Highgrove’s Berninian Fabrique

A new book on Highgrove arrived today, by Bunny Guinness. I was interested to see if one feature was illustrated there—the Oak Pavilion—as it does not appear in any other book and they don’t let you take photos. Indeed, it is a high security operation. The entrance is on the road from Tetbury. There is no signage and a wall has been built across the driveway a little way back as a screen behind which lurks an army post. I had misread the instructions, which I though said to arrive not later than 15 minutes before the designated time, but it was in fact not earlier than this time. The tickets, incidentally, are hard to get. I bought the last one in January, for a June visit. It arrived by post in May, by which time I was so concerned that I would be leaving before it arrived that I wrote to them about it. There is a visitors’ centre, and you are firmly told to leave all cameras and phones in the car, and are treated to a terrifying description of trigger-happy commandos lurking in the garden to take out anyone who strays from the group or looks like a terrorist or paparazzo. Incidentally, it was interesting the way the guides were clearly uncomfortable with the fabriques. They gave lengthy disquisitions on wildflower meadows, but the fabriques were passed over with minimal comment, and with no attempt to explain them. Indeed in the woodland area there was a Bannerman fabrique that we were not being shown but could see a little way off. With another member of the group I braved the machine guns of the commandos to go and look at it—and survived.

So the Oak Pavilion feature came as a surprise. I thought it must be by the Bannermans, who have made other fabriques here, but is it by Mark Hoare. I got out a notebook to put down some keywords and was pounced by the guide and told that no sketching was allowed (though I was not trying to sketch). Memory is always misleading, which is why I hate gardens, houses or museums where you can’t take photos. In this case my memory had registered huge green oak arches and a huge wooden obelisk, but not the wavy shingled roof that is more prominent in the photos. The reason for the structure was that a cypress tree had died, and this was a kind of memorial to it. A self-seeded sapling was allowed to grow through the roof, which is a touch I can relate to, although I think my remnant hawthorn growing through the Gothic Fabrique has died. Perhaps I will paint it gold.

So what we have is huge slabs of green oak carved into arched buttresses, with the obelisk mounted on this. This seemed to me then, and still does so now, to be very Berninian. Indeed, the weightless obelisk arched in the air, as in the Four Rivers fountain, is pure Bernini. But according to the book it was inspired by the spire of Tetbury church in the distance. No doubt this is so, but being Highgrove you wonder whether there is an agenda running with the naming and the narratives. Invoking Bernini would run against the Englishness that is being promoted. It is surely significant that at the Bannerman’s grandest set of fabriques, at Arundel Castle, the sources stop at Inigo Jones, and there is no acknowlegement of the highly derivative Jones’s sources in Serlio and other Italians.

Another example of this is the Carpet Garden. This I first came a cross in a book on Islamic gardens by the woman who designed, and in this context was explicitly Islamic. It was created for the Chelsea Flower Show, and then recreated at Highgrove. It is now called the carpet garden because based on one of Prince Charles’s carpets. (The Guinness book refers to ‘The Prince’, the ‘The’ always capitalised. Very pompous. I remember how you would get into trouble producing official documents at Melbourne University if you failed to capitalise the ‘the’ in ‘The University of Melbourne.) Which brings me to the Indian Gate. Presumably this can be so called because India was part of the British Empire. And is it significant that there are no Chinese fabriques, although there are occasional sub-chinoiserie elements, chinoiserie being English while China is not.

The Indian gate proved to be quite a surprise. Its sources are apparent from the outside, but possibly the reason for making it is revealed on the inside, where there is an Indian gate that is normally kept folded back and is therefore not very noticeable. This is Indian in the sense of being recently exported as decorators’ antiques from India. I have one of these, and it is much better than The Prince’s, which makes me feel good. This came from Out of India in Victoria Street, which has now gone, and the remaining pieces have retreated to the same owner’s Orient Express. Presumably these Indian antiquities didn’t take with the local clientele. The salesperson kept trying to find out what I was going to do with it: they clearly were struggling with the problem as well. I have also heard that the Indian government now blocks their export, fearing for a loss of national heritage. I don’t know whether that is true or not. Mine were bought on impulse, because the first thing that ran through my mind after seeing them was that this was just like Harold Peto circa 1900 picking up pieces of medieval masonry and sculpture for his garden, pieces today found only in museums. These gates are quite as good as anything medieval, richly carved and still coloured. They are in storage and I have a vision for them, but the difficulty is how to preserve them from the elements. I wondered whether The Prince had the same problem, and so built this gate superstructure primarily as a weatherproof installation for the doors.

