Monthly Archives: March 2014



dezeen_Liyuan-Library-by-Li-Xiaodong-5                    Liyuan Library near Beijing by Li Xiaodong – Photograph courtesy of Dezeen

There is just a week left of the wonderful ‘Sensing Spaces, Architecture Re-imagined’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.  It is an uplifting, sensuous exhibition, featuring work by seven architectural practices from four different contintents. It does exactly what it sets out to do – delights and surprises the visitor and makes us think about thoughtful and innovative architecture in a way that feels personal and relevant to us.

My absolute favourite installation is by Chinese architect, Li Xiaodong – it is a darkened, straight-sided maze built of elegant panels constructed from immaculately ranked coppiced hazel and it is tantalisingly lit by an illuminated white path.


For Owen Wainwright in The Guardian being in the space ‘feels like walking in a forest in the snow at night’. For me, one of the great pleasures of being in this magical wooded world is to stand still and watch the delight on visitors’ faces as they set off on an adventure to explore and find their way to the mirrored zen garden at the centre:IMG_0762

The hazel structures are very simple and very beautiful – the subtle, constantly varying, palette of silvered skins is central to their charm:


And the moon-like lighting leaks through the gaps in the screens to create fine shadows:


It was uplifting to discover that Li Xiaodong has already incorporated these fine natural screens into his brilliant design of the Liyuan Library near the small village of Huairou about two hours drive from Beijing:


Photo of Liyuan Library by Li Xiaodong courtesy of Dezeen

Here, the site for the library was deliberately chosen at the foot of the mountains, a five minute walk out of the village. The idea is that the conscious effort to head for the reading room amongst this beautiful, rugged landscape helps clear thoughts.

The building itself is made of glass and the hazel cladding was inspired by piles of locally sourced wooden sticks for firewood collected in piles outside the villagers’ houses:

dezeen_Liyuan-Library-by-Li-Xiaodong-9                    Photo by Li Xiaodong courtesy of Dezeen

Inside the library openings frame the view beyond and ‘the wooden sticks temper the bright light and spread it evenly through the space to provide for a perfect reading ambience’ (Li Xioadong).  I long to visit it.



Phto by Li Xiaodong courtesy of Dezeen

Back in the UK, I feel inspired to try at least to use coppiced wood in a more innovative, elegant way for gates, screening and garden buildings.

I touched on Patrice Taravella’s fantastically creative examples of working with coppiced chestnut in my December 2013 blog on  The Prieuré D’Orsan in central France and in my feature on the garden in February edition of Gardens Illustrated.

Here coppiced wood is used everywhere but always in a disciplined way – my horror is of the the Hobbit Movie ‘rustic’ use of coppiced wood to make supposedly charming curvy garden features which generally looked mismatched with everything else in the space.

Simple gates with hinges and handles made of recycled iron give this potentially very formal garden a soft, welcoming feel:



The gates vary gently throughout the garden and are designed to fit perfectly in each location:

IMG_6383coppice gateCoppiced chestnut is also used to build structures to give a romantic height and dreaminess to structural planting:

structures giving structure

And to build garden rooms which look spare and basic in winter:


But lush and cool in the summer:


Arches and screens are ideas that could well be applied to a smaller garden:


There are fantastic and highly skilled craftspeople to look to, all over the UK.  is a great place to start to find someone in your area who could perhaps make make an a tunnel like this for a kitchen garden:

simple plant tunnel

or go for it and create something more monumental – I love this broad tunnel at WInterbourne Botanic Garden, Birmingham:3363577_277e2d70

Even simple wigwams as plant supports can be beautiful and strong if kept simple and unfussy:228

These plant supports are from Natural Fencing who already make a wide range of garden structures to commission.

Now in the swing of looking at structures made from coppiced wood with fresh eyes, I was struck by the new and very beautiful hurdle fence at Fullers Mill Garden in Suffolk which I visited this week.  The garden will open again on April 2nd.

This blonde, curving fence as beautiful as the wonderful old brick crinkle crankle walls in Suffolk villages such as Easton:

IMG_2639The fence was built in situ by master hurdle maker,  David Downie   Close up it has the same gorgeous subtlety of colour as the work of Li Xiaodong at the Royal Academy:

IMG_2647 It sits easily and comfortably in the naturally flowing context this wonderful plantsman’s garden in the middle of the King’s Forest and should last for about twenty years.






cornelian plus gravesCornus mas – or the Cornelian Cherry – at the perfectly groomed Dulwich Old Burial Ground in South London.

stevens-levens-hall-garden-25113‘Levens Hall Garden’ screen print,  1985 Norman Stevens ARA

Friends who visit Dulwich Village from Islington perhaps or Kent are always amazed to find a small section of picture-perfect Connecticut in South London, ten minutes from Victoria station.  Saturday was a morning of glowering sunshine and the long dead inhabitants of the 400 year old cemetery were making earnest attempts to kick start the spring. The velvety day-glow green and yellow grass was erupting all over with silvery crocus buds and dense stooks of deep green narcissus foliage.


I was in Dulwich to pay homage to my favourite specimen of Cornus mas – the Cornelian Cherry – which is the centrepiece of a beautifully groomed burial ground in the middle of the village. The burial ground is home to a dozen Grade II listed eighteenth and nineteenth century tombs of wealthy locals, the graves of 35 victims of the plague in 1665 and where Old Bridget the Queen of the Norwood Gypsies was buried in 1768.

