GARDENING: Return of the jet set

Fountains cascaded exuberantly throughout Britain in the past, but recent installations have declined to a trickle. A new award aims to turn the tide. Jennifer Potter reports
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The Independent Culture
SINCE the walled oases of the ancient Arabs, water has flowed at the heart of the world's great gardens. How we treat it - whether we spurt it through artificial jets or encourage it to curve and cascade with manipulated ease through the landscape - reflects the age-old altercation between Art and Nature that drives each shift in garden design.

The restoration and enjoyment of old fountains is a priority of the London- based Fountain Society, now nine years old. Water features in public gardens often have intriguing histories and fountains can become a passion, even an obsession, not unlike trainspotting, only more surreal.

This year, the Fountain Society is behind a new prize being offered to encourage excellence in contemporary design. The pounds 1,000 Fountain of the Year Award is open to any new fountain, cascade or water feature intended for "public enjoyment", and it goes to the client, not the designer or engineer. Thelma Seear, founder of the Fountain Society, believes we are seeing a renewed enthusiasm for water features, both in public places and in private gardens. "You can get the most marvellous effects simply from garden centres," she says. "The real joy is in the flow of the water - the sound, sight, magic and the use of lighting."

Anyone intent on commissioning a new public fountain can learn a great deal from the examples of the past. "The heyday of fountains in Britain was in the Victorian era," says Thelma Seear. "The Victorians had bravura, they had confidence, and they didn't have planning regulations. But compared with other European countries today, Britain lies near the bottom of the fountains' league." Keen to reverse the decline, the society offers practical advice to fountain owners and restorers, organises European jaunts and hosts an annual conference in Cambridge.

I went as a guest to Cambridge this year. We talked cascades with the irrepressible Christopher Thacker. We approved the restoration of the swooning, naked nymphs at York House, Twicken-ham. We enthused over Barcelona's glorious Fuente Magica with the dapper Spanish engineer in charge of all the city's fountains. We tracked the watery connections beneath the streets of Rome and looked at rhythms in water itself. I must admit to bunking off from tea and cherry cake on an visit to a member's nearby fountain. The cake was much admired. I forgot to ask about the water.

By the end of the weekend I was hooked. The great fountains of the world have a drama that words and photographs cannot match: the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, for instance, and Rome's magnificent Trevi fountain; or the fountains at Versailles, switched on for the stately procession of Louis XIV and his guests by a relay of boys with whistles because there wasn't enough water available to play them continuously.

At the conference, Dr Peter Payan's account of restoring the York House statuary proved that improbable fountains often have equally improbable histories. Fin de siecle and almost certainly Italian, the York House nymphs were imported by a dubious financier, Whitaker Wright, for a steel- and-glass room constructed underneath the ornamental lake on his 450-acre estate near Godal-ming, Surrey. Before they could be unpacked, in 1904, Wright was convicted of fraud and promptly swallowed cyanide in court.

The naked nymphs and winged horses were bought by an Indian merchant and brought to Twickenham. In 1924 the house and grounds were sold to the local council for offices, and the fountains slowly succumbed to vandals, municipal neglect and the exigencies of civil defence: in the Second World War they were sprayed with grey sludge to prevent enemy bombers navigating by moonlight glistening on the white Carrara marble.

By 1986 the statues were a disgrace, "covered with graffiti, mostly obscene", according to a letter in the local press, and "daubed with paint in unmentionable places". A charitable trust, the local council and English Heritage managed to raise the pounds 55,000 needed to restore it - a large sum, but dwarfed by the pounds 1.7m package promised for the restoration of the structure of Witley Court near Worcester, including the great Poseidon fountain. Restoring old fountains has become big business.

Now, with the launch of the Fountain of the Year Award, the focus has shifted towards the contemporary. If you want to commission your own water sculpture (I hesitate to call them fountains), The Sculpture Company was formed last year as the trading arm of the Royal Society of British Sculp- tors (RBS) to advise anyone wishing to commission or exhibit sculptures, including water pieces.

I went recently to see Eclipse, a water sculpture by RBS member Barry Mason, commissioned in 1993 by Richard and Judith Bailey. The piece rises like a totem from a circular reflective pool at the end of an austerely designed back garden: lawn, chevron-shaped path leading the eye between stepped lines of planting (yew, hawthorn, holly and osmanthus, box hedge closest to the pool), towards the focal sculpture, its Purbeck stone glistening wetly against a screen of conifers along the fence.

The Baileys were introduced to Barry Mason through the garden designer Sally Tarshish. "We wanted something reasonably easy to maintain that would create a sense of being enclosed, separate," said Judith Bailey. "And we didn't want water spouting all over the place: it had to just flow."

The Baileys first visited Mason's studio in early spring 1993, and by the summer the sculpture was installed. Instead of spouting and splashing, a film of water slides down the stone, bringing its colours to life and creating an almost noiseless sense of movement. The piece develops an earlier idea in which the stone was faceted to reflect light. Mason refined the geometry, using water instead. "It's lovely when the sun hits the stone in the early morning," said Judith Bailey, "and again in the evening. If you've had a bad day, you only have to come here and sit for it to work its magic."

All three of us stared at the pond. Sculpture and sky are reflected in dark olive green. Though the water sometimes runs clear, algae continue to flourish, despite the addition of three filtration systems, including ultraviolet light. "The original idea," said Richard Bailey, "was that the pool, painted black, would have no life in it. Most people fill ponds with plants and wild life but we wanted it simply for its reflections."

As we gazed at ourselves in the water, I remembered an earlier conversation with Barry Mason. He was interested, he said, in water as a sculptural resource and therefore in artists who were using it differently. Looking at his work in a private, suburban garden, I wondered if the old divisions were breaking down - divisions between fountain and cascade, between Art and Nature, projection and gravity. Perhaps the new interest in fountains, in using water to enliven civic space and private Eden alike, will take us somewhere different, at last.

! Fountain entries (which must be of aesthetic merit, for public enjoyment, constructed in the last five years, and must work) by 31 October 1995 to: The Marsh Fountain of the Year Award, Marsh Christian Trust, Granville House, 132-135 Sloane Street, London SW1X 9AX ( 0171-730 2626). Information from The Fountain Society, 16 Gayfere Street, Westminster, London SW1P 3HP ( 0171-222 6037). The Sculpture Company can be contacted at 108 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3RA (0171-373 8615).