Thursday, September 19, 2013


On Saturday, the Celt being at the Petshop Boys concert, I spent the evening with a friend, a gemologist, looking at stones and their settings. It struck me, over the second bourbon, that it takes a man who loves his subject to make it interesting to someone who doesn't feel overly fascinated by jewelry – even watches, cufflinks and rings have limited appeal – and, besides, it got me thinking about the importance of settings, and not just for gems. By the third or fourth bourbon we were having a raucous discussion about men's intimate jewelry and whether or not diamonds and platinum might be less embarrassing – impressive, even – when the TSA demands a strip-search after said intimate jewelry has set off the alarms. All a matter of the setting, I suppose, but I digress.

A remark by a friend that he was designing a pavilion for himself and now was looking for land in Virginia on which to build, had finally taken root in my brain and sent me to a part of my library – by this I mean not the east wing but a different set of shelves – to look for books about pavilions, follies, gardens and plants. I surprised myself by finding many a book about gardening and gardens (I like one not the other and I'll let you to guess which) and, lurking in "history and biography" a book I hadn't yet read or knew I had. The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton will join the pile of twenty-six yet-to-be-read books on my bedside table – books from friends, my old prof, the Celt and even myself on an occasionally regretted impulse.

If I learned anything on Saturday night it is that setting is of great importance if the stones are to be shown at their best but that best is relative thing and can change according to whim and fashion – much the same can be said for houses and their settings. It goes without saying – you'd think – that the setting should enhance the building, be it of a hermit's lair or Philip Johnson's Glass House, yet if one looks at the newer clear-cut, graded, minimally landscaped and shadowless suburbs around any major city then one wonders if setting was ever a consideration.

I don't know the final design my friend, a lover of orange trees and fragrant blooms, has chosen though I have been privy to a few of his ideas as to style. Neither do I know, but I suspect, what kind of setting he will create, but it will be beautiful – I hasten to add at this point that none of what I write or show here is meant to be either advice or influence. My personal taste whether in decoration or gardening is for strong contrast, for chiaroscuro, the sweet and the sour, the rough with the smooth, for dappled light and, above all, for scent and the patter of rain on leaves.

The photograph above , of a then new garden designed thirty years ago by Arabella Lennox-Boyd for her childhood friend, now the dowager Queen of Belgium, at Le Belvedere, in the grounds of the Palace of Laeken outside Brussels. A beautiful attempt, it seems to me, to humanize the scale of formality and the structural emphasis beloved of André Le Nôtre, set within it Arts and Crafts drift planting, form, texture, scent, light and shade, and moments of repose, and embed it in a lush Capability Brown-style park. I wish it were possible to see it now, nearly thirty years later.

The idea of rooms in gardens, not a new one, persists still – the white garden below, by the late Lady Adeane, epitomizes for me the English garden in all its highly-designed antiquated romantic beauty.

The following gardens are by Pied Oudolf, the garden designer par excellence, plant designer of New York's Highline and in my opinion one of the most exciting garden/landscape designers working today.

As attractive as the idea of garden rooms is, it has begun to feel more than a little passé – and this is the problem with fashion, as pervasive in garden design as it is in interior design. The grandeur of André Le Nôtre's designs for Versailles, influential all over Europe, gave way eventually to the English Romantic style of "Capability" Brown which in its turn gave place to Italianate gardens which in their turn gave way to ..... and so on .... until, arguably one is left, nowadays, with a blob of bright annuals around the mailbox, foundation plantings uniform from subdivision to subdivision, lawn after lawn, bereft of shade and peopled with "cement" replicas of geese, goddesses, urns and, occasionally, the holy family.

Arabella Lennox-Boyd's garden plan and photographs by John Vaughn from The World of Interiors, September 1985.

Photograph of the Philip Johnson Glass House from Architectural as is the photograph of the Highline.

Watercolour of a thatched 'hermitage' from Garden Mania: the ardent gardner's compendium of design and decoration.

Photograph of the white garden from David Hicks's My Kind of Garden.

Other photographs of the work of Piet Oudolf from


  1. I enjoyed this very much and feel no suspense for what Alain de Botton can tell you. I do feel a dissipation, or collapse, in the vigor of your argument as you confront, at the end, the effect of fashion. I do not think you are addressing the problem "with" fashion, but the problem of it, above which you had stood in this essay before this concession. Your citation of the Philip Johnson House in New Canaan was as appropriate as any reference I've seen given to it; and I would keep the spirits of this argument up there, and let the chips fall where they may.

  2. Arabella Lennox-Boyd designed for Queen Paola, whose husband, the former King Albert II is still alive. But his mother, the Spanish born Queen Fabiola, is also still alive and therefore she is the dowager queen. It's rather confusing having three queens extant, (I know, I know...), but only the continentals seem to do that in the Flanders region, unlike our monarchy.

    I agree with your preference for chiaroscuro in gardens, and am in love with the effect created from hedging. It's very simple, but I do find it incredibly attractive.

  3. I myself was at the PSB concert last night, I hope the Celt enjoyed 1/2 as much as I! Like you I enjoy gardens but not gardening and have a number of books on the subject (despite being an avowed apartment dweller). I think follies capture the imagination more than any other building type and as you say are typically set in the most beautiful locations.
    I'm always wary of being influenced by trends and I wonder how something such as 'outside rooms' can be a trend when it is so universal. They bridge hemispheres, cultures, and many different styles of gardens. I'm probably just missing your point though!

  4. "subdivision to subdivision, lawn after lawn, bereft of shade and peopled with "cement" replicas of geese, goddesses, urns and, occasionally, the holy family."

    And may I add, gnomes, miniature lighthouses and flamingos.

  5. I visited the Highline this summer. The concept is interesting but it was strange to be routed (herded?) through the city with so many people that the planting is difficult to appreciate. Victim of its success, maybe- but still there is something to reconsider to be freed from a certain feeling of claustrophobia.

  6. I love the idea of architecture generating happiness... it's amazing how spaces affect our experiences. I think the flattening of out/inside is great... that's how I feel about a lot of urban landscaping. You feel indoors with all of the architecture around you with the sky and the flora still.

  7. Hi, I have The Architecture of Happiness awaiting me as well, but on the virtual pile on my Nook. Knowing I have books that I am looking forward to reading is bliss. Hopefully design is trending ever upward, but it will be interesting, now that garden rooms have become mainstream, to see where garden design is heading. Nice post! N.G.