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The past at present

It occurred to me the other day that gardening is the only art form I can think of that works in four dimensions–that is, the usual three, plus time. Time shapes the garden and completes it; it also, in the end, destroys it. A gardener has to be aware of what the passage of time will mean to the developing garden. (Is the kolkwitzia going to swamp the magnolia? How long before the beech hedge matures?) Most of us, I suspect, would prefer not to think too much about the destruction part.

Maybe we shouldn’t despair. Given the proper degree of enthusiasm (and sufficient funds), even seriously neglected gardens can be resurrected. They need not necessarily vanish in a maze of brush and saplings, or be overplanted with shopping centers. In some cases–rare enough, I admit–they can throw a challenge in the teeth of time and show themselves in something like their original splendor of two or three hundred years before.

This is the province of the garden restorer, a sort of combination historian-horticulturist-connoisseur with a taste for ancient tradesmen’s bills, plant lists, household accounts, reports from long-ago tourists, paintings and sketches (frequently inartistic), and the latest aerial photographs. Out of this gallimaufry of data he or often she can sometimes recover what to most of us would seem hopelessly lost, and even re-create it, not as a plastic fragment of Disneyland, but in the form of a real garden as alive and authentic as the original.

To anybody who cares about the past, and is curious to know how people felt and acted in circumstances remote from our own, this enterprise has a peculiar value. Beyond retrieving a chunk of history you can actually walk around in–no small feat in itself–it offers us a chance to experience firsthand how a garden functioned practically as well as aesthetically. The best way to explain what I mean may be to describe two restored gardens we visited recently, both dating from the same period (early 18th century) and located within eight miles of each other, yet different in almost every way.

The first is Westbury Court Garden, begun in 1696 by Maynard Colchester, the scion of a wealthy family that owned estates in the flat, rich water meadows at the head of the Severn estuary, not far from Gloucester. Their money came largely from timber holdings, and plenty of it had gone into building a fine house; now, having married a daughter of the Lord Mayor of London, Maynard wanted an equally fine garden. No doubt influenced in part by the nature of the setting–level and wet–he decided upon a formal Dutch water garden, with a long, stoneframed pool, or “canal,” clipped yew hedges, walls, parterres set about with small trees cut into geometric shapes, and several pavilions, one an elegant two-story affair from which you could gaze down and appreciate the overall pattern while taking tea or a light meal. No one knows who designed Colchester’s garden–it may have been a Dutchman, because many of the details, such as the huge sash windows in the summerhouse, are purely Dutch. But thanks to the survival of Maynard Colchester’s personal account books, we do know an amazing amount about just how the garden was built, who the workmen were, what it was planted with, and how much it all cost. This knowledge would come in handy 300 years later.

Maynard’s son, Maynard 11, succeeded his father in 1715, improving the garden with another canal, T-shaped this time. Other additions were a small square walled garden and a handsome stone gazebo. Maynard II also tore down the old house and built a new one, completing it in 1748. By then, however, the den was hopelessly out of date and old-fashioned, and probably a bit of an embarrassment. Certainly it was allowed to go downhill after that. The parterres had vanished by 1785, according to a survey of that date, and in 1805 the family decided to demolish the house and move to another house some miles away. The garden was maintained in a desultory fashion, yet except for a few years before World War I, nobody seems to have paid much attention to it. (In those days, the family’s declining fortunes were briefly restored by an influx of money from the royal house of Siam, when the splendidly named Maynard Willoughby Colchester-Wemyss assumed the guardianship of several of the Siamese crown princes being educated in England.) But by the time a speculator picked up the property in 1960, the garden was almost lost. Weeds choked the stagnant canals, the tall pavilion was half-collapsed, the unclipped hedges were shapeless mounds. Nettles and brambles obscured all else. If the new buyer had had his way, the canals would have been filled with rubble and the site used to build 10 houses.

In 1964, something close to a miracle happened. The local government took over the Westbury Court property and gave the garden to the National Trust. By now it was a rarity, one of the few 17th-century Dutch gardens left in England or even, for that matter, in Holland. There had been dozens once, but 18th-century landscape architects like Capability Brown saw to it that they were swept away.

Restoration began in 1967. The tall pavilion had to be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up; the great west wall, which had bordered Maynard Colchester’s canal and been demolished by the speculator (who never got much farther with his projected 10 houses), was not only reconstructed but planted with old varieties of espaliered fruit trees: ‘Lemon Pippin’, ‘Royal Russet’, ‘Nonpareil’, and ‘Golden Reinette’ apples, ‘Jargonelle’ and ‘Beurre Brown’ pears, ‘Green Gage’ and ‘Fotheringham’ plums. Volunteers grubbed out the nettles and brambles and helped replace the ancient yew hedges, some of which had drowned in floods while the roots of others were penetrating and pulling apart the stone canal walls. Dredging the canals was a huge job–more than a thousand cubic yards of silt were removed and spread over the eastern part of the garden.

