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July 24 2012

Seeds of subversion: Little Sparta garden

The latest in Jonathan Jones's series on Britain's art heritage visits a provocative Scottish garden made by Ian Hamilton Finlay, clashing mythology and modern history

June 22 2012

The New Urban Green exhibition - in pictures

A new photography exhibition in Liverpool celebrates green spaces in urban areas, from gardens in prisons to asylum seekers' allotments to wildflower meadows on housing estates

August 01 2011

'Secret garden' Wrest Park reopens

The 90-acre park in Bedfordshire contains '300 years of garden history' and boasts Versailles-style views

Wrest Park restoration – in pictures

One of the UK's finest and least known gardens will on Tuesday be unveiled in newly restored glory after decades hidden away from the general public's gaze.

The 90 acres of Wrest Park in Bedfordshire are unarguably magnificent, probably Britain's largest "secret garden", with surprises around every wooded corner. Although it is a nationally important garden its existence has remained virtually unknown.

John Watkins, head of gardens and landscape at English Heritage, said Wrest Park was unusual because it retained designs from the 17th century to the 20th century.

"You can literally walk through 300 years of garden history," he said. "It's this palimpsest of garden history that is so special, but also it is stunningly beautiful – so you can come here whether you want to delve into the history of the place or just look at it."

Wrest Park was owned by the De Grey family for nearly 700 years and there are three key stages in the landscape's history – the formal woodland garden created by Henry, Duke of Kent, in 1706; changes made under the direction of Jemima, Marchioness Grey, in the 18th century's latter half; and then the work of her grandson Thomas, Earl de Grey, from 1833.

Wrest Park opens to the public on Thursday, revealing the first fruits of an ambitious 20-year restoration plan. As visitors step out from the French-inspired mansion, designed by Thomas in the 1830s to replace the old, dark and dingy house he demolished, they are met by a long, Versailles-like view of the central gardens.

Within the grounds there are examples of work by some of the most famous names in English gardening and architecture history, including Thomas Archer, who designed a magnificent baroque pavilion in 1709-11.

Then there is the hand of the most famous of them all, Lancelot "Capability" Brown, who was hired by Jemima in 1758 to make the boundary canals less formal and more natural.

A great gardening pioneer he may have been, but it is clear that while at Wrest, Brown was the "hired help". The rusticated column that was erected for Brown is inscribed with the words: "These gardens originally layed out by Henry Duke of Kent were altered by Henry Duke of Hardwicke and Jemima Marchioness Grey with the professional assistance of Lancelot Brown, 1758, 1759 and 1760."

Closer examination of the column reveals cracks from where a big beech tree fell down in the 1990s, crushing the monument. "This was before we took over the site, and it highlighted to us the importance of getting Wrest Park into protection," said Watkins.

Other surprises in the gardens include a tucked-away bath house, built in 1770 to resemble a semi-ruined classical building. Inside, family and friends would have walked across the pebble and deer vertebrae floor, to step, probably quite slowly, into the cold water plunge pool.

Then there is a small dog graveyard with headstones for family pets down the years, and a good source of inspiration for anyone stuck for a name: Douba, perhaps? Or Freuah, Una, Little Dick, Dingey, Busy, Fury, Dorroch, Phedra, , Nissy, Kelpie, Tottie, Petsy or Pet.

Jemima was in charge of the gardens for a long time and comes across as an enlightened but slightly dotty matriarch. There is, for example, the Mithraic altar she devised with her husband, which has seemingly Persian and Greek text, but is no more than an intellectual joke.

After Thomas, the gardens were looked after well with the house remaining remained in the family until Auberon Herbert in 1905, who leased Wrest Park to the US ambassador. During the first world war it was used as a military hospital.

When Herbert, a liberal politician and captain in the Royal Flying Corps, died in action, the estate was sold to northern industrialist JG Murray who felled quite a lot of trees when things got financially tricky.

