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A Green Thumb

The Education of a Gardener

by Russell Page
Random House, 382 pp., $19.95

The Education of a Gardener was originally published in 1962 and almost immediately allowed to go out of print, with the result that those who were bright enough to snap up copies hoarded them jealously while the rest of us had to borrow or steal what became a classic. The new edition, a reprint of the old with the same photographs of gardens he has designed, will therefore be a boon to Page’s frustrated admirers as well as introducing him to readers who may not have heard of him before. Oddly enough, there are likely to be a good many of these, even among those who take gardening seriously, and in spite of the fact that he is one of the two or three great creators of gardens in our time. His clients are the rich and famous all over the world, and he has worked for governments, municipalities, and corporations as well as the private owners of French chateaux, historic Italian villas, London and Paris town houses, estates on Long Island and in Texas.

Though it isn’t a claim he would make for himself, I think it possible that in the course of a professional career which began in 1928 he has made more gardens in more places than anyone in history. And they haven’t exactly gone unnoticed. Photographs of Page gardens have been appearing in de luxe magazines for decades. But somehow he isn’t a celebrity—not in the sense that certain architects, interior decorators, stars of haute couture are registered on the brains of the magazine-reading public; and not in the sense either that V. Sackville-West became one, though she only made two gardens in her life, both for herself, and wasn’t a professional.

Sackville-West, however, was a personality as well as a writer and gardener. She was often photographed, and after her death we were given some riveting glimpses into her personal life. I have never seen a photograph of Page, and know nothing more about him than the skimpy details in this book, all of which are directly related to the subject in hand. Thus he deals with World War II in a couple of pages, saying only that it involved him in journeys to the Middle and Far East and sketching some of the impressions made on him by alien civilizations. Occasionally he tosses in a sentence like “we worked in the snake-ridden Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya”—which are in Ceylon, but who “we” were he doesn’t say. Was he in the RAF? Intelligence? For all one knows he could have been a hero or a mere clerk, though the latter is unlikely.

He is equally close-mouthed about his famous clients—for example the Duke of Windsor (he doesn’t mention the Duchess), whose gardens in France he designed and which he describes in detail. Ravishing they were, too, but if there is a conclusion to be drawn from his comment that he was “surprised and a little appalled” at the Duke’s request for Acer negundo, a tree Page regarded as “the local nurseryman’s solution for a suburban front garden,” the reader must draw it for himself. Page confines himself to a description of how he solved the problem by going back to memories of a “gold garden” described by Gertrude Jekyll.

At no time does he descend to personalities, or give the impression that he is on intimate terms with the well-known people he numbers among his clients. He doesn’t treat us to accounts of the duchesse d’Acquarone’s exquisite little dinners. Instead he tells us just how difficult it was to build for her a swimming pool on top of a rock in the Mediterranean where “I could not count on any effective and picturesque accidents of planting or of light and shade to help me.” Of Prince Aly Khan he says only that “the Prince was someone whom the world’s press decided to glamorise, so I had to design a garden which would keep the reporters at bay and give some privacy” to the narrow and treeless lot the prince had unaccountably chosen to build on between the Geneva-Lausanne road and the lake. And once again he tells us exactly how he did it.

This concentration on the job and consequent exclusion of the snob value that could so easily be attached to it must, in part, account for his being less than a household word. The fact that this is his only book (a second is projected) would also have something to do with it. But there is another explanation: garden design isn’t what it used to be as a subject for public interest and debate because the garden itself has ceased to be a representative artifact, the metaphor for larger issues that engaged the attention of Pope and Addison, Rousseau and Horace Walpole.

During the eighteenth century the garden became an arena where the forces of liberty contended with those of rigid authority—hence the uproar that attended the birth of the landscape movement, which was correctly seen as a revolution on both sides of the Channel. Not by accident had the formal art of Le Nôtre come to stand for political and social oppression. It was the royalist style all over Europe and remained so for another century and a half. The landscape park, seemingly without boundaries or constraints (even walls having been replaced by the ha-ha, an invisible ditch) foretold a change in the human spirit. (For how well this symbolism was understood, see the Sotherton chapter in Mansfield Park, in which Maria Bertram’s wish to escape from Mr. Rushworth and fling herself into the arms of Henry Crawford is made plain when she slips past the gate of Mr. Rushworth’s formal garden and walks off with Crawford into the open spaces of the park. “I certainly can get out, and I will,” she says—and we know she is headed for disaster, Jane Austen being on the side of law and order. Rousseau’s message of fifty years earlier had, of course, been exactly the reverse: the garden where Julie takes her lover in the Nouvelle Héloïse is a wilderness where the sacredness of nature embraces also the sanctity of the passions.)

The high Victorian garden, whose centerpiece was the carpet bed jammed with tropical annuals in technicolor hues, was no less symbolic in its way. The product of new wealth allied to new technology, both spawned by the industrial revolution, it was the very emblem of British imperialism. Britain ruled the waves and her plantsmen were sent to every corner of the globe in search of botanical treasures, which thanks to improved greenhouse construction could now be housed and propagated under glass in winter, and in summer set out to blaze amid the mass-produced statuary and stonework.

