Robert Hill-Snook and the Royal Pavilion Gardens

Robert Hill-Snook, Head Gardener at the Royal Pavilion Brighton

Robert Hill-Snook’s passion for gardening as Head Gardener at the Royal Pavilion is matched by his passion for people. When you meet him it quickly becomes apparent that gardening is not a job but a vocation, a way of life.

I remark that I cannot imagine that there would have been any peace without answering his sense of calling and vocation to be a gardener. Robert smiles and agrees.

As we walk in the gardens people approach him to talk about their lives and how this space at the heart of a city affects and blesses their lives. The most creative and exciting things are born out of relationship. It is clear that Robert’s care for and relationship with the gardens, his professional team, volunteers and those who come here has been transformative. A friend and colleague describes Robert as an “Anima Naturaliter Christiana”, a naturally Christian soul, and his work is a natural expression of faith.

Robert explains that John Nash’s Regency designs and the Royal Head Gardener William Aiton’s planting reflected the British taste for landscape gardens and the creation of picturesque views. Nash’s restored serpentine drive and the naturalistic beds of mixed flowers and shrubs reveals a series of vignettes of the Pavilion framed by the planting.

Robert remarks “The planting is all about textures, different shades of green – not dense so you can see through. The effects change with the light throughout the day. We’ve introduced succession planting so there is always something of interest to see as we move through the seasons. But we’re late this year because of the weather. There is a wholeness to the gardens and the building bringing together the English countryside and exotic plants from China and around the world.”

The Royal Pavilion Gardens at the heart of a city

The bird song rises in an anthem amongst the beautiful Elm trees alongside the bustle and noise of the city as Robert bends to pick a weed he’s spotted. He continues “We’re still bringing nature into the town. It’s really blessed people, especially during Covid.” I am pleased to hear this. I have been concerned for people deprived of an adequate outside space during these times.

I ask Robert about his legacy as he retires after almost twenty-five years at the Pavilion. He pauses and says “Every gardener uses one’s own expression because it is a living thing. And things will continue to change. The gardens gather and it’s a beacon, a great source of well-being for people and nature.”

I comment on his remarkable achievements in the gardens. Robert with his usual humility responds by talking about the importance of his team and the volunteers. Accompanying and enabling people, his individual friendships and the chance encounters with people in the gardens are clearly very important to him. Gardens provide a wonderful place for conversation and relationship. Robert explains that these encounters are built on mutual respect.

Robert’s care for the gardens and people, his sense of servant leadership, of putting the needs of others before his own is refreshing. For a busy chap there is a rooted stillness to his spirituality which blesses him with a wholeness of life. His stewardship has blessed these precious gardens and the community of people who share them.

A Collection Inspired by The Natural World

Emma Faull – Snipe in reeds, watercolour on a gold ground

The things that we collect so often reflect our lives and interests. This is true of the collection of the connoisseur and patron, the late Frank Warren, who lived near Horsham. A gentleman, amateur naturalist and sportsman, his collection of art and his library reflect his deep love of nature and the countryside and are to be auctioned at Toovey’s.

A man of broad interests with a knowledge, care and excitement for the world in which he lived the collection reflects his outward facing, generous nature.
The paintings are from an established group of contemporary realist artists who are once again returning to the British tradition of recording the world and nature. Many of the paintings in the collection are by Michael Jevon, as well as Rodger McPhail, George Lodge and Emma Faull, artists who this private collector counted as friends. He enjoyed the quality of patronage when buying work from these contemporary, realist artists. They depict birds, wildlife, and the countryside.

Painted in watercolour on a gold ground the beautiful study of Snipe in reeds is by Emma Faull. There is an accuracy and life to her work which defines her painting. Emma works with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey and is a passionate conservationists. Her art is represented in permanent collections such as the Audubon Society in the USA and collectors of her work include HM the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Six limited edition, leather bound volumes on British sporting game birds and wildfowl, illustrated and published by Richard Robjent

The book department is one of my favourite rooms at Toovey’s; a library where the volumes are constantly changing. I catch up with Toovey’s book specialists, Charlie Howe, who is busy cataloguing and ask him about the books in the collection. He says “It’s notable to see that all these books are in very fine condition – he obviously was a genuine collector with wide and varied interests.

