Lyrical, theatrical and playful, this husband and wife design team inject energy and drama into Britain’s grandest gardens
The design duo of Isabel and Julian Bannerman on their creative collaboration
For every teenage boy who loathes school, for whom GCSE maths is an insurmountable obstacle, and who bumbles out into the world with no clear idea of what to do next, travelling here and there, turning his hand to this and that – for this boy (or maybe his mother) Julian Bannerman is a shining beacon.
He has made not one successful career, but two ( his bar, Bannerman’s, was the place to see and be seen in 1980s Edinburgh). He has made influential friends: he hobnobs with dukes and princes, holidays with fashion icons, and even the haughtiest grandes dames of British horticulture have been melted by his easy charm.
And, most importantly, he got the girl. When a beautiful and talented history of art student, a decade and more his junior, walked into his bar, he fell instantly in love with her eyes the colour of an English sea, and within months she had resolved to join him in his rackety life.
Married life began at The Ivy, described by Isabel as a “capricious architectural starlet of a house”, a derelict 1727 baroque extravaganza marooned among the new housing estates of Chippenham. Here they lived on the payment they received for taking in spoil from the massive redevelopment going on around them in the town. They shaped it into mounds to hide the ugly little houses and planted a double lime avenue – clearly a higher priority than a flushing lavatory or a kitchen sink. It was their first landscaping project together. It was at The Ivy that they made two new friends who would figure large in their lives; painter and antiquarian David Vicary and writer and historian Candida Lycett Green.
Julian paints a colourful picture of Vicary, an eccentric figure living like Miss Havisham among his cobwebbed treasures, but with a connoisseur’s eye and an encyclopaedic knowledge of old houses and gardens, which he was glad to share with his eager young neighbours. “I learned so much from him,” says Julian. “He taught me how to look.”
It was for Candida Lycett Green that Julian and Isabel built their first folly – a curious summerhouse of flint and broken brick. Delighted, she showed her friends, and the Bannermans’ path in life was set. Within the year they were at work for the Rothschilds at Waddesdon Manor, restoring a lost 19th-century rock and water garden – a job that expanded into designing an award-winning office complex. Next, for the Getty family, they made a Piranesi-style ruined tunnel and a spine-tingling oaken temple in the woods (it would become a Bannerman trademark to treat green oak as if it were stone). But it was their ‘stumpery’ for HRH The Prince of Wales at Highgrove that propelled them into the limelight – a hosta garden metamorphosed into a dreamlike woodland retreat.
The Prince has described the Bannermans as the heirs of the 18th-century landscape architect William Kent. “He’s joking,” says Julian hastily. But you see what he means. They can do Kent’s theatrical opulence (as at Arundel Castle), but also his delicious lightness of touch, as in their playful circuit walk at Woolbeding in West Sussex. And they can do lyricism and romance in spades, not least in their own gardens. Over 18 years they made a fabulously atmospheric garden at Hanham Court near Bristol, the ruin that succeeded The Ivy. Then in 2012 they moved again, this time to a castle in Cornwall.
“Madness,” admits Isabel. “We were meant to be downsizing…” Already the ancient walls are swagged with her beloved old roses, and lavish scented borders have been coaxed out of the thin, shaley soil. Peonies and iris spangle the gravelled entrance court, and a phalanx of banana palms stands guard by the watchtower. This garden alone would be a full-time occupation: the energy of this pair is boundless.
“We couldn’t stop even if we wanted to,” laughs Isabel. “We haven’t got a pension.” And besides, there are still so many ideas to be explored. Just as in the 18th century, the Bannermans’ gardens are theatres of experiment. Garden buildings, Isabel points out, offer a freedom to play with architectural conceits that would never be viable on a bigger scale. But she is at pains to explain that these are but ‘divertimenti’ in a larger endeavour – creating a landscape that is not only visually, but emotionally rich – a personal Eden where people can live out their dreams.
“People think we’re just about wacky buildings, and we’re not,” says Julian, momentarily downcast. On the contrary, he dreams of making a landscape with ne’er a building in it – a deep green valley with a river rushing through it, where he would shape a waterfall with a walkway behind it, so they could stand behind the crash and thunder. Around it, they’d plant nothing but ferns. What need would there be of anything more? Except somewhere, surely, Isabel would find a spot to plant a single, swoonily scented rambling rose.
WE COULDN’T STOP EVEN IF WE WANTED TO, THERE ARE STILL SO MANY IDEAS TO BE EXPLORED