Gardening and Gardens

Each Month in My Garden: January, Almost

When I first became a member of the Royal Horticultural Society (many years ago) I visited their garden at Wisley each month for the first year. I wanted to make the membership worthwhile but I also wanted to get to know the garden better; I had visited before with friends but had only seen certain areas so my knowledge of the whole garden was a bit sketchy. I did, and it was brilliant. Various unexpected bonuses were that I learnt which plants went well together, which flowered for a long time (this introduced me to gaura, one of my favourite flowers) and which looked good in winter (grasses, which I’d always regarded as  dull). Actually, if I’m honest, I didn’t really succumb to the charms of grasses until a couple of years ago when I filled the front garden with pots of pennisetum, miscanthus and imperator and they created a beautiful airy screen between me and the street.

This year I am going to adopt the same pattern with my garden. Obviously I’m going to visit it more than once a month. I go through the front garden several times a day but I am usually trying to get my bike (old, heavy and a bit unwieldy) into the house so I tend to regard the pots as an obstacle course rather than a display to be looked at properly. The back garden is largely left to look after itself while it is too cold to eat outside. In practice this means all it sees (and I really see of it) are a few bursts of activity between October and April. There is an autumn tidy, which usually takes place in winter, and a few days of bulb planting but otherwise I tend to glance at it through the windows, appreciate that it is there but not really look at the details properly.

All that will change this year; each month I shall post photos of things that are looking good – without cheating and making panic-induced trips to the nearest garden centre to buy something in flower. Not that I’m against a bit of panic buying. Years ago I was being interviewed by a newspaper and they said how nice it would be if we could do the interview in my garden. In February! The panic trip then resulted in hellebores (below) and a witch hazel, which I bunged in a pot, knowing it would outgrow its space in a couple of years. Twelve years later it is still flourishing, has not outgrown the pot and brings me joy each spring. You’ll see it a bit later on.

The more eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I’ve missed the ‘each month’ already. This is because I didn’t think of this idea till the end of January, and then there was the inevitable wait for a sunny day when I was at home. A heavy frost this morning helped, as did an obliging iris, which opened just in time to have its photo taken. I hope, by the end of the month there will be many more.


Repton’s Red Books

This year marks the bicentenary of Humphry  (notably always spelt without an ‘e’) Repton’s death in 1818. Amongst the series of events, talks, walks and celebrations taking place (many organised by, or in conjunction with, The Gardens Trust) is the exhibition Repton Revealed at the Garden Museum. This runs until the 3rd of February and has been sponsored by City and Country, a developer of heritage properties, who currently own the Mansion at Sundridge Park where they are restoring part of the Repton Garden.  They have lent the original Red Book, which they own, for the property as part of their contribution.

The exhibition is a must for garden historians, Repton specialists and the Friends of the Museum. The more the viewer already knows the more valuable it is. It is built up around a core of 24 of Repton’s ‘Red Books’, those beautifully produced, and usually red leather bound, marketing presentations with which he wooed potential clients. Since only around 200 are estimated to survive the presence there of so many is a tribute to the powers of persuasion of Christopher Woodward, the Museum’s Director, his Trustees and staff and the exhibition curator, Professor Stephen Daniels. The books are supplemented by some of Repton’s watercolours, drawings and informative text panels as well as, crucially, by a digital presentation of the Red Book for Armley, a Repton garden near Leeds.

Repton’s marketing technique was as simple as it was effective. After a visit to the potential client’s property, where the socially affable and sophisticated Repton unleashed all his charm, a Red Book would be produced in the same way as a consultancy client would now receive a follow up Power Point presentation. Here a structured series of past and proposed views of the client’s property would be revealed as the owner turned the pages and lifted the flaps on each page of beautiful watercolour. As the Museums’s own publicity states Clients would open the book to see Repton’s delicate watercolours of their garden as it currently appeared, and then would then lift a flap, revealing Repton’s new design for their garden as it could be (provided they paid Repton handsomely to make the design a reality!). As pages are turned, trees rise or are felled, a stream becomes a lake, an untidy farm becomes a genteel park, or, as is the case in the Sundridge Park Red Book, a house is suddenly replaced with another, grander manor.  The accompanying text, now somewhat flowery and verbose to modern eyes, would recall the pleasure of Repton’s visit, the natural beauty and potential of the site and the poise and standing of the owner, that could only be enhanced by implementing the proposed improvements.

On account of the fragility of the main exhibits it is a given that low light levels are essential and there is obviously no possibility of actually turning the pages of any Red Book. Herein lies the only problem with this exhibition. For all its strengths it can offer only limited engagement with the essentially dynamic process of viewing a Red Book as a client once might.

Christopher Woodward has pointed out that Repton was a man obsessed with change and speed, whose ideal viewpoint would have been taken from a fast moving travelling phaeton, as frame gave way to frame. He would, he claims with justification have become a filmmaker if born in the last century. It’s equally possible that he would have been a high powered salesman, perhaps of some exotic commodity, supporting his pitches to Ultra High Net Worth Individuals with sophisticated Power Point presentations and embedded video!

