footnotes, appendices and apparatus to the anatomy
grouped loosely by subject
6. on Gardens
Impossible to say which, the garden is so overgrown. It is in fact only just possible to state that this area of ground had at some time in the past had a specified purpose.
The garden is not only unkempt, it is also large and involuted; like some houses and some other gardens, it has the trick of appearing to the initiate larger than it is, and this is a function of its involution, its serpentine involvement, its store of surprise, the space compressed and maximised like the canals of the brain; as though you measured its size by the number of entrances and exits you made.
Two different levels link up with steps and slopes, you follow a path and emerged to your surprise at the side of the house. At the back, a long way from the house, an embowered path carries you into what should be, perhaps really is, next door’s garden, and you are confronted with a silent overgrown mossy summer house - the Pavilion of Limpid Solitude, as I have come to call it - limping and wheezing, broken down by envious winters. Somewhere back up towards the main house there is a small choked fountain and pond; bleached and belichened quarter-length concrete statues of Greek gods peer impotently, humiliated, caught in their nakedness, from the foliage; you glimpse averted eyes one minute, buttocks the next, a pitcher a third; and so on as you make your round of the statue.
The garden stands away from the road and backs on to other, similarly obscure gardens and houses invisible and silent beyond, and so is as quiet as you might reasonably expect from a suburban garden. Someone once a long time ago went to the trouble of picking out particular plants and shrubs, tending borders, planting roses; it has all bolted or mutated, vegetable patches are home to vast and misshapen progeny of domestic species, bushes of herbs with knotted trunks, blighted and mutilated yellowing pulps. Everything is green, ferny, rotting, big, like the imagined forests of the carboniferous.
Not all of the garden is overlooked by the house, by any means, but I am assured by Clarke that I will be watched in my work; not by Kelley, who is rarely home when I am there; but by his wife, who never leaves the house anymore. Kelley’s wife is agoraphobic.
The house is grounded in the Palladian copy books of Augustan England – although whether its construction also dates to the 18th century is beyond my competence to say: you would have to look into your Pevsner. It is not enormous, and the gardens are not vastly extensive either; but house seems to occupy more space than those around it.
The gardens are laid out, on Italianate Renaissance principles - you might be at Poggio Reale, if it still existed. They are open to the skies, compartmentalised, symmetrically patterned; as though the gods of the middle air, passing by on their way to read those hieroglyph messages scrawled in the sands of the Peruvian desert, might glance approvingly at this harmonious tribute, and shower down some casual beneficence accordingly.
It is, in other words, a diagram of rigidly interrelated flower beds and low-hedged borders, carefully controlled volumes and masses and colours, punctuated by slender trees with topiary heads like those with which Piero della Francesca stakes out his rural perspectives.
Tony had told me to walk through. I would find him, he said, at the back, most afternoons, working on his folly (my word, not his). His folly was a summer house in the Palladian manner – a penitential memory, perhaps, of the old North End - which he was building with his own hands. It was a return, in his semi-retirement, to his roots as a jobbing builder.
I found him, right enough, wearing a faded blue overall and a folded-newspaper hat, covered in the dust of plaster and cement, wielding a trowel with which he was performing some sort of scraping operation on the breeze-block foundations. He shook my hand when I arrived, and while we talked he got back to his finicking and scraping.
I told him his garden did not look as though it needed any work doing, beyond accounting for the odd leaf that might blow over his walls. He said he had no need of a new gardener, he had a whole army of them at his disposal; no, what he needed was a consultant. An architect, if you like, of gardens.
He was worried, he explained, that his summer house, which he saw so clearly in his mind’s eye, would destroy the balance of the gardens, or the zones of planting and the coiled labyrinthine borders and hedges. He did not, in fact, have all that much space to work with, and had been forced to tear out some trees and half a parterre to get his structure in at all.
He felt sure, he said, that house would balance summer house, once the latter emerged from the piles of brick and stone and plastic sheeting filled with sand and gravel that it was now; but the garden would have to mediate between the two, which it had never been designed to do. And for that he needed an expert. I told him that I was – had merely been – a historian of sorts, not a landscape gardener. Exactly, he said, glancing picking around his foundations with his trowel. An expert.
At his insistence I went and stood on a low wall that skirted the house, and got a sense of the geometry of the garden. And to my uneasy surprise, I saw, or sensed, both that he was right - the summer house would skew the gravitational masses of the garden - and that I saw that he was right because he had so willed it.
After five minutes in which I walked up and down the length of the wall, looking out over the garden, dell’Aquila came and climbed up beside me.