There’s literature and poetry, fine bindings of Shelley and Keats, all sitting alongside a strong collection of books on hunting and natural history.”
Six beautifully bound volumes in slip cases catch my eye. Charlie explains that the volumes are limited editions, bound in leather with tipped in illustrated plates by the artist and publisher, Richard Robjent. They cover all the sporting game birds and wildfowl of the British Isles and were published by Fine Sporting Interests. The volume ‘The Partridge – Studies in Words and Pictures’ includes a foreword by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.

Charlie continues “Frank had a keen interest in travel too. There’s a first edition of Bruce Chatwin’s ‘In Patagonia’, as well as a scarce first printing of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘A Time to keep silence’. There are many other rare volumes.

Estimates range from under £100 to the low thousands. This beautiful collection reflecting the interests of a country gentleman and connoisseur will be auctioned in Toovey’s Fine Art sale on Wednesday 23rd June and the Antiquarian and Collectors Books sale on Wednesday 21st July 2021.

Stewardship and Renewal in the Gardens at Parham

Lady Emma and James Barnard in the greenhouse at Parham

This week I am returning to Parham to meet Lady Emma and her husband James Barnard as they embark on a major restoration of their celebrated walled gardens at Parham.

The history of the garden has only been recorded since the 1920s when Lady Emma’s great-grandparents came to Parham.

James is keen to show me a series of old framed sketches and plans for the clematis in the gardens drawn by Lady Emma’s great aunt, Mrs Tritton, during her time at Parham. He remarks “Amongst my most striking memories of my first encounter with the gardens at Parham were the clematis.” He continues enthusiastically “Gardens have to change and evolve to have life. We are so glad that Andrew Humphris has joined us as Head Gardener with his wife Jo. Collaborating with them and the garden team on this restoration is very exciting.”

We find Andrew working in the borders and I ask him how it is going. He replies “Well, we’ve had the rain, it will all take off as soon as the sun comes.”
Lady Emma says “The gardens here have been worked for hundreds of years. Our only ‘rule’ has been to work with and not against this ancient place sensitively accepting and preserving its spirit.” Andrew agrees “We’re enhancing what is a fantastic place already.”

I remark that we are a processional people – that we have an ability to confidently embrace change and the new but always with one eye fixed on the past. Lady Emma responds “It’s so nice that long process with a generosity of spirit, like the changing seasons. I love the changing seasons in the garden, there is always something to look forward to whether it’s the spring tulips or the seed heads in winter.”

Parham’s Head Gardener, Andrew Humphris, and his team working on the restoration of the gardens

To me this bodes well. Parham has always given voice to our nation’s quintessential celebration and passion for gardening. All gardens, like nature and the seasons, have a cycle to them and evolve. There is a real sense of renewal, a gardening renaissance at Parham as the restoration gets underway.
At the heart of the generous and outward facing spirit which pervades all that Parham does are Lady Emma and her husband James who, together with their sons, bring such life and vitality to this timeless place. The family’s long-term, generous stewardship blesses us all.

The 18th century garden walls, the paths and borders still enfold you against the backdrop of the house and Sussex Downs. We are all in need of a fresh horizon and a generous place to gather us as we begin to meet and walk in conversation with friends and loved ones. Parham, with its new, delicious Naked Food Company café, is the perfect place for a day’s holiday! Visit www.parhaminsussex.co.uk to book your visit to the gardens.

Restoration and Renewal at Parham

Parham’s Head Gardener, Andrew Humphris in the greenhouse

In the first of two articles I am returning to Parham visiting Lady Emma and her husband James Barnard as they embark on a major restoration of their celebrated walled gardens at Parham.

It is some 28 years since Lady Emma and James came to Parham with their young family. Their time here has been marked by renewal and long-term stewardship in this ancient, processional place.

Emma explains “My great-grandparents, Clive and Alicia Pearson, fell in love with Parham as soon as they saw it. The house was in a poor state when they bought it in 1922.”

Lady Emma and James have a similar sense of long-term stewardship and the importance of ongoing renewal so I am excited to hear about the plans for the restoration of the walled gardens as we set off to find their recently appointed Head Gardener, Andrew Humphris.