The organisers are well aware of this problem and to overcome it have commissioned an 8 minute video and voice over based on Repton’s designs for Armley, a villa then on the outskirts of Leeds. The text of the original has had to be adapted for modern ears but the process of seeing the illustrations appear successively on screen is highly effective and no-one should leave the exhibition without sitting down and watching it. Had more funds been available perhaps the other books could have received the same treatment and been made available to visitors by a link to their phones.This should not detract from the success of the exhibition or deter visitors from seeing it, but it is only right to point out that the problem exists.

An interesting and surprisingly modern sidelight of Repton’s life is his very personal concern for overcoming disability. After a carriage accident which severely damaged his back and left him suffering continual pain,he focused much of his energy on the design of suitable vehicles to get about with limited mobility and planned routes for his clients’ estates that would suit disabled and able bodied visitors alike. The exhibition is a worthy tribute to a man in many ways ahead of his time as well as being a significant input into garden history and a great credit to the Museum. See it if you can.


Front Gardens

I have been walking round Fulham quite a lot lately and I’ve realised that most front gardens don’t contain anything other than a couple of dustbins. The next most common garden style seems to be a single pot containing a dead or dying plant, particularly olive trees. This seems sad when one considers how many of these houses probably have amazing back gardens. Or perhaps they don’t. I don’t like to think of it but perhaps most of the houses in Fulham are simply surrounded by neat but dull paving or slabs of cracked concrete. A brief look in the estate agents’ windows shows that most back gardens do, at least, have a few functioning pots but these may simply be there to help the sale. Everyone knows that, along with de-cluttering and baking bread, you should tidy your garden if you want to appeal to would-be buyers.

I’m not even putting pictures here; it’s too gloomy.

I have always described my house to first-time visitors as ‘the one with all the plants’. This has been true but, until this year, they have mostly been largish shrubs and perennial thugs: Japanese anemones, hardy geraniums, evening primroses, escallonia and winter Jasmine. More delicate plants came, and often went. Watering was a pain and consequently the plants at the front had to survive on less water and less food, less often than their counterparts in the back garden. Those in pots often objected.

This year all that changed with the arrival of The Tap. I have sung its praises before but it’s only now that I am realising the full potential for the front garden. I have just given the garden (front and back) its autumn tidy. Most annuals that haven’t done well so far won’t do anything now and the pots need to be made ready for next spring with bulbs and wallflowers. Doing it I realised how well everything in the front garden has done and, perhaps more importantly, that I can now plant almost anything I like there. This is useful as it faces west and has (by my standards) a largish flower bed which is not used to its best at the moment. There was a hebe which overreached itself and had to be cut down (cuttings are growing well in pots so, in theory, I could repeat the cycle). At present the bed contains a large pink, elderly but brilliant rose at one end, an evening primrose and an enthusiastic pink hardy geranium which has taken over the space and flowered all summer but could happily breathe in a bit.

I’ve moved some pots from the back and have repotted a Chinese foxglove and some English ones into nicer (new) pots and put them by the front door.  I shall also plant more roses: a climber by the door and another shrub in the flower bed. The tap has meant that I’ve gained about a third more practical planting space.

The back garden gives me seclusion but the front provides a beautiful, ever-changing screen between me and the outside world. The table in the bay window is my default place for doing most things and it now looks onto a wonderful plant-filled world. In particular a growing (in both senses) collection of grasses. All cats eat grass occasionally – ideally plain grass. Mine favours ornamental cultivars and last year she kept a previously-flourishing Imperator rubra down to a neat 1 ½ inches. In spring I divided it into two pots and put them onto the front window sill where they grew to a much happier 18 or so inches and glowed brilliantly when the sun shone on them. A fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) sits beside them like a blue hedgehog and screening the next part of the bay is a wafty Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’ and a delightfully stripey Miscanthus ‘Zebrinus’. I’ve just planted camassias (C. quamash) which I hope will complete the screen next summer. For years I never understood why people liked grasses, now I am completely seduced by their gentle charms.

Working in the front garden is pleasantly sociable. People smile as they walk past and often say how much they enjoy walking past my house. Yesterday a teenage boy stopped. I assumed he was going to ask directions or the time but no, he simply said how much he liked my garden. I could not have been more pleased. For a short amount of a builder’s time and a few pounds my garden is transformed. Before we tell everyone not to pave over their front gardens we should, perhaps, suggest that they install a tap.


A Cloud of Cosmos

Looking out of my kitchen window I see a cloud of dainty white flowers – Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Purity’.  They have flowered brilliantly all summer and now, when many other plants are starting to fade, they resolutely ignore the coming cold and continue their magnificent display. The evening primroses are turning their attentions to seeds rather than flowers, the witch hazel is changing to its autumn colours and the roses and hollyhocks are beginning to fade but the cosmos are behaving as it if is still high summer. The same applies at Fulham Palace, where I go most days to write. Their flower beds are filled with cosmos from pure white to crimson, with every variation in between.

I have a lot of cosmos in my garden, mainly because, each year, I am tempted to try different cultivars but resolutely refuse to give up my stalwarts of previous years. For a few years the permanents have been ‘Purity’, ‘Versailles Red’ and ‘Candy Stripe’. Last year I tried ‘Xanthos’ and this has now joined the ranks of the permanents.

