This spring Alexandre de Vogüé and his family will put glass into the arches on the ground floor at Vaux-le-Vicomte so that it will be possible to look directly through the house, from the courtyard on its north side into the garden. This was the effect intended by the architect Louis Le Vau when the great house, 50km southeast of Paris, was completed in 1661. The ground floor was to be an open loggia, so designed that the building would appear to float over the garden and the surrounding moats. This astonishing fusion of garden and structure has not been seen since its owner Nicolas Fouquet was imprisoned for life by Louis XIV in 1664. It is hard to imagine any event this year that will generate as much excitement about the possibilities of radical garden design, and it doesn’t matter a jot that the design was conceived some 350 years ago.
It is easy to pick out the masterpieces among old gardens and to be excited by them. Only a jaded cynic could stand at the west front of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, look out over the terrace into the park and deny that it is a great work of art. But it is a million miles from 17th-century French taste and would have been incomprehensible to Fouquet, if he could have been plucked out of his prison and brought here 100 years later, in the 1760s.
The woods and trees, the river Derwent and the bridge that crosses it, unroll like a fresco by Uccello, like a tapestry of medieval England hung out across the hills. They exist, but “ars est celare artem”, their art is in the hiding of art: the palpable existence of the trees, the water and the buildings seems to rebut the possibility of any deeper meaning or artistic intention.
The 20th-century garden of Little Sparta in the Scottish Borders offers a similarly testing experience today. In this five-acre scrap of woodland in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, Ian Hamilton Findlay and his wife Sue made a garden which was primarily a setting for his concrete poems – 290 of them at the last count. In their most perfect form these might be no more than a single word beautifully inscribed on a piece of stone and set into the garden. At their most resonant, they reflect and comment on the landscape, as well as being part of it.
Yet, after my first visit I came away with the impression that this garden was not just a mess, but an amateur mess. It flouts all the principles of garden design as I know them. It defies rhythm, harmony and order; it is chock-full with Findlay’s experiments, a junk shop of half-baked ideas.
Like the garden designer Harold Peto’s home at Iford Manor, laid out in Wiltshire around the turn of the 20th century, Little Sparta feels choked with experiments. Everything is too small and the place itself is too small, most of the poems are best appreciated on your knees. Too much effort is required to see this as interesting, let alone beautiful.
On subsequent visits I was seduced. Attracted by the enthusiasm of those who love and support Little Sparta, I began to decipher and see meaning and intelligence and an appreciation of the genius loci in the poems. There is a tombstone in the far corner, for example, with “FRAGILE” written on it. The paradox is pleasing: though the garden itself and the environment around it may be fragile, the stone on which the word is written is not, save in the sense that if hit hard enough it will shatter rather than bend. So I end up asking myself what it takes to be fragile – what is the fragility whose destiny is to be interred there?
Then I began to identify the ubiquity of the poems with the roar of the water and the tinkling of the leaves, with that flood of traffic, ideas, words, images that runs continually through the mind, the unconnected flotsam of things, among which the odd one breaks out of the current and sticks: a random assonance inscribed on a pebble, dropped by the turf path, “Curfew – curlew” – it sticks, even though it doesn’t carry any obvious meaning. And then a nearby literalism, a play on words in which the literal meaning of a phrase is juxtaposed with its common usage – a Wayfaring tree, Viburnum lantana, and two yards away, a milestone inscribed “Way Faring Tree 2 yds”, as if the tree had mischievously wandered away from the place where it was planted. The garden was coming to life in my mind.
You could say that Little Sparta brings you to the point where everything you see becomes a poem, the casual way a catkin plays across the surface of the water, the broken stems of rushes, the ivy with monkey hands spread out to clasp the tree.
It is sometimes difficult to divine where the line has been drawn between the working out of nature and human intervention, whether an effect has failed because the gardener had a cold and didn’t get the grass cut, or because it was never designed very well in the first place. So in trying to judge the quality of a garden there is a degree of uncertainty. Anything too readily understood is probably imitative: we understand it only because we’ve seen it before.
The uncertainty does not stop at Little Sparta. Every garden of every kind of design and condition makes a significant statement: Vaux, the celebration of absolute form; Chatsworth, heaven in the likeness of the natural world; Little Sparta, the sandstorm of thought. Then there is James May’s Plasticine garden at the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show: if a thing can be so eye-catching, so different, so subversive, so trying, then surely it must be good? It won (Plasticine) gold.
In September 1997 on Bredwardine Hill, above the river Wye and towards the end of the day, something came at me out of the land, and I got it. I understood the final rightness of the place, why the trees were where they were, how perfectly the road curled down to Moccas Court, where we were working at the time.
It is a truism that all gardens look good in photographs. In the right light, from the right angle, they all have their moments. But if you want to be sure that what you have is gold, you wait for that sense of rightness before you decide – and if the moment won’t come, then forget it, maybe the place isn’t good enough after all, maybe you aren’t in the mood.
To end where I started: you have to experience the exceptional every now and then to recalibrate your notion of what the exceptional is, and to remind yourself what it feels like to be in its presence. That is where Vaux-le-Vicomte comes in.
Johnny Phibbs is principal of Debois Landscape Survey Group