Sir Frederick Gibberd was an English architect, landscape designer and town planner. His design for Harlow New Town, generally regarded as the most successful of Britain’s post-WWII developments, is his greatest achievement. His garden is his most personal.
Located in Essex on the outskirts of the town he designed, the garden is little known and little visited, despite being called by BBC Gardeners’ World one of the most important post-war gardens in the country.
The garden is a highly individual creation. Full of modernist and avant-garde sculpture, art objects and architectural salvage, it is theatre as much as garden, with moods that swing from dramatic to comic, sentimental to cerebral. Rather oddly for an architect, Gibberd designed his garden without a master plan, instead placing the sculptures according to the way they felt in the space.
Undoubtedly the most dramatic feature is the scene created from columns salvaged from the old Coutts Bank on the Strand in London, which Gibberd redesigned. When I came upon the columns, I gasped. Despite knowing they were there, the effect was startlingly effective.
The garden as a whole has a melancholy air. It feels well-loved but slightly decrepit, like a stage set that has been used for more performances than anyone can remember. The atmosphere reminded me of other theatrical 18th century gardens — Rousham, for instance, or Castle Howard, albeit on a much smaller scale.
But even at its most theatrical and melancholic, touches of humour are there to be found.
The lightest touch is at the far end of the garden, where Gibberd built a moated castle, complete with drawbridge, for his grandchildren. Nearby a wide-seated swing dangles on long ropes from the branches of a tree, hinting at romantic encounters with girls as careless and hedonistic as any painted by Fragonard.
Some garden features were in place when Gibberd purchased the property in 1955. These include the formal pool and pavilion near the house …
and a strikingly dramatic line of lime trees.
Less successful in my mind is the narrow bit of lawn that takes visitors to the house. The geometry that characterized the period remains, and while it is softened by sculptures arranged like actors, this stage set feels crowded, without a central star.
The garden is divided into spaces most easily described as rooms. But they aren’t the type of rooms found at Hidcote or Sissighurst, where spaces are separated one from another by tall hedges. At the Gibberd Garden, the rooms flow and interact to create spaces that feel very different while still remaining part of an integrated whole.
Gibberd considered himself an intuitive gardener. If something worked, fine; if it didn’t, he ripped it out and tried something else. He placed sculptures more deliberately. Near the house they are arranged in clusters.
As you move away from the house, they are placed farther apart, with sight lines that offer multiple views.
Some of the best actors in the garden are the trees. They are magnificent, whether they tower over a rustic piece of art …
or stand alone …
or provide a welcome touch of colour.
The garden runs downhill to a brook that was muddy when I saw it, the result of heavy rains that fell the night before. Even so, it was another highly romantic scene, and one I was able to admire at length thanks to a well-placed bench.
Some years ago, a lawsuit threatened the future of the garden. Thanks to an appeal launched by Hugh Johnson and a successful application to the National Lottery, the garden’s future is now secure. The house and garden are Grade II listed and the house is open to the public. Restored as far as possible, the rooms are filled with much of the original 1960s Scandinavian furniture. The art that once hung on the walls, made by Gibberd’s friends and contemporaries like Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper and Elizabeth Frink, is long gone, auctioned to pay the costs incurred by the lawsuit, but the presence of the designer lingers like stale pipe smoke.
The house and garden are open on a regular basis. Both are well worth a visit.