A salute to those who labour in gardens and refresh humanity
This is the time of year when a garden is the greatest of blessings. As a non-gardener, I pay humble tribute to those who create and tend them. I know of none who do more good and less harm. Shortly before he died, my old editor, Kingsley Martin, said to me, 'I regret that I have never brought a child into the world. But I have made two gardens.' I reminded him that Francis Bacon said that to plant a garden was 'the purest of human pleasures'. That is true and perhaps explains why gardening and good nature go together. If you visit a garden centre, you find none of the tension and bad temper associated with supermarkets: no trolley-rage. Half an hour spent buying plants at that delicious place in Little Venice (Clifton's) is refreshing and comforting — you emerge a better, calmer person — even though the expense may be formidable. For no one feels guilty spending money on gardens, or on flowers for that matter. Not long ago, in court, Elton John defended his prodigious expenditure on flowers as something of which he had not to be ashamed. I sympathise. And Lord Curzon, though he roared with rage at the enormous florists' bills he received at his various palatial homes, always put such sums down in the column 'Essential. Not to be Curbed' when planning an economy drive.
Gardening brings out the best, even in a mean and egotistical nature. Louis XIV admired several of the artists who worked for him, but the only one towards whom he showed love was his gardener, Le Notre. When this devoted servant was old and confined to a wheelchair, the Roi Soleil would push him round the allees at Versailles so that he could admire the way his handiwork was being kept up, and smell the blooms. This was something that Louis would never have done for his Queen, or even for Madame de Maintenon, and is one of the few stories about him that does him credit. I, too, love Le Notre and always visit his shrine when I am in the Tuileries, which he likewise laid out. Of course, his gardens were not the style we admire here. He saw a garden as a palace with many 'rooms', and each of the rooms created an impression based on slight differences in altitude, slope and proportion, so that the architectural profile and characters were as important as the flowers and shrubs that they contained. Understanding and appreciating a Le Notre garden is an art in itself.
By contrast, the work described by Bacon in his essay 'On Gardens', the most elaborate
in detail of all his effusions, written with love and profound knowledge, is in the English tradition. It is not much use, perhaps, to modern gardeners since he implies that 30 acres is the minimum extent required if the thing is `to grow to civility and elegance'. This is of a size that the Duchess of Northumberland is now creating at Alnwick, and it is costing her many millions. And no doubt Prince Charles would consider a 30-acre garden as just enough `for a man to jog along with'. For the rest of us, however, even an acre seems huge.
The largest garden I have known laid out by a friend was the superb nine-acre spread that Elizabeth Jane Howard created for herself and Kingsley Amis at their house, Lemmons, near Barnet. Not that Kingsley was a man to whom gardens came high on the scale of pleasures: his complaint about Lemmons, I recall, was that it was too far from the nearest pub to walk. The sheer physical effort required to bring nine acres into order, fecundity and art impressed me at the time as Herculean, and made me admire Ms Howard for her courage. as I already did for her beauty and talents. Nor was there any corner-cutting in the style of `well, this part is the wild garden', though such would have been sanctioned by Bacon himself. Anticipating Capability Brown and Repton, he allocated only 12 acres to the garden as such. Much of the rest was close to nature — a four-acre lawn or 'green', 'because nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept firmly shorn', and six acres of `heath or desert', the true origin of the landscape garden. I doubt if a garden has ever been created exactly along the lines Bacon advocated, though much of what he says still makes excellent sense, especially his advice that any water feature should be running, thus avoiding the turbid pools 'which mar all and make the garden unwholesome and full of flies and frogs'. Harold Nicolson told me that he had taken due note of Bacon's homily when he and his wife were creating their delectable garden at Sissinghurst, surely one of the finest creations of the 20th century and still maintained by their devoted son Nigel.
Personally, I like best an Italian garden, a happy combination of elegant trees, statuary, shady walks and staircases, cool streams and a few choice flowers, brought together by history and the spirit of benign neglect. But they need sun and a touch of visual genius, both in short supply here. Moreover, all the Italian gardens I really admire are ancient, some going back to the 15th century, others to Roman times, thus acquiring patinations that only centuries of tending can supply. I particularly like painting these gardens because they rely for their effects on line, contrast and elegance, and do not include those flaming technic,olour borders that are so often the pride of English gardens and are so difficult to reproduce on paper or canvas, even if you have the skill of a Helen Allingham or Myles Birket Foster.
My favourite London rus in urbe is the Chelsea Physic Garden, behind its high, cherished walls, where Tom Stoppard gives his enviable parties. There, all is decorous, lowkey, soft in tone, redolent of magic brews, odoriferous and pungent, where musky secrets lurk behind rare shrubs and much arcane knowledge is stored. The Botanical Garden in Oxford, just across the road from my old college, and created by that political rogue Danby, is another plot I cherish. But I like my own London garden as well as any because it is simple and familiar. I sit in my library armchair and look out through the French windows on to the balcony. Its pots of humdrum petunias, so bright and delicate at this time of year, are framed in an abundance of vine leaves, whose design, in its infinite varieties, is the perfection of foliage. The iron staircase that leads down to the garden itself, with its trim lawn, is smothered in honeysuckle. The trees, some of which I planted, have burgeoned to produce near total privacy, and this hidden place has its own tutelary spirits which I have installed: an early 19th-century replica, in crushed marble, of Donatello's 'David', the world's most arresting statue, and two bronzes by Rodin flourishing their muscles. (In my studio is a further one, Michael the Archangel expelling Satan from Paradise, as freshly painted as when it first issued from the atelier of Guido Reni, that pathetic victim of the gambling virus.) The flowers come and go. I am content with the deep green shadows and the thoughts they inspire in me.