BOOK REVIEW / The venerable art of moving mountains: The complete landscape designs and gardens of Geoffrey Jellicoe by Michael Spens, Thames and Hudson pounds 36
The question 'Is landscape architecture art?' is perennially debated by students taking degrees in the subject, providing a welcome respite from memorising lists of vandal-proof shrubs or calculating the positions of manhole covers in notional pedestrian precincts. Students, their ideals not yet sullied by encounters with budget-
conscious clients and immobile earth- moving equipment, will cry 'Yes, yes]' They long to move mountains (literally), to manipulate nature in time as well as space, and to change the way people perceive the world. All but a few are doomed to disillusionment, but if anything can keep their ideals alive, it is Geoffrey Jellicoe's example.
Michael Spens examines Jellicoe's designs in chronological order, starting with a garden for the medieval manor at Bingham's Melcombe in Dorset (for Lord Southborough, 1927-1949), and ending with two monumental projects: the Moody Botanical and Historical Gardens at Galveston, Texas, and the Historical Park in Atlanta, Georgia, which is to be opened in 1996 to coincide with the Olympic Games. The Galveston and Atlanta gardens could be seen as the climax of Jellicoe's artistic life, weaving the many strands of his philosophy into a rich tapestry. At the Atlanta gardens, 'the subconscious harmonises the conscious', a phrase Jellicoe quotes from Heraclitus to express his own aspirations.
Jellicoe's explanations of each design make this much more than an attractive picture book. His analysis of the genesis of each project and the creative thinking behind it gives a real insight into the artist's mind, and the development of his ideas. He sees all art, including his own, as a transmission from the artist's to the recipient's subconscious. It is from modern abstract painting and sculpture that Jellicoe draws his inspiration, rather than from landscapers of the past.
The paintings of Jackson Pollock were the starting point for the landscaping of the Blue Circle Hope Cement Works in the Peak District National Park. Jellicoe's objective was to take a subject 'devoid of humanity, symbolism and all the countless associations of ideas that confuse the issue of pure art'. He thought the cement works 'splendid as complex geometry drawing upon the laws of the universe . . . inhuman and scientific rather than architectural'. His design consists mainly of long-term tree planting to relate the cement works and quarries to the surrounding hills, to establish a scale and to initiate natural ecological regeneration. It provides a frame for 'a gigantic piece of serendipic sculpture always in movement'.
Paul Klee, too, inspired Jellicoe's designs for projects as different as the civic water gardens at Hemel Hempstead (1947) and the rose garden at Cliveden (1962). At Hemel Hempstead, 'concealing a ghost within the visible', he used the underlying shape of a serpent: 'All detail was subordinated to this single idea: the tail flipping round the artificial hill; the soft underbelly with its subtle curve; the bridges that fasten the flower garden like a howdah on its back; the huge head with the single fountain eye and watery mouth'. The serpent was invisible to the users of the gardens, but perhaps it struck a subconscious chord: in 1990 a proposal to demolish the gardens for a road-widening scheme was met with a protest of quite unexpected scale and vehemence.
At Cliveden, the rose garden, a secret place enclosed by woods, was based directly on Klee's painting 'The Fruit' (1932). Sinuous beds in organic shapes give a sense of movement. They are planted with old-fashioned roses, philadelphus, lavender and artemisia interlaced with wallflowers and nicotiana. The arches where paths enter the garden are an unusual and strangely satisfying shape. During the 15 years since I first saw them I have often tried to analyse what makes these arches so pleasing. Now I have discovered from the caption to a photograph in this book that they are a semi-abstract representation of the human form. The subconscious at work again.
Every design of Jellicoe's has its theme (not, I hasten to add, as in 'theme park'). His underlying ideas come from sources as diverse as Chinese philosophy, Classical mythology, the Augustan poets, Lucretius, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (the theme of that most moving landscape, the Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede), the sculpture of Henry Moore (at the Harwell Laboratories in Berkshire), even a supper of five different fish from Lake Iseo, which Jellicoe metamorphosed into artificial hills in a park at Brescia in Italy. These references are intended to strike a responsive chord in the human psyche and to put man in harmony with his hereditary environment of stone, water and plants.
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