Tag Archives: Royal Academy



IMG_4060 (1)               Petit Palais garden with pool, palm trees and golden swags.

I was so surprised by the iridescent energy of the garden of the Petit Palais when I visited this month that I stayed out much too long taking in the different views, framed here by a pair of heavy leaved palm trees…

IMG_4056Petit Palais Garden  – pool and palm trees

…and here, guided by the upward-sweeping branches of the cherry trees with their copper-brown trunks and rosy haze of grasses behind and electric green eyes of just-opening Euphorbia characias in front.
IMG_4106Petit Palais garden – grasses, cherry tree, euphorbia

It is a freezing, clear-skied January morning in Paris. The vistas are open and enticing, huge expanses of pale grey and blue laced with gold:

IMG_4021              Pont Alexandre III, Paris.

A glimpse through a side-door into the empty cavern of a between-exhibitions Grand Palais gets my heart thumping – I am always happily seduced by the heady potential of a rough studio-like space:
                                               Side entrance to the Grand Palais. 

Up the steps and through the imposing arch of the gilded Beaux- Arts doorway – The Petit Palais art museum was built in 1900 for the Exhibition Universelle and then completely renovated over four years from 2001-2005 –

IMG_4022Petit Palais entrance.

and then into the sweep of sunlit corridors of this entirely circular building, with towering glass doors and windows in every direction.


A series of windows overlooking the Seine.

The floors are entirely of mosaic in subtle shades of rust, green, black and mustard against soft white:

IMG_4126Mosiac floor, entrance hall, Petit Palais.

The spacious exhibition halls glide seamlessly into a curved outdoor loggia, with a pair of deep blue and white Sèvres porcelain pots on plinths coaxing you on. The swirling mosaic of the floor is punctuated with lovely circular frosted aqua glass sky lights.

IMG_4035IMG_4043 (2)External loggia, Petit Palais, with a pair of Sèvres porcelain pots on plinths.

Even the curving ceiling of the loggia is decorated with a brown-on-gold trellis festooned with powder blue clematis and pink roses:

IMG_4098The Loggia ceiling, Petit Palais.

Looking back against the interior wall of the loggia, the delicate, punched metal chairs and deep green marble tables add just another layer to the subtle grandeur.

IMG_4050Perfectly judged café chairs and table, Petit Palais.

And then, between the soaring scale of the grey-brown Vosges granite columns, you get your first proper look at the garden.

IMG_4053The Petit Palais garden, framed by Vosges granite columns.

If you look up you see the pale gold swags silhouetted against the sky:IMG_4055




Decorative gold swags silhouetted against the sky

If you look across, out into the garden, you begin to get an idea of the intoxicating lushness of the place.

IMG_4048The lush planting of the Petit Palais garden

This interior courtyard was always intended to provide a breathing place for visitors to the gallery itself. It is a grand but inviting framework for a garden – a deftly designed space with curves and columns of the palest mustard, grey and pink stone, with the deeper tones of the roof tiles and the uplifting gleam of decorative gold.  IMG_4083                                  View along the central axis of the Petit Palais garden.

IMG_4105Curves and columns of the Petit Palais garden.

IMG_4103Close up swirly marble table top and skinny milk-green café chair against strong shapes in pale stone.

It has a fundamental dynamism which invites you in to explore and – enriched by simply brilliant  planting – every view is different.
IMG_4060Palm trees adding structure, gloss and glamour.

I love the mix of tropical plants with grasses and evergreen shrubs and perennials. Palm trees add structure, gloss, glamour and a constant sense of surprise. I have never seen the delicate scattered flowers of the winter flowering cherry Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ against the weighty arching branches of a banana tree, but here the combination works brilliantly, not least perhaps because of the glint of gold peeping through.

IMG_4059Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ against banana leaves.

Tough stalwarts of the shadier garden are employed with confidence and energy. Here the waxy dark green leaves and perky just opening flower buds of Fatsia japonica look fresh and handsome against the golden stone:
IMG_4111                                                        Fatsia japonica, Petit Palais garden.

IMG_4044 (1)

Euphorbia characias, Acanthus, Fatsia japonica and Bergenia provide an understory for the deciduous trees.

Elsewhere Euphorbia, Acanthus, Bergenia and Yucca plants combine to make a strong rich green understory for the deciduous trees. I have seen photographs of these cherry trees in spring when their vase-shaped branches are covered in deep pink. This is their moment to swan around outrageously like dancers from the Folies Bergères and I would love to catch the sight for myself.