Most surviving old gardens are a sort of palimpsest, a manuscript upon which successive generations have written and rewritten their new and often contradictory ideas. Getting back to the original can be an almost impossible challenge. In the case of Westbury Court, scarcely altered in 350 years, the problem was less severe, but the restorers were still lucky in having two wonderful sources to fall back on for information. The first was those detailed estate and personal account books in which Maynard Colchester set forth just how much each new bit of his garden cost. On 10 September 1698, for example, he paid Thomas Wintle 15/7[pounds]–for laying 87,850 bricks (could that have been the west wall?). There are payments to the “weederwoman”; to nurserymen for trees and shrubs (cherries, “filbeards,” “perimyd {pyramid}” hollies and yews, tuberoses, and a “red sweet water grape” ; to masons for the stonework of the canal. We even find him paying “Coz. Colchester” for hundreds of crocus, hyacinth, anemone, and tulip bulbs. On the strength of such lists as these, and their knowledge of plant history, the restorers have been able to recreate a garden that Maynard himself would rejoice in.

Their other major aid was a picture. In about 1707, a Dutchman named Johannes Kip paid a call at Westbury Court. He was engaged in preparing, together with his countryman Leonard Knyff, a volume of bird’s-eye views of English estates to be called Britannia Illustrata, for sale mainly to those prosperous gentlemen whose houses were included. Kip was impressively accurate–perhaps the watery nature of the Westbury gardens made him feel at home. For here in his drawing, shown with great exactitude, are the parterres, the long rows of lollipop-shaped trees, the spirals and pyramids of clipped yews and hollies rising above the squared hedges, the placid canal and the tall pavilion with its pillared loggia at the b e. The highway, of course, is rutted earth instead of blacktop; and today the Elizabethan house is gone. But looking at Kip’s picture you cannot doubt for a moment that this is indeed what Westbury Court was like then and, amazingly, is like today–formal, stately, enormously peaceful, satisfying one s instinct for spaciousness and enclosure at the same time. There is a hint of grandiosity; you can see how in the hands of the more megolomaniacal French such garden geometry could become vast and bleak. But here the scale is still human, still Dutch.

Across the severn estuary, where the hills start to rise out of the valley meadows, is a very different sort of restoration. What is now called Painswick Rococo Garden was built in the 1740s by Benjamin Hyett to accompany his newly constructed mansion, a rather severely classical edifice. In a departure from standard practice, however, Hyett made no attempt to tie the house and garden together, but instead decided to make use of a deep cleft, or combe, a couple hundred yards from the house, which you come upon only after passing through a gate in a high wall. The ground suddenly falls away in front of you, and beyond the trees–hazy in the autumn sunlight the day we were there–the combe opens to reveal lawns, allees of yew, a huge vegetable garden crisscrossed with grass paths, a smooth bowling green, and a wide rectangular pool at its foot. There is a semblance of geometric order, but even before you descend the winding path and begin to notice the various garden buildings–Gothic pavillions, garden seats in various styles, a strange white curved structure with pointed arches and spires–it becomes clear that formality here has a very different function from the formality of Westbury Court. It is something to play with, or against, less a governing factor than a kind of implied joke.

The centuries were no easier on Painswick than they were on Westbury Court. The buildings progressively collapsed, and the valley floor came to harbor mostly vegetables and what the British call soft fruit–strawberries, raspberries, currants, and the like. Still, the gardens never quite disappeared. Until 1955 five gardeners were employed to take care of what was left. By 1965, however, the owner, Richard Dickinson, decided it was all too much and planted the whole combe with trees. It turned into a jungle, full of brambles and wild clematis.

Nearly 20 years later, having recognized the rarity of his garden–there are no other surviving gardens from the Rococo period, roughly 1720 to 1760–and the fact that there existed a careful 1748 painting of the original by Thomas Robins (who may actually have designed it in the first place), Lord Dickinson decided to undertake its restoration. He bulldozed the new wood, regraded the ground, and had the ponds drained and their stonework repaired . Archaeologists figured out the location of paths and the details of vanished buildings, while experts in 18th-century horticulture gradually replaced the hedges and plantings. The restoration work still goes on, funded by entrance fees and money from a charitable trust.

There is an air of good humor and jollity about Painswick. The garden buildings–stage-setlike, scarcely serious or even permanent in some cases–contribute much to this, and so does the way the fenced central beds are arranged on the slope, carefully but somehow comfortably, as if the geometrician had forgotten his squared paper but didn’t care. Similarly, while you are conscious of art in the placement of the paths–the Beech Walk, for instance, or the trails that wander around the old woods to an octagonal pigeon house, then on to a strange little pavilion with an asymmetrical facade, and through a grove where a mass of snowdrops bloom in the spring–it is an art that has begun to accept and enjoy the unpredictability of nature. Where Westbury Court has quiet stability, Painswick has spontaneity and adventurousness.

A good garden historian could no doubt point out to us the reasons for the contrast between these two gardens. The 40 years that divide them saw the beginnings of a who e new sensibility. But while I find this fascinating, I am still more struck by the fact that right now, at the end of the 20th century, we are able to return to the 18th century for an afternoon to see, and feel, the change for ourselves. No book can quite convey the emotional effect of black yew hedges reflected in Maynard Colchester’s long, stately canal, of die sparkling insouciance of Painswick’s pink-and-white Eagle House pavilion, of the musk roses clambering over an old stone gate at Westbury Court. In them the past actually lives.

Charles Elliott gardens in Wales A collection of these essays will he published in the fall.

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