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