The other surprising element of the garden is the extensive use of grasses. Here is the most elegant use of pampas grass I know, and the Miscanthus sinensis look graceful and distinguished with their pale fragile heads and rosy winter foliage.



IMG_4109Grasses, including Pampas grass Cortaderia selloana & Miscanthus sinensis, Petit Palais garden.

On either side of the main steps into the garden there are two magnificent fleets of strapping white-painted Versailles planters filled with handsome specimens of palm tree and Magnolia grandiflora:

IMG_4074IMG_4115 IMG_4080

Versailles planters with specimens of palm and Magnolia grandiflora, Petit Palais garden.

I go into the café to warm up and eat an elegant slice of lemon cake with my coffee. “Bon appétit, Madame” says a guard, who is also taking a break. “You must have become very cold out there”. I can barely feel my fingers, but I have had a brilliant half hour. The guard leaves,  bows slightly and wishes me a ‘bonne journée’. I am indeed having a very good day, I think, as I gaze for one more time at the banana leaves and the dancing Miscanthus heads catching the winter light:
IMG_4119Winter heads of Miscanthus sinensis and banana leaves catching the winter sunlight, Petit  Palais garden.

Back in London, I am at the Royal Academy on a glowering January day, a week or so before the opening of its ravishing Painting the Modern Garden exhibition. I am still musing about what it takes to make a successful garden within the walls of a gallery or museum.

IMG_4266Royal Academy, Painting the Modern Garden, 30 January – 20 April 2016.

Clearly one of the main challenges is to create a garden that will look good all year round, often within a very limited space. I head for the Keeper’s House, now a restaurant, café and bar, open to RA friends until 4pm and after that to everyone. Tom Stuart-Smith created a garden here in 2013 in what he describes as ‘one of those curious architectural left over spaces’ with almost no natural light. His aim was to make the garden feel as if it has been dug out of the space with an ‘almost archaeological’ quality.

First glimpses of the garden from the windows of the sophisticated mohair velvet sofas of the Belle Shenkman room are as vibrant and seductive today as they would be in midsummer.



Views from the Belle Shenkman Room at the Royal Academy onto Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden.

The green of the spreading arms of the 250 year old Australian tree ferns brought into the UK under license is dazzling, and Stuart-Smith is superbly vindicated in his use of his favourite  grass, Hakonechloa macra. In its winter form it is a fiery, eye catching streak which lights up the garden further.

You have to go down a flight of stairs to start climbing back into the garden which is elegantly tiered and tiled throughout in dark brick so that the ground and walls are of the same deep earthy tones. The exuberant tree ferns are accompanied only by the hakonecholoa, the low-growing evergreen shrub Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’, with just two climbers, Trachelospernum jasminoides and Virginia Creeper for the walls and railings. Here, restraining the planting palette is key.


IMG_4294Ground level views of the Keeper’s House garden, Royal Academy.

When you look up, the energy of the tree ferns is celebratory and infectious.

IMG_4285Looking upwards, Keeper’s House garden, Royal Academy.

I go back into the gallery and start climbing the stairs. What Tom Stuart-Smith has achieved so cleverly is a garden that delivers from any level in the building. I look down through huge panes of glass from the second floor onto David Nash’s blackened wood sculpture, ‘King and Queen’.  The tree ferns and egg-yolk yellow grass are a wonderful foil for these dark figures. This is a fine platform for art and the Academicians must enjoy selecting work for this space.


IMG_4297IMG_4299IMG_4296View onto the Keeper’s House garden, Royal Academy, with ‘King and Queen’ by David Nash.

In 2010 my design partner, Helen Fraser, and I were asked to develop a planting scheme for a new garden at the South London Gallery on the busy Peckham Road.  IMG_4258IMG_4261Exterior of the South London Gallery with and without bus

The Fox Garden was a new space that emerged as part of the 6a architects‘ extension of this constantly innovative contemporary art gallery.


The garden would link the ncafé, NO. 67, with a new building, The Clore Studio, and was flanked on one side by the enormous exterior wall of the main 1891 gallery, and on the other by a tall garden wall.  A much simpler proposition than the Petit Palais or Keeper’s House gardens, but nonetheless a rather unevenly lit garden with the need to look good all year round and to offer change throughout the seasons. The noise and grime of the road outside would increase the sense of surprise when the visitor came across the garden for the first time.slg before 1slg before 2Framework of The Fox Garden – the towering gallery wall with elegant new buildings by 6a architects at either end and a wonderful, sinuous brick path.