He sold it to Sun Alliance Insurance in 1939 and after the second world war it became a centre for modern agricultural engineering research.

English Heritage took over in 2006 and devised a restoration plan stretching over 20 years. It was helped by a £1.14m grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The first phase being seen this week includes the restored Italian and rose gardens, a new exhibition on its history and access to the miles of pathways and vistas set over the 90 acres.

Simon Thurley, English Heritage's chief executive, said: "Wrest Park tells the story of England's love affair with landscape. It is a unique place capturing 300 years of gardening history. So now with the successful completion of this first phase of restoration, Wrest Park can rightfully reclaim its place as one of the great gardens of England." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 05 2011

2011 International Garden Photographer of the year - in pictures

Winning images from the world's premier competition and exhibition specialising in garden, plant, flower and botanical photography

May 04 2011

Claude Monet's garden at Giverny hires English gardener

Giverny garden in Normandy, inspirational home of fabled Impressionist hires Englishman James Priest as head gardener

An English gardener has landed one of the most prestigious jobs in French horticulture. James Priest, 53, has been appointed head gardener at Giverny in Normandy, the former home of the Impressionist artist Claude Monet, who painted his waterlilies series there.

The appointment means that Priest, from Maghull, Merseyside, becomes a direct successor to Monet, who looked after every aspect of the garden until his death in 1926.

Priest, who qualified at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, said: "Monet is the factor that brings everyone here. It's an Alice in Wonderland Monet world and you have to capture the imagination of all these nationalities who visit. Monet would paint in layers and I think he made his garden in the same way."

Mr Priest takes over from Gilbert Vahe, the head gardener who was largely responsible for restoring the garden in the late 1970s from an overgrown wilderness to its former glory.

Priest was hired initially for three years but has ended up staying for 17. He will take over on 1 June. He first saw the work of the Impressionists when he visited Paris as an 18-year-old student "I like art with emotion. I work a lot on emotions; my gardens must speak to people of all nationalities."

Monet started to create his flower-filled garden when he moved to Giverny in 1883, refining it over 43 years. He originally planted flowers so that he could pick bunches to have something to paint indoors on rainy days.

Some of his most famous paintings were his huge canvases of the waterlilies on the small lake he had made, with its green, Japanese-style footbridge draped with wisteria in the spring. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 04 2011

Secret garden at the Serpentine

Swiss master architect will create contemplative garden courtyard enclosed by lightweight black-clad structure

Peter Zumthor, Swiss master of meditative, one-off, and highly crafted buildings, has released images of his design for this year's Serpentine Gallery pavilion in London's Kensington Gardens. The pavilion, which opens in July and closes in September, will take the form of a contemplative garden courtyard created by the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, enclosed by a low-key and lightweight timber structure Zumthor plans to wrap and coat with scrim and black paste mixed with sand. Visitors will enter the low-lying pavilion through a number of doors and follow several different paths between outer and inner walls into Zumthor and Oudolf's secret garden.

The idea underpinning the design is that of a garden of quiet pleasure and ruminative calm set just a couple of minutes from the 24-hour motorised roar of Kensington Gore. "The concept", says Zumthor, "is the hortus conclusus, a contemplative room, a garden within a garden. The building acts as a stage, a backdrop for the interior garden of flowers and light. Through blackness and shadow one enters the building from the lawn and begins the transition into the central garden, a place abstracted from the world of noise and traffic and the smells of London – an interior space within which to sit, to walk, to observe the flowers. This experience will be intense and memorable, as will the materials themselves – full of memory and time."

In practice, it will be interesting to see how the Serpentine Gallery attempts to maintain an aura of floral calm in what, for the past decade and more, has been one of the most popular of the art world's summer events. With Zumthor offering a marriage of the Serpentine pavilion and the Chelsea flower show, crowds flocking to this nominally tranquil and self-effacing black-clad building may well be larger, and noisier, than usual. Zumthor, however, says his design "aims to help its audience take the time to relax, to observe and then, perhaps, start to talk again."

