Category Archives: Reviews

Houghton Hall: A Garden Review

January 6th, 2019 | 8 Comments »

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.


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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.


The fading nepeta contrasts with the vibrant dahlias.
The fading nepeta contrasts with vibrant dahlias.  What do you think — are the wooden tutors a bit heavy or are their proportions a good balance for the space?


Dahlias of all types featured prominently, in this border and in another dedicated exclusively to the plant.


I really like the shape and colour of this flower.
I like the shape and colour of this flower. It almost tempts me to grow dahlias — but then I’d have to dig the tubers annually and overwinter them. Is the work worth it?


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.

The temple by Isabel and Julian Bannerman is at the far end of this long double border.
The rondel, defined by curved hedges, is halfway along the path. Barely visible in the distance is a temple designed by Isabel and Julian Bannerman.


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.


Two chairs offer a place to sit and enjoy the view.
Massive tree trunks form columns and antlers from the estate’s herd of white deer provide texture and detail in the pediment. Two chairs offer a place to sit and enjoy the view back into the garden.


A formal rose garden, well past its best before date when I visited, anchors one quadrant of the garden.


Classical statues towered above roses in the Formal Rose Garden.
Classical statues towered above what must be a splendid display in season. The curving yew hedges offered a nice contrast to the formality of the enclosed beds.


A Mediterranean garden tucked into a smaller space provided a quiet resting spot on a warm day.


Well-trimmed boxwood edged the gravel paths. There were no signs of box blight.
Well-trimmed boxwood edged the gravel paths. There were no signs of box blight.


Its central water feature also offered an interesting contrast to Jeppe Hein’s contemporary sculpture located nearby.


Waterflame is an intriguing work that combines contrasting elements, water and fire.
“Waterflame” is an intriguing work that combines the contrasting elements of water and fire.


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 'ancient worthies' touches were repeated with busts partly hidden in niches in the hedge surrounding the croquet lawn.
The ‘ancient worthies’ references found in the Bannerman temple were repeated with busts partly hidden in niches in the hedges surrounding this 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.


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This map of the property gives a sense of scale. The 5-acre Walled Garden is on the right, the wilderness area on the left. Separating them is the Hall itself and the spectacular open area that sweeps out in front of it.


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.


The Palladian
Sculptures by Damien Hirst were an irritating distraction, interfering with the classicism of the Palladian facade


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.


The grass strip echoes the width of the Hall. and is bordered on each side by a double line
The grass ‘path’ runs the width of the Hall and its colonnades before narrowing to a central  allée  flanked by a double line of  trees, trimmed to perfection.


Then walk beyond formality into a forested area, seemingly wild. There, open a gate and walk along a path lined with cloud-pruned boxwood.


The insignificant building in the background is the work by Turrell.
A winding path leads through amorphously-shaped boxwood to what seems an insignificant building in the background.


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.


Skyspace: Seldom Seem
‘Skyspace: Seldom Seen’ is a work of art by the American artist James Turrell.


Look up.


An opening in the roof focuses the view on the sky.
An opening in the roof focuses the view on the sky.


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.


Shifting shadows on the wall brought the experience closer to the ground.
Shifting shadows on the wall brought the experience closer to the ground.


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.


Another sculpture by Richard Long, titled "
This sculpture by Richard Long, titled “Full Moon Circle” is located partway down the long walk in front of the Hall.


Tucked into the woods was “Scholar Rock” by the Chinese artist Zhan Wang.


Many of Zhan Wang’s sculptures are similar to this one, large highly textured rock-like pieces coated in chrome. In Chinese culture, Scholar’s rocks are said to possess the purest form of vital energy and are often found in traditional Chinese gardens.


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.


These pieces by Damien Hirst were near the ha-ha that separates the wider grounds from those close to the Hall.
These pieces by Damien Hirst made me think of medical models with interior body parts exposed.


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.

