Who’s who

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.


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