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Interview: Roy Strong - A growing concern; Richard Edmonds meets Roy Strong whose new book about gardens reflects his passion for nature.

Each new season brings new ideas and each plant or group of plant ushers in a fresh series of pictures

Some artists paint what they see, others paint what they feel. 'I know I can't paint Nature, but I am struggling with it,' Renoir once confided to a friend.

Sir Roy Strong - author, broadcaster and gardener - has taken paintings of English gardens rendered by artists from 1540 onwards and in a sumptuously illustrated book which has mirrored his own passion for gardening.

It deftly turns Nature into an art form which reflects, in the present day, Renaissance concerns for horticultural compartments, avenues and vistas.

His garden, near Ross-on-Wye, is something he created with his wife, the theatre designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, nearly 30 years ago 'from a field with a solitary horse in it'.

Today, this marvellous area is a monument to the endeavour of two people gardening in the remote and rural county of Herefordshire on the Marches of Wales.

Obviously, a garden never reaches completion.

But walking with Roy Strong through the avenues of lime trees (once believed in ancient legend to bow down at Jupiter's command when Leda, the Queen of Sparta and the woman with whom he once had a liaison in the guise of a swan, walked beneath their branches), through the wonderful allees of yew, where the perspective is continually sharpened by a surprising object such as a stone carving or a painted obelisk with a gold-leafed finial, you begin to realise that the passion the Strongs have for their garden is never-ending.

Each new season brings new ideas and each plant or group of plant ushers in a fresh series of pictures.

When he was 60 (now he's 65 and it nags at him since it is a point he continually refers to as we talk) Roy commissioned a birthday picture of The Laskett, which is the name of the garden, from a young artist Jonathan Myles-Lea.

The angle of the painting up-ends the garden like a table altering the perspective and flattening it.

Not quite an aerial photograph, more a cartographic dimension where the various ordered sections are clearly labelled, the whole magnificent garden achievement is revealed perfectly.

In his recently published book, The Artist and the Garden, Roy Strong discusses the picture critically but kindly, and you remember immediately that he is a former director of The National Portrait Gallery in London and of The Victoria and Albert Museum.

The picture is a monument to tidying up and formalising into a pattern a garden which when experienced on foot becomes something very different altogether.

The painting is not an ultra-realistic record of our garden, we could have done that with a creative photograph, but rather a realisation of its spirit, in this case certainly early summer before the garden becomes ruffled and blousy as the leaves fall.

The painting, which provides a perfect introduction to a scholarly book on the English garden over the centuries has a quartet of cartouches which frame individual garden prospects, a parterre, a temple, a fountain and a monument.

Strong writes that each cartouche framed with a favourite cat, 'is caught in a different mood, from the golden effulgent light of autumn, to winter snow beneath a star-spangled night sky.'

But what you might call 'a garden consciousness' began early in this country and the book covers its history.

It started in the 14th century, I suppose, when a fine garden was associated with rank. The grander you were the bigger your garden. Henry VII was very fond of gardens and next came Henry VIII, which is when the Tudor garden became a symbol of peace and stability.

In the book Strong defines a Tudor garden as still rooted, at that time, in the medieval world. These were gardens which were compartmental, or sometimes railed in with poles of juniper or willow. But more often their low boxes which often contained herbs were delineated by short hedges of whitethorn or privet and this is what has been created at The Laskett.

The apogee of the aristocratic garden is the one designed at Theobalds, for Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's chief minister. This was a garden in nine compartments. In later years it became fashionable to show the distant garden with its vistas or knot gardens, and these delightful views were inserted into a personal portrait by the artist.

Thus an unknown 17th century artist shows Lettice Newdigate, aged two-years-old, at Arbury Hall in Warwickshire, a delightful picture of both the child and the nearby formal garden where, around 1606, she would once have played with her toys.

The Laskett is the largest formal garden planted in England since 1945 and it has, when you see it first, the appearance of a fastidiously well-laid table; a floral banquet if you like, or a garden for a masque or a theatrical performance, perhaps Twelfth Night.

'We've been here 28 years - that eucalyptus tree was a sprig once given to Julia. Now it's reaching high up into the sky. We arrived in 1973 with very little money to spare, but property was cheap at the time and we were on the look-out for a real home.

'We had no concept of a large garden - it just so happened that the 31/1 acre field which was leased nearby eventually became ours and that was when what you might call the folly started.

'Nowadays you see topiary work, clipped hedges, avenues, fountains, statuary, temples and so on. But we didn't begin like that at all - we had no money. But I never stopped planting. I knew that one day when we had the money we would develop the garden. When hedges and trees grow up you must always plant - and so I did - but I always left spaces for the fountains and statuary and so on, knowing they would come along later.

'When I started this garden in Herefordshire it left me wondering what English gardens were like. So I researched the subject and in 1979 I wrote, The English Renaissance Garden. Nobody who'd written about gardens before had thought to look into letters and documents, and so it was a subject which opened up marvellously well. And as the money came in from the books I was able to plough it into the garden and that was how it was paid for.