The aesthetic objections to this style were blindingly obvious (literally blinding owing to the clashing colors: fuchsias with geraniums, calceolarias with Salvia splendens and zinnias), but they weren’t the prime cause of its downfall. William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, the founders of the Surrey school of natural gardening, were very much under the influence of William Morris and the arts and crafts movement, and as often happens when “nature” is invoked, there were strong moral overtones to their protest. Robinson’s The English Flower Garden, published in 1883, preached the virtues of the old-fashioned cottage garden full of the descendants of English meadow flowers planted in artless disarray as if comparing an English dairymaid with a painted foreign strumpet. Many of the imports, notably the rhododendrons, azaleas, and other hardy evergreens, of course remained. But the tropical annuals never returned to fashion, and haven’t to this day. The carpet bed, where it still exists (and it does in municipal plantings on the Continent and—of all places—in communist China) is a kind of horticultural joke. In England at least, the cottage style prevailed—more or less and not without equivocation.

Gertrude Jekyll, for example, in theory the great exponent of the garden whose chief interest was supposed to be its plants disposed in naturalistic ways (she invented the herbaceous border), in practice collaborated for most of her life with the architect Edwin Lutyens, whose terraces, staircases, pergolas, and fountains were an often overwhelming presence and certainly had nothing to do with nature. The Jekyll-Lutyens gardens were in fact hybrids, combining as they tried to do the art of the plantsman with that of the architect—and these two have been on a collision course since the Italian Renaissance. Rarely has the architect been willing to admit materials other than stone, water, trees, and a limited selection of evergreens to his grand design; and more rarely still has the plantsman—that is to say the gardener who cherishes and perhaps collects plants for their own sake—been more than minimally talented as a designer. It was the great failure of the Victorians that they couldn’t think of a way to incorporate the botanical riches suddenly at their disposal into gardens that weren’t miracles of bad taste. But their modernist successors have done no better with their icy plazas, their abstracts of sand and rocks borrowed from the Japanese (but without the spiritual content of the originals), their half-reclaimed bits of meadow, sand dune, and forest. The problem isn’t solved by ignoring it and pretending that the plants don’t exist, or belong somewhere other than in a garden.

I am looking as I write at the photograph of a Le Corbusier building propped on stilts in the middle of a hayfield, which seems to have another hayfield on its roof. The caption reads: “Even in the country Le Corbusier will often hoist outdoor living to the rooftops, for a garden or terrace at ground level blurs the rigorously clean distinction between man-made and natural forms that is basic to his art.” This is the stuff of which modern treatises on garden design are made, but it isn’t new. “Capability” Brown would have agreed that gardens or terraces at ground level are a mistake: he abolished the great parterre at Blenheim, planted by the nurseryman Henry Wise, in order—as one critic said—“to make room for a little grass and a few American weeds.” The twentieth century hasn’t been fertile in new ideas for the garden. Even the machine-for-outdoor-living centered on a swimming pool, the Sun Belt’s most characteristic form, is but a much debased and domesticated version of the Renaissance pleasure ground, and as little dependent on the horticultural arts.

Page is tactful in his approach to this situation:

I have known brilliant designers who were passionately keen on garden design but who had never pushed their study of plants far enough. They either used a very limited repertory of plant material or left the planting to someone else. In the same way remarkable plant cultivators I have known…have rarely had any idea of how to use their plants to make a garden picture. The gardener or designer who can combine the two is a rare bird.

Page isn’t about to say that he is that bird, but his gardens speak for him: it is precisely in his double mastery of these usually separate arts (in American universities design and horticulture aren’t even taught in the same curriculum) that his genius lies. He isn’t, like Luis Barragán of Mexico for example, the inventor of a startling new architectural idiom; nor, in the manner of Brazil’s Burle Marx, does he treat his plants as though they were cut from metal or stone—an abstract style which, as he correctly says, works wonderfully with tropical succulents, and far less successfully with the plants of the north temperate zone. Many of Page’s gardens are renovations (not to be confused with copies or imitations) of old ones fallen into ruin or spoiled by later fiddling with the original. But neither do his new ones call attention to themselves with bizarre features. One of his many illuminating aphorisms is that “a garden designer will do well to reflect before he indulges in a tour de force,” and he notes how quickly we tire of these, how short a time elapses before they go out of date. His own gardens, on the contrary, have a timeless quality that is partly based on the simple integrity of their materials, their look of being indigenous to the site, their “good bones”—his phrase.

But of course there is more to it than that. The timelessness of Page’s gardens is also the result of what may have been a series of accidental choices: to do the bulk of his work abroad, for instance, and for foreigners—a most unusual one for an Englishman, which was probably a consequence of the war. Whatever it was it had the effect of opening his mind to a variety of knowledge and experience unknown to his English predecessors, or for that matter to his American and European contemporaries. On the debit side, this has made him hard to classify. He doesn’t belong to a “school” like the Californian or the Scandinavian, and therefore can’t be associated with a particular climate or way of life. But this has also had the effect of freeing him from the limitations of time and space.

