Monochrome to Polychrome – How colour transformed the Art of Garden design

On Tuesday 17th October the Arts Society Grayshott was pleased to welcome Timothy Walker, retired director of the Oxford Botanical Gardens, for our Special Interest Day:  ‘From Monochrome to Polychrome – How Colour Transformed the Art of Garden Design’.

Some of the earliest gardens were those in monasteries which were planted to provide herbal remedies.  By the 15th/ 16th centuries when fortified dwellings began to disappear; the domestic garden with both herbs and flowers was born.  This was a time most concerned with recreating the Garden of Eden before the fall of man – i.e. a time of perpetual spring. In contrast we then looked at the garden in China, which represent in many ways a timeless garden with its foliage, water, pavilions and tiny colourful bridges.

Back in England, Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby, donated £5,000 in 1621 for the setting up of a physic garden on the banks of the Cherwell, Oxfordshire.  Being on a flood plain four thousand cartloads of ‘mucke and dunge’ were needed to raise the level of the garden. A baroque entrance gate (known as the Danby) was erected in 1633. The gardens thrived under the auspices of various directions, some more dedicated than others.  ‘Should it not be remembered that in a garden we are painting a picture’ (Gertrude Jekyll)

Yet in a garden, unlike in a painting, it is necessary to consider not only the colours but how their position is affected by the time of day and climate conditions.  The living palette is infinitely changeable – e.g.  yellow jn bright light is joyful and appealing but can look dingy and uninteresting in dull conditions.

By the Victorian era the parkland of the Georgians was giving way to the riotous herbaceous border.  Very often this resulted in haphazard planting which would now offend the eye.  It needed the stern hand of Gertrude Jekyll to remind people of the need for harmony in the garden.

In 1947 the Oxford Botanical Gardens acquired the Harcourt Arboretum which was part of the Nuneham House Estate.  The core of the arboretum had been laid out by William Gilpin in the 18th century and the Botanical Gardens has been able to increase the collection with trees too large for the city site.

To bring his lectures up to date Mr Walker, finished by describing the planting of the newly acquired pylon meadow at Harcourt much of which is given over to a wildflower meadow where to quote Jean-Jacques Rousseau ‘A thousand wildflowers shone there without order or symmetry’

Penny Davidson