'The 70s was a difficult time. There were strikes, financial loss and similar things. But we carried on here planting since I believe you have to transcend troubles, and it was at that time I decided to plant a country house garden as people have done for 300 years, a garden in the 17th century style with touches of the Edwardian dream gardens beloved of Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll.'

It is this sense of garden style which led to a commission from the Prince of Wales at Highgrove. 'I cut his yew hedges and I got him statues from Italy'. Another commission came from Versace. 'I did the sketches for Versace's Italian garden and that project which was very pleasurable led on to Elton John. 'Oh, Roy is the only person who knows anything about gardens,' said Versace, and so I shaped Elton's garden - very theatrical - I placed statues of satyrs playing music.'

Sean, the young gardener, has left a lawnmower going in the heat, I wondered if someone should switch it off and say so. 'I don't buy a dog and bark myself,' he says briskly, and we move into memories of friends connected or commemorated in this amazing place.

A clump of rose-bay willow herb is close to seeding in the September sunshine. It was apparently brought to The Laskett from Cecil Beaton's garden at Reddish House, near Salisbury.

'Cecil was a good friend and I owe him a lot. He was enormously fastidious and extraordinarily vain.'

I mentioned I had been at the Cecil Beaton sale at Reddish House after his death. I remember the garden and the little upstairs bedroom with its tyrolean jackets and Cezanne straw hats.

'Cecil introduced me to so many people and was so kind - the Queen Mother, Lady Diana Cooper, and so on. It meant I was taken into the Royal Box and the feeling, since I came from a lower middle class background, was rather like a child swept up into a glorious, glamorous world.

'Another good friend was Richard Buckle, the ballet critic. And it was because of Buckle and his friendship with Beaton that I was inspired to do an exhibition of Beaton's photographs when I became director of the National Portrait Gallery. At the time it was something nobody had done and fortunately it was thought to be a success'.

We return to Roy Strong's book, something of which he has every reason to be proud, and I mention the exquisite detail he has brought in and he notes that this particular area was something encouraged by his wife. Fragments of gardens in painting after painting running on through the centuries are glimpsed peeping out behind a curtain or in their entirety.

In a painting of the Lucy family painted around 1620 at Charlecote in Warwickshire, attention is given to objects which 'pepper' (to use Roy Strong's own words) the scene - objects which reflect in detail the family's preoccupations.

For example, a falcon sits on a perch, there are dogs, books, a bow. And the role of the garden in the distance is emphasised by a bowl of cherries towards which Lady Lucy extends her fingers. It is the story of the English garden told visually with precision and elegance.

A tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton distracts me for a moment; it is a stone sculpture in the heraldic manner, a rare and beautiful thing and perfectly sited at the end of a yew hedge vista. It is right that it should be in this garden since Julia Trevelyan Oman designed two ballets for 'Sir Fred'. They were A Month In The County and Enigma Variations, based on the Elgar score, the latter danced by Birmingham Royal Ballet last spring to great acclaim.

And does Roy still go to the theatre, I wondered?

'About 14 times in as many years. We've rather given it up. I don't care much for what I see these days. A few years ago I saw a production of Henry VIII where Catherine of Aragon was ironing shirts and somebody else was dancing the tango. We left at the interval.'

Sean rattles on past with the mower which draws a question from me about the day-to-day running of this huge garden. 'Sean comes a couple of days a week and we have other help on about the same basis, but otherwise Julia and I do it ourselves.'

Roy sees my puzzled look and says:' It is possible you know. It's simpler than you think. A garden is all about placing people in a location and manipulating their vision.'

But the weeds?

'Oh, it can be done.'

We move back into the pink-painted house called The Folly. This is the Strongs' guest house. It is cool and elegant with its books, gilded porcelain and sense of calm. We talk about books, the state of education (which led to Roy Strong writingThe Story of Britain) at a time when there has been public concern about history and the teaching of history. He feels justified by what he has done with this book and says proudly it has sold 100,000 copies.

But The Folly is obviously devoid of both tea and teapots since no refreshments are forthcoming. Are the Strongs on an economy drive, I wonder to myself, or does 65 make one prone to forget that a guest can get thirsty on a hot day?

But Roy's astonished, he tells me, that his new garden book has only been given a print run of 4,000 copies. 'It's almost sold out already - which is scarcely surprising since the pictures are so beautiful you could eat it.'

Journalists at this point usually inquire after the next project (movie, music, book, etc) Roy Strong is never anything less than surprising: 'Food,' he says. 'A social history of eating in Western Europe.'

Which brings me back to tea again and I begin to wonder if Sean has brought a flask. . .

The Artist and the Garden by Sir Roy Strong, is published by Yale University Press at pounds 29.95.
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Author:Edmonds, Richard
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 14, 2000
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