By Michael Turner – garden and art historian, formerly the Senior Curator of the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney.
I grew up in England surrounded by beautiful gardens and landscapes. Memories of the smell of honeysuckle on a warm summer’s morning wafting in through the kitchen window of my grand-parents 16th century farmhouse in the Lake District still moves me viscerally, as does the smell of mown hay in the Top Field, the views across to the high fells from the top of a newly made hay-stack, the feel of early morning dew on the grass between my toes, the heady smell of roses, stocks and wall flowers, and the fascinating round, paper-like seed heads of honesty. My father wrote on garden design for Country Life and my mother created a classic Arts & Crafts ‘roomed’ garden full of roses and herbaceous plants at our family home in Cheshire. And all the time, as if by osmosis, I was soaking it up. In my 20s, I created my own first garden, experimenting wildly with height, scent, colour and weird plantings; the Japanese Nettle Garden in a shaded corner is still spoken of in the family with bemused shakes of the head!
For many years, as a historian, classicist and archaeologist, I was the senior curator of a museum of antiquities, the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney, home to the largest collection of Greek, Egyptian and Roman remains in the Southern hemisphere. I was especially interested in sculpture and architecture, which in turn led me to a fascination with the works of Vitruvius and Pliny and the latter’s description of his gardens in the hills of Tuscany. And so, following an inspirational visit to the 18th century Arcadian landscape at Stourhead in the late 90s, my passion for garden history was born. At first this passion was for the great 18th century gardens of England: Blenheim, Stourhead, Rousham, Castle Howard, Stowe and Chatsworth for example, where Classicism, sculpture, art and architecture walked hand in hand with planting and design, and then slowly it encompassed the whole range of modern garden history from its beginnings in the Italian Renaissance through to the present day.
On retirement from the Nicholson in 2016 we moved back to England, and now at the foot of the glorious Sussex Downs, I once again have a new garden. I also live in an area where there are more great gardens to visit than anywhere else in England; within an hour I can be at Great Dixter, Sissinghurst, Hever Castle, Nymans, Gravetye Manor, Standen, Charleston Farmhouse or Glyndebourne.
Wakehurst Place, the arboretum and seedbank for Kew Gardens is in my village. I now lecture on garden history in London, am writing a book, Greek in the Garden, and both create and lead tours for Academy Travel in England, Scotland and Italy.
Gardens are extraordinary. Not least because they’re such a passionately subjective experience, both in their design and in their enjoyment, engaging all the senses. There is no right or wrong way to either create them or to enjoy them. They exist as palimpsests, garden on garden; by their very nature, this year’s garden will be different to next year’s. Trees mature and cast shade altering the dynamic of a garden. An 18th century Capability Brown landscape has grown and died and grown again, its plantings dispersed or changed. Generational change and fashion have had their say. New plants are being discovered and hybridised all the time; my heart fills with joy when I walk through Wakehurst Place and see the stands of Monkey Puzzle trees (araucaria araucana) planted together with their closest relative, now maturing Wollemi Pines (wollemia nobilis).
Many older gardens now exist as ‘museums’, where the purpose is to stay true to the design and purpose of their creator: Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst, Christopher Lloyd at Dixter, Henry ‘The Magnificent’ Hoare at Stourhead for example, or my personal favourite, William Robinson at Gravetye Manor.* Others, especially the horticultural ones such as the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Rosemoor, are continuously experimental in their use of plants and design, while new gardens are a reflection of the personalities of their creators; the marvellously eccentric Sir Roy Strong at The Laskett or the fiercely determined Duchess of Northumberland at Alnwick and Keith Wiley at Wildside.
Nature, as Goethe wrote, is a cruel mistress catching you up in her arms and whirling you round in her seasonal dance – the Dance to the Music of Time, the great cycle of death and rebirth. As I write this the music of her spring dance, the pipes and drums, is getting louder by the day as Adonis and Persephone return from the Underworld with their gift of new life. The countryside is a sea of white and lime green from the blackthorn blossom and the new leaves of the first native tree, the hawthorn; the hedgerows are tinged with the pink of the first wildflower, the cuckoo flower; while in gardens it’s almost tulip time. It’s a heady palette, with the promise of so much more to come.
* Gravetye Manor in Sussex is now a very exclusive hotel and Michelin starred restaurant. Should you be wanting to spoil yourself for a few days either before or after a tour, I can think of no finer place to do it www.gravetyemanor.co.uk.