‘Purity’ is beautiful but it is really a bit too tall for my garden where, because of the size, everything is viewed close-up. The flowers are beautiful and the plants airy and graceful but most of the flowers are on wafty stems over 6ft up – and I’m not that tall. I don’t usually like double flowers but this year I’ve grown ‘Psyche White’ which is a semi-double with prettily-edged, pure white petals which look like an eighteenth-century gentleman’s ruff. It grows to a more manageable height of about 3ft, and, although it doesn’t have as many flowers as some of my other cultivars, I think that may be because it was sat on by a neighbouring thug when young (an over-enthusiastic cucumber).

‘Candy Stripe’ is one of the many varieties of pink-and-white or red-and-white cosmos. On a single plant the flowers vary from pink with white highlights to white with the merest hint of pink at the edge of each petal. The snag for me is that, like ‘Purity’, it’s very tall. ‘Velouette’ is shorter and has deeper carmine markings and, with a RHS AGM, might be a good alternative. 

Xanthos’ grows into a bushy, flower-covered plant reaching about 2-3ft and has exquisitely-shaped pale yellow flowers with white centres. The buds are tiny, so tiny that at first I thought they’d never grow into flowers. I snip each flower off just above the next bud and, in a few days, am rewarded with new flowers.  The RHS magazine in August recommended ‘Lemonade’ which is 2ft tall and has similar-coloured flowers but in a simpler single form. Another one to try.

‘Versailles Red’ reaches 3ft and has rich deep red flowers but this year I also grew ‘Rubenza’ which is taller, at 4ft, and has dark pinky-red flowers. The ‘Versailles Red’ petals seem slightly more velvety but that appearance may just be down to the fact that they are in the prime position in my garden; a container by the kitchen door that is in full sun and which I always remember to water. Rather than producing different coloured flowers ‘Antiquity’ has blooms that change colour as they age. The buds open to a deep rich crimson and then fade to a delicate pink, rather like velvet that has been hanging in a sunny window for many years. At only 2ft it is one of the few cosmos that doesn’t need staking. ‘Rubenza’ is another cultivar that fades with age, whilst the ruffled petals of ‘Apollo Carmine’ seem to remain a fabulous deep magenta. I either need a bigger garden or to grow nothing but cosmos next year.



My garden is looking particularly good at the moment, possibly because I don’t have a lawn. A combination of this year’s weather and a more judicious system of watering and feeding the pots (not my usual ‘oh help, it’s gone droopy – I must water’) has meant that everything has bloomed beautifully. My summerhouse was swathed in roses, the windows are screened with charming wafty grasses and there are cosmos everywhere. With the addition of a tap (it’s only taken eighteen years), even the front garden is looking green and pleasantly jungly.

The most noticeable feature of many large gardens at the moment, even after the recent rain, is a huge patch of brown grass. Fulham Palace, where I do most of my writing in the summer, is surrounded by a sea of parched lawn that is only just beginning to regain its green and Putney Common, where I pick blackberries, resembles the African Savannah. I know, once autumn sets in, the grass will recover but, for me, a proper British summer should include lush lawns. Thinking about lawns made me realise that they were what initially made me interested in gardening.

I must have been about five years old when I noticed that there was something wrong with our lawn. Other lawns, particularly those at large houses with cafes and shops attached had stripes. Beautiful straight lines which gave the grass a colour and texture that was singularly lacking in ours. When I asked my parents I was told, ‘Ours is rough grass for you to play on.’ My father added slightly more detail telling me that our lawn was full of weeds and that you needed a special mower to create stripes.

I knew about ‘weeds’; they were the evil plants that grew up in between the roses and had to be pulled up, in their entirety. I looked at our lawn; the non-grass plants mostly seemed to be daisies, buttercups and dandelions. These were useful for necklaces, determining whether someone liked butter and telling the time, so they clearly had to stay. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen stripes and flowers combined but it conjured up a charming image. Also it was clear that digging all the non-grass up would leave a lot of holes and very little lawn. I decided to compromise on the weeds and concentrate on the mower; my parents clearly had the wrong type of machine. My birthday was approaching, so I asked for a lawn mower, being careful to specify that I needed a ‘proper’ one. Delighted, my parents complied – clearly seeing a future in which their small daughter did all the grass cutting.

On the day I was presented with a huge package encased in yards of paper secured with a large bow. On inspection the mower seemed perfect. These were the days before health and safety and my mower was sturdily built of metal, with satisfactorily sharp rotating blades, a detachable metal grass collector at the front and the all-important roller. The grass had been left uncut and I immediately set about creating the perfect lawn, pausing only at the end of each row for a mouthful of birthday cake. The machine cut beautifully, the grass collector filled with sweet-smelling clippings and I envisaged a green sward worthy of the grandest county house. When I’d finished I surveyed the results; the grass was reasonably even and, in places, there were stripes of a sort but it was not the manicured look I’d been expecting. Parental praise and more cake eased the situation but I realised I was going to have to do further research.

