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Land­scape of Dreams: The Gar­dens of Is­abel and Ju­lian Ban­ner­man Is­abel and Ju­lian Ban­ner­man (Pim­per­nel, £50)

Suit­ably idio­syn­cratic, es­o­teric and over-stuffed, this book is a highly per­sonal jour­ney through a de­sign ca­reer that be­gan at leeds cas­tle in Kent in the late 1980s, where Ju­lian and is­abel ban­ner­man were de­puted by the carver Si­mon Ver­ity to help with a tun­nel and grotto. they had met and mar­ried in Ed­in­burgh, where she was a stu­dent and he had been run­ning a cult bar. Hav­ing en­joyed the work, the pair stayed on at leeds and built their very first struc­ture to­gether: ‘a sort of wooden her­mitage clad in all sorts—an­thracite, nuts, bark, moss and sweet ch­est­nut nod­ules’.

From such begin­nings, they made a name for them­selves as imag­i­na­tive de­sign­ers who could create green-oak and other gar­den build­ings that were some­how redo­lent of 17th-cen­tury prece­dent, but never mas­quer­aded as such. they also de­vel­oped a ro­man­tic plant­ing style de­pen­dent on clas­sic plants such as lupins, pinks, fox­gloves and, above all, roses— espe­cially the noisettes. as they gained ex­pe­ri­ence, the ban­ner­mans be­gan to con­struct whole gar­dens that were palaces of rich re­pose, gar­landed with roses and peo­pled by mythic fig­ures.

their big break came at High­grove in the mid 1990s, where the Prince of Wales com­mis­sioned them to create the cel­e­brated stumpery (it tran­spires it was the Prince who thought up the name). the ban­ner­mans were ini­tially scep­ti­cal of the plan to use it to house a na­tional col­lec­tion of hostas, their ‘least favourite plant’, al­though the book claims they were par­tially con­verted.

in the two weeks of of­fi­cial mourn­ing af­ter the death of the Queen Mother, we are told, ev­ery­one work­ing at High­grove wore black arm­bands and the Prince him­self, ‘freed en­tirely… from public du­ties, was able to come and labour in the woods all day’.

High­grove led to more com­mis­sions, and the book chron­i­cles in minute (at times, per­haps too minute) de­tail the process of cre­at­ing no­table gar­dens such as those at Houghton Hall and arun­del cas­tle, as well as less suc­cess­ful projects (to my mind) such as Woolbe­d­ing and their memo­rial gar­den to bri­tish 9/11 vic­tims in new york. Even for the ban­ner­mans, over-in­dul­gence in folly and grandeur can, just oc­ca­sion­ally, shade into folie de grandeur.

char­ac­ter oozes through ev­ery pore of the book, which is so crammed with draw­ings, tiny pho­to­graphs and pen-por­traits of the peo­ple the ban­ner­mans have known and loved that it’s a lit­tle like ar­riv­ing at a packed party in full swing and try­ing to squeeze in­side. Some read­ers will feel like gate­crash­ers (or pos­si­bly the staff), but oth­ers will revel in this fan­tas­ti­cal mi­lieu of mag­nates, aris­to­crats, grotto-mak­ers, carvers, con­nois­seurs, drunks and nan­nies who morph into ar­chi­tects. the words ‘feral’ and ‘fun’ re­cur, which pos­si­bly en­cap­su­lates some­thing of their style.

as with all de­sign part­ner­ships, in the end, it’s dif­fi­cult to dis­cern who does what, ex­actly. i’m not sure even they know. Per­haps that is part of the magic. Tim Richard­son

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