Our solution was use tough, hard-working plants which could create an impact for as long a season as possible. The star plant has perhaps been Nandina domestica – or heavenly bamboo – which has thrived here and provides an almost constant succession of white flower sprays followed by red berries:

IMG_4255IMG_4243IMG_4253IMG_4256IMG_4250IMG_1463Nandina domestica – or heavenly bamboo – creating a lush and welcoming atmosphere in The Fox Garden, South London Gallery on a January day.

We have used three flowering dogwoods – Cornus kousa var Chinensis – including a fabulous almost outsize specimen directly outside the café. These illuminate the garden in June, matching the glamour of Paul Morrison’s covetable gilded wall painting in the café atrium, and provide a period of rich autumn colour.

slg cornus

IMG_5568Cornus kousa var Chinensis – with a close up of the beautiful white bracts which surround the tiny flowerhead.

Non Summer 2010 005Non Summer 2010 005

Views through to the flowering dogwood from the No. 67 dining room with its exhilarating  Paul Morrison gold mural.

IMG_2229Claret red autumn colour of the Cornus kousa var Chinensis with Lawrence Weiner’s swooping ‘wall sculture’ on the gallery wall, part of his 2014 ‘All in Due Course’ exhibition.

Other repeated plants are Euphorbia characias with its long lasting lime green bracts…IMG_2179                                      Euphorbia characias with its lime green bracts.

…and Libertia grandiflora which we love for its white flowers in May, long lasting seedheads, and year round architectural presence:

IMG_5567IMG_5555Libertia grandiflora which makes everyone smile the garden in May.

The Libertia even makes Heidi smile – Heidi, gardener of The Fox Garden, is of course the secret ingredient:IMG_5543                                        Heidi – The Fox Garden’s secret ingredient.

Happily it seems that gardens within museums and cafés are providing so much enjoyment that there are new gardens in development wherever you look. Right here in the South London Gallery a new garden by artist Gabriel Orozco is slowly emerging to be unveiled in the autumn of 2016.

A couple of miles away at the Garden Museum, next to Lambeth Bridge, Dan Pearson is designing a completely new garden within a substantial extension by Dow Jones Architects.


 Tradescant Knot Garden, Garden Museum – image thanks to www.culture24.org.uk.

The design has been a challenge, not least because a decision had to be made to lose the knot garden of the existing Tradescant Garden, but Garden Museum director Christopher Woodward tells me ‘Dan has designed a new garden which will try to startle the visitor with unusual shapes and beauties and surprise you with unfamiliar plants … I hope the space with have something of that atmosphere of the Zumpthor-Oudolf pavilion at the Serpentine a few years ago’.

ImageProposed garden café within the new Dow Jones Architects’ pavilions. Garden to be designed by Dan Pearson. Visualisation by Forbes Massie, image courtesy of The Garden Museum.

The Garden Museum is in the safest possible hands with the thoughtful and often magical input of Dan Pearson. The reference to my absolute favourite of the Serpentine Gallery‘s annual summer Pavilions – the 2011 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion designed by architect Peter Zumthor with planting by master plantsman Piet Oudolf  – makes the new garden a tantalising prospect.

I look through my photographs and find only a few hazy images of my visit to this blackened, open-roofed, box-like cloistered garden that landed for a few summer months next to the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. I remember being surprised and deeply cheered by the almost physical pull this hidden garden had on passers-by on a completely beautiful day in an already completely beautiful green space. The contrast between the plain, rather severe building and the planting (which became taller and blousier and more relaxed as the summer wore on) was compelling, and the impact of sunlight and shadows on the space was exciting and dynamic.

IMG_4521Images of the Piet Oudolf planting within the Peter Zumthor Serptentine Gallery Pavilion, September 2011.

I hope that when it is warm again I will have the chance to return to Paris to visit a museum garden that fell off my list on my recent trip.  The Musée de la Vie Romantique is housed in a green shuttered villa in Montmartre which belonged to the 19th Century artist, Ary Sheffer. It is said to have a lovely garden and outdoor café with poppies, foxgloves and fragrant roses. I read somewhere that it is the perfect place to sit amongst the roses sipping tea and pretend to be Georges Sand who famously lived nearby. Now this is a whole new angle on museum garden visiting.