As with architects of the previous 10 Serpentine pavilions, Zumthor's is the architect's first completed building in England. The series began with Zaha Hadid in 2000 and has included such giants as Oscar Niemeyer, Alvaro Siza, Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry. What makes Zumthor stand out from such famous company is the fact that he tends to design just one carefully considered building at a time. Recently, he turned down an opportunity to consider a new library for Magdalen College, Oxford that most architects would have welcomed like manna from heaven. Like the most beautiful gardens, Zumthor's architecture is not to be hurried.

Zumthor, born in Basel in 1943, trained as a cabinet-maker before training as an architect. He came to international attention with the exquisite thermal baths he designed in Vals, a village in Switzerland's Graubünden canton. At once ancient and modern, the atmospheric baths, completed in 1996, form a gently haunting part of the natural landscape. Crafted from layers of local quartzite, they are truly beautiful and sited well away from the summer crowds of Swiss cities.

Since then, Zumthor's Kunsthaus in Bregenz, Austria, Kolumba Art Museum, Cologne and Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, on a farm near Wachendorf, Germany have added greatly to his reputation. He won the Pritzker prize for architecture in 2009.

Zumthor's Serpentine pavilion, designed in cooperation with the engineers, Arup, will operate as a public space and as a venue for Park Nights, the gallery's high-profile programme of public talks and events.

Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery, said: "It is an honour and a great joy to be working with Peter Zumthor on the 11th Serpentine Gallery pavilion. The commission allows us to connect with the best architects in the world and each year is an exciting and completely new experience. Zumthor's plans will realise an exquisite space for the public to enjoy throughout the summer." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 28 2010

Top of the pots

Industrial design student Natalie King has drafted a pot that glows and shakes when the plant needs attention

A student has invented what might be the world's cleverest plant pot: a container that lights up and vibrates when the plant needs attention.

Natalie King's "Tulipe" pot glows red whenever the plant is in danger of getting too hot, cold, dry or is positioned in a place that is too dark or too light.

King, 22, designed the pot to help people such as her partially sighted grandfather continue to produce healthy plants. But it may also be a useful reminder for gardeners who are not very diligent when it comes to looking after plants.

The pot contains sensors in the base, which detect levels of moisture, temperature and light. If they fall below or above the optimum levels, the base will change from green to red, vibrating when it is picked up for extra impact.

King, from Callington, Cornwall, is looking for investors to mass-produce, market and sell her product.

She said: "My grandfather had always been a keen gardener but he suffers from something called age-related macular degeneration, which reduces his vision."

She decided to dedicate her final year project at Brunel University in Uxbridge, Middlesex, to designing a clever pot.

"I hope it will help people who would otherwise struggle to see the plants in detail and tell what they need," she said.

"It could also be useful for people who want to give gardening a try but are scared of killing their plants. Hopefully this will make things simple.

"Most importantly, my granddad thinks it's a great idea. He's very proud."

The pot helped King graduate from her industrial design course with a first-class honours degree. She is now working as a designer with Chanel in London. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 12 2010

Chiswick House

A grand Palladian villa is reborn in west London, while at the V&A, a Japanese master is celebrating altogether humbler dwellings

This week, I present to you a whitish building, mostly rectangular, made with large pieces of glass and some nice stone. This may not seem very exciting, especially as works of this description have been the default setting of tasteful British architecture for 20 years. The recent shortlist for designing the relocated Design Museum was made up of purveyors of whitish rectangularity and nice stone, including the winner of the commission, John Pawson. If Inuit are said to have 26 different words for snow, an architecture critic sometimes needs 26 words for off-white.

