Oh, my. Luscious.

Kiftsgate Court: A Garden Review

Kiftsgate Court is one of those English gardens included on many garden tours, in part because it is so conveniently located, just down the road from Hidcote, the iconic garden created by the Anglo-American Lawrence Johnston. The gardens at Kiftsgate were created over the last hundred years by three generations of women — grandmother, mother and daughter — each of whom made her own contribution to the garden as it is today.

Renowned for the Kiftsgate rose, the garden contains some wonderful areas and some fine plantings, with sumptuous flowers like this one that I photographed on a visit in 2012.

Oh, my. Luscious.
Oh, my. That is luscious flower power.

 

Flowers of all sorts along with rare and exotic plants enliven the garden in every season.

Asters and sedum: a nice colour contrast.
Asters and sedum: a nice colour contrast.

 

The handsome house is flanked by a four-square entry garden and terrace on one side,

 

The classic façade rears up above the entry garden.
The classic façade that rears up above the entry garden was actually brought in from a local village and erected here piece by piece.

 

and by a sunken courtyard with a white garden on the other.

 

Kiftsgate blue chairs provide a place to sit in this sunny courtyard.
Kiftsgate blue chairs match the colour of the sky on the day I took this photo.

 

 

The stand-out in this area is a gorgeous well head, carved according to the garden’s website with “bucolic activities” including harvesting, hunting and wine making.

 

Just look at detail of the carvings -- aren't they wonderful?
The lowest band of carving shows a bird piercing its own breast to feed its young. This symbol was commonly used in medieval times to suggest Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

 

Some may argue that the blue chairs and other contrasts in colour in parts of the garden are a bit strong; others will find them exactly to their taste.

 

Too much contrast or just the right amount?
What do you think — is there too much colour contrast or just the right amount? Or maybe not enough?

 

The debate about this garden isn’t limited to contrasts of colour. Much about this garden comes down to questions of taste. Some people may like the art in the garden… this curvaceous lady at the end of a long path ….

 

Thumbs up or
This sculpture of a seated woman whose lap becomes a seat is by Simon Verity. It was commissioned by Diany Binny, the second of the three generations of women who designed the garden.

 

or this motherly figure who stands beside the path to the lower garden.

 

I'm not sure I'd want to sit on those curved steps. They look a bit damp to me.
A sculpture of mother and child fits into the real life story of this garden designed and gardened by grandmother, mother and daughter.

 

Pablo Picasso is widely quoted as having said that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” The same can be said of gardeners. Inevitably, a stolen idea is transformed and becomes your own when you ‘steal’ it. This is certainly the case at Kiftsgate. Some years ago, the tennis court was converted to a water garden, using Geoffrey Jellicoe’s Jungian-inspired design  from Sutton Place in Surrey. I have no problem with that.

 

The design is calm and colours restrained -- green, white and black.
Using green, white and black only provides a strong contrast to the wide range of colours used in the rest of the garden.

 

But something significant was lost in the process. The stepping stones that cross the moat at Sutton Place carry a symbolic message — they are the first steps in an allegorical journey through time.  The steps at Kiftsgate lead to an island which goes nowhere; to get off the island you must retrace your steps.

This modification changes a meaningful element into something purely decorative. I wouldn’t necessarily quarrel with that change — the resulting design still conveys a sense of calm, reinforced by the restrained colour palette. But Sir Geoffrey’s design has been modified as well by the addition of gilded bronze leaves that stand above the water on thin rods that move in the breeze.

 

On one visit to Kiftsgate, water tinkled off the leaves into the water. Another time, the leaves were dry.
On one visit to Kiftsgate, water tinkled off the leaves into the water. Another time, the leaves were dry.

 

I greatly prefer both the clarity and originality of Jellicoe’s design and find the wobbly leaves a distraction. Others may disagree.

Opinions converge, though, when it comes to the latest addition to the garden at Kiftsgate. Everyone in the group I was with in 2018 disliked what they saw, as did everyone I spoke to in the garden at the time and later.

 

The curved benches are by Nicky Hodges.
The curved benches are by Nicky Hodges.

 

Creating the Jellicoe-inspired water garden involved removing nearly 1000 tons of soil.  That soil was then moulded into a horseshoe-shaped mound and a long allée of tulip trees was planted. But what to do with the area inside the horseshoe mound? Someone decided to fill it with grey gravel and to add a chevron pattern of coloured stones that points along the allée towards a sculpture in the distance.

 

Visitors get their first glance at the area from the mound above the benches.
Visitors walk through an orchard and climb steps on the outside of the mound. At the top, above the benches, they get their first glance at this newest addition to the garden.

Seeing this addition was a shock. Nothing about it appeals to me. The grey gravel and coloured stones feel very much out of keeping with a garden focused on colour and on rare and exotic plants. And why the potted olive trees? Combined with gravel they might be intended to suggest a Mediterranean garden but in this context they feel both extraneous and incongruous.

 

The olive trees are fine specimens but do they relate to anything in the larger garden or in this section of it?
The olive trees may be fine specimens but do they relate to anything in the larger garden or in this section of it? Or are they left-overs from someplace else?

 

I love a good allée of trees and tulip trees are a favourite. But for an allée like this one to be fully effective, the trees need to be planted on level ground, not on the side of a slope.

 

Notice the slope of the land. Not what I'd expect from this fine a garden.
The pronounced slope of the hill makes me feel off balance. I want to straighten it up!

 

I didn’t walk to the end of the allée so I can’t comment on the sculpture that is the allée’s focal point and destination. From a distance it feels insubstantial, not nearly strong enough to create the visual impact that is needed. Up close, it may be different.