Our neighbour’s lawn was flat, pristine and stripey. It was smaller than ours and seemed to occupy all his waking hours but I was undaunted. A little questioning revealed that along with getting rid of the weeds and having the correct mower, I also needed to roll the lawn to make it flat. I’d dealt with the first two problems; well, ignored one and dealt with the other, so I reasoned I’d better now solve the rolling. I looked critically at our lawn and realised it was a bit hummocky. The good news was I knew we already had a roller so I wouldn’t need to wait for another birthday.

Like so many rollers ours languished behind the shed. It looked suspiciously as if it had last been used in the nineteenth century. I cleared away the weeds and surveyed the tool that was going to transform our garden. At first glance I had to admit that it didn’t look promising; there seemed to be a lot of rust, part of the handle was missing and the remainder seemed stuck at a slightly odd angle. Undeterred I washed it and, with a surprisingly gentle push, seemed to straighten the handle. I went to inform my father that I needed his brute strength, at least to get me going. Once started I was reasonably confident I could manage the roller (no, I was not possessed of superhuman strength, merely blissfully unaware of the weight of a rusty Victorian roller). Not terribly keen at the prospect of having his cricket-watching afternoon ruined my father merrily told me we didn’t have a working roller. ‘Oh yes we do,’ I countered, ‘And I’ve washed and fixed it.’ Washed and fixed was not a particularly accurate description of the soap-sudded, rust-encrusted monster that greeted my Dad but some oil and a bit of wood to mend the handle transformed it into an almost satisfactory roller. At this point my parents still clearly thought that a little outlay of effort now would be repaid with a lifetime of beautifully cut grass.

The roller did improve things, although my role was rarely anything more than foreman, directing the now-involved neighbour and my Dad up and down over the worst bumps. By this stage everyone had caught my enthusiasm and the worst of the weeds were removed and replaced with patches of turf. Slowly the area of rough grass began to resemble a lawn. A summer of dedicated lawn care followed, much to the amazement of my parents who had seen other fads come and go. I fed and, when necessary, watered the grass. I marked areas that were ‘not to be walked on’ while the turves settle in. Gradually the ground levelled, the weeds diminished and the grass improved. The final breakthrough came with our refined mowing technique; I went first cutting the grass and Dad followed, creating the all-important stripes which, it turned out, were achievable with our mower. By the end of the summer we had a perfect lawn.

The following year the mowing regime eased slightly and I broadened my horizons and turned my attention to the flower beds. With time I have learnt a more relaxed approach is often better.



The late seventeenth century Woolbeding House and its associated 2,000 acres of beautiful countryside in the West Sussex Rother Valley were acquired by the National Trust nearly 60 years ago. However, its rather splendid gardens have only been open to the public since 2011. 

Even now they are not easy to visit.You can only see them on Thursdays and Fridays from late April until the end of September. You must pre-book by phone, and then take a complementary minibus from the local town of Midhurst. There is no parking on or near the site, as a result of local planning policy, and the only access from the main A272 road is by a busy, narrow, lane that is unsafe for pedestrians. 

You might at this stage perfectly reasonably think “why bother?” However, once you’ve been you will see why locals keep coming back and why so very few people go away disappointed. 

The restricted visiting times reflect the historically private nature of the property, which was acquired without any endowment from the Lascelles family in 1958. Given the dilapidation of the house and its surrounding garden and grounds at that time it was logical to let it to private occupiers. Fortunately the choice fell on the well known philanthropist and connoisseur Sir Simon Sainsbury, who died in 2006, and his lifetime partner Stewart Grainger who between them created the present gardens. Stuart survives him and still uses the house at weekends.  

No expense was spared, although little money seems to have been wasted either. The best authorities and experts, especially Lanning Roper and more recently Julian and Isabel Bannerman, were engaged to design the gardens.  These factors alone however can’t explain Woolbeding’s extraordinary success. Just as importantly, both partners had an exceptionally good eye and very considerable organisational skills. These were enhanced by a charming, albeit steely, determination to make something of exceptional quality.

Even now it is clear, from talking to the gardeners, that the success of Woolbeding’s gardens is a consequence of collaboration and mutual respect between all those involved involved. These gardens, an essentially private celebration of the couple’s lives together, match in quality, and one could even argue in importance, the better known achievements of Sir Simon’s business career in the family firm and his public munificence.

You currently enter Woolbeding through a fairly formal Bannerman designed courtyard garden centred on a series of pools, cascades and stone tanks and troughs. Water, often in motion, is a continuing theme throughout the gardens. You might even, however fancifully, think the deity of the local River Rother constantly commands  monuments and sacrifices to be created there. Next follows a reception area adapted from old barns, which also sells good simple food.

The main gardens lie to the west of the house and are principally the product of the Lanning Roper years in the 1970’s.  There the old walled garden has been divided into rooms with statuary, yew hedges, paving and walls. Two long borders extend the westwards axis towards an avenue of trees across the road.

The components include a herb garden, a vegetable garden, a garden centred on a fine copy of an original renaissance fountain now in the V and A, a pool garden and an orangery designed by the architect Philip Jebb. The area offers fine borrowed views of All Hallows church, around which the grounds wrap on three sides.  The planting is exceptional in terms of both quality of upkeep and selection of varieties and colours with a bold and sophisticated use of complementary colours and variation in tone and intensity. While the design may be conventional, its quality and execution are of the highest standard.