I thought, he said, for a long time about how I might get this new element in. Because that’s what it is. A whole new element. And by my age you naturally get wary of adding new elements to systems that work. But I wanted to build something and I wanted to build it with my own hands and I wanted to build it here, so in the end I took a leap of faith and just plunged in. It’s going to be beautiful, I’m going to get the best marble, the best stone, I know all the right people in Italy, I know where to get good Spanish granite; I’ll bring it all over and build it, and it will be beautiful.
What I do in it when I’ve built it, I don’t know. Probably nothing. It will be something to look down the garden at, nothing more.
He asked then if I saw what he meant. The watery sun had by now passed behind high banks of cloud. At the bottom of the garden was a building site and the garden itself was all dull greens. But I said that I did see what he meant. And when he asked me if I had any ideas, I said – nothing specific; it could be that the answer was some water – perhaps something reflecting the folly, enlarging the space; or it could be a question of rebalancing the beds, planting some trees, changing some eye-lines. Or it may be, I said, that what you are struggling to do – retain the symmetrical plausibility of the garden – is impossible; just as you say – a new element introduces a new balance. Perhaps the garden wants to be asymmetrical. Needs to be.
And I realised, not exactly immediately, that what I had done in saying what I had said (dell’Aquila only said in return, bene, bene, as though to say, you’re thinking about it, that’s good, that means I have you) was alter the terms – no, not the terms but the tenor of the agreement. I would be involved.
The enclosed private garden, as opposed to the cloister garden for example, is in medieval and other literatures a locus aptissimus for love: the pursuit of love and the act of love. The right place. In particular the enclosed garden, the hortus conclusus, the flower garden, the rose garden. Little wonder that Gabriel traps his Virgin in a hortus conclusus when he makes his pandering annunciation.
The sensory divagation or if you prefer dispersal to be had in a garden is a forerunner or complement to the sensory divagations implicit in the act of love. It is moreover intimate and exposed, public because in the open and private because separated off. And it is, finally, opulent – both in terms of actual wealth in medieval society, which is of course a sufficient stimulus in itself, and it terms of the leisure which that wealth affords.
Similarly a garden, rational or otherwise, is an apt location for contemplation, for charting the progress of your soul. In the irrational garden we assemble flowers and perfumes and pollinating insects; the flowers are hybridised, large, bred for their pungency, their bigness of colour; and we locate all of this in dense pockets or rooms, white gardens, rose gardens. In the rational garden we privilege the form of organisation (stone garden, renaissance garden) or function (production of vegetables, fruit, herbs). Either way however, a garden is a thing that does not exist in nature. It is an artificially dense space, a space of sensory overload; but also an artificially controlled or subdued space. It stimulates without overwhelming. It takes our senses off our hands, leaves us free to think.
As yet the summer house is not a recognisable structure, more a building site, a pile of materials. Tony dell’Aquila is taking his time – he had hoped, he said, to have it in place before the summer, but his retirement takes up more time than he had anticipated, and he is now more wedded, he says, to the desire to build it with his own hands than to the structure itself. When it’s done, it’s done, he says. Then laughing adds, it’ll be wintertime. A winterhouse.
I therefore have to envisage it as I draft my proposals for the rest of the garden, and I am finding this effort of imagination considerable, having to balance something invisible and insubstantial against the actuality, weight and age of the extant garden, a description of which runs as follows:
- four roughly symmetrical parterres, marked off with low box hedge, ill-trimmed
- a long stretch of exposed wall to the right as you look down the garden, in old and somewhat crumbling reddish brick
- no lawn as such but some extensive rough walking space towards the bottom of the garden (this is where the summer house or folly is being built)
- three mature trees, also towards the bottom of the garden (alder, pine and a colossal sycamore)
- a break in level as you approach the house (walled, a bed running the length of the wall) negotiated by a set of broad step flanked by two weedy urns, one on each side at the top, and a water nymph (marble, but clearly not original)
- an off-centre and somewhat forlorn pond with water trickling into it
- shaded and broken beds to the left and bottom, and a long sun-drenched bed to the right, dominated by ill-kept roses
- a terrace area near the house
- some shedding off to the left by the shaded wall, in need of repair
- a mossy flaking greenhouse more or less opposite the shedding to the left
Hydraulics is at the root of all proper gardening. Soil type, drainage, the laying of pipes, the positioning of butts, the irrigation of crops.
When I first conceived the Rain Garden, it flashed upon me that I might do better, go further, and build a floating garden, a hydroponical everglades, a formless Garden of the Deluge; Kelley and his wife would wade out in the evening to the rhythm of the bull frogs, the sway of the fen grasses and reeds, the only humans on the habitable earth.
The Deluge Garden is no longer part of my plan, but the underpinning (or in my case overlaying) of a garden by a well-engineered hydraulic system seems to me central to garden design.