15 June 2013

I Beg Your Pardon?

Last week I found myself at Southill Park in Bedfordshire, owned by the Whitbread family. I was there by accident, having booked a tour via the Garden Museum without realising it. And what a lovely day it was, in the presence of the divine Tom Stuart-Smith.

A gardening giant without an ego (see tall person above), he sees himself as the hired man in any design commission. The worst thing is when he is asked to 'do a Tom Stuart-Smith garden'. He brings with him a talent for drawing out a project as a fully-conceived pastoral scene, the garden settled in its landscape, a few years hence. "It's easier to figure it out as an aerial," he says. The need for computer graphics or wishy-washy watercolour blobs is completely done away with.

The beautifully rendered pencil drawings are, he explains, "like a Renaissance miniature of a future wife," to show a prince what he may be getting with the dowry. No unpleasant surprises. "The gardens usually end up as they have been drawn."

Stuart-Smith doesn't do detailed planting plans; he doesn't have someone taking minutes between designer and client. He likes to develop a conversation.

"It restores your sanity if you work with people who know what they want," he says.

We were in Bedfordshire to look at Glebe House, a dower house for the parents of the current incumbents of Southill Park. They hired Tom as a talented beginner, before he'd designed anything at Chelsea. He hasn't been back for five years.

The spaces are laid out in a very TS-S way, though there are a few surprises. A rose garden, VERY traditionally laid out in fan shaped beds, enclosed in a yew circle, raises my eyebrow.

"I guess that's not your rose garden," I suggest.
"Yes, it is."
He continues: "I love roses. Lady Whitbread wanted a rose garden so I made one.

"I've made a few," he laughs, "though I don't advertise the fact."

He also mentions that he made a rose garden for himself but as visitors to the Stuart-Smith garden* will know, the area that is called The Rose Garden is in fact anything but, having been rubbed out and re-drawn several years ago.

*Open for a Garden Museum Literary Festival on 29-30 June.