Garden Style: Utopian dreamers

The Arts and Crafts movement, led by William Morris, had a dream to create Utopia in the nation's back gardens. Anna Pavord assesses their legacy. Photographs by Martin Charles
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Gloucestershire would no longer be the first choice of retreat for a band of penniless idealists trying to establish a heaven on earth. Brushed, combed, primped and freshly painted, the seductive villages of the Cotswolds have now put themselves financially out of reach of modern day Utopian dreamers. But in the first decades of the century, Arts and Crafts architects and gardeners settled there in droves, united in a desire to romanticise the rural idyll.

Inspired by John Ruskin and William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement involved painters, architects, gardeners and craftsmen of all kinds. Its gardeners raised to cult status the image of the old-fashioned cottage garden, filled with the flowers of Shakespeare's plays and bulging with artless topiary. There was no uniform style. Arts and Craftiness depended on a particular atmosphere: buildings of natural materials enclosing small planted courtyards, clipped peacocks, hedges, pleached limes, orchards, lilies, old roses, scent and romance.

That was the dream. Reality was tougher. At Chipping Campden, a band of craftsmen under Charles Ashbee founded a Guild of Handicraft whose members built model cottages and cultivated model allotments, but after only five years, it collapsed and the faithful, 150 of them including women and children, trooped back to London. Lack of cash seemed to be the major problem. At Whiteway, a curious group of newcomers arrived in 1898 to live their lives according to Tolstoyian principles. Dignity of physical labour was the over-riding principle - until their backs gave out.

But there remain in Gloucestershire some wonderful monuments to the Arts and Crafts ideals. Rodmarton Manor, near Cirencester is one, Upper Dorvel House, Sapperton another, both designed (houses and gardens together) by Ernest Barnsley.

Barnsley was one of a trio of architect-craftsmen which included his brother Sidney and their friend Ernest Gimson, who set up a workshop at Sapperton. They were romantic perfectionists, dreaming of a network of small, craft-inspired workshops where they would encourage local carpenters and blacksmiths to produce honest, decent, hand-finished work to furnish the homes of grateful labourers.

Like other Utopias before and since, the community foundered. Mrs Ernest Barnsley, from the beginning a reluctant convert to the delights of communal living, quarrelled with Mrs Ernest Gimson and the two women, though living side by side for years, never spoke to each other again. And the founding three were never able to resolve an irritating problem: only the filthy rich could afford their labour-intensive services.

William Morris had set high standards for subsequent Arts and Crafters with his pioneering first home, the Red House at Bexleyheath in Kent. Only 25 when he commissioned it, the garden was laid out at the same time as the house was being built. That was an important principle for later practitioners: house and garden were indivisible. The one grew inevitably out of the other. Morris filled the garden with his favourite flowers: roses and hollyhocks, nasturtiums and sunflowers, the whole place brought beautifully to life in Wendy Hitchmough's new book Arts and Crafts Gardens. But he stayed there for less than six years before he moved to Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade in Gloucestershire, which he rented as a summer retreat for 25 years between 1871 and his death in 1896. The frontispiece of his novel News from Nowhere shows the east front of the Kelmscott garden: mop-headed standard roses either side of the wide, straight, stone-flagged path which led to the front door, pleasantly shaggy lawn on either side, and the house itself smothered with climbers.

Morris was passionate about gardens, adored the garden at Kelmscott Manor and wrote widely about the importance of a garden as a setting for a house. As a founding father for the Arts and Crafts movement, few people could have been as persuasive. In terms of garden style, he was more interested in looking in than out, in enclosure rather than prospect. His ideal was the garden of the medieval manuscript, wild flowers in the grass, orchards, trellis work.

His ideals were encapsulated in many pictures painted at the time. Charles Collins's Convent Thoughts in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford is a typical example. A sternly wimpoled nun, fashionably fleshless, gazes with rapt adoration at a passion flower by the side of a pond with kingcups and water lilies and borders of Madonna lilies, tiger lilies and old fashioned Alba roses. The snake in Eden was the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti who shared not only Morris's house at Kelmscott, but his wife, too. An old- fashioned but capacious three-hole privy in the garden provides a lapidary image of the Kelmscott set-up: Janey Morris in the middle with her husband on one side, her lover on the other.