Returning to the Carpet Garden, at the end of the tour I realised we had not been shown it. A little later I happened to pass the guide in the visitor centre, and I tackled her about it. She rather shamefacedly confessed to having forgotten all about it, and took me there. It turned out to be next to the visitor centre. It was rather a disappointment and I can see why she forgot about it. It was confined so a small rectangular plot, a legacy of Chelsea. The tiles are a rather suburban terracotta, with a bright blue channels. The whole lack a sense of invitation, and I had no great desire to linger there.

Prince Charles (I think I prefer that title to ‘The Prince’) gets a lot of peoples’ backs up, for a variety of reasons, but I have a lot of time for him for what he has done. He has used the resources he has inherited, and his position, to project a benign vision of what a lived life ought to be about, and few people with such resources have done as much. Whenever I am down that way I have a look at Poundbury, his ‘ideal’ suburban development at the edge of Dorchester. It is always interesting, though as it develops it is acquiring a certain coldness: the earlier parts are the most quirky and picturesque. I remember drawing it to the attention of students, one of whom decided to research the new Melbourne suburban development of Caroline Springs for as essay on ideal towns or villages. I was rather startled to discover that this, apparently, it, too, was an ideal suburb, and the developer had similar lofty ideals to Prince Charles. (I know, to put ‘ideal’ and ‘developers’ in the same sentence in internally contradictory, but this was a few years ago, and not all developers then were Malaysian conglomerates with no investment the lives of Australian citizens.)

Yet the result is so dreary. That is just the Australian Way, but part of the problem is encapsulated in a criticism made of Poundbury by one student. Namely, that such historically referential architecture could not accommodate, for ample, the necessity for a roof pitch best suited for solar panels (the same as the latitude, namely 37 degrees). But that points up where the vision of progressive Australian individuals falls down. (I have to distinguish individuals from our unspeakable government, whose only vision is the death of our decendants in runaway global warming, which is fine so long as they can wallow, like Smaug, in piles of gold for the rest of their miserable lifetimes.) Australians put a lot of effort into technological sustainability in their houses (there are three or four newsagent magazines devoted to it), but the image of the houses they produce is eather drearily suburban, drearily modernist, or at best woody-chic. The curse of modernism is that it largely succeeded in replacing image with function, or restricting imagery to a limited modernist agenda. But, as sci-fi movies discovered long ago, the future quickly dries up as a source of visual interest. That is why all sci-fi movies are retro in one way or the other, from the art deco of Flash Gordon or the sky city of The Empire Strikes Back, to the grunge industrial of the alien movies or even the retro-modernism of Oblivion. In fact we do not want to live in the future, but in a past of our choosing, which we know, or think we know. That is why all modernist architects live in Georgian houses. Although the real objection to historical referentiality is the unspeakable mock Tudor/Federation/Georgian of the newer suburbs. (Try visiting Watergardens, especially the point beyond the little roundabout where the shops end. It makes you appreciate both Caroline Springs and banal modernism. But that may be for another day.)

What Prince Charles does is turn to the past for an image of an ideal future. And this is what distinguishes his garden from a lot of much cooler English gardens, such as Jinny Blom’s Temple Guiting House, which I have only seen as illustrated in books. While I admire its cool stylish precision, yet it the end, to me, it only projects the wealth of its owners. It seems to lack an ideal vision. While the Edwardian Gardens (and their Lutyens houses) that I admire obviously were made for people just as wealthy, or more so, but what comes through is the vision of an ideal life that they project. The purpose of the owner’s wealth is to enable them to live that ideal life, and their position is implicitly generous: if they can live an ideal life, why not others? But our wealthy want only to assert their wealth, or else have no idea with what to do with their money other than inflate the scale and extent of their bad taste.

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