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.