A piece I have written for The Daily Telegraph on other gardens to visit in Paris will be published in the Spring.














Edmund de Waal  – portrait ©Ben McKee

Edmund de Waal is a potter whose quietly radiant work pushes the boundaries of what you think a pot can be. After more than thirty years of friendship with Edmund, I should not be surprised that his writing continues to be intoxicatingly erudite and singingly story-telling. I have just finished the newly published ‘THE WHITE ROAD a pilgrimage of sorts’ and my mind is buzzing.


‘THE WHITE ROAD’ is the story of Edmund’s journey to find out as much as he can about the history of porcelain – the medium in which he makes his pots. He travels from his studio in Tulse Hill, South London to China, Germany and Cornwall “I need to get to these places, need to see how porcelain looks under different skies, how white changes with the weather. Other things in the world are white but, for me, porcelain comes first.”

And you are there inside his head and looking through his eyes as he unravels the past and weighs up the present. His description of working with porcelain, the need to get it “thinner and thinner until it is as thin as gold leaf and lifts into the air” – thin enough to let the sun shine through, hard enough to ring like a bell – is a crucial hook. He describes the French porcelain clay he has on his bench – “the colour is of full-fat milk, with a bloom of green mould” – and importantly he explains how when he throws a pot he is “trying to still a small part of the world, make an inside space.”


A mind of winter (2015), Edmund de Waal © Edmund de Waal. Photo: Mike Bruce

Edmund and I met on a student committee for the extraordinary Kettle’s Yard  in Cambridge – the private house and collection of art, furniture and found objects belonging originally to Jim and Helen Ede which has evolved into an important contemporary art gallery. Crucially at the heart of Kettle’s Yard there is still a home, with its modest, white loose-covered furniture and small jugs of flowers from the garden, alongside paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson and inscriptions by David Jones. The great perk of our student role was the requirement to be in the house as invigilator on a mid-week afternoon – escaping the bustle of university life and giving us time to think amongst the cast shadows and inspirational landscape of this calm interior:
k yard dining room

Dining area, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
pebb;es‘Spiral of Pebbles’, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridgek yard shadow Objects and shadows, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridgek yardInterior Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
k yard window

mag k ypot k yardWindow recess with potted plants, magnifying lens and engraved glass, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

As Edmund tracks the centuries-old hunger both to create and collect the ‘white gold’ that is porcelain, it is riveting to follow his considered account of his own fiercely pioneering journey. A degree in English Literature was followed by two tough years in the Black Mountains “My friends were in London with jobs, writing , partying … and I was making dishes, unglazed, rough oatmeal brown on the outside, and green on the inside, pots to  disappear into the landscape.”

I visited Edmund in Herefordshire and made a ridiculous chart to encourage him as he laboured to build his first kiln and I still treasure one of his – now unlikely – rich brown bowls:

Cox’s apples in a brown fruit bowl by Edmund de Waal

I visit him in Sheffield too, where he has set himself up to make pots and study Japanese. “I got to work. As I was starting again, I chose white”. Edmund shares with us his longing to get the white right. “I want poems that compare white porcelains to smoke coiling up from a chimney, or from incense on an altar, or mist from a valley.” Finally a year’s scholarship to Japan “I know how this porcelain feels.  Japan is where my porcelain changed.” From now on, Edmund is unstoppable.

IMG_1087Thin white porcelain – Christening mugs for our twin boys, 1996

‘The White Road’ takes us from medieval Florence, where porcelain is so precious that drinking from a porcelain cup is thought to prevent poison, to Nazi Germany where a chilling production line is revealed in the belief that “white porcelain is the embodiment of the German soul.” In 1708 in Dresden, after years of perilous pioneering, the mathematician Tschirnhaus “makes himself a little jar. It comes out ‘half translucent and milky white, like a narcissus.”

Throughout the book Edmund tries to weigh up the fragile and tantalising quality of white itself. Herman Melville’s description from Chapter 42 of Moby Dick, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ is a key moment “In many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas and pearls” – and he talks eloquently about the quality of light on his own work: “I’m watching the light play on the wall opposite me …great Gerhard Richter-like smudges across the top that move across an installation I made last year for Sue, seven stacked dishes inside a white lacquered cabinet. The top dish is gilded on the inside so that there is a reflective halo above it.”

