Trademarks of a master
In the first of a new series, Anna Pavord visits Folly Farm, a famed Lutyens garden where over the past eight years designer Dan Pearson has been revitalising the planting
In the first of a new series Anna Pavord looks at how Dan Pearson has revitalised one of Lutyens’ gardens with fresh, new planting schemes
Folly Farm, at Sulhamstead in Berkshire, is generally considered the best garden that the famous architect Edwin Lutyens ever designed. He was first there in 1906, to enlarge the original 17th-century farmhouse, and came back again six years later to devise a completely different Arts and Crafts style extension for its new owner. The long elegant lines that stitch the garden into such a close relationship with the house exemplify his famous saying that ‘Every garden scheme should have a backbone, a central idea beautifully phrased’. Over the past decade, the subtle, complex work that Lutyens carried out at Folly Farm has been most beautifully restored by the current owners, who then commissioned designer Dan Pearson to rethink the landscape in which the house is set and to devise new planting schemes for this important garden. The garden lies chief ly to the south and west of the much-enlarged house. One long vista stretches from the lovely two-storey bay window on the south front through a flowery parterre to end finally in an acre of walled garden. This had spent much of its past life grassed over and grazed by a herd of sheep. It is one of the areas that Dan Pearson has completely revitalised, each quarter with a different purpose. There are handsome new pergolas of oak, asparagus beds, and long borders of lavender ( Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’) around a central square, set with low benches of oak.
On the south side of the house, cleverly tucked into a corner created by the link between his two extensions, Lutyens designed a water tank surrounded on two sides by massive arched supports. These create a shady cloister walk behind, but their main purpose is to hold up the great sweep of tiled roof that became another characteristic of the Lutyens style. A ref lecting pool is another feature that has been painstakingly put back into working order. Its calm, serene surface gives no hint of the agonies of trying to persuade water to do what you want it to do.
Running south from the centre of Lutyens’ first extension, an H-shaped, faintly Dutch-looking building built of grey and pink brick, is one of the garden’s most commanding features – a long canal ending in a semicircle of superbly complicated brickwork. The bricks Lutyens favoured are narrower than usual, just two inches thick at most, and this gives his designs an intricacy that he could never have achieved using thicker, standard bricks. It was fortunate that he struck up a good relationship with the owner of the Daneshill brickworks near Basingstoke, who was prepared to produce what Lutyens wanted.
The canal is a memorable instance of the way Lutyens sought to knit house and garden together in a single, unified design. Lined up with the centre of the H, the canal lies parallel with the herringbone brick path, almost three metres wide, that is centred on the big bay window of the 1912 extension. A final parallel is formed by the long gravelled path that runs alongside the garden’s eastern boundary. Originally designated as a rhododendron walk, Dan has lined it with specially designed oak containers. In spring these feature beautiful yellow-flowered Rhododendron luteum. In late summer they hold ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas, underplanted with Asarum europaeum, Epimedium sulphureum and Cyclamen coum.
At Folly Farm you can still see many of the devices that became trademarks of Lutyens’ work: brick paths laid in a herringbone pattern, f lower beds edged with stone pavers, old roofing tiles built up to make risers for steps, the sweeping circles and semi-circles that he used to make the transition from one level of the garden to another. You can see these stylish graceful curves, for instance, in the corners of the Sunken Garden where they lead down to the pool at its centre.
The initial planting plans had been drawn up by the famous plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll (see box on page 48), who worked with Lutyens on more than a hundred gardens. It was a strange relationship, for when they first met in 1889, Lutyens was just 20, although he had already set up in a practice of his own, after the briefest of architectural apprenticeships.
Jekyll by then was 45, well established and widely admired as a painter, embroiderer and gardener. The strength of the partnership lay in their complementary skills. Lutyens believed strongly that the best houses grew out of, and were deeply rooted in, their gardens and that the two should be indivisibly knitted together. But he was not a gardener in the practical sense. He laid down the bones of a garden; Jekyll f leshed them out. But by the time the new owners took over in 2007, much of the original planting at Folly Farm had either disappeared, or been simplified. The complex, f lowery parterres had been grassed over, borders reduced in size.
Should the garden be returned to the way it looked in its Edwardian heyday? It would have been possible. The original plans still exist. Or should the new owners take the opportunity to give a new lease of life to this significant site with more contemporary planting? They took the latter course, commissioning Dan Pearson to think not only about revitalising the historic core of the garden, but also about its wider setting. He first came to Folly Farm in 2009 and the following year started on the daunting task of wrapping an outer landscape around what had previously been an intensely inward-looking place.
Jekyll was not forgotten. “We were respectful of what she had done here and of the Arts and Crafts traditions,” says Dan. “But she was a brilliant plantswoman and if she were alive today, she wouldn’t be using old varieties of plants if better ones were available.” There are echoes of her in Dan’s long lines of lavender and the chubby leaves of bergenia in the f lower parterre. Both were signature plants for Jekyll. But, triumphantly, Dan has given the garden a fresh set of clothes, invigorating it with rich swathes of eupatorium and perovskia, salvias and astrantias, interspersed with explosions of alliums and bright poppies. It is a brilliant achievement.