But this building is designed by architects with a rare sense of those things – relationships, scale, details, nuance, light, matter and pitch – that make a place. It is also in a location, the gardens of Chiswick House in west London, that the chief executive of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, calls "incredibly important" and compares to Stonehenge. Chiswick House helped to change the world or, at any rate, the world of gardens. Created from the 1720s to the 1740s by the wealthy Lord Burlington and his protege, William Kent, it led the way in breaking with the formal geometries of baroque gardens and replacing them with asymmetric and informal patterns that mimicked and followed the shapes of nature. Kent, as Horace Walpole said, "leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden". After him came the landscape gardens of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton and, ultimately, every hillock and winding path, and every picturesque gazebo and rockery in suburban gardens everywhere, can claim descent.

The centrepiece of the garden is Chiswick Villa, a domed and porticoed party pavilion created by Burlington and Kent in approximate imitation of Palladio's Villa Rotonda near Vicenza, helping to establish the Palladian style in England. It is hard to think of a more influential work in British architecture and landscape, yet it has been treated negligently for a century or so. The villa has been an asylum for posh lunatics and a fire station, with trucks parked outside. The 17th-century house to which the villa was attached was demolished, to save on maintenance costs.

There was once a risk that the gardens would be submerged under speculative semi-detacheds, but they became a municipal park. This opening up of aristocratic territory is nicely democratic, but it also contributed to the erosion of its original design. Like most British parks, it has suffered since Margaret Thatcher's government decided that spending on open spaces was not a statutory obligation on local authorities. According to Thurley, the gardens became "a big dog lavatory, and a set of targets for youths with spray cans".

Part of the problem was that the villa was the responsibility of English Heritage and the gardens of the London borough of Hounslow, a contradiction of the fact that the "whole point of Chiswick is that the house and gardens were a single entity". A trust has therefore been set up, with the task of managing both together. This has to sustain itself in part through income from events and parties, though £12m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage and private donors and sponsors has gone into restoring the gardens and building a new cafe.

The restoration, led by English Heritage, has been a matter of cleaning up, decluttering and unclogging the gardens, as well as restoring its temples and follies. Inopportune fences have been removed and a jumble of different seats and litter bins has been simplified. The sweep from the villa down to an artificial lake has been returned to its original openness and previously blocked vistas have been restored. It is simple, not glamorous, but essential stuff. Later extensions, including a patterned, 19th-century "Italian garden" and a magnificent hothouse, have also been restored.

Then there is the whitish, squarish, nice stone building. This is the cafe, an essential part of the trust's business plan, built at a cost of £1.4m to the designs of the architects Caruso St John, who are leading lights of the generation after Zaha Hadid and the David Chipperfield. It is carefully located, off to one side of the villa, like a fragmentary echo of the wings that Palladio added to his houses. Its position is considered, in the English landscape tradition, in relation to surrounding trees, to the position of the sun and to the outdoor spaces that form around it.

The cafe's style is simplified classical, but with nuances and twists. Its pillars are precisely cut but are of a pitted and pocked Portland stone that resembles the rustic stuff of grottoes. They make high, deep arcades, because, says the architect Peter St John, "the nicest al fresco lunches are in arcades in Spain and Italy". The arcades also allow different kinds of use in different seasons – they can be more or less occupied depending on the weather.

If the original villa was a place for sophisticated townies to party in a contrived version of nature, the cafe is also urbane. Its proportions are more elevated than a typical park cafe, the lamp shades have a surprising mirrored finish. The pillars of the arcade are out of synch with the verticals in the inner wall, which creates unexpected shifts in the interior experience. Sometimes, you feel thoroughly enclosed, sometimes almost at one with the green outside. It nicely captures the best of the spirit of Kent and Burlington: the idea that you adapt, modify and tune the nature that you find, rather than subjugate it.

Terunobu Fujimori's Beetle's House

Meanwhile, at the V&A, you will be able to see a different take on building and nature. This is an installation by Terunobu Fujimori, a Japanese historian who, in his 40s, turned his hand to designing buildings. It is part of the V&A's 1:1 – Architects Build Small Spaces exhibition, in which structures by seven architects are dotted around the London museum.

