literary landscape

Landscape meets literature

Those who follow us will know, we have long been fascinated with natures connection to the arts and a couple of weeks ago one of our directors engaged two of her passions for the natural world and the written word through an event at the Gibberd Garden in Essex. Here is what she learned.

Landscape has long been synonymous with the arts, inspiring some of the greatest paintings, sculptures and literature of all time. It is the canvas for our design work and the context of our designs and as such it is a true responsibility to shape it for future generations.

Art for me comes in the shape of language, both reading it and writing it (though I confess to be a novice at both) and I am not the first, nor will I be the last to combine literature with the natural world.

I have visited many places which were either the inspiration for or the writing place of many works of literature. From Virginia Woolf’s Sissinghurst garden to the Bloomsbury’s sets Grantchester Orchard. From the Yorkshire Moors which inspired Emily Brontë’s Wuthering heights to the compelling landscapes of the lake district which inspired many of Beatrix Potters classic tales but I had not, until now, associated the Gibberd Garden with works of literary genius.

The Gibberd Garden is an unusual place. Designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, it is very much a personal garden and in some ways one which contrasted Gibberd’s work as a master planner and leading post-war architect. His profession required meticulous planning and attention to detail, consideration of how one space would work with the next and continuity across a city.

“Harlow was one of the first and most successful of the new town projects, being both relatively uncontroversial and unusually unified and architecturally distinguished in its physical plan”. (Aldridge, 1996: 32)

His work was unusual in its day because he designed it as a whole and saw ‘connection’ as an integral part of the success of the future town. He looked at connection both in relation to the interaction of the architecture but also the landscape; how the landscape moved between the buildings and how the town related to the surrounding countryside.

His love of landscape is echoed in his garden but replacing the practical and functional rationales driving his work as a master planner, he intended his garden to be a work of art. He viewed his garden, perhaps all gardens, as places of transience. Ephemeral and subject to constant change; apparently once stating that if his garden stayed the same beyond his years, he would be most aggrieved.

From a design perspective, the garden doesn’t stick to conventional design principles and yet what it has in abundance is character, personality and joy. It has been affectionately described as ‘landscape theatre’ and for me this captures its essence. The garden was never intended to be a homage to supercilious design but a reflection of the humour and charisma of one man and his affection for the landscape.

As such, this garden is a wonderous place of inspiration for a writer. It is filled with surprises, eccentricities, history, heritage and stories; the sculptures, each a piece of history themselves and a part of both Gibberd’s and the garden’s stories.

Feeling in myself an echo of the playful nature of Sir Frederick, instinct wove me down the garden to happen upon a fort, drawbridge and peter pan-esque ‘keep out’ sign. Overlooking this mischievous scene was a swing hung from an accumbent branch of a mature beech tree which intuitively became the starting point of my literary adventure.

My literary wanderings that day spanned giant’s pipes, rambunctious sweet shops and macabre ghost stories. All inspired by the vivacious landscape and its remarkable treasures. My prose however and that of my companions was animated only on the page. Our work as landscape architects carries a different weight. Whether we are inspired by the vast landscapes of Brown and Repton or the gentle musings of an individual client, our designs affect the landscape. They enhance it or scar it, evolve it or change it for the future and sometimes forever. There is a great responsibility in that. What we do as landscape architects, as designers, is akin to art. We are inspired by the landscape and use it as our medium, our ink and our inspiration. The landscapes we create have the power to conserve, preserve, facilitate and improve. And a garden like Gibberd’s reminds us of the many delicate and overlapping functions and forms woven into our roles as landscape architects and of the emotive power of the landscape to empower, revive and to inspire.

Literary Landscape

An anthology of some of the prose inspired by the Gibberd Garden will be curated later this year and will be on sale in their shop in the next few months.

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