The loss of two exceptional trees has been marked by the erection of structures that memorialise them. The storms of 1987 felled largest tulip tree in Europe and a domed folly designed by Philip Webb now stands in its place.

A William Pye water feature, in which you can see the house and garden reflected, commemorates the far more recent loss of an enormous cedar of Lebanon.

From the upper garden one takes the appropriately named Long Walk to the south through meadow and parkland to arrive at an entirely separate, Bannerman designed ,pleasure ground. This is constructed around an artificial and very pretty lake within a sloping valley with paths on either side. The feel is romantic and recalls the later eighteenth century, indeed putting me in mind of our recent visit to Painshill. 

At the nearer end a charming, although not totally convincing, ruined abbey provides a suitably melancholy approach.

In the middle a yellow Chinoiserie bridge crosses the water.  At the far end a summer house, rather gothick in appearance, straddles a cascade from which water pours into the lake. A ruined hermit’s hut and various similar structures have been placed near the paths around the lake.

Near the summer house a grotto contains a river god with water pouring out of his urn.

The whole constitutes significantly more than the sum of its parts and recalls, as well as playing games with, all that is best in the tradition of the eighteenth century landscape.

Capability Brown called himself a “placemaker”.  The Bannermans can fairly do the same. Although they would probably have been too modest to make such a claim the partnership of Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw may well be deserving of the title. At this moment in the history of Woolbeding, the property is in transition from a totally private place to one with limited, even if growing, public access. Now seems the perfect time to visit.



How Important are Plant Labels?

Whenever I visit a garden I always go armed with a notebook and pen so I can make a note of any plants I’d like for my garden. Ideally I also take my camera (my phone is sufficiently old fashioned that it can deal with phone messages but is not really up to taking photos). This way I can photograph the plant label to be sure of accurate information.

That is as long as there are plant labels. Last week I had lunch (highly recommended) at Sunbury Walled Garden. Afterwards we wandered round the garden admiring the roses. But only some had labels; at least only some labels were visible. A lot of tutting ensued.

I would be the first to admit that my note-taking system is not perfect. Firstly there is NO room in my garden; there already two trays of miscellaneous plants waiting for something in the garden to die so that they can take its place. So the ‘Oh, I must make a note of that so I can sow it / plant it / buy it next year’ is a bit pointless. Even if I had room the notebooks tend to be left, ignored, on the kitchen table till the next visit, by which time I often can’t read my writing or remember exactly why I liked a particular plant so much. In theory the photographs should solve any identification queries but I have never developed a systematic way of taking pictures so I never know whether the labels refer to the preceding or following plants. Sometimes it’s obvious but all too often I am left peering at the pictures, comparing them with the RHS Plant Encyclopaedia and finally giving up and deleting them.

Part way round the garden I realised that the lack of labels didn’t matter and I could simply enjoy the roses as beautiful flowers. It was a huge relief to realise that their exact names didn’t matter. They were pretty, enhanced the day immeasurably and surely that was enough?

To get to Sunbury from Central London you never really leave the city and yet it has the feel of a village. There are a lot of old and extremely attractive houses and the residents have created a Bayeux-like tapestry, stitched by over a hundred people, some of whom had never done embroidery before. It was drawn by a local architect and everything is accurate, from the buildings to the people depicted. The result is impressive, beautiful and fascinating. It is housed in a specially-designed building, which also houses the all-important café. 

Sunbury Walled Garden was originally the kitchen garden of an eighteenth-century manor house and is still surrounded by gracious parkland. The Walled Garden now contains knot gardens, parterres and a fragrant border. The Victorian Rose Garden has old varieties which have a short flowering season but are beautifully shaped, strongly scented and have romantic names such as ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’. Midsummer is the best time to visit for these roses. The Modern Rose Garden has newer varieties which ‘repeat flower’ and bloom throughout the summer. The garden also holds part of the Clematis Society’s collection and they drape elegantly over every wall.

The café has a terrace overlooking the garden and sells freshly baked cakes, home-made soup and sandwiches. Try the cream tea, with proper clotted cream or the delicious blueberry cake. There is an excellent cookery book available. There are courses, concerts and exhibitions throughout the year.

There is a two-mile walk through the park and village which looked lovely but we had unfortunately spent too long over lunch and ran out of time.  It will be a good excuse to go back later and admire more unknown roses.



London Art Week Summer 2017

By the time this appears London Art Week will be over. I missed the preview and only got there on Thursday, but I can report that it appears to have been a great success with numerous red dots on exhibits. Perhaps more to the point from the perspective of those who follow these posts, it took place in an exceptionally friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Of course, dealers would not exist if there was no money to be made, but equally most people involved are really passionate about what they do and want to share that passion. This is really not the same sort of business as the market for pork belly futures, where one unkindly suspects  many traders have never even seen a pork belly. If however there are City bonuses to be spent, there are plenty of things here you could do worse than to buy. Obviously one can’t write about everyone, even though the quality was very high throughout, so here are a few favourites.

