Randoll Coate

Diplomat turned maze designer


Gilbert Randoll Coate, diplomat and maze designer: born Lausanne, Switzerland 8 October 1909; married 1955 Pamela Dugdale Moore (two daughters); died Le Rouret, France 2 December 2005.

Randoll Coate was one of the world's greatest maze designers. He furthered the maze as a valid form of landscape art more than anyone had previously done. His maze designs abound with symbolism, from their outline shape and the internal patterns of paths and barriers, to numbers and proportions, hidden meanings, verbal allusions and puns. His passion was creating gigantic mazes, in an era when so much landscape and garden design was of necessity becoming ever smaller in scale.

Never compromising on design quality, the volume and diversity of his mazes in the landscape was unprecedented. Anyone in the 17th to 19th centuries who created even three mazes would be considered a prolific designer; Coate built over 20 in Britain and abroad - including mazes at Blenheim Palace, Longleat and the Liverpool International Garden Festival - and prepared detailed designs for dozens more. His designs were geometrically precise to the inch, with gracious circles and curves showing both sides of every hedge; even the tapering point of a clipped hedge would be predetermined.

Coate took up maze design in later life, following distinguished war service and a career in the Foreign Office. He was born of British parents in Switzerland in 1909. From the Collège de Lausanne he won a scholarship to read French and German at Oriel College, Oxford. Because of his language ability, during the Second World War he was recruited to the "London Cage", the secret military establishment in Kensington where prisoners of war were interrogated. In December 1941 he served in Operation Archery, a commando raid on the Norwegian port of Vaagso, which led Hitler to divert 30,000 troops and several battleships to Norway.

Later, he was dropped into Greece and fought alongside the Partisans in liberating the southern town of Kalamata, for which he earned a Mention in Dispatches. He joined the Foreign Office after the war and his diplomatic career took him successively to Salonika, Oslo, Leopoldville, Rome, The Hague, Buenos Aires, Stockholm and Brussels.

Coate's first maze commission was for a private garden in the Gloucestershire countryside in 1975. A 3,000-bush yew hedge maze, "Imprint" was based on the idea of a Colossus footprint as would be left by a giant as tall as the Eiffel Tower. The foot grew until it was too big for its destined field. As a river swirls around one end of it, a dramatic solution had to be found - an island built in the river in the shape of the foremost toe.

This was followed two years later by "Pyramid" at the Château de Beloeil in Belgium, with ever taller hedges towards its centre. In 1979 he created one of his most defining designs, "Creation", for Baroness Falkenberg at Varmlands Saby in Sweden. This hedge maze contains multiple layers of symbolic imagery and meaning. Coloured one way, the design portrays the Garden of Eden with Adam, Eve, Tree, Apple and Serpent; another way, it tells the Minoan myth complete with the head of the Minotaur. Its egg-shaped outline follows the same geometric principles as ancient Celtic stone circles.

Randoll Coate and I met through Lord Eliot (now Earl of St Germans), himself a maze owner. We created 15 mazes together between 1979 and 1986 (including two years with Graham Burgess).

In 1980 Lady Brunner commissioned us to design the "Archbishop's Maze" at Greys Court, the National Trust manor-house and garden near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Our starting point was the words of Dr Robert Runcie in his enthronement sermon when he spoke of his dream of a maze. The design abounds in Christian symbolism, and proclaims the reconciliation between East and West, Catholic and Protestant, Roman and Orthodox - a vital aspect of Runcie's life work. This project pioneered a new form of maze construction, the brick-path-in-grass maze, reversing the role of grass in the traditional turf maze from being the path to becoming the barrier.

Coate's artistic creativity was exquisitely demonstrated in another medium when he created the 15ft- diameter central mosaic within our Bath Festival Maze for the Beazer Gardens beside the River Avon. For six weeks he worked in a studio in the city, converting his full-size sketches into colourful patterns using 72,000 pieces of mosaic. The result is a most remarkable mosaic containing seven images, each one a "gaze maze" to be traced by eye.

At the 1984 International Garden Festival in Liverpool, our Beatles Maze celebrated the city's greatest contribution to the world of music. It had a raised pathway within an apple-shaped pool, and distinctive stepping stones in the shapes of musical notes. Its centrepiece was an 18-ton, 51ft-long yellow submarine, which so captured the imagination of the people of Liverpool that when Coate walked up to accept one of the festival prizes ("for the most innovative garden structure - the Yellow Submarine"), the arena burst into spontaneous applause.

Our design of the Marlborough Maze at Blenheim Palace was inspired by the Grinling Gibbons stone carvings on the roof of the palace, where the English Lion is shown mauling the French Cock. We settled for Gibbons's less controversial but equally triumphalist portrayal of the Panoply of Victory, thus laying out thousands of yew bushes in the shape of cannons, cannonballs, flags, banners and trumpets. The maze was planted in 1988 and opened to the public in 1991; the Duke of Marlborough agreed to be President of "The Year of the Maze" tourism campaign that year - a date chosen by Coate, characteristically, because it was a palindromic number.

The Marquess of Bath, Britain's most enthusiastic maze owner, has no fewer than six mazes at Longleat House, including two designed by Coate, the Lunar Labyrinth and the Sun Maze (both 1996). The latter contains four layers of superimposed imagery: an image of the sun, the head of a minotaur, the head of Bacchus and a sensuous maiden.

As a maze designer, Randoll Coate always had an eye for the "leitmotiv", the keynote story and the telling detail. In his scholarly yet self-tutored design approach, his thinking was original and pioneering. I learnt so much from him as a co-designer and friend; and the maze-design principles he and I forged together remain just as valid today.

He married Pamela Dugdale Moore, a painter, in 1955 in the Benedictine Abbey of Pluscarden in Moray where he was later received into the Roman Catholic Church. He approached life as a celebration; of family and friendships, of his abundant talents to be nurtured, and as an unassuming personal expression of his Christian faith.

In 1986 Coate wrote "Seven Golden Rules for Making a Maze" (published in A Celebration of Mazes, by Randoll Coate, Adrian Fisher and Graham Burgess), which combined his passionate enthusiasm, ambitious optimism and canny wit. His seventh rule stated:

Do not allow the cost of the maze to cloud your enjoyment of a creation which will bring pleasure to young and old for generations to come. You will have given our world of harsh reality and mindless speed a timeless oasis, a leisurely paradise, the substance of a dream.

Adrian Fisher

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