BOOK OF THE WEEK
TOM STUART-SMITH: DRAWN FROM THE LAND
by Tim Richardson (Thames & Hudson £50, 320pp)
What should people with good taste and a huge bank balance do once they’ve bought their mansion in London and their estate in the country?
The answer, for some of the super-rich, is to commission a garden from Tom Stuart-Smith. He rarely appears on television and generally shuns the limelight, but his naturalistic, painterly style has made him Britain’s leading garden designer and the top choice for those who want a garden which is ravishingly beautiful but neither flashy nor nouveau riche. No wonder he is a favourite of the Queen, who commissioned him to redesign the gardens at Windsor Castle.
Tim Richardson has penned a book about Britain’s leading garden designer, Tom Stuart-Smith. Pictured: Tom Stuart-Smith at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2008
Stuart-Smith grew up in Hertfordshire, in surroundings that could be straight out of a Jane Austen novel: the family home is a Queen Anne house set in a 250-acre estate ‘with walled garden, woodlands, herbaceous borders and a small park’. Stuart-Smith and his family still live on the estate, in a converted barn near the ‘big house’.
When he was a teenager, his parents gave him a chunk of the family garden and told him to do whatever he wanted with it. It was an expensive learning curve; seduced by gardening catalogues, he bought a lot of unsuitable trees and shrubs, which he then had to surreptitiously get rid of without his parents noticing.
The Stuart-Smiths were friendly with several leading garden designers, and author Tim Richardson concedes, slightly defensively, that his privileged upbringing gave him an initial leg-up in his profession. But he points out that ‘if he had been only average as a designer, Tom’s career would have faltered, just like anyone else’s’.
His major professional breakthrough came in 1998, at the relatively late age of 38, when he made his first garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, for the fashion house Chanel. Showcasing a style that was both luxurious and understated, the centrepiece was a knot garden which included the Chanel logo, and only white flowers were used, including hundreds of pure white camellias. The garden exactly captured the zeitgeist and it was, Richardson says, ‘an electrifying debut on the British garden-design scene’.
Since then Tom has won eight Chelsea gold medals, as well as three ‘best in show’ awards. He designs gardens all over the world and has recently overseen the masterplan for the huge new RHS Bridgewater garden in Salford, which opened in May. You can also see his work at Trentham in Staffordshire and at The Hepworth Wakefield gallery in Yorkshire.
Tom Stuart-Smith, who has been greatly influenced by Dutch gardening, describes his style as ‘spontaneous and disorderly’. Pictured: one of his garden designs
Drawn From The Land focuses on 24 of Stuart-Smith’s design projects, mostly in England but including ones in Morocco, Japan and India.
Gardening books tend to stand or fall by their photographs and this one earns its hefty price tag with outstandingly good images; they are so beautiful that I found myself sighing with pleasure as I leafed through them. But what can we ordinary gardeners learn from all this gorgeousness? Stuart-Smith, who describes his style as ‘spontaneous and disorderly’, has been greatly influenced by Dutch gardening, specifically the heemparks, or habitat parks, which recreate the traditional Dutch landscapes and flora fast disappearing through urbanisation.
‘Nearly all the effect was achieved by variations of form, texture and enclosure,’ Stuart-Smith says of the heemparks — a description which could equally apply to his own work, where flowers are rarely the stars of the show. Another of his major influences was Sissinghurst in Kent. Early in his career, climbing the tower and viewing Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson’s famous garden from above, he recalls that ‘how it all interconnected and related to the fields, ponds and woods around was a revelation . . . an almost out-of-body experience’.
Tom Stuart-Smith, (pictured) has revealed he is far more interested in still water than in a gushing fountain or burbling water feature
Many of Stuart-Smith’s designs look quite wild and unstructured at first glance. A photograph of the garden he made at Broughton Grange in Oxfordshire shows a tapestry of purple alliums, silvery-blue sea hollies, dark-blue salvias and pink achilleas, set off by columns of Irish yews. The whole effect is carefully controlled yet seems natural, with subtle gradations of height and colour that make the planting appear to float. Clipped evergreens are a feature of his work, along with grids of rectangular beds which, in high summer, merge to blur the boundaries of the planting.
There is usually water at the centre of his gardens, though he admits he is far more interested in still water than in a gushing fountain or burbling water feature. Ornamental grasses feature heavily, giving texture and movement to his gardens.
Clearly money is no object for most of his clients. As Tim Richardson puts it, for those who have made serious amounts of dosh in a tech start-up or a hedge fund, ‘a garden can become emblematic of this next phase of life’.
TOM STUART-SMITH: DRAWN FROM THE LAND by Tim Richardson (Thames & Hudson £50, 320pp)
At Culham in Berkshire, Stuart-Smith made a garden with a series of fountains installed for their sound alone; they automatically switch off when anyone walks by, so there’s no danger of any designer dresses being sprayed with water.
At Encombe in Dorset, the garden he created is part of an estate which boasts a private beach, a grotto and a classical temple.
Frustratingly for those of us who are nosy, the owners of these gardens aren’t named, but you get an inkling of their lifestyle from the author’s acknowledgements, where he thanks ‘the personal assistants and other staff members who facilitated my visits’. And, of course, there is no mention at all of the cost of a Tom Stuart-Smith garden — but if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.
You could make a stab at reproducing elements of his planting combinations in your own garden, yet part of Stuart-Smith’s genius is the way his gardens appear to be folded into their surroundings, and that’s something that few of us can carry off.
At the end of this beautiful book, it’s still hard to put your finger on exactly what it is that makes a Tom Stuart-Smith garden so stirring. Perhaps the secret is to acknowledge that we can never be in total control. Our role in the garden, he says, is ‘not as masters of all we survey, but as players in a greater drama’.