Making history visible on the land is the concept that guides the projects I undertake at Glen Villa, my landscape and garden in Quebec. Recognizing and honouring what happened on the land before I came onto the scene is my way of hearing the voices of the past. It’s my way of listening to what the land has to say.
The land speaks in different voices from different times. Glacial erratics talk about the ice age.
A wolf tree standing among younger oaks deliberately planted speaks of days when the old cherry tree was part of a different forest.
Signs of the past like these litter the landscape at Glen Villa. There are stone walls that once divided fields, and foundation walls of cottages long gone.
Largest and most impressive of the stone walls is the foundation of Glen Villa Inn, the large resort hotel that once stood on the property.
Farming left its mark at the edge of fields that used to be fenced …
… and in farm equipment abandoned in the woods.
People left their mark as well. Walking through the woods, I saw a tree growing on a huge moss-covered rock. To my eyes the tree resembled a man walking, and the image made me think of the Abenaki, the first people who had lived on the land. Every time I passed the tree, it seemed to speak, telling me to make the Abenaki’s presence visible again.
I followed its bidding. The Abenaki believe that humans were created from the ash tree so I searched for ash trees in the woods that forked in special ways. Inverted, the branches resembled people walking, as for millennia the Abenaki had done, moving between their summer and winter camps.
People’s debris told another story. I discovered pieces of china partly buried underground, and a mark on one piece confirmed what I had hoped — the burnt and broken pieces came from Glen Villa Inn, the old resort hotel. Finding a way to tell the hotel’s story took several years but eventually the china shards became part of the China Terrace, a re-creation of the hotel as it might have been in 1909 when it burned to the ground.
The more I explored the land, the clearer its voice became. In the woods, I came across a low stone wall, the remains of a building from the 1950s where maple sap had been transformed into maple syrup. This became Orin’s Sugarcamp, named to honour the farmer who worked there.
A stone wall that stood in front of the old hotel became the yin yang, an Asian symbol that marked the years our family lived in China, during the Cultural Revolution.
Deeper voices spoke of connections with a more distant past, when the Idea cast shadows on the wall and the oracle breathed fumes from a cleft in the ground.
The land continues to speak. I know it has stories still to tell, secrets it may share if I am quiet enough to hear. Listening takes patience, not an easy virtue. But if I continue to listen, who knows what I will learn.
England has many fine gardens. Houghton Hall in Norfolk is one of the finest, offering a stimulating combination of horticulture, contemporary art and history that is far too much to absorb in a single visit.
The most popular part of the garden is the five acre Walled Garden. Divided into contrasting areas, the Walled Garden contains a double-sided herbaceous border, an Italian garden, a formal rose parterre, fruit and vegetable gardens, a glasshouse, a rustic temple, antique statues, fountains and contemporary sculptures. With so many aspects, the area could feel muddled or over-crowded, but a strong geometric structure holds the disparate elements together with ease.
The long double herbaceous border wasn’t at its peak when I visited last September but it still held enough interest to elicit a wow or two.
Dahlias of all types featured prominently, in this border and in another dedicated exclusively to the plant.
The double border stretches across the entire width of the walled acreage, with a well-proportioned rondel at the mid-point to mark the intersection of the two main paths.
Drawing you down the path is the structure at the far end. A garden folly, typical of the work done by Isabel and Julian Bannerman, links the contemporary garden with the history of the property and with 18th century English garden design, when allusions to Greece and Rome connected the growing British empire with those of ancient times.
A formal rose garden, well past its best before date when I visited, anchors one quadrant of the garden.
A Mediterranean garden tucked into a smaller space provided a quiet resting spot on a warm day.
Its central water feature also offered an interesting contrast to Jeppe Hein’s contemporary sculpture located nearby.
The Marquess of Cholmondelay, owner of Houghton Hall, has installed many fine pieces of contemporary sculpture since he succeeded to the title in 1990. I saw four works by Sir Richard Long, including “Houghton Cross” which was laid out in the Walled Garden on a former croquet lawn.
The Walled Garden was impressive in its scale and variety but the high point of the garden for me was the contemporary sculpture by James Turrell. It’s hard — perhaps impossible — to capture the nature of this work in photos, because of what it is in itself, and because of how it is situated.
First, imagine leaving the Walled Garden, walking through the Stable Block and along a memorial pathway to reach the Hall itself, a Palladian masterwork built in the early 1700s for Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
Imagine turning your back to the Hall and looking out onto a long allée, a broad, grassy tree-lined walk simple in concept but enormous in scale, that dips and rises and stretches out to a distant tomorrow.
Then walk beyond formality into a forested area, seemingly wild. There, open a gate and walk along a path lined with cloud-pruned boxwood.
