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.

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.

In an English Country Garden

Alfred William Parsons (1847-1929) – Garden Scene with Figure and Dogs, early 20th century oil on canvas, signed recto

Like so many of us I was blessed to spend the weekend in my English Country Garden. The purple Alliums that line the borders have been joined by brilliant orange Geums and an array of abundant, scented Roses whose colours and texture soothes the heart. They are complimented by violet Geraniums and the blue of the Salvia, their hues evolving in the light and heat of the day. As you process up the gravel path between the beds on either side the plants enfold and hold you.

It has once again caused me to reflect on how it must been for those who do not have a garden or access to a green space during the Covid-19 lockdown. I hope they will be blessed by the easing of restrictions with good social distancing allowing them to see some loved ones and keep safe.

Being in my garden brings to mind a Garden Scene we sold recently at Toovey’s for £2000. It was painted by Alfred William Parsons (1847-1920) in the early 20th century. Parsons was a Royal Academician. A very English artist, he worked as an illustrator, landscape artist and garden designer. He was recognised for giving voice to an ‘Englishness’ in his work which resonated with the American imagination.

Alfred Parsons brought art to the garden and his designs. He would produce ‘portraits’ of gardens and precise illustrations of botanical specimens. Parsons worked with the famous gardener, William Robinson, on several books. Alfred Parsons would design gardens in Britain and the United States. His transatlantic connections were strengthened through his membership of the Anglo-American ‘Broadway Group’. It was made up of artists and writers that included the author Henry James and artist John Singer Sargent. Broadway in the Cotswolds drew composers too, like Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The painting, Garden Scene, depicts that moment where spring turns to summer.

A black terrier lies panting, cooling herself on the stone flags beneath the scented Jasmine. The striking blue Agapanthus line the path and invite us into the scene as a young woman, carrying a wicker basket, catches the attention of a Jack Russell with a treat. At the back of the border a climbing rose holds our eye.

I am excited by how strong the demand is for a wide range of collectors’ items, antiques and art like this Alfred Parsons oil at the moment, and by the number of people booking appointments for auction valuations.

The Bank Holiday at Borde Hill

The vibrant Mid-Summer Border at Borde Hill Garden
The vibrant Mid-Summer Border at Borde Hill Garden

This week I am returning to Borde Hill Garden near Haywards Heath to enjoy the vibrant summer borders and the 20th Anniversary Sculpture Exhibition. I am met by Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke whose great grandfather purchased the house in 1893 and created the now Grade II* listed gardens and important plant collections.

Andrewjohn says “Borde Hill has always been an experimental garden to try new plants. The first of these were brought back by plant hunters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

This spirit of adventure is alive and well under the stewardship of Andrewjohn and his wife Eleni. This is apparent in the Round Dell garden. Its contemporary design has at its centre a thin, tapering path defined by low concrete walls which leads you through the rich foliage and planting. Amongst these are a number of exciting new specimens found by contemporary plan hunters, including varieties of Schefflera, and unusual evergreens like Daphniphyllum macropodum.

I love the strong summer colours at Borde Hill. The Mid-Summer Border, just off the South lawn, delights with its vibrant coloured perennials, grasses and shrubs.
The garden reveals itself as a series of rooms. The sculptures compliment the planting and vistas allowing us to see the garden in new ways.

Devon based artist Zoe Singleton’s sculpture ‘The Turning Tide’ carved from Kilkenny Fossil Stone at Borde Hill
Devon based artist Zoe Singleton’s sculpture ‘The Turning Tide’ carved from Kilkenny Fossil Stone at Borde Hill

My eye is taken by a sculpture by the Devon based artist, Zoe Singleton who works predominately in stone natural to the British Isles. It is titled ‘The Turning Tide’ and is carved from Kilkenny Fossil Stone. It sits dramatically on its Larch plinth against the backdrop of Borde Hill’s 200 acres of parkland and woodland. The rhythm and movement of the shoal of fish seems to be echoed in the landscape.

Writing about her work Zoe has said ‘My work is frequently described as “poetic and lyrical”, garden sculpture being inspired by my love of gardening as well as the dramatic coastline of the South West and the rugged geology of Dartmoor which has a continued presence in my work.’ Her words resonate with Borde Hill Garden.

The lives of Andrewjohn and Eleni Stephenson Clarke are bound to this place and the garden in a very personal way. Their forward looking stewardship ensures that the past is valued and preserved but that the garden is constantly evolving and changing in a very contemporary way.

Why not enjoy the art and this beautiful garden in the company of family and friends this coming August Bank Holiday weekend. There is plenty for children to enjoy including an adventure playground. The 20th Anniversary Sculpture Exhibition runs until the 30th September. For more information on opening times and forthcoming events go to www.bordehill.co.uk or telephone 01444 450326.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Clinton Lodge Gardens

The Rose Garden at Clinton Lodge Gardens

This week I am joining the Sussex Heritage Trust at Fletching to celebrate Clinton Lodge Gardens where we are the guests of the garden’s creator and owner, Lady Noel Collum.

As we gather on the terrace between the showers Lady Collum greets us framed by the lawns, architectural hornbeams and the parkland beyond. Lady Collum is delighted as the Chairman of the Sussex Heritage Trust, Dr John Godfrey, thanks her and quotes some lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Glory of the Garden:

“Our England is a garden that is full of stately views
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye…
Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing: “Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade…”

Simon Knight and John Godfrey of the Sussex Heritage Trust with Lady Collum
Simon Knight and John Godfrey of the Sussex Heritage Trust with Lady Collum

Lady Collum explains how the garden happened slowly drawing inspiration from the house with its Caroline stonework and George III brick extension. She says “I set out to connect the garden to the house. I really wanted it to be peaceful – being peaceful was absolutely essential. I read a lot about garden designers like Russell Page and my sense of proportion and composition was influenced by looking at paintings, especially of the period of the house, whilst I was with Christies.”

The house and the gardens are very at ease with themselves reflecting a gentle elegance and understated grandeur. The formal garden is made up of a series of garden rooms each complete in its own right. The paths gather and lead us revealing each garden in turn.

Lady Collum observes “You should always go through a supported garden with borders on both sides – double borders support you in that way.”

I comment on the playful sense of theatre in the garden and her remarkable planting with swathes of colour. She responds “Formality with exuberance – rather like at Sissinghurst! I control the colours more as I’ve got older as it’s more relaxing – I think it’s important not to find ‘clever’ shocking [contrasts in] palette. It’s also frightfully important that the plants are happy.”

We arrive in a walled garden filled with abundant, old varieties of scented roses, including Chapeau de Napolean, Empress Josephine, and Compte de Chambord. The roses grow tall and are reflected in William Pye’s remarkable water feature. Lady Collum says “If you’re walking with a nice companion it’s lovely not to have to bend to enjoy the scent.”

I remark on the softness, gentleness and movement which pervades the garden. It has a sensory quality. Lady Collum responds “I did want it to have movement, the fluttering of the lime leaves and a sympathetic texture – I like to be able to stroke the plants. It has taken time.”

Lady Collum’s disarming modesty, her genuine hospitality and delight in the reaction of her visitors make this a very special, peaceful place to be.

Clinton Lodge Gardens welcomes groups by appointment but is rarely open to the public. However, the garden is open this coming Monday, 24th June 2019, as part of the National Garden Scheme between 2pm and 5.30pm. To find out more about Clinton Lodge Gardens visit www.clintonlodgegardens.co.uk. And to learn more about the exceptional work of the Sussex Heritage Trust and how to get involved visit www.sussexheritagetrust.org.uk.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.