Year: 2017

Text commissioned by Rachel Mercer for the exhibition 'Lady's Garden' at Mercer Chance Gallery, London

Tribute to a garden

In the late 19th century her great-grandmother, once widowed, looked after the family fortune. She was a shrewd businesswoman. She bought a vineyard estate with a beautiful farmhouse, dependencies, a wine-making cellar and grounds comprising an orchard, a small wood, a large pond, and a freshwater well. She designed an elegant garden embellished with two marble fountains and a semi-circular stone fishpond, into which water poured from a roaring lion’s head. Further down the garden there was a larger pond, which was scrupulously cared for and provided a rich natural habitat. She also planted yews and wisteria, and adorned the wide terrace with a stone balustrade and, in its centre, a graceful arbour and trailing roses. The family moved in.

The girl’s grandmother died too young to make a mark. The house and grounds appeared kept in order but her husband had neither long-term vision, nor personal involvement for the property’s upkeep. The family’s affluence started its decline, and the garden lost vitality.

Years passed. By the time the girl’s mother took charge of the family house, money was sparse. She tried to see to the garden herself, trimming the yews and planting lavender bushes along the front of the house. But she was simultaneously mother, spouse and housewife, as well as accountant and secretary for her husband’s business. Crucially, spending money or effort for garden maintenance was forbidden because he, the husband, considered it a superfluous luxury. To him, the garden was worthy only as storage and parking for his agricultural tractors and lorries, and as long as the orchard yielded sustenance. Not once did mother or father walk the girl through the garden to observe, together, the ever-changing plants, to teach her about nature or to play. Instead there were many times when the little girl was angrily reprimanded for not working in the garden to gather whatever food there was to be had from the orchard, or to clear leaves.

The girl’s older sibling never appreciated the potency of the garden either, and in his time, made one bad decision after another to ‘safeguard’ the garden. First, he invited people to camp there temporarily; these were bad people who eventually left years later, after dumping masses of rubbish in the grounds, and finally throwing dubious matter all over the terrace. He then littered the grounds with old cars to make believe that several people inhabited the property. All these cars got vandalised; when one was set on fire, the ancient pine next to it went up in flames. He accepted the excavated soil from some building work nearby, planning to use it to level out areas of the garden. It made a small mountain at the edge of the garden, and was never used. Within months, the mound started to slide into the neighbour’s garden and a nasty dispute ensued.

In the meantime the grounds were also threatened by external factors. Over the last century a railway bridge was built in the vicinity, which led to the little stream flowing past the garden to overflow in the autumn; the garden then was entirely submerged by muddy water. Only the top of the yews and planes were visible. The town council made mosquito control compulsory and spread chemicals in the garden, killing all life in the back pond. The route to access the property was enlarged into a thoroughfare; when circulation became too congested, a traffic light was set up - right by the house - and the sounds of braking, of motors starting up and moving into gear, filled the garden at all hours. Intruders came at night and stole first the chickens, and later the terrace furniture. Following a private development built by the property boundary, one of the wells dried up. A heron took all the fish from the stone pond. The yews grew too high for the aging mother, and developed wildly in all directions. Without care, the trailing roses turned wild, grew sparse and finally died.

The garden had been periodically violated: attacked, drowned, poisoned, abandoned, silenced.

When very young, the girl had been a little afraid of the large, by then already wild garden. Often there were prowlers, and younger trespassers did not invite her to join their games. Once, at night, she had been woken up by a woman’s screams somewhere outside at the back.

But summer evenings were a time of magic. She would open wide her bedroom window to let in the sound of the frogs singing long into the night down by the far pond. Their loud chorus conveyed joy, life and companionship as it soothed her into sleep. But once the council had spread chemicals, there were no more frogs.

The girl grew up. The neglect and decay dismayed her. For want of nurture, for want of any discussion about its care, the garden had fallen into ruin. It seemed to embody a perverse desire for self-destruction.

The girl fled for another shore.

Vineyard estate front 1989
Vineyard estate back 1989
fig. 3