Fujimori's favourite material is charred wood, a traditional material in Japan, which, if the scorching is done correctly, has properties of endurance and weather-resistance. In a memorable exhibit at the Venice Architecture Biennale, visitors had to enter, stooping, through small, square holes in a blackened screen, the holes being framed in gold leaf. He also likes mud, thatch and wonky tree trunks.

When I meet Fujimori in the south London workshop where his V&A structure was made, the atmosphere is thick with smoke and flecks of ash fall on hair and skin. A rough-hewn stump is being prepared as the base of a little hut to be installed in the museum. Students are doing the scorching and the sticking together – he likes non-professional builders, plus himself, to build his works. Some are stapling bits of charcoal on to ceiling panels to form a decorative pattern. This is not very craftsmanly but Fujimori says that's the point: high degrees of technique would be excluding. Anyone can put up his buildings.

He centres all his structures around a living fire, saying that the origin of building lay in the need to shelter a flame. He also happily admits that his designs, with all their carbonising and burning, are nothing to do with sustainability. They are personal images of the primitive and he does not seem concerned whether anyone else derives satisfaction from them.

My feelings for his work vary between an attraction to his tactile materials and a reaction against the Hobbity quaintness of some of the finished products. Also disappointment in the way he builds – engaging non-experts is all very well, but there's nothing very life-enhancing about chomping at charcoal with staplers. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 08 2010

Britain's garden state

Gardens as evocative as paintings are among Britain's greatest contributions to world culture. Jonathan Jones visits a newly restored classic – and learns about time, suffering and renewal

London's air is being sucked away by the traffic on Hogarth Lane, a brutal western conduit into the capital apparently named by someone with a rich sense of irony – a characterless streak of tar named after the 18th century's most characterful painter. The reason for the incongruous moniker is Hogarth's House, once the artist's country retreat, and currently closed after fire damage.

This part of west London seems the last place you might come in search of beauty. But then you see a gateway, and escape down a sleepy, tree-lined avenue that leads to one of Britain's most influential works of art. A garden is not a sculpture, or a painting, or a sketch. In the language of 21st-century art, we might call it an installation; the older, more Wagnerian term would be a gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. Whatever your preferred term, the gardens of Chiswick House, which unite architecture, landscaping, sculpture and pictorial vistas, is the perfect place to learn about one of Britain's most original contributions to world culture: the garden as a work of art. This month, the gardens reopen to the public following an expensive restoration project.

There is more than one irony to Hogarth's association with this spot. In his day, it was odd that he chose to live next door to someone whose pretensions he mocked. Chiswick House and its garden are the creation of Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, a super-patron of the early 1700s and a man whose attempts to import chic Italian architecture into Britain are ridiculed in Hogarth's painting Marriage A-la-Mode I. Here, builders take a break from working on one of Burlington's classical buildings, while a gouty aristocrat brokers a wedding between his soppy son and a merchant's daughter – to raise cash for yet more architectural follies and poncey gardens.

The real Burlington was stupendously rich. If Hogarth satirised his taste, Burlington's friend the poet Alexander Pope praised it. "You show us Rome was glorious, not profuse," he enthused in a poem addressed to the earl. He meant that Burlington tried to impose what we might now call a minimalist sensibility on early 18th-century Britain, preaching the architecture of Andrea Palladio, a calm, elegant style. Chiswick House is not so much a home as a white pavilion, floating coolly between park and sky, built in imitation of one of Palladio's masterpieces.

Chiswick was the earl's weekend home. This was free, rural space then: all along the Thames, from here to Hampton Court, anyone who could afford it built a pleasure house on London's Riviera. Here Burlington would entertain the glitterati and educate them in his architectural ideals. When the games of cards and the lectures on the Vitruvian orders palled, ladies and gentlemen clad in floral-patterned silk could wander in his gardens. Burlington's stretch of parkland, created with his architect William Kent, became one of the most imitated in the country.

