The history of garden restoration can be traced back to the knot garden on the site of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford, says historian and gardener Sir Roy Strong.
Sir Roy told an audience at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust that work to create the garden at New Place in 1920 marked a new departure in gardening.
“It was the first time anybody seriously tried to recreate an historic garden. Think how many of you have visited gardens that have been restored at historic houses. The knot garden at New Place is the beginning of all that.”
The former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and The National Portrait Gallery, was speaking at an event to launch his new book, The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden, which traces the story of the playwright’s garden.
It follows the re-opening in the summer of the New Place garden following a £6m project by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to revamp the area.
An archaeological excavation uncovered the outline of the last house there, which was demolished in 1759, and this is now depicted in bronze laid into paving.
There’s a representation of Shakespeare’s desk, references to his plays and poems and many modern sculptures, including a bronze tree at the heart of the garden.
Work has included renovating the knot garden (pictured top) for the first time since it was created by Ernest Law, who later worked on the knot garden at Hampton Court Palace.
During the conversation with Glyn Jones, head of gardens at the trust, and Roger Pringle, former trust director, Sir Roy Strong warned against believing any restoration was historically accurate.
“There’s no such thing as an accurate recreation of an historic garden. It can only ever be an approximation.”
It’s a view that’s upheld by the recent work at New Place: the audience was told the team have had to use Japanese euonymus as a replacement for box that had succumbed to blight.
The new layout was praised by Sir Roy, who admitted to being nervous about seeing it, having not visited New Place for some years.
“I didn’t have happy memories about it all.
“I was thrilled with what you had achieved. I think it’s marvellous and very different from how I remembered it.”
And he described the previous planting scheme of begonias and pansies as “absolutely horrendous”.
In a wide-ranging talk, that saw him describe Ellen Willmott as “a dreadful woman”, take a sideswipe at municipal planting and declare that “hanging baskets should be abolished”, Sir Roy talked about his early experience of gardening. He described it as a “big minus”, as he didn’t get on with his father, who “dominated” the garden behind his childhood terraced home.
He didn’t enter what he calls his ‘garden period’ until he and his late wife, Julia, bought The Laskett in Herefordshire.
“I don’t think either of us realised we were going to create what is thought to be quite an important garden.”
An big influence on its design, along with Italy and the theatre, was Hidcote Manor Garden, where Glyn was head gardener before joining the Trust. In particular, The Laskett makes full use of vistas, spaces and structure.
“If a garden looks amazing in winter you really don’t need to worry about flowers,” explained Sir Roy.
“Flowers are the sign of a complete failure.”
• The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden by Roy Strong is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £14.95.
• For more information about The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust including opening times and prices, see here here
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