After Morris's death in 1896, the Arts and Crafts tradition was carried on in a subtly different way by two people who, perhaps more than any other, encapsulate our present ideas and images of the movement. Edwin Lutyens met Gertrude Jekyll "at a tea table, the silver kettle and the conversation reflecting rhododendrons". The rhodies belonged to a Surrey neighbour who was helping the redoubtable Jekyll look for an architect to build a house in the garden she had already made at Munstead Wood, Surrey.

Though she liked to think of herself as an artist, posterity has decided that gardening was Miss Jekyll's most important contribution to our culture. In fact, little evidence remains of either skill. Plans of some important gardens in which she was involved are held in the Reef Point collection at the University of California, Berkeley, but the gardens themselves, Hestercombe in Somerset, the Deanery garden at Sonning, Folly Farm in Berkshire are re-creations, new clothes on old bones.

The enormous influence she has had on the present generation of gardeners rests mostly on theory, particularly ideas about colour, worked out in the series of books such as Colour in the Flower Garden, and Gardens for Small Country Houses that she wrote between 1899 and 1912. Like Morris, she extolled the spirit of place, but her planting plans were often done without a site visit. Her plant repertoire was limited, the same combinations reappearing in wildly differing locations. Her writing was based on a few firmly held convictions and she seemed always keener to tell than to listen.

She was very fierce with a client who, in the way that all gardeners enjoy, had wandered into a nursery and emerged with an armful of her favourite plants. Where would be the best place to put them, she enquired in a letter to Jekyll? "That is not the way in which I can help you," Jekyll replied sternly. "Show me your spaces and I will tell you what plants to get for them."

When Jekyll and Lutyens met, she was already 46. Lutyens was scarcely 20, right at the beginning of his career, though already set up in a practice of his own after the briefest of architectural apprenticeships. At that stage, Lutyens was the one who most benefited from the partnership. During their long collaboration, they worked together on about a hundred gardens, the strength of the relationship lying in their complementary skills. He laid out the architectural bones. She supplied the planted flesh.

Jekyll's reputation rests on a skilful handling of plant groups, her manipulation of colour, texture and form. A hundred years after she began to work out her ideas in her own garden, her style has once again become the apogee of good taste. All over the country, Jekyll-inspired gardens have sprung up, though perhaps she herself would not be as quick to make the connection as those who claim it.

Her raging snobbery and intransigence make Jekyll a far less attractive figure than, say, her contemporary Philip Webb, who, after designing the Red House for William Morris, went on to create a superb garden at Great Tangley Manor near Wonersh in Surrey. He had a sympathetic client: Wickham Flower, who with Morris had been a founder member of the influential Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Making was one thing; keeping another. Writing to his friend, the painter George Boyce, Webb said he had been down to Tangley and found that the gardener had been "dancing a pas d'orticulture there, playing da gooseberry there in fact and something must be done to remove... his miserable handiwork."

At Earlshall in Fife, the gardeners did better. The architect, Robert Lorimer, responsible for laying out the garden as well as the house, had found some mature topiary pieces in a derelict garden in Edinburgh and decided to shift them to Fife. Earlshall's head gardener was offered a bonus of pounds 5 for every one of the 36 trees that took successfully in the new garden. He didn't lose a single one. If you are paid only a pound a week, the prospect of an extra pounds 180 is a powerful incentive.

At its worst, the Arts and Crafts movement degenerated into a kind of dirndl folksiness, a Surrey nookiness far removed from the honesty and restraint of the founding fathers. But it was an inspiration, too, the stimulus for the leafy streets of Letchworth and the Hampstead Garden Suburb. At its best it produced some of the finest gardens - Hidcote in Gloucestershire, Great Dixter in Sussex - to have been made this century. The Utopians did not dream in vain

Wendy Hitchmough's book, `Arts and Crafts Gardens' is published by Pavilion (pounds 30). `Gardens for Small Country Houses', which Gertrude Jekyll wrote with Lawrence Weaver, has just been re-issued as `Arts and Crafts Gardens' by the Garden Art Press (pounds 25)

From top: Philip Webb's pergola walk beside the lake at Great Tangley Manor, Surrey; the 17th-century plan of Brickwall, East Sussex, painted by George Samuel Elgood in 1911; the Bathing Pool Garden at Hidcote Manor Gloucestershire