The earlier formal gardens of 17th-century Britain were in their way more "modern", more scientific, than those that followed. Gardens of the Stuart age – you can see them in tapestries and paintings, and visit examples such as the unfortunately-named Privy Garden at Hampton Court – gloried in isolation and repetition. Rows of conifers trimmed to perfect cones, lemon trees in pots, ranks of equally spaced tulips: the uniformity of such gardens had the merit of showing off individual species, in a way that suited the scientific revolution. Between the potted plants, there was space – lots of space.

At Chiswick, by contrast, the garden is not a grid: it is a landscape. A man-made waterfall sends glittering walls of water tumbling past artfully rusticated blocks of mossy stone towards the curling, riverine lake. A bridge crossing the lake's narrowest part might have been imported stone by stone from Venice. There is an obelisk, then a corridor of trees towards woodland, where terrapins sunbathe on a log raised from the still waters. Another sightline leads to a building modelled on the grottoes of Renaissance Italy.

After centuries of evolution, the new restoration makes clear the shape of Burlington's original design. An 18th-century map of the garden, on permanent display in the V&A British galleries, helps. You can see how rich the garden was with labyrinths of serpentine paths; how its statues, temples and other structures were set in natural-seeming vales and glades. Pope wrote that the originality of this garden was to be "natural", to go with the flow of the land and its climate, rather than imposing a chilly order on imprisoned flowers.

A semi-circular hedge is home to a group of Roman senators, their stone robes mouldered by time. Nearby, a bearded face tops a marble term. The classical faces emerging from foliage recall the French painter Watteau, whose misty pastoral scenes are contemporary with Chiswick. The garden's most brilliant coup is a grass amphitheatre sculpted out of a natural hollow, whose banks were carved to a circular harmony. At one side of this harmonised valley stands a temple with a little dome; at its centre is a pool crowned by an obelisk. This combination deliberately recalls the paintings of Claude, the French landscape artist beloved of British aristocrats (and of anyone who likes to daydream). Any pomposity is diffused by a stone monument close to the path: its Latin epitaph playfully commemorates a pet dog.

The poet Ian Hamilton Finlay would have liked this. His garden, Little Sparta, which has just reopened for its annual summer season, is proof that the garden can still be a work of art. Finlay followed the example of aristocrats such as Burlington in creating a landscape saturated with meaning. Buildings, statues and inscriptions turned his Scottish garden into a text, written in nature, ripe with myth and history, Apollo and Pan cavorting among stone submarines and hand grenades.

A walk through sublime vistas

Between Chiswick and Little Sparta runs a glorious history of British gardens. After Burlington, other landowners went to even greater lengths to sculpt their landscapes. At Stowe in Buckinghamshire, the classical allegories were mixed with oblique political references (a Temple of Liberty, populated by statues of Saxon gods). Stourhead in Wiltshire is another masterpiece, a walk through sublime vistas. The art of the garden came to be seen as specifically British, and it was the British who naturalised its poetry, setting it in parklands so finely tuned to the living contours of hill and lake that it is hard to tell what is nature and what is art.

On Hogarth Lane, the traffic à la mode scorns stillness. At Chiswick, the art of the garden affords visions of time slowed. It's one thing to see gardens as art. You can call cooking art, or fashion, and much else besides. But great art is more than a brilliant display. Great art is profound: it teaches us about death, suffering, time. This is where the British art of the landscape garden triumphs. When you walk the paths of Chiswick, you intuit something about permanence and renewal, time and eternity. The grasses and trees, reborn every spring; the breezes, passing in an instant; ourselves, as children climbing trees and as adults, all speak of change and action, while the garden and its architecture allude to eternal, elusive truths. It is serious, in the way a painting by Claude is serious. It's not just art – it's great art.

Menace, anger and beauty: Britain's art gardens

Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay

Increasingly recognised as one of the most important British artworks of the last half century, this is a place of poetry and history. Finlay infused it with images of violence and war – stone hand grenades, submerged submarines – to create, paradoxically, an angry garden.