I ask Andrew how he is settling in to his new role at Parham and the ongoing restoration of the gardens, he replies “This place is just fantastic there is so much potential. Restoring and maintaining a garden has to be a collaborative thing otherwise it never works. It needs a long-term relationship with the garden and the family.” He turns to Lady Emma and James and says “I want to make it special for you – and the team.”

Parham’s gardens in the crisp spring weather

There is a generosity, humility and rootedness apparent in the way Andrew speaks about a lifetime in horticulture, accompanying and following in his father’s footsteps with his wife, Jo.

I ask Andrew how he would describe himself, a horticulturalist or a garden designer perhaps. He pauses, smiles and replies “I’m a gardener.”
Andrew begins to speak about his work “In the garden I’m thinking about what I’m doing [and] in the moment inspiration comes at unexpected times. There has to be a whole to it but the detail matters, lifting a plant to weed – a love for a plant.” He continues “It’s important to pass things on too. You have to keep momentum, constantly being critical to keep it going forward and fresh.”

I comment on how Parham is famous for its borders and Andrew says “I love border colours” reflecting wryly he continues “striving for perfection in a border though with the weather and variables – still it’s the aim.”

The garden is full of activity and a sense of renewal as the garden team is clearing borders to deal with the bind weed. Other newly planted areas like the white border provide hopeful windows onto the future of this beautiful place. It is exciting to see the restoration in process.

Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning to an old friend, as I often do, Parham never fails to delight with its gardens and sense of history. Check out Parham’s new website www.parhaminsussex.co.uk and book your visit to the gardens.

Perfection in the Imperfection, the New Minimalism

A good Queen Anne walnut bureau with overall feather banding and double-reeded mouldings © Toovey’s 2021

By the time of Queen Anne’s (1685-1714) accession to the British throne in 1702 the Dutch influence on furniture design had been fully assimilated and English furniture set off on its own course of development. The Queen Anne style would influence tastes in Europe and America. Queen Anne was the last of the Stuarts. The second daughter of James II by his first wife Anne Hyde. She was brought up as a protestant and has been described as shy, conscientious, homely and small.

The needlework panel of the period is filled with metaphors. Anne is depicted standing in a garden wearing a crown whilst holding a sceptre and an orb as symbols of her office. In the Bible gardens are places of divine encounter, sustenance, beauty and shelter, qualities which are being attributed to the Queen. The cherubim symbolise the glory, majesty, power, and divine protection of the Queen. The cherubim are also present to inspire fear, reverence, respect and awe towards her as they remind the viewer that God himself is the King of kings.

A Queen Anne needlework panel, depicting the Queen and an attendant standing in a garden © Toovey’s 2021
A Queen Anne needlework panel, depicting the Queen and an attendant standing in a garden © Toovey’s 2021

Provincial Queen Anne furniture is designed and adapted to fit the needs and comfort of the human form. For example chairs became lower with serpentine splats to mirror the backs of the sitter. Case furniture too became more graceful and delicate. Hand cut walnut veneers and solid mahogany became popular.
There is a delight to be found in the hand cut veneers of the Queen Anne bureau illustrated. As you open it the fall flap hinges downwards to form a writing surface. It reveals pigeonholes, drawers, a cupboard and secret compartments. The sloping sides gather you as you sit at it whether reading, working or just taking time to imagine.

Light seems to dance on its surface, reflected softly with an extraordinary depth and richness. The marks of life and age add to the sense of joy. It is part of our human purpose to make beauty in the world and it is surely right that we should celebrate it.

It is the subtle, imperceptible undulations of the hand cut veneer which causes this exquisite, generous effect. And it contrasts with later machine made pieces where the surface is perfect but hard to the eye lacking life. Here then is the perfect example of an often forgotten truth – that there is perfection in the imperfection of our lives.

These two exceptional Queen Anne pieces sold at Toovey’s for £3000 and £2200 respectively. However, apart from the finest pieces good quality 18th century English furniture has never been such wonderful value. You can buy Georgian dining tables, chairs, chests of drawers and bureaus for a few hundred pounds. These pieces allow you to have rich, comfortable, eclectic interiors in the English Country House taste whilst making no demands on our world’s finite and precious resources. Young people in their 20s and 30s are actively buying these pieces calling it the New Minimalism. They intuitively understand that there is perfection in the imperfection of a handmade object which perhaps is a hopeful metaphor for us as people too.