In 1956, on the Villa Silvio Pellico's shambolic hillside, Russell Page built a garden on a series of horizontal levels. Imagine this garden when the lavender, planted between dark partitions of yew, blooms with soft exuberance and the flowering lilies sun themselves on the canal. The mysterious role of water - its ability to create a harmonious atmosphere - always intrigued him. Image (detail): Marina Schinz. The Gardens of Russell Page. Photographs by Marina Schinz and text by Gabrielle van Zuylen.
First there was love
Russell Page designed more gardens than anyone in history. Gardening was rooted in him.
Born in 1906, as a small boy he spent a whole summer rerouting a small stream and building and rebuilding dams. He bicycled "for miles to get a basket of leaf-soil".
He encountered the world of English gardeners - the women who arrived at the butter market near the Stonebow in Lincoln "with baskets of fresh butter, eggs, chickens, ducks and bunches of freshly picked mint and sage"; the cottage gardeners "in hamlets lost among the fields and woods" who grew double mauve primroses and "heavenly-scented" Daphne mezereum he could find nowhere else; the tall, gaunt, once-beautiful woman who gardened inside her drawing room with "ivy brought in through holes in the wall to garland windows, walls and ceiling with green"; and the painfully crippled man who had created a famous garden at Abbotswood near Stow-on-the-Wold, where, pushed in his chair, a pencil and notebook tied to his coat with string, he shared with the boy his gaiety and patience, his love and knowledge of gardening.
What Page learned was that green fingers was "an old expression which describes the art of communicating the subtle energies of love to prosper a living plant".
Working in a department store
Page was in his early twenties when he was invited to create a garden "in Devonshire at a great house which lay at the head of an estuary thrusting down between hanging oakwoods to the sea". He was also spending weeks in France, studying French gardens, architecture and sculpture. He took a summer holiday in a house with a library of garden books where he taught himself to draw and work out problems in design. But "during all this time I was obliged to earn my living somehow, going wherever a few guineas might be earned by a young man of my very limited experience. . . .for a time I worked in a department store which specialised in furniture, living in the pervasive smell of new carpet and linoleum and proving a very bad salesman".
Hunting for a skeleton
Page had attended Charterhouse, where he had won the art prize. Though he says, "I had not been endowed with the qualities that make a successful public school boy", he had been endowed with one gift - people trusted him to do things he had never done before and to do them fantastically well. He met Henry Bath, and together they cleaned out, redesigned and replanted the woods and drives of the immense park at Longleat. Finding that the lease on one of the Cheddar Caves was open, Page joined forces with Geoffrey Jellicoe to design a new restaurant and museum, to floodlight the caves - and to hunt for the rest of the skeleton belonging to the famous Cheddar Skull.
Mivoisin, where Page began work in 1938. He designed the walled gardens and gates and diverted a river. Image: Marina Schinz. The Gardens of Russell Page. Photographs by Marina Schinz and text by Gabrielle van Zuylen.
Jobs proliferated - landscaping Ditchley Park, creating a planting guide for the village of Broadway, working at the Chateau de Mivoisin and designing a garden for the Duke of York at the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park.
But within a week of the beginning of the Second World War, "our practice ceased to exist and all my modest accumulation of plans, photographs and eighteenth-century garden books went up in flames in the first London blitz a year later".
Page was recruited by the Political Warfare Department of the Foreign Service to organize broadcasting to France. He later went to Cairo, organized broadcasts for southern Europe and the Balkans and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel in Ceylon. All the time he had been drawing and drinking in new cultures and impressions. After the war he found himself back in London "without money or occupation".
Work around the world
Page must have had an energy that attracted people. He accidentally met Oskar Kokoschka, showed him his wartime drawings and was encouraged to paint. It was "a cathartic experience". After a few months, Page visited Paris, looking for new purpose. He found an old friend and colleague and began a rejuvenated career as a landscape designer, or, as he modestly described himself, as a gardener. He became one of those Brits who love to travel and work.
