Gardens of the Mind

Geoffrey Jellicoe (l) and Ben Nicholson (r) in 1975

I’ve just finished rereading Gardens of the Mind. Printed in 1992 and now out of print, it’s a measured walk through the life and works of one of the Twentieth Century’s greats and one of only two landscape architects to receive a blue plaque from English Heritage. Reading about the evolution of a great mind, it’s hard not to feel inspired to try and stand on his shoulders. Others have written how he helped establish the profession, and how far he took it on, whilst others have questioned his relevance to us today beyond the field of landscape history. You can already guess which camp I’m in and what I’ll have thought of this hagiography, so I don’t want to write a book review here, rather give  a few observations on Jellicoe’s work and his legacy for landscape architects.

The first is to note that whilst he was the first of only two landscape architects to get the blue plaque, was knighted and so on, his wife seems to be constantly marginalised: even in this book, Susan is usually referred to in passing as ‘having done the planting designs,’ and whilst Spens notes she was a good plantsman, this is normally the limit of the praise she receives. It’s hard not to feel that she was hard done by: the Jellicoes were in every sense partners, and in their immediate circle this was understood. Their most famous book together proclaims both authors equally and gives you an idea that they recognised their mutual dependance, but it rankles nonetheless. The success of landscape and garden design relies ultimately on the quality of plantsmanship: the plants are the paints that make this the greatest of arts and carry the meaning: for a team like the Jellicoes who often painted with allegories, this skill was even more important in making their work legible. For Susan!

Designing with allegories was frowned on when I was at college – I don’t know if it still is – and seen as a slightly undergraduate tool. Perhaps that’s why the Jellicoes weren’t discussed by my tutors? Imaginatively and thoughtfully done, I don’t have a problem with it, and depending on the garden’s users it can be enormously powerful – but to be successful, it needs to be planned in forensic detail so that every plant performs to tell its part of the story. But what happens when a plant dies back, sheds its leaves, or goes dormant? It made me reconsider what we now call successional planting – instead of trying to create a ‘year-round spectacle’, isn’t it better to allow a border or area of planting to be at its best at a certain time of year, time of day? And if we design a part of a garden to look its best at a certain time, how do we manage that garden when it’s not at its best?

One of the persistent themes in the book is Jellicoe’s ability to keep moving ahead of the pack: he researched and wrote the pioneering textbook on the gardens of the Italian renaissance with Jock Shepherd after graduating from the AA, developed an English modernism in the 30s at Cheddar Gorge, created ingenious classical pre-war gardens, and after the war set a template for multi-disciplinary design practices, with an office addressing town planning, architecture, landscape architecture and garden design and relentlessly pushing modernism forward to post modernism and then further forward. We read about the influence of his friendships with Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, and the importance of Paul Klee’s work on him (“it’s like electricity in my veins”) and Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious – and these have been widely written about – but what struck me was the confidence it took for clients to work with a mind like Jellicoe’s. His reputation counted of course, but for a patron such as Stanley Seeger at Sutton Place who held the excellence of historical architecture and landscape at a high premium to instruct Jellicoe demonstrates a real confidence in his own time to interrelate the past and present. Such clients are rare, and it’s little wonder that the commission was so decisive for Jellicoe.

There are few biographies of landscape architects (we tend to see carefully edited practice retrospectives), so it’s rare to see recorded the sheer quantity of abortive work that a practice carries out at every stage of the design process: we evaluate tenders, submit bids, develop feasibility studies, outline plans and detailed proposals and at every stage there’s the possibility a client will withdraw the instruction, appoint a contractor to take over, have a change of heart… And finally when the garden is built and planted, gardeners may not garden as the designer instructed. And when set beside the amount of time we spend in meetings and hitting the admin of emails and just getting on with colleagues, it’s amazing how much time we spend working on projects that don’t end up as we hope or plan. But here, Jellicoe’s failed tenders, feasibility studies and proposals are included alongside the successes – some have a whiff of hubris, others make you wish this whirlwind of insight and self-improvement had somehow been given more time.