The inaugural Gardens Illustrated Festival of Gardens was held in the ancient town of Malmesbury in Wiltshire on 17th and 18th April, with a wide range of speakers from the great and the good of garden and landscape design, garden history, gardening and other related fields. I attended with 2 colleagues on a beautiful sunny but breezy Saturday (having been unable to make both days of the festival) and thoroughly enjoyed the interesting, informative and well-run event. This was a great value opportunity to attend a series of talks chosen from an a-la-carte menu, paying on a talk-by-talk basis. First up was Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter since Christopher Lloyd died in 2006. Fergus gave us a machine-gun fast tour of the gardens at Dixter, and the rationale behind the ever-changing planting design. Not all of Dixter is my cup of tea to be honest, but they do take chances rather than play it safe, and are really good at what they do. I suppose if you had to sum up Dixter in one word, it would be contrast rather than harmony, although on a deeper ecological rather than aesthetic level, there’s actually a lot of harmony going on. But you could equally say that Dixter embodies change rather than stasis. Fergus was an engaging speaker brimming over with infectious enthusiasm for his subject and his knowledge of planting combinations was encyclopaedic. Also very winning is his willingness to make mistakes and just give things ago, which in a discipline like planting design, with innumerable variables, is a great strength.
Next up was Tom Stuart-Smith, one of the UK’s top landscape designers who treated us to a whistlestop tour of four very different current projects in tropical Kerala, arid central Spain, the american Mid-west, and Mustique. Tom’s analysis of Mustique as essentially a landscape without a context, with an entirely segregated population, was insightful, and the island came across as something of a pot-pourri of wealthy kitsch, somewhat like a reservation for wealthy people who lack both taste and self-awareness. Throughout all of Tom’s work though, lies a huge sensitivity towards landscape history and context. It’s hard not to be jealous of the projects, but the quality of the work and maturity of approach speaks for itself. Interesting to note too how the character of each project was influenced by the character of the client, especially the ‘heroic’ american landscape, which seemed to convey echoes of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Michael Heizer. Tom’s reflection on the price of manual labour in places as poor as Kerala, vs western Europe, and the effect it has on what you design and how it’s built, were also interesting (beautiful stone paving, fully laid for £5/m², which if you could even find someone with those skills in the UK, would cost in excess of £200/m²)
Lunch break gave an opportunity to explore the ancient town and enjoy a walk along the river Avon in the spring sunshine and admire the huge and ancient Cotswold Stone walls before returning to the abbey for the afternoon session.
Two very different talks after lunch. Sarah Raven gave a great presentation of her breadth and depth of knowledge as well as her business acumen in building a very successful business as a polymath of plants. Her enthusiasm, expertise, energy and knowledge shone through on a topic I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy – growing flowers commercially for cutting.
Anna Pavord gave a talk for which I hadn’t really done the research when I signed up for it, an incredibly erudite presentation called The Flowering of Tuscany, on the lives, loves and gardens of a coterie of tiresomely selfish and profligate expats living the high life in early 20th century Tuscany. The cast of players was huge, bewildering and essentially interchangeable and in the post-lunch doldrums and the comforting atmosphere of the old abbey I soon lost track of exactly who had slept with, betrayed, fallen out with or had a garden built by whom. To be honest they seemed like such a tedious collection of privileged and cosseted aristocrats that I could hardly bring myself to care anyway, and found myself wondering why we hadn’t had a proper revolution like the French..
Which, at the end of the day, led to a reflection on the demographic of those present and/or speaking – overwhelming white, upper-middle or upper class, well-off and largely female. Not the most diverse group of people you could encounter for sure. Whilst this may be entirely natural (increasingly gardens and home-owning are becoming an elitist pursuit), the extent to which this little world is so dominated by those born into privilege and of a certain age is still disappointing and not a little saddening. So feeling slightly rueful about the whole shebang, we took a diversion to Cricklade on the way home and lifted our spirits with a tramp around the famous fritillary meadows, one of only a handful left in the entire country – a sight I had been meaning to see for many years and was glad to finally get around too. Definitely best viewed lying down. Which was nice.