St James’s Park must be on the short list of Britain’s most beautiful landscape gardens. The views in both directions from the bridge over the lake outdo anything that even Blenheim, Stowe or Stourhead have to offer. Buckingham Palace is no beauty, but its bulk framed in willows and nudged by a metasequoia closes one memorable view, while the wildly romantic domes and pinnacles of Whitehall to the east evoke an imperial mirage. Oddly enough the arc of the London Eye behind only adds to the effect: a window from the world of ducks and willows onto an exotic empire.
The park of course has magnificent trees, principally London planes, presumably planted in the last phase of its development in the 1820s when John Nash was in charge, not only of building the palace and the even more palatial Carlton House Terrace, but of the gardens they overlook. Over the past 10 years or so they have been restored (with the advice of the Garden History Society) to a version of their original planting. It comes as a surprise, and a reminder of how (not to beat about the bush) primitive gardening ideas were in those days, and how far we have come in the introduction, choice, breeding and disposition of (particularly) shrubs and perennials. One can too easily overlook all the hard work put in by nurserymen, landscapers and critics that have given modern gardening its unprecedented polish. Infinitely more is known today, infinitely more cultivars are available today, design ideas today take for granted a body of sophisticated taste and knowledge that far outstrips all the experience of the old school. Whether we do it justice is another matter.
The garden planting in St James’s Park, faithful to the taste of the 1820s, is frankly a mess by today’s standards. It consists largely of curvaceous island beds low on the slopes from the Mall down to the lake, in which perennials are mingled with what feels like naive enthusiasm among shrubs that mostly have one season (if that) of beauty.
The ‘one of this, one of that’ school of planting dates back much further than Nash’s time; in 18th century flowerbeds the plants, as varied as possible, were apparently kept well part, with an effect we would find woefully spotty. ‘Apparently’ because this is how they appear on plans, and where is there a realistic painting of an 18th century border? In St James’s Park they are allowed to fill out and cover the ground in the modern manner; what is missing is modern colour discipline – and of course the best new plants.
It is a praiseworthy idea, to show us the park that Nash designed rather than a modern version. But a park is not a museum; it is a pity to confuse the two.