One of the pleasures of this book, and I think a secret of his art, is his ability to make connections between past and present, to pluck from a profound knowledge of garden history those elements that can serve a contemporary purpose, yet never to settle on a formula, either ancient or modern—which of course is the danger. He is well aware of this. He knows that

we live too in a museum age. We collect and classify the artificial and natural products of every known country and civilisation. All of this as well as our plant material offer a large and confusing repertoire to the garden designer. His range of information about history and styles and an extensive documentation can easily lead him to indulge in a mixture of mannerisms which is not style but merely allusion, coming…from the mechanical processes of mental association.

Style, then, must be what we distill from the multiplicity of data and materials at hand, and how to do this is the problem of every modern artist. Page happens to be the only major garden designer to have written about it in our time. Few of them write at all, and none has produced a book that, like this one, could remotely qualify as literature.

What, then, is Page’s solution? And how do we recognize a Page garden? The answer in both cases isn’t simple but rather consists in the constant application of a fresh eye and imagination to every aspect of situations that are inevitably repetitious, to treat each problem as if it had never existed before. “I know,” he says, “that I cannot make anything new,” and in the broadest sense this is true—also a guarantee that in his gardens we will find no tiresome tricks or treats. But it is true, too, that a Page garden is like no one else’s. Beneath the extreme elegance of its surface, the way in which everything in it seems to be the right size and shape, and the distinction of the planting, there is something else: an endless rethinking of the obvious. His many variations on the theme of water, for instance: anyone contemplating the construction of a swimming pool (and this appears to be a modern necessity, hideous though it generally is and totally destructive to the atmosphere of a garden) should consult Page before putting shovel to the ground. His pools are beautiful and even mysterious—a rare feat. Or it may be the way he handles a small flower garden, setting beds marked off with boxwood like little checkerboards between paved paths, an effect that is reminiscent of the tapestried medieval enclosure yet entirely contemporary. He excels, indeed, at these double images. Another is a single scroll of tightly clipped box snaking out onto a lawn. The form is Le Nôtre’s; the stark simplification very much of today.

But there is no aspect of garden design he hasn’t studied and developed, and one criticism I would make of the book (the other is that it is occasionally repetitious and could stand some pruning) is that the photographs don’t adequately illustrate a richly detailed text. Too many of them show the kind of grand scheme that is hopelessly out of the average gardener’s reach, giving the misleading impression that he has nothing to say to those of us struggling to make sense of a city back yard or three-quarters of a disheveled country acre. Page’s is a class act, but there is something here for everybody. Some examples:

On simplicity: “A discerning eye needs only a hint, and understatement leaves the imagination free to build its own elaborations. The artifacts of a garden should be summary, direct and apposite.”

On views: “A panorama and a garden seen together distract from each other…. Above all, avoid any garden design or any colour which might detract from the main theme which in such a case must be the view.”

On hilly locations: “Gardens laid out on terraces falling away from the house are seldom visited.”

On paths: “The width of a path…is justified only by the use that will be made of it.”

On diversity: “It is better to make a statement emphatically and once only…. Nothing is so unsatisfactory as a walk through a garden where the same plants or combinations of plants keep recurring in small patches at every turn.”

On pots, tiles, etc.: “The ordinary red flower-pot, so simple in shape and material, is a perfect foil for its contents.” “While such rarities [as good faience] are hard to find…smaller pieces are effective in an outdoor room so long as you consider that their glazed and patterned surfaces count as flowers.”

On special plants: “…in any garden one should limit one’s choice of plants to those that will flourish. To succeed with a rare or difficult plant is a different pleasure and another question.”

On trees: “To plant trees is to give body and life to one’s dreams of a better world.”

On water: “Water which runs fast and uninterruptedly through and out of a garden may seem to drain away the garden’s character.” “In gardens where there are masses of flower colour…it will be enough if [water] conveys the impression of space and coolness. It should be still water…. The play of fountains in a flower garden may offer an unnecessary and too rich overtone, as though a wedding cake were waltzing.”

These barely scrape the surface, and I admit that several of them were chosen because they caused me to rethink some personal mistakes, both past and projected. No longer are peonies and iris scattered about my garden as they once were: I saw the force of Page’s unkind remarks about gardens where the same plants keep recurring at every turn. And I have abandoned the idea of somehow inserting a jet of water at the confluence of the four island flower beds. Obviously he is right that it would be too much, and I am working instead on the question of how I might manage one of his absolutely unadorned oval pools that look as though someone had felicitously dropped a mirror flat on the grass.

I wish I could follow his injunction not to struggle with rare and difficult plants, but somewhere out there is a tiny Meconopsis betonicifolia, the blue Himalayan poppy he rightly says is as difficult to succeed with as the philosophers’ stone. I didn’t raise it myself. It was the gift of a friend who suddenly and sadly died last fall. Has it survived this mild winter? I don’t dare to look. But somehow I feel that Page would understand this aberration of mine even if he didn’t altogether approve of it. Notice the title of his book: he doesn’t call himself a designer, let alone a landscape architect, the grandiose title assumed by the members of his profession in this country. He is a gardener, first and last, and to those who share his passion that says it all.

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