Mark Weiss in Jermyn Street is focusing on Tudor and Jacobean portraiture and the role of clothing at Court. The gallery is showing several immaculately tailored reconstructions of court clothing alongside portraits where the sitters are wearing the same sort of attire. A portrait of Sir Roland Cotton by Paul van Somer shows him, as the Gallery states, wearing one of the most resplendent costume pieces of this period and the silk doublet and breeches are virtuosically tailored with deep slashing on the doublet to reveal a layer of blue silk beneath. The original costume was lovingly preserved by his family and given by his descendants to the V and A in 1938, where it remains.

Even finer, in my judgement at least, is the portrait, also painted on panel, of Lady Jane Thornagh by William Larkin, painted in 1617, a couple of years before the artist’s death. It combines an immaculate provenance by descent within the Thornagh family, superb condition with the impasto fully preserved and an exceptional and wonderful surface, and is of outstanding quality. Again I quote from the Gallery’s notes The intricately embroidered and brilliantly coloured costume is kaleidoscopic in effect. The motifs include sea monsters, maritime birds and flora, emerging from stylised silvery ripples of water on her skirt. Her bodice is decorated with crimson-crested woodpeckers, insects, grapes, and flowers punctuated by silver spangles and swirling patterns of golden thread. They are depicted with painstaking attention and each brushstroke imitates individual stitches. This picture had an intriguing red dot on its label and I understand has recently been sold, possibly to a museum.

Bowman in Duke Street is showing one of Emily Young’s large sculpted heads in St James Churchyard: her large pieces are very popular and well suited to incorporation in a garden setting – if anyone wants something along these lines designed do feel free to let us know! There are several good Rodin bronzes in the gallery itself. Faunesse Debout was originally conceived as part of Rodin’s Gates of Hell and the version here, cast from the original plaster in 1945 on behalf of the Musee Rodin, is very fine. 

Stephen Ongpin in Mason’s Yard is showing a group of drawings by Giovanni Baptista Tiepolo, such as this one of a Centaur Carrying off a Young Faun, and by his son Giovanni Dominico.  The father’s works show a remarkable economy of line used to suggest volume. They appear to have mostly been produced by way of working out ideas for more finished works in other media. The son’s are often highly finished drawings in their own right. Many of these drawings, including a head of an old man that I reckoned the finest of them all, have been sold, but some still remain.

There are some very grand things available while the same galleries also offer material within the reach of, admittedly comfortably off, private collectors. For example at Dickinson in Jermyn Street, there is a wonderful pair of Guardi Capriccios for a seven figure price, but also a very fine Portrait of a Jockey by Frederic Whiting (a less fashionable but very able contemporary of Munnings) for about £12,000.

If you turn up, as you should not hesitate to do when the next one occurs at the beginning of December this year, gallery owners will be genuinely glad to see you and will happily talk about what they offer. Chris


Claremont and Painshill

Recently Jane and I decided we needed an outing. After a little amicable debate we settled on the eighteenth century landscape gardens and parks at Claremont and Painshill in Surrey. These are only a couple of miles apart, situated just inside the M25 near Cobham and Esher.

At the risk of coming over like Pollyanna we just had a wonderful day.  Friendly staff in the cafes served good food. The rain held off. It was warm enough to sit outside but cool enough to walk briskly round the several miles of paths and tracks required to see each property properly. We followed the suggested routes that are such an important feature of the enjoyment of these landscaped parks. Since there were so few other visitors, we pretended to be the private guests of the earlier owners.

The gardens have much in common. Both are thoroughly relaxing and great places to take children and families. Both have very attractive wildlife including black swans at Claremont and the more usual white ones at Painshill. Both could fairly be called very pretty indeed. They really deserve to be visited.

Both sites are very properly listed Grade One and are extremely important examples of early English landscape parks.  Both estates fell from secure private ownership into times of great uncertainty and decay in the middle of the twentieth century. The essential cores of both were only rescued from dereliction and potential property developments by the remarkable efforts of concerned organisations and individuals.

To some extent the history and existing layout of Claremont is more complicated than that of Painshill. The National Trust acquired some 50 acres of Claremont in 1949 and a major programme of restoration began in 1975. Its underlying structure was largely established over a period of more than a hundred years, between 1709 when the site was first purchased by Vanbrugh and 1819 when the last major additions were laid down. Great names involved range from Vanbrugh himself, through the 1st Duke of Newcastle to whom he sold the property in 1714, and subsequently Charles Bridgeman, William Kent, Clive of India, Capability Brown and Prince Leopold and Princess Charlotte.

Vanbrugh and Bridgeman’s baroque layout, here shown in an engraving of 1725, was partially naturalised by the alterations of their successors. It survives at its strongest in Vanbrugh’s Belvedere tower and Bridgeman’s three acre turf amphitheatre carved into a steep hill,  was originally mirrored by a regular pool that Kent and Brown re-formed into a serpentine lake.

The Trust’s renovations include the re-instatement of the Amphitheatre, the clearing of vast acreages of Rhododendron ponticum that had overwhelmed and distorted both the overall layout and the individual features of the park, and the restoration of the Belisle Pavilion on the island in the lake.

