The fine art of placement
Hamblyn’s Coombe, Dittisham, Devon Tim Longville is guided through the hillside garden of sculptor Bridget Mccrum and learns from her the dos and don’ts of creating a suitable setting for outdoor art
Tim Longville is guided through the sculptor’s garden at Hamblyn’s Coombe, Devon, and learns the dos and don’ts of creating a suitable setting for outdoor art
When the late Robert Mccrum left the navy in the 1970s, he worked at first in London. After a few years, however, he and his wife, the sculptor Bridget Mccrum, felt the need for a more permanent base on land, for which they had clear specifications in mind: it had to be near water and have enough land to allow Capt Mccrum to give full rein at last to his passion for plants. It also had to be quiet and isolated enough for his wife to work undisturbed on her sculptures.
hamblyn’s Coombe, a 19th-century woodman’s cottage with later extensions, a mile or more outside the village of Dittisham on the River Dart in south Devon, ticked and doubleticked all those boxes. Its seven acres are perched high on the steep wooded slopes rising from the broad reaches of the river below and can only be reached by a daunting road-cum-track running along the fringes of a wood. There were also outbuildings easily converted into Bridget’s studio.
From the beginning, garden-making and sculpture-making (and placing) went hand in hand. The result is often described as a sculpture garden, but that suggests that the sculpture is, as it were, the dominating soloist, the garden the mere accompanist, but that isn’t—and was never meant to be —the case. Instead, this is a collaboration of two equal partners, just as, in making it, the Mccrums collaborated on the planting and even on the placing of the sculptures.
Bridget explains their method: ‘Robert would develop a passion for a group of plants—acers, say, or cornus or hydrangeas—and would collect rare examples of each. Then, I would block-plant between his rarities.’ Smiling, she adds: ‘not that I would ever claim to be an expert in the way that he was. When people come round the garden now, I ask them what my plants are!’
From the beginning, they had clear ideas about the sorts of plants they
wanted—and the sorts they didn’t. ‘The plants here have to fit in with this remarkable landscape. And some don’t: they just look too suburban.’ Others, they thought, just looked too cultivated, so there are no cultivated forms of herbaceous plants here, only wild examples of plants such as ferns, epimediums and rodgersias, used in dense, large-scale, groundcover plantings.
Their ideas about colours were equally well defined. ‘We made it a rule that we would include no harsh yellows, bright oranges, shocking pinks or puces.’ Red, however, was approved of, as evidenced by a spectacular group of vividly red-flowered Embothrium
coccineum, which was a reminder of Corot’s comment that one splash of red can light up a whole scene.
Even when they knew exactly what they wanted to plant, growing it here was never easy. ‘There’s so little of our acid soil and so much shillet [shale] in and under what little we’ve got that most of the planting was done with a pickaxe.’ However, they were determined to work with what they already had, rather than importing soil from elsewhere.
They worked with what they’d got in other ways, too. ‘Right from the beginning we allowed—indeed, encouraged—the wildflowers, which wasn’t usual in 1984.’
By and large, they also kept the natural contours of the landscape, modifying the slope as little as possible, which involved creating a network of paths snaking to and fro across it, sometimes through dense plantings of trees and shrubs, sometimes through open glades of long
‘When people come round the garden now, I ask them what my plants are
grass filled with those encouraged wildflowers. That inevitably means the paths can be ferociously steep in places, particularly in the lower reaches of the garden, down towards the little bay known as Parson’s Mud.
As for the placing of the sculptures, there was nothing pre-determined about it. That is, there were no spaces reserved for specific works. Usually, the planting came first and then ‘you just had to find the right place for the right piece. If a sculpture isn’t positioned perfectly, it looks terrible’. The right place meant somewhere that ‘gave a piece scale’, with trees and shrubs around it of a similar size. Sometimes, those had a similar shape and texture, sometimes they had deliberately contrasting ones.
A good example is a massive, blocky sculpture, based on the shape of a temple from 3500BC on Gozo, where Bridget has another house, which is placed among feathery tree ferns and the solid bulk of Rhodo
dendron macabeanum. (‘I bought the tree ferns as a present for Robert, out of the proceeds of a successful sculpture exhibition.’)
The placing of that particular sculpture is also a good example of the fact that even her biggest pieces aren’t necessarily placed in obviously eye-catching positions. Often, the sculptures have to be found as much as the places for them had to be found.
As the planting wasn’t just designed to be sympathetic to Bridget’s sculptures, but was also designed to be sympathetic to the landscape, the planting, although intended to look ‘natural’, was positioned and sometimes shaped with a good deal of thought and care.
Good examples are the mini-grove of white birches down by the river and the rounded hedges and box mounds that help define the miniature compartments of the relatively flat area immediately to the west of the house, where the curved shapes were designed to echo the meanders of the river and the rounded tops of the surrounding hills.
Bridget is also keen to point out that, although this is a garden created out of a clear set of aesthetic ideas, it had no overall plan. ‘We knew the way we wanted it to look, but we didn’t try to impose all our ideas on it at once. We allowed it to develop over time, at its own pace.’
The irony, as she wryly points out, is that, nowadays, she and her devoted part-time helper, who’s been here for 25 years or more, spend most of their time thinking about necessary thinning out rather than about new plantings.
The garden at Hamblyn’s Coombe, Dittisham, Devon (mccrum.sculpt @waitrose.com), opens for visitors between March and November by arrangement. Bridget Mccrum’s work can currently be seen at Messums Fine Art (www.messums. com) and at Messums Wiltshire (http://messumswiltshire.com), where she will have a show of new work from July 15 to August 2
‘on We didn’t try to impose our ideas it at once. We allowed it to develop over time, at its own pace’
Preceding pages: The sculpture Hunting Bird tucked away beneath the foliage of the Cercidiphyllum and beside the Magnolia stellata
Cycladic Dove Bowl: a quintet apparently admiring their own reflections, on the main lawned area
When does landscape become garden? Big Bird stands just above the bay called Parson’s Mud
The view along the two hedged compartments from the bank above them. The sculpture in the distant right-hand corner of the grassed compartment is Tower III by Simon Percival
Above: A glimpse of Agatha Christie’s Greenway across the river. Right: Bridget Mccrum at work