Follow the path to enter a simple wooden structure, cube-like, with benches along the sides. Sit down and begin to breathe. Take in the calm.
Above is the sky, nothing more. Yet so much more.
I visited Turrell’s Skyspace: Seldom Seen on a cloudy day. There was little contrast in colour as there must be in sunnier times, when the sky is blue and clouds pure white. But this did not interfere with an experience that was overwhelming in its intensity. As I sat and watched, the sky changed. I was a child, stretched out on the grass, mesmerized, watching the world shift and change, imagining whatever I wanted to see and whatever I wanted to be.
I spent a long time at Skyspace, and would have spent more, had time permitted. But there was more to see, including sculptures by Richard Long and others.
Tucked into the woods was “Scholar Rock” by the Chinese artist Zhan Wang.
I’m not a fan of Damien Hirst, probably Britain’s best paid and best-known artist, who was chosen as this year’s featured artist in Lord Cholmondeley’s program “Artlandish.” Michael Glover, art critic for the Independent, described the sculptures as “fairground-freaky, upscaled giants.” I agree. Their size, however, did work in the expansive grounds.
There was much I didn’t have time to see or appreciate at Houghton Hall — sculptures by Rachel Whiteread, Stephen Cox, Phillip King and Anya Gallaccio. (I was particularly disappointed to miss Gallaccio’s Sybil Hedge, purple beech hedges laid out in the signature of Sybil Sassoon, grandmother of the current Marquess and the woman responsible for rejuvenating the garden early in the 20th century. ) Toy soldiers aren’t my thing, but Houghton’s collection is fascinating, I’m told. And the interior of the house contains fine works of art and magnificent state rooms decorated by William Kent.
Often I want to visit a garden for a second or a third time. The range of things to see at Houghton Hall is so grand that I’d need a third, fourth or fifth visit to see and appreciate all it has to offer. I hope the opportunity arises.
We never think of them as such but they fit the definition — the Oxford dictionary calls topiary the “art or practice of clipping shrubs or trees into ornamental shapes.” And surely Christmas trees don’t grow naturally into the perfect cones commonly seen but have been pruned and clipped to shape them.
As a young gardener, I disliked topiary, thinking that it was a distortion of nature and consequently something that should be looked down upon, if not outlawed completely. But with time I’ve come to realize that all gardening distorts nature in one way or another, confining plants to borders and beds and combining them in ways never found in the wild.
I’ve also come to realize that topiary can be fun. Reviewing photos from my most recent trip to England, I offer these examples. At Rockcliffe, Emmas and Simon Keswick’s garden in the Cotswolds, the path up to a dovecote is lined with over-sized doves.
At Haseley Court, a garden originally designed by Nancy Lancaster and now the home of Fiona and Desmond Heyward, a topiary chess board covers a flat piece of lawn.
At The Old Rectory at Castle Rising, a topiary couch offers a place to sit and watch a tennis game.
England isn’t the only place where topiary can be found. In Railton, a small town in Tasmania, topiary features in many gardens.
Not surprisingly, a train is featured along Railton’s main street.
And since this is Australia, there is a kangaroo.
Animals often feature in topiary. The American garden which is tops for topiary is the Ladew Topiary Garden in Monkton, Maryland, where 100 topiary creations decorate the garden’s 22 acres.
Also at Ladew is an enormous swan, swimming happily along the top of a wavy hedge.
And at Iford Manor, near Bath, hens and chicks parade across a lawn along with squirrels and other animals I don’t remember.
Topiary dates back to the first century or even earlier and became very fashionable in England in the late 17th century. Sir Francis Bacon, one of the influential writers and critics of the period, didn’t like it much.
“As for the making of knots or figures with divers coloured earths, they be but toys; you may see as good sights many times in tarts…I for my part do not like images cut in juniper or other garden stuff; they be for children.”
A few year later, Alexander Pope went further, ridiculing the figures that might be available at the local garden centres of the day:
“Adam and Eve in yew, Adam a little shattered by the fall of the tree of knowledge in the great storm; Eve and the serpent very flourishing.”
As gardens became more ‘natural’ and less formal, topiary went out of fashion. But the Arts and Crafts gardens of the early 20th century brought it back into style.
Contemporary topiary takes many forms. It is used extensively in American and European gardens to provide structure and a sense of formality.
But it is used more imaginatively as well. The American gardener Pearl Fryer has created elaborate shapes in his South Carolina garden.
Fryer’s creations have inspired his neighbours to try their hands, and many have succeeded wonderfully.
The plants used in topiary are evergreens, mostly woody ones with small leaves or needles. They have compact or columnar growth habits and dense foliage that allows them to be shaped into a variety of forms. Commonly used are boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), arborvitae (Thuja species), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), holly (Ilex species), myrtle (Eugenia or Myrtus species), yew (Taxus species), and privet (Ligustrum species).
