History in the making
We learn how historic gardens can still inspire and inform modern garden designers.
History in the making
By the time the RHS staged the first Chelsea Flower Show, in 1913, Lawrence Johnston had just begun developing the land around Hidcote Manor, in Gloucestershire. In its heyday, Hidcote employed 12 gardeners and Johnston’s plant expeditions were bringing back such exotica as crocosmia, agapanthus and jasmine. How times have changed.
Well - perhaps not as much as it seems. In this day of 21st century garden design, visitors flock to gardens a century old or more.
“I always describe visiting historic gardens as being like putting on a comfortable pair of old slippers,“ says Chris Beardshaw, whose Silver-Gilt winning garden celebrates Hidcote’s centenary. “You know instinctively that you fit in the place. It’s a garden design for people, not a sculptural statement.”
The description “historic garden” is a tricky one, and indeed it could be argued that Hidcote itself is actually a modern garden in a historic framework. It’s believed Lawrence Johnston’s planting plans were burnt by Nancy Lindsay, the daughter of a gardening friend of Johnston’s, in a fit of pique when she didn’t inherit Hidcote. Without them as guidance, Hidcote is a garden being interpreted, rather than restored - what landscape architect Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe once referred to as “creative conservation”.
“What we try to do is to be inspired by what was inspiring Johnston,” says Glyn Jones, head gardener at Hidcote. “If we knew 100% what was happening in every single area of the garden, after a few years it would become a bit of a yawn.”
Glyn tries to put himself in Johnston’s shoes constantly when he’s developing areas of the garden - to the point of travelling to far-flung places like South Africa, just as Johnston did, to bring back plants new to cultivation.
“I think that brings the spirit of the garden up to the 21st century,” he says. “We don’t want the gardens to be preserved in aspic.”
Gardens - even ones which have been around for hundreds of years - are living, growing things, and plants which live and die cannot be “restored” in the purest sense of the word. Perhaps the greatest lesson which historic gardens have to teach us, believes garden history writer Jane Owen, is that it’s not the specific variety of plant used - some of which may not even be available any more - but the way they’re used which counts.
“History still matters, because history still shows us what we can do and what we can’t do successfully, so it is a very useful guide,” she says. “But then you combine history with what’s happening today.”
It’s a sentiment with which many involved in conserving historic gardens, including Chris Beardshaw, agree.
“I think it’s a real mistake for contemporary designers to think that they can design without looking backwards,” says Chris. “You have to look backwards and take the best of what has been created in the past in order to be able to move forward.”