I love the book because at the root of everything is Edmund’s drive to look harder, read harder and keep making pots with his hands. He is generous and inspiring. No-one is too young or too old to fall under his spell.

bear ed

Our son Arthur aged three at Edmund’s studio.

And if the book is not enough, Edmund has curated an almost secret collection of exquisite white objects, from Turner’s porcelain watercolour palette to the death mask of a Royal Academician, in the Library and Print Room at the Royal Academy.

Two handled porcelain cup & saucer, Meissen, Germany, c.1715. Collection of Edmund de Waal


 Bust of a woman, possibly Ippolita Maria Sforza, after Francesco Laurana (1452-1502).         C.19th plaster cast, RA Collections


Horatio Ross, Fir trees on the banks of Dornoch Firth between Ardgay and Fearn, c. 1850-60. Waxed paper negative, Hans P Kraus Jr, New York

And what about white in gardens? I decide to head to Sissinghurst to visit Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden to concentrate, if only for an afternoon, on the matter.


Sissinghurst Castle, Kent

Unsurprisingly perhaps, using white in the garden is more demanding than you might at first suppose. The photographer Andrew Lawson, in his newly republished classic, ‘The Gardener’s Book of Colour’, has wise and practical advice:  “the brilliance of white means that the shapes and patterns that the white flowers make catch the eye and so are more intrusive than those of other colours in a mixed colour planting. Because they are light-reflecting, flowers with a solid silhouette, such as lilies or phlox, tend to stand out most among other darker colours.”

 I am looking out, as I type this, at a rather startlingly clump of white japanese anemones in my own garden that draws the eye away from the fading pinks and yellowing greens elsewhere, and needs to be divided and broken into smaller groups as soon as possible.


Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’

Lawson continues: ” Plants that have sprays of tiny white flowers on the other hand, like gypsophila or Crambe cordifolia, create a misty diaphanous effect that is bright without being intrusive. Other colours seen through this translucent haze are fragmented and seem to shimmer.”

As with porcelain, there are of course endless subtle distinctions to watch out for between the whites of flowers. Very few turn out to be pure white and, as Nori and Sandra Pope lament in ‘Colour by Design’  (the account of their brilliant homage to colour in the garden they made in the 80’s at Hadspen, Somerset ) “please note that very often white flowers die badly – their petals turn brown and cling to the plant instead of dropping off.” And white planting schemes, because of their simplicity, draw particular – if you are not careful, unforgiving – attention to the shapes, sizes and textures of flowers and foliage.

Generally, however, as Lawson says “the effect of white in gardens is to lighten them and make the mood more cheerful” and this is especially so in shade. I love Gertrude Jekyll’s description of white foxgloves illuminating a patch of woodland –  she writes of the way they “spire up among the birches.”

Perhaps the ultimate trigger for the creation of an all white garden is the dream of a ‘moonlight garden’. White flowers (as well as pale pinks and creams) have a luminous quality and will remain visible after dusk. Vita Sackville-West’s winter vision of sitting on an imagined seat made of rough oak and living box and looking out at her new garden is as intoxicating as ever:

” When you sit on this seat you will be turning your backs to the yew hedge and from there I hope you will survey a low sea of grey clumps of foliage, pierced here and there with tall white flowers….I cannot help hoping that the grey ghostly barn owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight, the pale garden that I am now planting under the first flakes of snow.”

It is Saturday afternoon and I have not been to Sissinghurst for years. I am easily distracted on my pilgrimage. Firstly by the simple, handsome planters made from salvaged galvanised cattle troughs which look wonderful planted with just white valerian – Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’ – against whitewashed timber, or the billowing purple and white Salvia leucantha against warm brick.

cattle trough 1Galvanised cattle trough planted with Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’
salvia troughIMG_0867Galvanised cattle trough planted with Salvia leucantha

I am struck again by the Sackville-West/Nicholson brilliance of opening up the brick barn to create a perfectly framed view to the Kent countryside beyond the garden – and by the gorgeous patterns and shades of red in the brick itself:

arch with viewFramed view through barn, SissinghurstIMG_0857 (1)Barn wall, Sissinghurst