Cornus mas is a densely branched, deciduous, large shrub or small tree with small umbels of brilliant yellow flowers in late February and early March.  It can be a rather unassuming tree but when given space – as it is here, the absolute queen amongst pale stone and open lawn – it can offer a sensational cloud of light and colour on the darkest of February days.

cornelian wholeclose up against white

The advantage of giving the tree this sort of space is that it will have a much greater impact later in the year too, when it is in leaf.  The potential for Cornus mas to be a really handsome specimen tree year round has now been realised by nurseries selling mature trees and if you have the room and the funds you could source a really handsome, spreading, semi mature “umbrella multi-stem’ from a nursery such as Deepdale Trees which supplies trees for many of the Chelsea Flower Show gardens.


At the other end of the scale, a young Cornus mas can be a brilliant addition to a softer, more natural style of gardening too.  It was much favoured as a very tough, hardy tree by revolutionary Victorian gardener, William Robinson, and is currently lighting up a patch of open woodland in the Wild Garden at Gravetye Manor in Sussex,  see the Gravetye Garden Blog 

Tree and shrub specialists Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery recommend Cornus mas ‘Golden Glory’ AGM for its particular abundance of yellow flowers. After a hot summer,  ‘Golden Glory’ may produce a small crop of small, shiny, edible red cherry-like fruits in autumn. If, however, you’re after a jar of the elusive – and let’s face it, ultimate weekend gift –  homemade Cornelian Cherry Jam -the one to go for is Cornus mas ‘Jolico’ which the nursery describes as a ‘charming German form’ first selected to be used for commercial fruit production and which produces vivid red berries up to three times larger than those of a classic cornus mas.

3868599763_09c8859d20Shiny red fruit of Cornus mas – like miniature scarlet plums.

The fruits of the Cornelian cherry are always bitter and need vast amounts of sugar to make them palatable but the idea is very romantic. Try Almost Turkish Recipes for a reliable recipe.  Whilst waiting for your ‘Jolico’ to mature, maybe practise making the jam after a trip to the market on your next Mediterranean holiday?

In the meantime I am back in the UK on a stormy Saturday, on my way to the Royal Academy.  I have been seeing posters all over town for a small exhibition of prints by Norman Stevens. I can’t get the luminous, sculptural, bonnet-like image of the Topiary Gardens at Levens Hall – a gorgeous fourteenth Century Manor House in the Lake District  – out of my head.  There is something about the quality of the light and the rigid laciness of the foliage against the blue of the sky that makes me uncertain at first as to whether it is even a photograph or a print.


In Piccadilly, on my way to the exhibition, I am caught by the glinting, shadowy, greys and blacks of the windows of St James’s Church with the candle-like, palest pink, buds of just-about-to-open Magnolia in front of them.  This promise of voluptuous flower is my favourite moment in a Magnolia’s cycle:

IMG_0718St James’s Church, Piccadilly.

At the Norman Stevens exhibition the first print I encounter is an uncanny echo of the scene outside the church  – exquisite patterns of foliage against a building – shadows and highlights and shades of grey:


‘Clapboard House with Fronds and Architectural French Curve’, 1974, Etching and aquatint, Norman Stevens ARA

Norman Stevens (1937-88) studied painting at Bradford College of Art along with a particularly talented group of artists included David Hockney.  Originally a painter, he began printmaking in the early seventies and is now regarded as one of the foremost printmakers of his generation, revered for the way he always pushed boundaries with laboriously achieved effects of aquatint and mezzotint – and later screen prints -to create tone and texture,  soft grain effects and even the appearance of water colour washes.

There is a beautiful print called The Darkling Thrush made in 1976 to illustrate a volume of poems by Thomas Hardy.  A wonderful,  tunnel of a path formed from tangled scratchy black branches with grey-white blossom against a salmony, metallic-pink twilight sky. There is a Japanese quality of restraint and delicacy to this atmospheric work.

RF 080

‘The Darkling Thrush’, 1976, Norman Steven ARA Etching, aquatint

One of Norman Stevens’ latest prints is less comfortable but entirely memorable : the bright jauntiness of its colouring a poignant contrast to the sad subject matter – a pile of dismembered limbs of a favourite black walnut tree at Kew Gardens which fell in the storm of 1987.  Stevens’ eye for colour when working on a screenprint was legendary.  In the days before computer generated imagery he was brilliant at separating out the colours and predicting the results when they were printed one on top of the other – as fellow artist and print maker, Brad Faine writes in the exhibition catalogue ‘no mean feat when one uses ten to fifteen hand-made stencil separations.’

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‘Black Walnut Tree’ 1987, Norman Stevens ARA, Screenprint

But what I have really come for is Stevens’ etchings of topiary in great English country gardens – a dream world away from his crisp, California-inspired earlier work, with paintings and prints of white louvred windows, clapboard buildings and the foliage of tropical plants.

Porch 1971 by Norman Stevens 1937-1988

Porch, 1971, Norman Stevens ARA, aqua-tec on canvas, Tate

The Royal Academy exhibition features work inspired by the Victorian country house, Knightshayes Court in Devon, Painswick Rococo Garden in Gloucestershire and of course, Levenshall Topiary Gardens in Cumbria.

RF 077

‘Painswick, Moonlight’ 1979, Norman Stevens ARA, etching and aquatint

I am entranced by ‘Painswick Moonlight’  a finely worked, almost stippled, image of an impossibly perfect, dark, moonlit world of ranked monumental trees and mesmerisingly stripey shadows.

By Sunday evening I am walking through the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral with one of my sons on the way to Evensong.  I love the way the freeform yew mound peers, monster-like over the finely carved decorative roof.  I think Norman Stevens would have enjoyed the rhythmic archctecture and the shadowy presence of plantlife.

IMG_0725enhancedCanterbury Cathedral cloisters, evening.