. The tree is originally Chinese, but a connection in Turkey sent a parcel of figs to Alexander Pope at his villa in Twickenham. Pope’s gardening instinct made him look with interest at the yellow withies tying the bundle. It was easy to see that they were willow, so the poet put some cuttings in water. When they rooted he had the first weeping willow in the country.

The soft willow dome and the strict vertical of the Lombardy poplar, today the yin and yang of our landscape trees, appeared here in the same generation in the mid 1700s: the willow at Twickenham, the poplar in Essex, at St Osyth’s Priory near Maldon. How that period of discovery changed our landscape. Have any exotic imports contributed so much to scenes that now seem quintessentially English?

In any language

March 10, 2021

I’ve been an avid reader, I confess, of the new anthology of my (Trad’s) own words to be published as Sitting in the Shade on April Fool’s Day. I happened to open it at the entry for our daughter Lucy’s Wedding in May 2010, which I wrote in a state of high excitement – and largely in Latin. It was an early summer day when the garden was almost over-performing. I had to list all the flowers, and immediately found myself knee-deep in Latin names. It makes for a page so peppered with italics (the correct procedure for botanical Latin) that I was going to leave it out, thinking it would put bookshop browsers off buying. ‘No’, said my sagacious editor, ‘keep it in; it’s a lovely wedding celebration’.

A Te Deum it isn’t, but how to adequately express the identities of a score of flowers without saying their names? And insofar as they even have English names a list of spurge, baby’s breath, ladies’ mantle, larkspur and geraniums hardly conjures up the variety and brilliance of the garden that day.

The sun was so hot we had to find shade under the apple trees that were just spreading their leaves, filtering the sunlight on the tables, the ice-buckets and glasses in the manner of a Renoir or a Seurat. Then a wind got up and the tent where we were having lunch half-collapsed. In any language, Dies laetificans.

Raring to go

March 3, 2021

This time last year the world was holding its breath. The streets were empty. The skies were silent. In lockdown the only metre on stage was nature, and nature is never more active than in Spring. There was little to do by watch the slow motion metamorphosis of a pinhead to a suggestion of a bud to a pregnant envelope, to its slow spliting to give a glimpse of colour, then unfurl or crack open, and petals to fill out like butterflies’ wings. I took my magnifying glass into the garden every morning, feeling like David Attenborough. Conditions were perfect for contemplation detached from time.

This time round the world outside is like a bud, peeping open to allow tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come, but nipped, as it were, by unnatural rules that tell it to go no further until authorized. The strain is showing. Sunny afternoons in the park don’t look very locked-down, and are all these cars joining the M4 on essential journeys?

There is a point of no return with opening buds. The petals they sheltered can be blasted, but the urge that opens them is irreversible.

“Were we the Earl of Grosvenor”

February 22, 2021

John Claudius Loudon, our greatest horticultural journalist, didn’t mince his words. He made a visit to Cheshire (this was in 1831) to see the earl’s new palace of Eaton Hall, and approved of the house. “It is the only palace we have ever seen where every part of the finishing and furniture are equally excellent. With great splendour, there is great chasteness of colouring….” “Having said this’, he goes on, “we have said all that we can say in favour of Eaton Hall…. the situation forbids all hope of any natural beauty…. a totally wrong character has been attempted in laying out the pleasure grounds,….. tiresome in its sameness, and without a single object that can raise ideas of either grandeur or beauty.” He then goes on to give his ideas (they sound more like instructions) to remedy things.

Then he goes on north to Lowther Castle in Cumbria, recently rebuilt for the Earl of Lonsdale, where “a great error, in my opinion, is that … the house faces the wrong way….., is too low. “There is a small flower garden, in a hollow, shaded by high trees, where fine flowers. can never grow, and a very bad kitchen garden, a mile or more from the house.” Lowther Castle, he graciously concedes “may still be made of something of” …. and then lets the earl have the benefit of his instructions..

William Robinson, the next great panjandrum of garden writing, can also fall short on courtesy. “Osborne” (Queen Victoria’s pride and joy) “is perhaps one of the saddest and ugliest examples in England….” Robinson, of course, was famously rude about formal gardening of almost any kind, and has been said to have invented woodland gardening. But, compared to these self-confident Victorians, we no longer have any garden critics at all. Would Monty Don ever say a garden was ugly? Would Alan Titchmarsh? The modern style of describing a garden is milk and water compared with these combative commentators. It must all be positive, not even constructive in suggesting things that could be done better. And, Trad has to admit he tends to look on the bright side, too.

World tour, no cost

February 3, 2021

It is an exercise, or pastime, or distraction for this sort of afternoon: dismal and damp, grey in the garden except where three or four flowers look like rubbish blown in by the penetrating wind. There is only one cloud, a blanket form horizon to horizon. Is it moving, or just prone, spread-eagled over us without the energy to move?

But I’ve escaped, vertically, right through it, to look down on the drifting wavelets of its dazzling white upper side, under the cerulean empyrean (nul points for choice of words).

My exercise, or pastime or (most importantly) distraction is a visit to the gardens stored in my mind. To bring them into focus I start with the red, white and blue bedding in front of Buckingham Palace. Looking closer, it’s not white but horticultural silver, a sort of sunlit grey. It doesn’t take long to take it in, so down the stone steps to the end of the lake, where water cascades out of a hole in the wall, under the road; where does that come from? Is it one of London’s lost and buried rivers, or an unheard pump? Follow a skittering coot from the bank, out between the willows, towards the distant Xanadu of Whitehall’s domes and towers.

I’ve leapt now, in one splash, to where the Pin Mill is reflected pin-sharp in the rectangle of pool at Bodnant, then down a steep slope dense with rhododendrons to the rippling water of the Hiraethlyn as it winds through tranquil lawns under spires and towers of trees.

Which garden is in your mind’s eye in this world tour without expense? I just saw the gardeners hosing down the thick trunks of the Judas trees in the Retiro Gardens, the bright pink flowers absurd on the sparkling black bark. I just sat on the tatami, encompassed by the rattle and gurgle of rain in the copper pipes while the rocks shone, the azaleas and maples cringed under the downpour and the bamboo bowed.

Is the silver serpentine rill still running in its pale stone gulley down to the circle of pool in the woods, and on, down, round bends into invisibility? Is anyone admiring the cold stone nymphs or remembering the names of national heroes? Are the green blades of the bulbs shining among the rocks at Wisley, or the catkins shaking out their yellow dust? And at Ninfa, I see the fat trout in the racing green streamers of weed in the gin-clear river and the roses lolling from the ruined chancel-arch.

I see my own old garden, the trees I planted, the little cascade, the mossy old apple trees and the flint church tower. And with a little more imagination (the future is harder to imagine than the past) the long Welsh stone we will set up as a sundial in the New Forest. Gardens live in the mind, and there is a switch to turn them on.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

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Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

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