He wrote a classic 'bedside' garden book, The Education of a Gardener, which describes his adventures, the gardens he designed, the fascinating people he met, the plants he loved and his philosophy. In the preface he explains -
In Italy I came to know and love Rome and the countryside around from Bracciano to Anzio; and then Spain came into my range - first Motril on the coast below Granada, then westwards to Algeciras and north-east to Majorca. I worked too in Washington D.C. and in New York, but returned occasionally to design one or two new gardens in England.
Two trips to Western Australia gave me a glimpse of a surprisingly different flora and fauna; kangaroos hurtling through the air like stream-lined furry Concordes and, once, a flight over a thousand miles of desert blazing with flower colour after years of drought.
Latterly I have been on occasional forays to Chile, where the snow-covered volcanic peaks of the Andes cut the sky above blue lakes and hillsides are scarlet with embothriums and forests of drimys and eucryphia.
Like other English garden makers in this century I was at first very much influenced by the work of Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens. Over the years, working in France and Italy, my approach to designing was modified by the greater formality of classical French planning and the more sculptural approach of the Italian tradition.
Cottage at Badminton. To the old Cotswold garden with stone walls and ancient hedges Page "added new paths, archways, and gates to make vistas and suggest space. Using cordoned apple trees, box edging, and a central trellised gazebo, he formalized the vegetable garden. The end result of his twenty years of work is a semiformal English garden on an intimate scale". Image and text: The Gardens of Russell Page. Photographs by Marina Schinz and text by Gabrielle van Zuylen.
Influenced by different cultures, the needs of his clients and the soil, climate, situation and light of his garden sites, Page approached garden design by identifying the vibrations sent out by physical objects, living or created, and arranging their interplay -
"My understanding is that every object emanates - sends out vibrations beyond its physical body which are specific to itself. These vibrations vary with the nature of the object, the materials it is made of, its colour, its textures and its form. Any tree has twigs, branches and a trunk - the bark on a twig is other than that of its trunk - the texture of foliage varies through the seasons. So too with a stone - the material and texture of marble differ from those of sandstone or granite, and like the shape and colour of a flower or a fruit these dictate the speed and spread of the emanations of each particular object and thus the interplay between objects. I have experimented endlessly with this idea.
. . .if your garden is to have 'magic' you have to take your work further and give it an extra dimension. . .
When Page began a garden, he learned what the owners of the garden wanted and meditated on a possible solution for days. What kind of shape will your garden have and how do you want to move through it? What plantings will flourish and draw you through your garden, but not too quickly? How will you experience the vibrational interplay between objects, living and created? How will your house relate to your garden?
Sheathing a house in roses. San Liberato. Image: Marina Schinz, The Gardens of Russell Page. Photographs by Marina Schinz and text by Gabrielle van Zuylen.
Russell Page never made much money - he disliked charging for his work. He designed and planted thousands of gardens, but many of them have disappeared. Happily we have Page's account and Marina Schinz's and Gabrielle van Zuylen's glorious book, full of ideas for those of us who lack garden designers and gardeners but want to create our own garden.
In The Education of A Gardener, Page wrote, "I would, first of all, like to say how much this work owes to my wife who insisted that some account of a garden-maker's activities would be of interest to amateurs and professional gardeners. Her active help and encouragement at every stage and on every level alone made the book possible." Page's difficult and enchanted career survived her death, after only six years of marriage, as it had survived fire and the Second World War. He thought of himself as fortunate -
For fifty years and more I have been a privileged man occupied for almost the whole of that time in doing what I most enjoyed - designing gardens. I only once and very briefly had a garden of my own - a plot behind a London house.
I am very aware of the hundreds of people from whom I have learnt everything I know about my chosen subject: clients, friends, gardeners, masons, labourers, contractors, architects, horticulturalists, garden owners and garden lovers, botanists, students, writers, sculptors and painters.
Known briefly or for years across five continents and in a dozen countries, all freely shared with me their knowledge with kindness, encouragement and interest.
I salute them all.
Villa San Lorenzo. Image: Marina Schinz, The Gardens of Russell Page. Photographs by Marina Schinz and text by Gabrielle van Zuylen.
Those of us who believe will salute God, too.