“I have always tried to shape gardens each as a harmony linking people to nature, house to landscape, the plant to its soil. Everything that distracts from the idea of a unity must go.”
Russell Page, The Education of a Gardener, 1962
In the March 29th New York Times Style Magazine there is an announcement that London’s Garden Museum is presenting an exhibition of the work of British landscape designer Russell Page through June 21st. For the first time his notes, personal photographs and unrealized design sketches are on view, providing insight into one of the most influential horticultural talents of the 20th century who humbly described himself as, “the most famous garden designer no one has ever heard of.”
Despite his self-effacement, Page’s sole literary endeavor, The Education of a Gardener (1962), was for many years the only gardening book included in the New York Review of Book’s hand-picked classics (recently joined by Katherine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden). The Education of a Gardener is one of the best guides to designing and planting a garden ever written. I reread my dog-eared copy, the 1983 edition seen below, often.
Born in the English countryside Page cultivated a love for nature and gardening at an early age. He assisted his family in the creation of a cottage garden at their home in Wragley, outside of Lincoln, and pursued his gardening education beginning in his teens, reading books in the local library and spending school holidays on his bicycle searching for plants to create rock gardens. His first professional job, for which he was paid one pound a day, was the design of a rock garden in Rutland.
Page’s formal education was by contrast “a hardship” until he discovered a talent for drawing, painting and the study of music, painters and sculptors. This led to an interest in architecture and “the depiction of objects in space.”
After attending the Slade School of Art , University College, London, Page embarked on a series of horticultural apprenticeships and collaborations. He partnered with, among others, landscape architect Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe in England (Royal Lodge, Winsor; Great Park, Berkshire; Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire; Regent’s Park, London; planting guide for Broadway Village, Cotswolds; Charterhouse School, London) and French decorator Stéphane Boudin. Many of his projects were lifelong endeavors including Longleat House in Wiltshire where Page worked on the Capability Brown designed gardens beginning in 1932, when he was in his mid-twenties, throughout his career.
Another early project (1930) was a reorganization of Ogden Codman’s garden in France. Codman, an American architect and collaborator of Edith Wharton, possessed, according to Marina Schinz and Gabrielle van Zuylen in The Gardens of Russell Page republished in 2008, an extensive collection of garden architecture books that provided Page with an opportunity to “absorb the principles of composition and view the present world through the lens of the past.” In previous posts I wrote about The Codman Estate and gardens in Lincoln, MA and Edith Wharton’s classic book, Italian Gardens and Villas in reference to Villa Gamberaia, Florence. I enjoy thinking about the connective thread between the three and like to imagine them deep in conversation.
Page’s client list reads like a who’s who of European royalty and the rich and famous. His work includes large estates and small courtyards throughout Europe, the Middle East and South America as well as urban planning and civic initiatives in Australia, Venezuela and the United States.
One such project is San Liberato, the estate of art historian Count Sanminiatelli, located outside of Rome on Lake Bracciano. Beginning in 1964 Page, “captivated by its location and intrigued by the layers of time past” (Schinz and van Zuylen) transformed the landscape by reorienting the entrance, adding formal gardens and, in close partnership with the Count, an arboretum. Page wrote, “no garden is more magic than this one.” Created over fifty years, the San Liberato estate remains in the Sanminiatelli family and its botanic garden is preserved and used as a wedding and event venue. The plan above is from San Liberato’s website which includes images of the garden throughout the seasons.
Page also designed the Festival Gardens at Battersea Park in London and advised Lady Bird Johnson on the beautification of Washington, D.C. including unrealized plans for a National Rose Garden in West Potomac Park.
Page’s American projects, undertaken late in his career represent, in a sense, the culmination of his artistic oeuvre. According to Schinz and van Zuylen, keenly aware of the impermanence of his work in the private sector Page hoped to offset this vulnerability through his American civic projects. So strong was Page’s desire that Schinz and van Zuylen conclude their two hundred and fifty page book by noting, “The gardens he designed in the United States, especially those for the Frick Collection, the Columbus Museum of Art, and the PepsiCo sculpture park, were his final wager against the erosion of time.” It’s a wager Page may have lost as the garden at the Columbus Art Museum was destroyed in an expansion project and the fate of Page’s garden at the Frick Collection remains uncertain.
In 1973 Page accepted the commission to design a garden for the Frick Collection in New York City. The viewing garden has a classic plan with formal elements that, according to Schinz and van Zuylen, are “not strictly traditional.” Within the garden seasonal planting beds, a lawn panel edged by gravel and a rectangular pool designed to expand the perception of space, are framed by asymmetrically planted flowering trees. Page worked on the garden for ten years and its simple beauty and elegant design is considered by many a work of art that is integral to the museum’s collection and sense of place.
The garden provides a welcome oasis of greenery within the urban chaos of New York City. There is growing support to save it from demolition and recently revealed information details the commitment of the museum to maintain the garden as a permanent feature. To learn more about efforts to save the garden and lend a voice of support visit Unite to Save the Frick and The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Page’s last major work, the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens at the PepsiCo Corporation in Purchase, New York, began with a 1988 commission to transform the existing landscape, designed by E.D. Stone, Jr, into a sculpture garden. Working with Kendall, chairman and chief executive of the company, Page, although in declining health, labored nearly five years on the project spending six months a year on site and planting some 350 trees in one month alone. I visited PepsiCo in May of 1993 and scanned my slides from that visit for this post.
At PepsiCo Page deftly merged his artistic sensibilities with his horticultural knowledge using “trees as sculptures and the sculptures as flowers.” A “golden pathway” connects buildings and landscape and a series of discrete gardens showcase Page’s skill at integrating built and natural elements. These include an ornamental grass garden, a fall garden and a formal water-lily garden with a series of pools that reflect the sky. Not unlike his earlier project at San Liberato, the PepsiCo landscape includes large-scale plantings of ornamental trees and shrubs.
Just before his death, Page created a bog garden at PepsiCo, perhaps a memory of one of his earliest projects, a small stream and rock garden at Flete, completed when he was just seventeen.
Page’s gardens and landscapes are beautiful and his ability to integrate horticulture within a design framework unsurpassed. He understood and embraced formality yet infused his landscapes with the spirit of individual cultures, climates, sites and design features. He was contemplative and collaborative, undertaking projects that are both complex yet disarmingly simple. As all gardeners are aware, there is an extraordinary ephemerality to the pursuit of perfection and as Page clearly understood a sense of both loss and gratitude permeate every horticultural endeavor.
Russell Page did not have a garden of his own and offers a description of what his personal garden might be like in the concluding chapters of The Education of a Gardener. Despite the grandeur of many of his projects his wish was for a small and simple English garden without a complicated formal layout which in his words, “like all gardens it will be a world for itself and for me.”
Upon his death Page was buried in an unmarked grave on the Badminton Estate where he worked for many years. Here he is forever part of the countryside he so loved.
The Education of a Gardener: The Life & Work of Russell Page 1906-1985
Garden Museum – 25/03/15 – 21/06/15
Lambeth Palace Rd, London SE1 7LB
Tel: 020 7401 8865 | Fax: 020 7401 8869
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