| Adrian Higgins |
WASHINGTON (WP-BLOOM) – Over a decade or so beginning in the mid-1980s, I travelled a lot to see famous gardens, most of them in England.
The touring was designed to acquaint myself with gardens regarded as important and necessary for a garden writer to know.
The only tangible reminder of those days is a box full of slides, which I don’t look at much because I know that when I do, gardens I once found genuinely thrilling now seem dated or pedestrian.
There is magic, still, in some of the images: Not so much in plant combinations, alas, but with garden elements – clean, broad stone steps of just the right proportion, or the filigreed silhouette of an iron gate.
The late Washington landscape designer Michael Bartlett was keenly aware of the elevating qualities of fine elements; he liked to create garden “rooms” that were distinct but flowed from one to the next.
In a way, his gardens belonged to an earlier age, developed with and for patrons rather than clients. He crafted spaces that were ambitiously architectural but still restrained and elegant.
I doubt he would have been a big fan of today’s hairy, ecologically driven horticulture.
“He hated ornamental grasses,” said his wife, Rose Bartlett.
Gardens come and go, along with our perceptions of them, but Michael Bartlett has left one useful legacy.
Twice a year, he and Rose would go on garden sojourns, and over a span of 30 years they visited perhaps a thousand gardens in 21 countries. They were always taking pictures of the garden bling they noticed, whether benches or dovecotes, and in time amassed approximately 10,000 slides.
He was still pondering them as he grew ill with a brain tumour. He died in 2008 at the age of 55.
Six years later, the fruits of all that work have ripened with the publication of the “Bartlett Book of Garden Elements”, co-authored by Rose Bartlett.
The reader will find about a thousand photos of such elements as paving, bridges, fences, benches, fountains and gazebos, demonstrating that design comes in many forms.
Many of the elements are not to my taste, to be sure; I find iron benches as tough on the eye as on the lower back, and if I never see another turquoise Japanese bridge framed by weeping willows over a pond with water lilies, I will somehow cope with the loss.
But there are things to covet in these pages: A sturdy but elegant wooden gate between brick piers, with open trellis work; square red bricks in a running bond pattern; the lovely clipped Linden Allee at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Herding these elements into likes and dislikes is fun, but the greater value is in understanding the breadth of design options when we put gardens together.
The Bartletts began their garden odyssey together in the 1970s. Michael would design and attend to the construction of his clients’ gardens. Rose would devise planting schemes for herb gardens and the like.
The images were used for slide talks and to show clients, but more important, the photo library became the vehicle for the couple to visit as many gardens as they could, rain or shine.
“We always considered our travels to be a form of continuing education,” said Rose Bartlett (the couple had met years before as students at the University of Pennsylvania).
As the photo library grew, the idea for a book came to the fore.
The compendium is for students, designers and just “interested gardeners”, Rose Bartlett told me. She wrote in the introduction: “It is the well-thought-out and skilfully crafted details in a garden that distinguish a mundane design from one that sparks the imagination and pleases the senses.”
Well-crafted elements “reveal the character of the garden, express the taste of its maker and add interest for the observer.”
To which I might add that beautiful elements alone don’t make a garden, they enhance it, especially if they have a unity about their materials and character.
The trick is to employ elements that don’t look ridiculously overwrought, exotic or ersatz, and they must be placed in context.
Too much of anything – decking, paving, lighting – is too much. I once visited a private sculpture garden that had 70 pieces of museum-quality artwork, including Brancusis; it was like eating a whole chocolate cake.
Travelling as the Bartletts did certainly refines the eye, and, yes, your tastes change with age and experience.
Rose Bartlett recalls that one of their last trips together took in German gardens that they would have considered absurdly ornate in their youth. “We were just really inspired by them, and although some were over the top in their Baroque extravagance, there was just an exuberance about them.”
Sometimes, they would find a garden that had seen better days. “Maybe the maintenance wasn’t that great, maybe you didn’t like certain elements of the design, but you could find a bench or a fountain. We found that if we looked hard enough, there was something unique or inspiring. We felt we could always be surprised by something.”