A tale of two gardens

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
July 2020

Steffie Shields explores a pair of creative outdoor spaces in Welbourn.
Somehow, last summer, a fascinating London exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden’ passed me by. Late 19th and early 20th century works were assembled to reflect the influence of the garden on art. Luckily, some of the gems of this period – when interest in gardening was spreading – are available online, engagingly interspersed with a recent documentary film meandering through key artists’ gardens across Europe.

No prizes for guessing the star of the show! We glimpse the small, weeping willow-edged lake Monet created from scratch at his beloved Giverny, having bought an extra patch of land across the railway line from his house. The arc of the green wooden bridge he built continues to enchant, the dappled water below covered with hundreds of waterlilies, as a result of his experiments with cutting-edge new hybrids in exciting colours.

Little wonder his paintings, and his garden, made an impact on his famous fellow Impressionists, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Renoir, but also Emil Nolde, the first German Expressionist with colour, and Joaquín Sorolla, the Spanish artist known as a ‘Master of Light’. It is fascinating how many of these artists’ century-old gardens remain open to the public and conserved as shrines to those who changed forever how the world looked at art.

What has this to do with two gardens in Welbourn? The answer: more than we realise! Besides friendship, Stephanie and David Close at the Old House and Nina McBeath at Walnut Tree Cottage share a love for plants and the art of gardening. Observe their awareness of the impact of colour. The difference between their two gardens lies in their individual style, but also in ambiance, with hues affected by light and shade according to the time of day. A French artist who believed ‘Light is like a state of mind’, Henri Le Sidaner, chose to paint gardens at dusk for their sense of peace and mysterious silence.

Visiting the Old House, a historic Georgian farmhouse in the heart of the village that bright, sunny afternoon last July, a border of mixed white hydrangeas by the drive grabbed my attention. This was backed by mature trees, their foliage almost completely hidden under festooning clouds of pink and white rambling roses. Amongst the bold sweep of massed blooms edging a cool lawn, Stephanie and David chose a striking hydrangea, ‘Love You Kiss’ for its name; a white, lace-cap, the margins as if lightly brushed with lipstick-red poster paint.

Traditional stone balls cap the brick gate piers leading to an elegant, formal parterre by Fulbeck based garden designer Guy Petheram. His attractive pebble mosaic circles are set in amongst smooth stone paving, edged in red brick. The shape is echoed in topiary box balls, Buxus sempiverens, and Portuguese laurel trees, but also in reflective metallic balls, looking strangely contemporary dotted amongst herbaceous perennials. A calm sense of organised space prevails, centred on a smart stone seat, an invitation to pause and ponder the details of this stylish, almost minimalist garden. Set apart off the old farm courtyard, there is also an intimate, enclosed garden, a secluded ‘Hortus conclusus’.

Overall the planting palette, as was the case in 18th century gardens, is mostly restrained, a masterclass with limited species of plants: agapanthus, lavender, roses, lilies, clematis and begonias, chosen for presence, harmony of tone and smooth simplicity. Accents of white, pink and red, or lavender blue punctuate the many greens, hostas in clay pots and incidental variegated climbers, including Actinidia and clipped Euonymus. A few well-placed statues, plaques and urns add a classical, polished and refined effect.

One corner in full sunlight, a dynamic, hot perennial border is set off by typical Lincolnshire drystone walling topped with rustic pantiles. Alstroemeria ‘Orange Glory’ and ‘Inca-Coral’ pick up their warm colour. Monet would have enjoyed the invigorating clash of dark leaf dahlias, ‘Moonfire’ and ‘Lolo’, their glinting, almost black foliage flushed with purple.

As I left for Nina and Malcolm McBeath’s garden a few minutes’ walk around the corner, clouds appeared and the light was fading. Unfortunately, ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ and other amazing rambler roses draped over trees, were in shade. However, centre stage, amongst evergreen climbers over the front door of Walnut Tree Cottage, clematis ‘Niobe’ showed off masses of large star-shaped flowers. The drama of her vibrant, velvety ruby-red petals was matched by a gorgeous shrub rose nearby, ‘The Dark Lady’.

Nina has been clever with design. An intriguing, long, wooden pergola, covered with climbing roses, clematis and fuchsias, snakes through the heart of the back garden. This effectively divides the space, lending height and framing surprise vistas, making the garden seem endless, much bigger than its half-acre reality. Such a profusion and diversity of plants in every possible nook and cranny, there seem to be no boundaries. No chance to relax on one of many attractive seats, I was determined, despite the light deteriorating, to explore every inch!

Planting and heady perfume transport the imagination back over a century to the Victorian era as seen in those romantic cottage garden paintings. Suddenly a bold, modern, grey-blue metalwork installation, a towering, flowering artichoke startles one’s reverie back to the 21st century. Lavender clematis help marry this unusual sculpture into the scene, set off by clipped box balls grouped together in up-to-date fashion.

Otherwise allowing her plants to express themselves in a natural way, Nina explained: “The rest has developed in terms of what I feel and what subsequently develops.” Combining blues and pastel pinks, corals and creams very successfully, with occasional deep magenta, her garden calls to mind Emil Nolde. This German impressionist saw a garden as an intense space in which you are immersed, with a sense of rawness, texture and concentrated colour.

On reaching the rose-laden wooden gazebo, the view across the lawn is a tour de force. A flowing, tiered herbaceous border, with tall hollyhocks and delphiniums for structure, flowers of every rainbow hue set off by cool, silvery foliage curving round to warm, lime green, yellow and maroon shrubs. This balanced border would not look out of place at RHS Wisley or Kew.

Remember, keep an eye out for the next ‘showing’ of these Welbourn works of garden art. The joy of creative gardening spills over into mindfulness and life-long friendships. With enthusiastic gardeners like Stephanie and Nina in a village as attractive as Welbourn, you also find an active, welcoming gardening club, meeting regularly to share ideas, cuttings, seeds and vegetable-growing tips.

In the current ‘lockdown’, more people have become aware of just how important gardens are to our lives. Apparently, 600 new members signed up to the Royal Horticultural Society on the first day of Virtual Chelsea! Better still, let us hope we soon get back to charity open garden visits for stimulation and refreshment.

Time spent looking, whether at paintings or gardens, affects our well-being. How we perceive others’ creations helps inspire us. Occasionally we bring home new plants. Later, mulling over the experience, we might be more adventurous in our own garden space – perhaps experimenting with dahlias for a ‘dash’ of colour. Till then, I heartily recommend that thought-provoking Royal Academy exhibition online video, ‘Painting the Modern Garden’.

To watch the Royal Academy’s film, visit https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/exhibition-on-screen-documentary-painting-the-modern-garden-monet-matisse

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