The award-winning designer on the perils of pandering to wealthy expats, why plants need to go where they want to grow and his hi-tech approach to successful plant combinations
Designer James Basson discusses his career, travel and the importance of using the right plants
When James Basson’s Maltese quarry garden was named Best in Show at Chelsea last year, public opinion was divided. Some argued that a glorified hole in the ground had no place at the greatest flower show on earth, while others saw it as a sublime expression of the late, great Beth Chatto’s maxim of ‘right plant, right place’.
For James, who lives in the south of France, it was a natural expression of all he holds dear in garden making. “There is no beauty in forcing a plant to grow somewhere it doesn’t want to be,” he says. “We were fortunate to get permission to show some real rarities that have not been seen outside Malta before, but many of the plants are common enough at home in the Cotè d’Azur.”
James has made an international name for himself as a champion of Mediterranean gardening with Mediterranean plants but, growing up on the rural edge of suburban Beaconsfield, he wasn’t interested in horticulture. “I was the kind of boy who escaped outdoors at every opportunity. As I got older, that developed into a passion for painting landscapes. I was never happier than when standing in a field with my easel in front of me.”
His academic achievements were limited by dyslexia, and his artistic interpretations filtered by a colour blindness that meant he saw only in tones. “I was an extremely diligent child who never made it far from the bottom of the class, however hard I tried.” Anxious to live up to his family’s expectations, he nevertheless managed to get a place reading anthropology at the University of Manchester but was soon defeated by the volume of reading the course required.
He decided to go travelling and, on the ski slopes of Courchevel, he met the woman who was to become his wife, and has been his business partner for the past 24 years. Helen was part way through a degree in languages and encouraged James to sign up for ‘something creative’. “It was all very random and last minute,” he says. “I made a list of ten possible courses. Nine of them were pure design. The tenth was garden design at the University of Greenwich.” The four-year course proved to be a turning point. “Up until then, I’d had an innate, artistic understanding of landscape. Suddenly, I started to really understand it, and the plants that made it. I became obsessed.” He graduated in 1998 with a First- class honours degree; at the top of his class for the first time in his life.
For the next two years, he and Helen worked in London for New Zealand garden designer Ross Palmer and then, in 2000, received a surprise invitation to design a community garden at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show brokered by Dan Pearson, who had seen the final degree show James presented at Greenwich. Gardens for People won an RHS Silver Gilt medal, but instead of capitalising on the opportunity, he and Helen decided to walk away. “Our dream was to make a home in the south of France. And I knew I needed more time and experience if I was going to be able to make the sort of gardens I really wanted to.”
For the next seven years, James and Helen laboured side by side digging holes, deciphering pond-pump instructions and building gardens from the ground up, while raising three young children. With family connections in the affluent expat community in Monaco, finding clients was easy. Trickier was negotiating a compromise between the garden clients asked for, and the style of garden that James felt was appropriate to the climate. “Everyone wanted a lawn with sprinklers, roses, the whole English idyll. It was a constant battle with crushed dreams and sleepless nights.” Having refined his landscaping skills, honed his plant palette and consolidated his design philosophy, James decided it was time to return to the international show circuit. He worked on Sarah Eberle’s Chelsea garden for the Principality of Monaco in 2011, and was back a year later under his own banner to win Silver Gilt with a striking small garden based on a lost valley near Nice. In 2013 James and Helen self- financed a garden called After the Fire and their artistic interpretation of nature regenerating after disaster was a tour de force that attracted the attention of the show judges, who awarded it Gold and Best in Show for its category.
These days James rarely gets asked for a lawn, and his design practice Scape aims to produce fewer gardens, but develop long-term relationships with their owners, so they can be maintained in the best way. He is also working on a computer program to develop successful plant combinations. “My father put the first computer into the London Stock Exchange, and I’ve been programming since I was a child, so I’m fascinated by the prospect of a program you can set in progress to expand and refine itself.”
It’s a hi-tech approach that seems a long way from the gentle combination of craft and artistry manifested in his gardens, but James sees no incongruity. “It’s just a different approach. People are more environmentally aware than ever, and it is an exciting time for garden designers. We are so lucky to be part of it.”
USEFUL INFORMATION Scape Design, 27 Boulevard des Moulins, 98000 Monaco. Tel +377 97 97 15 36, scapedesign.com NEXT MONTH Designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman.
EVERYONE WANTED A LAWN, ROSES, THE WHOLE ENGLISH IDYLL. IT WAS A CONSTANT BATTLE WITH CRUSHED DREAMS