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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Val Cor­bett

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

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