The Mausoleum erected after the death of Princess Charlotte has recently been re-instated as a temporary replica. Although rebuilt in lightweight materials it offers an excellent idea of the original mass and design. The earlier breakup of the estate left Vanbrugh’s Belvedere in the possession of the adjoining school. Nonetheless it has been restored and is open to visitors once a month.

At Painshill more land has survived and its restoration looks back to the unified vision of a single owner and period.  Numerous surviving images of that period helped to guide the restoration, including a series of views by Gilpin.

A fine but anonymous picture of the early 1780’s has recently been acquired by the Garden Museum. Previously believed to be of Virginia Water, its subject has recently been identified as showing Painshill viewed from the Turkish Tent.The images show the picture and the same view today.

148 acres at Painshill were, after a torrid period, purchased by Elmbridge Borough Council in 1980 and vested shortly thereafter in an excellent charitable trust. As ongoing funding becomes available the long term programme of restoration and re-instatement continues. At Painshill, the park today today is the vision of a single man with an essentially naturalistic and romantic approach manifesting itself to visitors as they move through the landscape. Its prime mover and effective architect was the Honourable Charles Hamilton, the 9th son of the 6th Earl of Abercorn, who owned and developed the property from 1738 until he was forced to sell it in 1773. Despite a perpetual shortage of cash, he demonstrated a remarkable eye for the positioning of architectural features and the layout and balance of the vital ingredients of landmass, water, trees and grass. It is his vision that the Painshill Trust is so effectively re-instating on the land in its stewardship and at times succeeds in creating a musical or even a magical quality.

At Painshill many major triumphs include the repair or re-creation of buildings such as the marvellous Crystal Grotto, the Gothic Tower, the Ruined Abbey, the Turkish Tent (albeit with the original canvas replaced by accurate but slightly stiff fibreglass mouldings) and the five arch bridge. Currently the Temple of Bacchus is being recreated on its original site and this should be completed in the early autumn. In general the reconstructions and restorations are probably more solid and enduring than the original structures, but then they have to cope with a far larger number of visitors.

Both properties are, in the best sense of the word, theatrical. You are well advised to follow the set routes so you come upon the prospects and buildings in a satisfactory order and from the best viewpoints. There is the delight of immediate vision when you look through the window of a ruined Hermitage to see the ground fall away to the River Mole or walk up the Elysian Fields to the reconstructed Gothic Tower at Painshill. For many current and historical visitors the park can and must have produced an emotional and sensual response.

You need no historical or garden knowledge to appreciate Claremont and Painshill although they still recall classical landscape and mythology.  Eighteenth century sensitivities would admittedly find it easier than we do to appreciate the grounds in terms of Virgil, Pliny or the paintings of Claude Lorraine, but to do so simply adds another dimension to a wonderful experience.

These landscape parks act as theatres of transience and memory. And whatever Dr Johnson might have said about naturalistic and romantic gardens (“Pray Sir, where is the surprise the second time?”) that surprise remains in the play of light, weather, wind and the seasons across the more fixed elements.

Painshill is occasionally open on winter evenings before Christmas. If a good frost has formed, the moon is out on a cloudless sky and the crystal grotto is lit by candles then even the most hardened cynic will admit the experience to be both wonderful and magical.

Do go: It’s well worth it!  Chris

Chelsea Flower Show 2017

The Show Gardens

As well as entry to the flower show a ‘Chelsea’ ticket allows one to make sweeping, and probably rather unfair, judgements on the gardens. Along with the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ of pleasure you can also hear ‘I wouldn’t have done that’, ‘How on earth did they manage to get a Gold medal?’ or ‘Why didn’t the judges give them a Gold, this is clearly the best garden in the show?’

It is probably fair to say that most people who go to the Chelsea Flower Show are interested in gardening and that a fair number of those people know quite a lot about plants and garden design. The difference between most of us ordinary mortals and the judges is that we are allowed to like (or not) a garden. They have a strict set of criteria for marking each garden and for them ‘like’ is a forbidden word.

This year the show was a little different, for reasons explained below, but there was still much that I liked, even loved. Charlotte Harris’ garden for the Royal Bank of Canada was inspired by the boreal forest of Canada. This covers 1.2 billion acres but somehow she managed to create something which looked both like a wild forest and a delightful garden. Although this was her first garden she has worked on many gardens at Chelsea and knew exactly how to make the most of the space. The dark surrounding walls were unobtrusive and the Pavilion framed a view through to a beautiful tree and the hint of more forest (rather than the neighbouring stand). The Welcome to Yorkshire Garden was charming but its view, a trompe l’oeil painting framed by a ‘ruined’ abbey, simply looked fake, whereas view here looked eminently real. The views through the Jack pine (Pinus banksiana) also made you think were looking through into a wilderness, albeit one you could also use for afternoon tea. The pretty cones remain on the trees for years, only opening after the extreme heat of fire. At this point the seeds fall to the forest floor and begin the process of regeneration. Red and yellow Granny’s bonnets (Aquilegia canadensis) floated delicately in amongst the grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) and this is one of the many plant combinations that would work well in the smallest garden.

