Oval Time

Oval Time

Oval Time

John Brooke’s lifetime of drawings has recently been deposited in the Museum’s archive – or, to be exact, in the temporary storage during closure: a bunker on a US Air Force Cold war-era base in Oxfordshire, de-commissioned and air conditioned for Museum collections.

There’s photographs of John showing H. M. The Queen around his garden at the 1962 Chelsea Flower Show, an avant-grade grid of architecture, steps, and water which still seems bold today. Reminiscing, he chuckles at how the RHS swapped the chairs minutes before the visit as too contemporary for her Majesty. But he is too modest to spell out the true significance of the garden: it was the first in Chelsea history in which the name of a designer, not a nursery, came first. It was John who found a sponsor (The Cement and Concrete Association) and who submitted the design. He was just 29.

Fifty years later, one of John’s many legacies is that a young designer can make the Flower Show a stage for their talent. Today I’m looking at a captivating design by four designers who did the MA at Writtle College and have submitted as Lunaria Landscapes to the Hampton Court Flower Show’s ‘Conceptual Gardens’ section. Manuel Wehrle first visited Chelsea in 2012 and, he writes, ‘was fascinated by the passion, love and perfection of those gardens. It became a dream to create one day a show garden as well, where I could exhibit my work and contribute with my own interpretation of garden design. Hampton Court 2016 will be the first time I have the chance to show my garden to a large public of thousands of visitors’.

That was the year that Arne Maynard designed the Laurent-Perrier garden, with a row of trees and Arne’s fluent, fond and happily breathing planting leading to an L-shaped bench carved in oak by Alison Crowther. Manuel now works for Arne (who has just hosted a Study Day at Alt-y-Bella for fifteen very lucky Museum Friends).  

My girlfriend – an artist and triathelete about to vanish to an LA boardwalk – was shocked to be able to step over the rope and sit on that bench. ‘How many people’s photographs are we in?’ Manuel and his Writtle crew have designed a garden into which you can step: an oval scooped out and stepped into a stage. The inspiration is Shakespeare, whose birthday is this weekend: the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech in As You Like It. The planting will transition from ‘the lushness of youth’ to ‘the barrenscape of old age’, each with a mirror into which you can stare.

Our A-level year groaned at being given As You Like It, and my only memory is of the inevitable coach trip to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, the surprise of being sat beside girls and then the inevitable rain; writing this sniffs up the smell of nylon blazers warm with damp and the transparency of cold white shirts. But Lunaria’s design brings back to sunnier, wiser life the meaning of the words in the soliloquoy.

‘Why an oval?’ I ask Dawn Parke, a designer and lecturer who is a second member of Lunaria. The British don’t do ovals. (Think of three ovals in ten seconds? I could do two: Thomas Archer’s pavilion at Wrest Park, and Kim Wilkie’s intervention in the courtyard of the V&A).  Ovals are the Roman baroque of Bernini and Borromini. What an oval does do – and a circle does not - is impel you forward. In this case it is inspired by the oval of the Colosseum in Rome, in which Shakespeare set plays, and the ‘eternal journey’ of the earth around the sun.

The designers intend performances. So, no barrier? The challenge could be that too many sore-footed Hampton Courters fill up this plunge pool of greenery. Why not make admission in return for reciting a line?

What distinguishes a flower show audience from an art audience is that the great majority of visitors to, say, the National Gallery will not be painters. In the gardens world, we are participants, not spectators.

And each of us can pick an age from the speech. Jacques ends his speech with the prospect of ‘a second childishness… Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It will be a very beautiful garden, a hit of Hampton Court and the designers have teeth, eyes, and taste. Everything, in fact, except the budget, although the exceptional German nursery Baumschule Lomberg is donating the trees. How can planting change from ‘the lushness of youth’ to the ‘barrenscape of old age’? Sponsor Manuel and his friends by emailing manuel-wehrle@gmx.de






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