Yesterday I visited The Laskett, nestling on the borders between England and Wales. This is a garden I have been aware of for some time, reading both positive and negative reviews but had never visited as it is only open to group visits.
The Laskett is first and foremost a private and deeply personal garden; one of the most personal gardens I have ever visited. It was created by Sir Roy Strong and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, over the last 30 years. To understand or even appreciate the garden you have to understand its creators’ backgrounds. Sir Roy, a renown art historian and laterally a writer on garden design, was Director of the National Portrait Gallery and then the Victoria & Albert Museum. Julia was a renown film, theatre and television designer and her understanding of using perspectives, leading and even forcing the eye down certain routes is very evident.
Sir Roy, during his introductory talk, stressed the private and personal nature of the garden. He explained how it reflected his interests in Tudor and Stuart history, Italianate gardens, the influences of Jekyll and also Ian Finlay Hamilton. We learnt that, as with any mature garden, since his wife’s death in 2003 Sir Roy and the two gardeners had been reviewing and editing the garden. Removing tall Leylandii hedges, cutting back to re-establish perspectives that had been lost and removing plants that were no longer performing. He made me laugh when he said, addressing an audience whose average age was probably 65, that he did not understand why people over 60 were incapable of removing plants from their garden, if it didn’t work move it – all said with a twinkle in the eye.
The garden has been created on a 4 acre plot and has developed over the years. The areas closest to the house were done first, like many of us do. And like many of us with a new home there was little budget so plants were the main investment with the hard landscaping added later. This is definitely not a garden that owes its structure to the hard landscaping which I, for one, found made a pleasant change in this era of paving, and more paving. The structure comes from the hedges, topiary and parterres and there is a lot of it. The influence of Hidcote which its arrangement of rooms is clear an influence acknowledged by Sir Roy who stated that if a garden looked good in January, as Hidcote had to him, then it must be good. In his book The Laskett Sir Roy talks about various influences on him when he was thinking about designing the garden, and even before.
“For the first time I knew that if I ever had a garden it would be of this kind, strongly architectural, a paradise of different greens trained and clipped to form walls, entrances and a multiplicity of other shapes superimposing onto an empty space delight, definition and surprise.”
For me the garden was full of references to garden landscape history. The parterres near the house reminded me of the Elizabethan knot gardens . There are long vistas with focal points at the end and a vast array of statuary and all of this reminded me of the 17th century approach to garden design where the visitor was led along walkways away from the house to discover delights, ornamentation etc in the surrounding woods, or bosquets. Of course these were landscape gardens on the grand scale, think of Versailles, but if you take this idea and condense it down to the small-scale you can recognise its features at The Laskett and we are reminded of Sir Roy, the art historian’s, interest in the Tudor and Stuart period.
The garden, as I and Sir Roy, have said is deeply personal and this seemed to distract some of the people I was visiting with. Sir Roy and Lady Strong’s initials were on the statutes, temples, house and even in the parterres. Some people found this strange and almost disturbing but to me it was like a horticultural scrap-book. The ornamentation was not a collection of random pieces, instead they had belonged to close friends, reflected Sir Roy and his wife’s professional achievements, charted their lives, marked signficant milestones. Sir Roy talked about how they had felt a need to escape London in the 70s, to have a retreat from what was a challenging time with various strikes and as he describes in The Laskett the end of the 60s was “a bad period for people in these islands, full of deep unrest.”. The Laskett was intended to be their hideaway, their Arcadia – a rural idyll. If you consider this the hedges and strong sense of enclosure make sense as do some of the statutory.
This is not a plantsman’s garden at all. The herbaceous planting definitely comes secondary to the structural topiary and hedges, although where there are larger areas of herbaceous planting it is full and colourful. Some have complained about the maintenance of this garden and yes there were weeds, there were plants that needed deadheading but then the same is true of my garden and most gardens. The gardeners were busy when we visited clipping the hedges and topiary. I suspect that this is given priority as it is such a dominant feature of the garden. Personally the odd overgrown bit didn’t bother me it reinforced the fact that this was a personal garden and I much prefer this to the immaculately maintained National Trust gardens that you see.
I found The Laskett a garden that challenged me, it is an intellectual space making me think. Instead of looking closely at some plant I found myself considering the atmosphere and how it made me feel. I sensed this was a garden to be at peace in, to sit and contemplate or to wander the various paths mulling some problem or issue. It is a garden of refuge and retreat.
I was reminded of a comment made when I was in San Francisco and we were discussing our favourite gardens. One of my colleagues commented that, for her, the sign of good garden was one that had fulfilled its original purpose. I think in the case of The Laskett the garden has definitely fulfilled its original purpose. Now with the introduction of The Colonnade Court, an area very classical in its appearance, which is designed for performance, the garden maybe helping Sir Roy move forward into a new period of his life – as he said we all have to reinvent our lives when we loss someone close and I think the garden has been key to Sir Roy in doing this.