James Basson’s Maltese Quarry won the Best in Show. It was spectacular in a harsh way, looking like a cross between an alien landscape and a cemetery. The addition of a swimming pool and table and chairs meant that one could (just) imagine using it as a garden and, with time, I have come to like it more. Even so his Perfumier’s Garden in Grasse from 2015 remains my favourite Chelsea garden ever –from the thirty-four shows I have worked at or visited. (It should have been thirty-five consecutive years but one year I decided I’d seen it all before and couldn’t face the crowds. Too late I realised the error of my ways as new and exciting plants and gardens unfolded before my eyes on the telly. It just isn’t the same.) In an interview he said that he is now interested in the landscape of Sicily, in particular the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. In a couple of year’s time we may see an even more extraordinary garden if he recreates a volcano in west London.

Reading between the lines this has clearly been a trying Chelsea for a lot of people, with vagaries other than just the weather to contend with. As Brexit and its attendant caution hit the sponsors many decided, perfectly reasonably, that now was not the time to spend thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of pounds on creating a garden. Instead of the fifteen to twenty large show gardens there were a mere eight.

This meant the RHS had a lot of space to fill. The photographic display and new seating area were clearly gap-fillers but the Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens were a great addition. Each was based on one of the five senses and although they weren’t judged they were all the same high Chelsea standard. Sarah Raven’s Colour Cutting Garden was definitely my favourite, but then it was always likely to be. It was a condensed version of her garden as Perch Hill in Sussex and was a riot of well-organised colour (yes, you can have a well-organised riot; Sarah has just proved it). As well as introduce you to new plants, Chelsea reminds you of plants you once grew but have, for one reason or another, forgotten. Sarah had opulent opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) in a purple so deep it looked almost sinister. Sue and I used to grow these from seed every year and their brief but spectacular appearance each summer is something I now realise is lacking in my garden at the moment.  There were also pretty pink poppies (P. dubium) which they are trialling at Perch Hill. They have the delicacy of Welsh poppies and manage to be a shade of pink which is neither insipid nor brash. They were also on the M&G Investments stand and apparently you can buy them at Great Dixter. More wish-list plants and proposed outings go in the notebook – but that is the joy of Chelsea.

The Artisan Gardens

The Artisan Gardens have expanded up towards the Studios and this is brilliant as it spreads these little gardens out and makes them easier to see. Every year we head directly to the large gardens first and by the time we reach the Artisan Gardens in the middle of the afternoon the people are ten or twelve deep. Being Chelsea, everyone moves along in a well-mannered and genteel fashion and it is perfectly possible to see everything but the telly showed Monty Don visiting them in the empty twilight after the show had finished for the day and they are far better viewed in an atmosphere of peace and quiet. The three which have moved up onto woody glade which used to house some of the food stands have more space around them and the Poetry Lover’s Garden had the added advantage that it could be viewed from three sides. Sue and I had first marched past it on our way to lunch and it had very much been a case of ‘Yes, lovely, now where’s a seat in the shade for lunch?’ Later we met someone who raved about it, so we went back for a proper look.

Designed by Fiona Cadwallader this garden was inspired by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’. Apparently the poet had been forced to remain behind in the garden while his friends went rambling in the countryside. The garden is similarly divided with an ‘old’ stone wall separating the domestic garden from the small strip of ‘wild’ beyond. The idea works perfectly; you could easily imagine striding out through the garden gate for a walk in a meadow-strewn meadow leading to the hills beyond. The prison consisted of four lime trees (Tilia europa ‘Euchlora’) which were pruned to create a canopy over a single seat. Even with my powers of space-filling I cannot fit this into my tiny London garden without sacrificing everything else but when I eventually move to the seaside (and a larger garden) this would be one of the first things I would want to create (well, one can dream).

The Great Pavilion and Beyond

The plants both in and out of the Great Pavilion were blissfully unaware of any economic problems and shone brilliantly. David Austin has a beautiful new creamy yellow rose called ‘Vanessa Bell’. W. S. Warmenhoven had an extraordinary plant between the traditional purple globes which consisted of a stem that rose straight up and then writhed and twisted like a streamer in mid-flight (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon). I think I like it but I’m not sure how it would fit in a garden; perhaps a single specimen in a pot?

I am writing a book on Mulberries (Cherries & Mulberries, Growing and Cooking, with Sally, due 2018, sorry about the plug) so I was very pleased that a mulberry won Plant of the Year. Mulberry Charlotte Russe (‘Matsunaga’) only reaches 1.5m, which means I can have one in my tiny garden. It is a hybrid resulting from a cross between a white and black mulberry by the Japanese breeder Hajime Matsanuga nearly fifty years ago. The fruits can be harvested from June to September, it will grow happily in a pot and apparently crops in its first year. It is available from Suttons and I have, of course, ordered one. Writing in the Daily Telegraph Stephen Lacey charmingly christened it Morus minor.

In conclusion I think most of the new ideas have improved the show and I am already looking forward to next year. I am also aware that I have less than fifty weeks to acquire (and find space for) all the plants on my wish list.


Allium jesdianum ‘Early Emperor’

Candelabra Primula (in this and lots of other colours)

Hydrangea ‘Fireworks White’

Eschscholzia caespitosa ‘Sundew’ (I think, if not they’re near enough and I want them anyway)