I could grow many of these in my cold, Quebec garden and have often thought about where and how I might use topiary. But without taking advantage of the wire cages that are now available (which seem to me somehow like cheating), I doubt I have the patience or the steady hand to create a successful form.
So for now, I’m content with the Christmas tree that hangs by the front door and another that stands outside on the deck, decorated with lights.
What about you? Do you like topiary? Does it feature in your garden or have you ever tried to create a geometric or representational form? Or like me in former days, do you think it is an abomination?
For the last eighteen months or more I’ve been working on an art installation that stretches along a 3-4 km trail at Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec. The trail moves in and out of fields and forests, and each environment has its own character.
When I started the project, the idea behind it wasn’t entirely clear. Gradually, working with the land and listening to its story, the project took shape. Time — how we think about it, experience it and represent it — was a thread connecting each installation. So several months ago the project acquired a name: Timelines.
The Past Looms Large is a section of Timelines that I hope will raise questions in the mind of anyone walking the trail. It begins with a short corrugated tin column positioned near a tall dead pine and a stump whose shape makes me think of a person drowning, with neck stretched up to the sky and mouth wide open, gasping for breath.
Applied to the base of the column are letters that not only give the name of this section but also prepare a walker for what is coming next.
Looking out from the top of a rise, walkers will see a field crossed by a mown path with tall columns on either side.
As they approach the columns, walkers are able to read the words on the bases: first Doric, then Ionic.
Anyone who studied art history will know what word to expect next: Corinthian, the name of the third type of Greek column. But we aren’t in ancient Greece, we are in today’s world, where the past is an unreliable guide to the future.
Not far in the distance, a fifth column rises above an over-sized Adirondack chair whose dimensions illustrate again how large the past still looms.
The chair, designed by the Quebec landscape architectural firm Nip Paysage, marks a turning point. The path has climbed gently across the open field; now it begins to descend towards a backdrop of tall dark trees.
The next section of Timelines is unfinished, thanks to snow that came much earlier than usual — in terms of climate, the past is increasingly unreliable as a guide to the future. Many months ago I determined that the final element in this section would be the façade of a Greek temple. The trail would go through an opening between columns, as if the walker were entering an actual temple, but the façade would stand alone. I sketched possibilities, talked to architects and designers.
Using the internet as a guide, my friend and collaborator John Hay found the image of a temple that suited our purposes. He superimposed the image onto a photo of the chosen site.
The image served as our guide. Should we have four full columns or should we include a broken one? How tall should the columns be? And finally, how could we construct the thing in the simplest way?
John made a model to scale and late in October we set to work with the help of Jacques Gosselin and Ken Kelso, without whom almost nothing at Glen Villa could be done.
The temple façade is like a billboard, a false front with construction details fully revealed.
By early November things were beginning to take shape. First two columns appeared …
… then four.
It was very cold the day we added the broken pediment and the dentils underneath. We tied the pieces in place temporarily — the clamps that will hold them securely had not arrived.
And then the snow fell.
Over the winter the upright posts will begin to rust and the black I-beams will weather, softening the harshness of their lines. In the spring we’ll make whatever changes seem right.
Paintings on rock made by indigenous people many years ago give us insights into their daily life and the events and objects they valued. (I wrote about rock paintings here.) Monuments and memorials serve a similar purpose. So what do they show about what we value today?
Traditionally monuments were erected to great men and generals who led us in war, and to those who fought and died. I grew up surrounded by this type of memorial. The statues of Confederate leaders that lined Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia left no doubt about what I was to think and feel about them. These were heroes, men to look up to, not only metaphorically but literally. Located in the middle of a street, often on a piece of ground so large that traffic had to circle around them, these statues appeared larger than life.
Some memorials constructed more recently send a similar message, and in this vein I include the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington D.C. I visited it some five years ago and wrote about it in a piece titled Washington, the Monumental City. The centrepiece of the King Memorial is an full length statue of the man, carved by Chinese artisans from a block of blindingly white Chinese granite. At the time I questioned whether the choice of material was appropriate — to present a man whose career was so intimately linked to his skin colour as glitteringly white seemed a monumental error. But one thing was consistent with the statues of Confederate generals — to see the hero, a spectator had to look up.
The memorial to Princess Diana in London’s Hyde Park is quite different. It isn’t a representation of the woman but a fountain that embodies her public persona. Water doesn’t shoot up into the sky above spectators but follows the natural slope of the land. The stream is contained by a roughly circular wall, meant to express Diana’s inclusiveness and accessibility, and that wall is bridged at irregular intervals, allowing people to cross into the inner circle and interact with the water.