This is a garden with wonderful bones. There are patterns and rhythms everywhere you look.  Here the brilliant emerging shoots light up the dense framework of pollarded limes:

lime tree close upPollarded limes, Sissinghurst

Here handsome, dark soldiers of Irish yew, cast dark egg-shaped shadows away from the pale strip of path:
IMG_0896                                          Irish yews lining the path, Sissinghurst

Within the entrance arch there is a flurry of colour in vases to entice you:
entrance flowers

From top left to right: Dahlia ‘Pink Michigan’, Salvia uliginosa, Anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’, Boltonia asteroides, Caryopteris x clandonensis, Salvia involucrata bethellii

I feel encouraged now to look at everything closer up – the delicate creamy bells and twining foliage of Clematis rehderiana – in such perfect scale with the diamond leaded glass window panes – and the solid, speckled antique-looking fruits of ornamental quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) and, further on, fat timeless rose hips against brick:

clem rehdclem rhed close

Clematis rehderiana


rose hipsFruit of ornamental quince above, rose hips below

Wherever they can, the plants are having their tousled, exuberant, last-gasp September burst:


Soaring rose branches, dusky pink flowerheads of Abelia grandiflora and Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba agains the wall of The Tower Lawn

I walk through a haze of rich pinks – Salvia, dahlias, asters, cleomes – and the very lovely shredded pink petals of Anemone hupehensis japonica var. ‘Prinz Heinrich’.IMG_0953IMG_0892
IMG_0960IMG_0956 (2)IMG_0969

Anemone japonica hupehenis var. ‘Prinz Heinrich’

On this hazy September afternoon, everything comes together in the Cottage Garden – which has always been filled with hot colours. Apparently both Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson claimed this ‘sunset’ scheme as their own idea. I love the stormy silhouette of rounded black green irish yews and the tapering sky-scratching poplars beyond.

IMG_1006Silhouette of Irish Yews and poplars, The Cottage Garden, Sissinghurst

With the sun more helpfully behind me, I can revel in the towering shapes – I particularlyl ove this leggy annual, Leonotus ‘Staircase’ –  and bicolour dahlias:

Most of all I keep coming back to the wonderful anchoring, framing effect of the towering yews at the centre of which a verdigris coated copper planter is glows magnificently, billowing over with the bright yellow Bidens ferulafolia.cottagwIMG_1000

Bidens ferulafolia in a copper urn at the centre of four Irish Yews in the Cottage Garden

I have lost my husband, Nick, to a sunwarmed wooden chair against the cottage wall. It is time to go and find The White Garden:


The White Garden was always going to be something of a disappointment, I suppose – not being June when the roses would be famously powering over walls and pergolas. Not very disappointing, of course, just a bit quiet and less obvious. I need time to start to appreciate the blocky patterns and undulations of the clipped box and surges of paler planting:
white est 2

The White Garden, Sissinghurst

From some angles The White Garden is teeming and a little shapeless in that lovely end of summer way. If you look the other way, patches here and there feel a little empty and end of season:

The White Garden, teeming softly
IMG_0931The White Garden beginning to look a little empty

I like it best when there is a dense coming together of contrasting shades and textures – here the soft, velvety Stachys byzantina, the dainty wiriness of Potentilla fruticosa ‘Abbottswood’, the silvery grey of artemisia, and right at back the handsome architectural grey-green of Melianthus major:


There is space in the White Garden for the sun to light up the bright green leaved Nicotiana sylvestris like a cool summer torch. The Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba’ is going nicely crazy over an arch, and the delicate daisy we met in a vase at the entrance to the garden (Boltonia asteroides) is contrasted by dynamic, velvety green flowerheads of Agastache rugosa ‘Alabaster’.

Nicotiana sylvestrisIMG_0940 (1)Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba’IMG_0924Boltonia asteroides and contrasting Agastache rugosa ‘Alabaster’

I am thinking again of Edmund de Waal and would like to collect together a few notional plants to celebrate his book ‘The White Road’ and his Royal Academy exhibition, ‘White’. Edmund is so thoughtful about placing his work – in cases, vitrines, on shelves, plinths. Should I bring together plants and vessels? My mind turns momentarily to the lovely hand coloured photographs of Constance Spry flower arrangements in her books ‘Winter and Spring Flowers’ and Summer and ‘Autumn Flowers’ – so outrageously staged and old fashioned that I think they might zoom back into our way of thinking any time soon:

IMG_0007IMG_0016                                           Constance Spry flower arrangements

I can see this old French wine bottle working too – the narrow neck a perfect light embrace for the soft heads of Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Westfalen’, Thalictrum delavayi and Hydrangea quercifolia:

But I think I would prefer to suggest individual plants which Edmund might like to grow in his garden.