Dolphinston, near Edinburgh, open Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, 2.30-5pm, until 29 September. Details:

Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman

The film-maker created something from nothing, an outsider artwork that is now his enduring monument, at a place both beautiful and menaced by the nearby power station.

Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent.

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Charles Jencks

Architectural writer Jencks, champion of postmodernism, pursued an openly new age theme in his garden of orotund earthworks and soothing lakes.

Portrack House, Dumfries and Galloway. By appointment only. Details: © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 19 2009

Travels with my brush | Gardens

Marianne North did more than many botanists to bring home to England the plant wonders of the world. And she wasn't even a gardener; she was a painter

These dark weeks of the year, when everything turns to soggy mush, can make even the most enthusiastic among us fall out of love with the garden. There's no better time, then, to rekindle a sense of wonder at the plant kingdom with a visit to Kew Gardens. Ignore those majestic glasshouses, though, for in one modest, red-brick building you'll find a botanical firework display featuring likenesses of nearly 1,000 astonishing plants – larger than life, brighter than the crown jewels, and all painted by one remarkable woman.

This is the newly restored Marianne North Gallery, which houses 833 of North's paintings, the fruits of a self-taught, middle-aged Victorian woman's travels to some of the world's most distant corners.

North loathed the British winter: from childhood, she dreamed of the tropics, her imagination fired by a bunch of exotic red flowers (Amherstia nobilis) given to her by Sir William Hooker, Kew's first director and a friend of her father. North and her father were inseparable: her mother, who died when North was 24, extracted a deathbed promise that she would never leave him, and for 39 years she remained a devoted daughter. When he died in 1869, she was finally free to marry – but she had other ideas.

Like many women of her class, North had received lessons in flower painting, but in 1867 the Australian artist Robert Dowling, while visiting for Christmas, had taught her to paint in oils. From that day, there was no stopping her. Oil painting, she declared, became a "vice, like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one". To the consternation of her family, she accepted an invitation to North America, where she planned to paint "its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance". From there, she set off for Jamaica, arriving "alone and friendless" on Christmas Eve 1871. North couldn't have been happier. She installed herself in a house in the Botanic Gardens, surrounded by orchids and palms. "I was in a state of ecstasy," she wrote in her diary, "and hardly knew what to paint first."

She was never friendless for long: "She was wealthy, well connected, but she was clearly also very good company," says her biographer, Laura Ponsonby. North also had an unerring knack for meeting people who could help her, putting her up for months at a time or passing her on to ever more exotic destinations with letters of introduction. Between 1871 and 1879, she visited America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, the Canaries, Japan, Singapore, Borneo, Java, Ceylon and India, followed, at the "royal command" of Charles Darwin, by Australia and New Zealand. Hunger, heat, humidity, filth and homicidal horses were endured with breezy fortitude; only cold really got her down, and the society of empty-headed "croqueting-badminton young ladies".

In 1881, North returned to England to prepare her paintings for her new gallery at Kew, sorting them into geographical order. Predictably, this provoked itchy feet. "All the continents of the world have some sort of representation in my gallery except Africa," she wrote, "and I resolved to begin painting there without loss of time." By the next August she was in the Cape painting proteas, followed by trips to the Seychelles and Chile, before her health finally failed and she retired, reluctantly, to Gloucestershire. She spent her remaining years writing up her travels, and died, aged 59, in 1890.

It is hard for us to appreciate the original impact of North's paintings, which would have been like images beamed from the surface of the moon. Even the eminent botanists of Kew, who would have known some plants from drawings or dried specimens, had little idea of the habitat in which they grew. North depicted not just the plant, but, for the first time, entire ecosystems. Her importance is less that she discovered plants new to science (though one genus, a tropical tree called Northea seychellana, and four species now bear her name); it is more that she expressed a modern, pioneering sense of the fragility of the plants and places she painted.