 

The sculpture is by Pete Moorhouse.
I cropped a photo to show this semi-close up of the sculpture by Pete Moorhouse.

 

Somewhere I read that Diany Binny’s motto proclaimed that the “art of gardening is to notice.” I heartily agree. To notice is to admire the  ancient stone that ornaments the garden and reluctantly to accept the necessity for the artificial grass that now surrounds it, due to excessive foot traffic. To notice is to admire the self-seeded flowers whose colour contrasts so nicely with the rough stone wall…

 

The flowers shine like little light bulbs.
The yellow and orange petals shine like little light bulbs.

 

or the rosehip-like shape of a medlar, a fruit I’ve rarely seen and have never eaten.

 

These medlars are
The fruits of a medlar are hard and acidic, according to Wikipedia, but become edible after being softened by frost or if left long enough in storage. Apparently the inside is similar in taste and consistency to applesauce.

 

But to notice is also to remark on the uncomfortably harsh geometry of the chevron design. It is to acknowledge the discolouration on the white stones and the bare grass on the sides of the mound.

 

What do you think?
What do you think? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

 

It is to question whether the avenue, the mound and the sculpture are worthy of the garden as a whole.

In a world where garden critiques are far too often eschewed, I’m sticking my neck out by stating my opinion so clearly.  I welcome comments on the other side.

  • Pam/Digging

    Thumbs down from me too. Good point about planting an allee on a slope — it does look askew. And the horseshoe mounding is irregular too, for something that seems intended to be very geometric. Wouldn’t the mounded soil have been stunning planted in undulating, incandescing prairie grasses instead? BTW, do you have a link to the original garden you refer to, from which this one drew inspiration? Pam at penick.net

    • siteandinsight

      Undulations à la Maya Lin at Storm King would have been very interesting and could have included some stunning plantings.

      The Geoffrey Jellico garden was created for the wealthy American Stanley Seager. John Paul Getty was a previous owner and Edward wooed Mrs Simpson from there… so a house dating back to Tudor times with a very varied history. I believe the garden is now owned by a Russian who is doing more work in the garden but keeping it very private. I’ve tried to visit the garden but without success.

    • siteandinsight
      • Pam/Digging

        Thanks!

  • The problem, I think, is that the new developments have nothing to do with the private, domestic character of the garden but are unrelated forays into what I would call amenity landscaping or public sector installations. As such they jar badly – from the photos at least. Obviously the comparator is Hidcote which has a much larger budget but when we saw it, was keeping true to the original vision of a private garden to be lived in and shared with friends even though that is a long way in the past. It appears that Kiftsgate has lost that focus, despite remaining in private hands, and lost its way as a result. And ‘brave’ or adventurous design needs brilliant execution which also appears to be absent.

    • siteandinsight

      I think there are many reasons to criticize the gravel mound, or gravel pit. When I visited Hidcote a year ago, I was impressed by how well the National Trust is doing in keeping the garden true to itself. Some of the recent choices at Kiftsgate may be financially based, and I sympathize if that is the case. But the gravel thing really has to go!

  • Also, in my opinion at least, nothing justifies fake grass in a private garden of quality. Better instead to address the path issue to channel foot traffic.

    • siteandinsight

      A very big change would have to be made to avoid the funnel effect that has resulted in artificial grass. I can only agree that avoiding artificial grass would be VERY desirable. It jars the eyes and isn’t pleasant underfoot. And it sends a very wrong message.

  • Perhaps as Mr. Humpfries would say, “they will ride up with wear.”

    • siteandinsight

      I doubt it.

  • Charles Hawes

    I had no idea about the new area at Kiftsgate and my is that horrid! Everything about it seems wrong. The bare earth sides to the earth work, the unpleasant colours of the gravel, the weakness of the focal point at the other end. Yes the gravels will weather. But it will also accumulate debris and mould and stuff and just look messy I think because these strong delineations of the gravels will be trying to show though and will fail. I’m glad that people try to do something adventurous in their gardens which makes it even more of a shame when they don’t pull it off.

    • siteandinsight

      I’m also pleased when people try something new or different or dramatic or adventurous — anything to go beyond the expectations of the past. And I agree, it is a real pity when they attempt doesn’t work.

  • siteandinsight

    Another review of Kiftsgate, from ThinkinGardens. This review dates to July 2013, before the most recent horrible bit of ‘art’ was added. The author makes some very strong and very observant comments. Well worth reading. https://thinkingardens.co.uk/reviews/they-fell-asleep-a-review-of-kiftsgate-by-anne-wareham/?fbclid=IwAR0szEzaxrzk8dqf2mXb_AoEO7_YEpviq3HYu7OX31pBL_lTw121Af6EcBQ

  • Regarding that spot with the scarlet and pinky/purple shrubs – it’s fine with me. If there were three or four other colors, I don’t know, but a soft color combined with a strong bright one is appealing. As for that gravel area, it makes me think of bocci court or a bowling alley.

    • siteandinsight

      Bocci court is a great comparison!

      As for the colour, I remember really liking it when I saw it. Now, the contrasts feel too strong to me. I think this tells me, more than anything, that my life now demands a calmer environment.

  • James Golden

    I didn’t know about what has happened at (to?) Kiftsgate. This is terrible. When we visited Hidcote last summer, we didn’t have time to stop at Kiftsgate, fortunately. I never liked the bronze leaves in the pool either, but they aren’t nearly as bad as this recent creation. Tacky. I too admire trying to do something different, but such a shame to see failure on this Scale.

    • siteandinsight

      I agree. It’s truly a shame when people try to do something interesting and different and fail. What did you think of Hidcote?