My first suggestion would be snowdrops – any snowdrops would be good. In fact I would wager that the simplest white of the single white Galanthus nivalis might be his first choice. Snowdrops are especially apt because of the way they increase and repeat to form a gorgeous rhythmic carpet to echo the way Edmund creates installations out of series of pots “like an idea unfolding.”

snow drops

A repeating carpet of single white snowdrops

If I had to choose a special snowdrop to be lifted into an earthenware – or indeed porcelain – pot whilst it is in flower and then lowered back into the ground for the rest of the year, it would be Galanthus ‘Wendy’s Gold’, with its clear yellow ovary and glimpses of a yellow interior. This would be to celebrate the way Edmund has used gilding on porcelain very lightly on some of his most beautiful work.


Galanthus ‘Wendy’s Gold’

For later in the Spring, and for their translucent elegance, I would choose the now increasingly rare Narcissus ‘Jenny’, a perfect, demure narcissus with elegant, light-catching, swept back petals and a subtle creamy trumpet. I could not resist the Pheasant’s Eye Narcissus either – Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus. This is a fragrant, later flowering ‘Poet’s Narcissus’ – for Edmund’s evocative storytelling.


Narcissus ‘Jenny’

Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus

For spring blossom – to celebrate the influence of China and especially Japan on Edmund’s work – I could choose any number of cherry, almond or plum trees. I think the white ornamental quince Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’ would be a good choice as the flowers have a certain spare clarity to them.  


Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Alba’

For June there would be the flowering dogwood Cornus kousa ‘Madame Butterfly’ – which has pink blushed white bracts to echo the slight blush or bloom on a glaze or piece of porcelain, carefully examined. ‘Madame Butterfly’ is known also for fantastic autumn colour and generous crops of pendant bright red fruit – so definitely a plant to shake things up a bit if this collection looks for a moment as if it is trying too hard.


Cornus kousa ‘Madame Butterfly

I think quince would be a perfect fruit tree for Edmund – a simple, oriental quality to the blossom in spring, large oval leaves which are fantastically translucent in the sun and fragrant, slightly downy fruit which can sit quietly in a bowl on his writing desk and be held when a little light distraction is required.

Quince in late summer sunshine

My final tree choice would be Sorbus cashmiriana – for its porcelain like clusters of fruit and gilt tipped foliage against a brilliant September sky.

sorb cash 1IMG_1579Sorbus cashmiriana

But I haven’t finished yet with The White Garden at Sissinghurst.  Against one wall is my favourite white rose for a sheltered garden wall, Rosa laevigata ‘Cooperi’. A neat climbing rose with particularly fine, glossy foliage and glistening white flowers, held singly, each with a large boss of yellow stamens:


Rosa laevigata ‘Cooperi’ against the wall of the The White Garden, Sissinghurst

Rosa laevigata ‘Cooperi’ flower in June

Here in The White Garden the rose is underplanted with a completely magnificent swathe of autumn flowering bulb Zepharanthes candida:

IMG_0912zeph close up

Zepharanthes candida

Clambering lightly over the rose is the loveliest clematis  – with pink-tinged, white, bell-like flowers on slender stems – this is the Estonian herbaceous Clematis ‘Kaui’ which will flower from June to September:

IMG_2573                                                                  Clematis ‘Kaiu’

A strange coincidence occurs as I am about to recommend this group of plants to my friend. I discover that the other name for the species, Rosa laevigata (as opposed to the more highly bred selection ‘Cooperi’) is the ‘Cherokee Rose’. It was introduced from China to the USA in the 1780’s and has been long associated with the ‘Trail of Tears’ – the forced relocation of Native Americans. One of the most poignant moments of the journey related in ‘The White Road’ was  a trip to the Appalachian Mountains to track down the ‘white clay’ so valuable to Europeans such as Josiah Wedgewood and often so roughly prized from the Cherokees.

Such are the dangers of any kind of investigation I suppose. I am a little thrown by my discovery, but still think this group of three white flowering plants are a strong combination. They would be a restrained, elegant addition to a sunny studio wall.



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.  www.coppice-products.co.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.’

RF 089

‘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.