Monuments and Memorials

November 20th, 2018 | 6 Comments »
This statue on Richmond's Monument Avenue shows Robert E. Lee astride his horse Traveller.
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


Garden Hits and Misses

September 30th, 2018 | 13 Comments »
The fountain rises 70 feet into the air. On a sunny day it is beautiful to see. It works via a remote control!
At home after three marvellous weeks visiting gardens (and  friends) in England, I find much to criticize in my garden. After many years of travelling, I've come to expect this -- and to accept that a garden in Quebec's harsh weather conditions will never resemble an English garden, with its lush foliage and flowers, topiary and ancient walls. I've also come to expect that gardens other than my own will disappoint me. On every tour I've hosted, there has always been one garden I particularly looked forward to seeing. On


Garden Centres and Garden Reviews

September 24th, 2018 | 10 Comments »
Gardening in Canada can be frustrating. The range of plants available through nurseries or garden centres is minuscule compared with the number available in England. And seeing so many wonderful cultivars that won't survive in my Quebec garden makes me envious of England's more temperate climate. Still, for anyone who loves plants, a visit to a garden centre is always a treat. The group I was hosting on my final garden tour spent a few happy hours wandering around the Burford Garden Company, an Oxfordshire-based enterprise. At this time of year


Oudolf at Pensthorpe

September 16th, 2018 | 10 Comments »
Over the last half dozen years or so,  I've visited several gardens in England designed by the Dutch plantsman, Piet Oudolf. These include Bury Court in Hampshire, Scampston Hall's Walled Garden in Yorkshire and Hauser & Wirth in Somerset. Because I've seen and enjoyed these gardens, I was eager to see Oudolf's Millennium Garden at Pensthorpe Natural Park in Norfolk. (A review of Scampston Hall's Walled Garden is here.) Pensthorpe was Oudolf's first commission in the U.K. Planted in 2000 and up-dated in 2008, the Millennium Garden is part of a larger natural reserve.


Petworth: a Landscape by Capability Brown

September 9th, 2018 | 18 Comments »
On a sunny day, what could be more agreeable than strolling through a landscape designed by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown? Earlier this week, two friends and I took advantage of the fine weather to do just this when we visited Petworth House in Sussex. The landscape there is one of the finest surviving examples of Brown's work. Walking through the 700-acre park, the surroundings appear to be totally natural, but in reality Brown shaped each part of the land with his customary flair.   [caption id="attachment_6709" align="aligncenter" width="4272"] This view from the


A Victorian Garden

June 17th, 2018 | 15 Comments »
Baptisia is growing in my garden. Seeing this combo makes me want to add some orange poppies.
Yesterday I spoke at the Colby-Curtis Museum in Stanstead, Quebec, home to the Stanstead Historical Society. The museum is a local treasure, housed in a classical revival-style villa built in 1859 called Carrollcroft.   [caption id="attachment_6429" align="aligncenter" width="5184"] The house, its gardens and adjacent stable and carriage house, tell the story of the Colby family, a prominent local family of American origin. The family donated the house and its contents to the Stanstead Historical Society in 1992. Exhibitions provide insight into the social and cultural history of the county which borders Vermont.[/caption]   The current


Malverleys: A Garden of Contrasts

November 27th, 2017 | 17 Comments »
Vivid colours appear in the hot border. Contrasts are more subtle in the cool-toned border but are still  dynamic and inventive.
Winter is almost here in Quebec, which means that not much is going on in the garden at Glen Villa. So instead of moaning about that, I'm remembering one of the gardens I visited in England last May. Malverleys is a large private estate, rarely open to the public, so the small group of gardeners who were on the tour I was hosting was fortunate to be able to visit. We were doubly fortunate to tour the garden in the company of Mat Reese, the head gardener. Anyone who subscribes to Gardens Illustrated, or


Michiko’s Garden

September 10th, 2017 | 4 Comments »
Striations in the rock suggest ripples in a stream.
Last week I visited a very special garden, where rock outcroppings enhanced with shade-loving plants create an atmosphere of deep serenity.   [caption id="attachment_5589" align="aligncenter" width="1425"] Polystichum, or Christmas fern, is found in shady woodlands throughout Quebec. Note the small patch of tiarella cordifolia, another indigenous plant, at the top of the photo.[/caption]   Developed over the last fifteen years by designer Michiko Gagnon, the garden is at the end of a cul-de-sac in Quebec's Eastern Townships, not far from the U.S. border. It's an idyllic setting, with an old farmhouse that she and


Metis International Garden Festival

August 22nd, 2017 | 6 Comments »
The optical illusion never fails to delight.
  Recently I visited the International Garden Festival at Metis, Quebec. I've attended the Festival many times since it first opened in 2000, but in previous years I've gone with adults. This year was special -- I went with two teenage granddaughters.   [caption id="attachment_5512" align="aligncenter" width="1425"] The festival gardens are adjacent to the St. Lawrence River in a part of Quebec that offers much to explore.[/caption]   Playsages, the theme for this year's Festival, was a good fit for the three of us. The word is a mash-up of languages, blending