"She was ahead of her time in so many ways – in her lifestyle, in her painting style, in her ambitions as a conservationist and educator," says Ponsonby. "She wanted ordinary people to understand where plants came from." More than that, she shares with us her thrilled delight at the beauty and strangeness of plants.

• The Marianne North Gallery is open daily, 9.30am-3.45pm. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 15 2009

Anthony du Gard Pasley obituary

Garden designer, writer, teacher and lecturer

The landscape architect Anthony du Gard Pasley, who has died aged 80, was a skilled and highly respected, yet largely unnoted, designer responsible for the creation of many large private gardens in Britain, Switzerland, southern France and other parts of Europe. His control of space, combined with an extensive plant knowledge, allowed him to create significant gardens for his clients. Recognisable by his monocle and perfectly groomed moustache, which he insisted "should always turn upwards, thereby giving a pleasant countenance", he was a stickler for detail, for instance matching the colour of his potted hyacinths to the linings of the curtains at his French windows.

Anthony's grandfather was a successful inventor and engineer, his father a metallurgist. His parents lived near Sherborne, in Dorset, where Anthony grew up, although he had been born in Ealing, west London. After first sharing a governess, Anthony was educated in London, at King's College school, Wimbledon. He joined the army to complete his national service but always wanted to be a garden designer.

Through his father, and at the suggestion of the garden designer Milner White, he became a paying pupil of the landscape architect Brenda Colvin in Baker Street, central London, then for two years moved to the shared office of Colvin and Sylvia Crowe at 182 Gloucester Place. After this he moved on to the design department of the landscapers Wallace and Barr, learning for three or four years what did, and did not, work.

Although they had very little work, Colvin and Crowe then asked him back as an assistant to work mostly on gardens. The Colvin practice had such clients as the Astor family, Stowe, crematoriums in Salisbury, and schools in Hertfordshire. On retiring to her country home, Filkins, Colvin, author of the groundbreaking Land and Landscape (1947), wanted Pasley to join her, but he declined and instead became the first associate of Sylvia Crowe Associates, whose practice work was mainly on new towns, roads, power stations, and, with Michael Laurie, work for the American air force. Pasley saw Crowe's 1958 book on design principles, Garden Design, through to the publication stage, before she widened out into the realm of roads and power, and he became a member of the Institute of Landscape Architects.

By the time the Gloucester Place practice closed down in the 1960s, Pasley had built up his own clientele, working out of his home in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. He lectured at the polytechnic in Regent Street, at the Northern Polytechnic (now subsumed into London Metropolitan University), at the School of Architecture, Canterbury, and as a freelance lecturer. The garden designer and writer Susan Jellicoe encouraged him to write for Country Life, the Observer and Architectural Review.

In about 1972 he had begun teaching at the Inchbald School of Design in London with John Brookes, whom he had worked with in Gloucester Place. He continued with his own practice, bolstering up his income with writing and giving lectures, these accompanied by slides and delivered with never a superfluous word, while building up capital by decorating and selling his own houses in Tunbridge Wells. Among the gardens he designed that on occasion are open to the public are Old Place Farm, in Kent; Parsonage Farm, in West Sussex, and Pashley Manor Gardens, in East Sussex.

Pasley was on the panel of judges for the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show gardens, was an active member of the Garden History Society, and after moving to Scotland, joined the Royal Caledonian Society. In 1983, he was instrumental in helping me set up the English Gardening School based at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London.

Anthony was a very private person, always impeccably dressed, whatever the weather, in thorn-proof tweed plus-fours, cape or kilt, and with a mischievous sense of humour. The last 17 years of his life were divided between homes in Groombridge, near Tunbridge Wells, and Moffat in Scotland. His other interests were interior decoration, book collecting, architecture, opera and travel, and latterly, cruises. His books were Summer Flowers (1977) and, with me, The English Gardening School (1987).

• Anthony du Gard Pasley, garden designer, born 10 August 1929; died 2 October 2009 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 12 2009

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