Despite the controversy surrounding its design, cost and safety, the Princess Diana Fountain has proved to be very popular. Adults and children play in the water as it moves down the sloping ground , finally to come to rest in a pool that reflects the sky.
The allusive approach used in the Diana fountain reflects a shift in the design of memorials. The movement today is away from figurative sculptures and traditional symbolism to a minimalist approach that suggests instead of telling. The shift reflects the diversity of viewpoints that characterize western societies today: eternal flames, crosses and laurel wreaths no longer resonate with the entire population in the same way.
Maya Lin began the movement towards minimalism with her 1982 Vietnam War Memorial, a memorial that, in its non-didactic simplicity, is extraordinarily evocative of grief and loss. Memorials marking other tragedies have followed her lead.
I have not visited two of the best known contemporary memorials, the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. I’m told by those who have that both successfully provide places for contemplation and remembrance. Both arouse emotions without dictating what those emotions should be.
But neither memorial was built without controversy.
Some claim that minimalist designs speak only of silence. Others say they speak of nothing at all. A common element remains, however: the inclusion of the names of those being remembered. How the names are arranged differs from place to place. Sometimes they are listed alphabetically, sometimes by rank, sometimes by date of birth, sometimes by where they were at the time of death.
Names make a memorial specific to a particular time and place. More generally, words, whether carved in stone or written on plaques, provide information that will be essential in the future. Because memorials can lose their meaning, or their meaning can change. They may become controversial or irrelevant — statues of Confederate generals aren’t the only memorials being re-assessed.
Explanatory plaques don’t always remain. Statues of dictators and of men in former colonial cities once considered heroes are being taken down or looked at with new eyes. What does a memorial become once its plaque has vanished?
The memorials that touch me most are those that are spontaneous — the flowers, cards and candles that individuals put in place to mark their personal grief.
The fact that most of these memorials are not permanent adds poignancy and reflects an inescapable reality: none of us lasts forever.
Cave paintings on the island of Borneo showing animals and human hands have recently been dated back some 40,000 years, making them the oldest known example of figurative rock art in the world. (Details of the story can be found in various articles, including one here from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.)
Think for a moment about how long ago that is. Forty thousand years. It takes my breath away.
I’ve been fascinated by rock art for many years and have been fortunate to see examples in South Africa, Namibia, Australia, Chile and Peru. While the particulars of the paintings differ from country to country, the underlying impulse seems to be the same: a need to put a human mark on the world we live in.
In Australia, aboriginal art of all kinds is an expression of cultural identity and connection to country. The act of painting is generally more important than the painting itself, so older rock paintings are often covered by more recent ones.
Scientists have established a chronology of paintings showing how they have changed over millennia. Stylistic differences in Kakadu reflect changes as the climate warmed after the Ice Age, gradually producing the shrubland typical of arid Australia today.
As the environment became more productive and more food resources were available, aboriginal populations and cultural diversity increased, resulting in a wider variety of painting styles.
Paintings of animals and other food stuffs that populations depended on are found in rock art in every country where I’ve seen it. The paintings may document what existed at the time or may be a way to increase animal abundance, ensuring successful hunts.
Fish were an important source of food in Australia’s Northern Territory, and paintings that date back 20,000 years or more show the variety that existed.
Paintings depicted important events as well as sources of nourishment. In South Africa, hidden in a crevice in the earth, a painting showed a procession of women along with one young girl. An initiation rite? Quite possibly.
More recent events are also shown. Sailing ships, men dressed in European clothes, a simple Dutch-style pipe and a man on horseback attest to the arrival of Europeans in Australia and elsewhere. What could be a train is scratched into a stone wall in the Atacama desert in Chile.
Regardless of their artistic merit, these paintings draw me in emotionally in powerful ways. Whether depicting illness …
… or chronicling the dreams that underpin aboriginal relations with the land …
… the rock paintings are compelling. The images are both realistic and suggestive. They take into account the uneven surfaces of rocks and pay little or no attention to orientation based on western principles. Whether shown up or down, the power and the authenticity are the same.
One element is common to rock art in all the countries where I’ve seen it. Hand prints.
However presented, hand marks attest to a human presence and to a need to make that presence visible.
Forty thousand years ago, humans around the world were marking their place in the world. Cave paintings in Europe, France and Spain in particular, date from roughly the same period as the recently dated paintings in Borneo, give or take several thousands of years. The fact that these paintings have existed in so many places for so long underlines how important it is, and has always been, for us to depict our surroundings and the way we live.
We continue to do this, too often in ways that are neither artistically nor environmentally positive. Perhaps we should pay attention to how our ancestors imprinted themselves on the world and follow their lead.