‘A Garden Well-Placed’

tollemacheSandy Felton talks to Xa Tollemache about her forthcoming lecture at the United States Botanic Garden and her philosophy on a ‘Garden Well-Placed.’

If you visit the United States Botanic Garden, (USBG) Washington DC, between now and the 5th June 2011, you can enjoy an inspirational journey through the landscape design and land art of Scotland by photographer Allan Pollok-Morris. The exhibition ‘Close – A Journey in Scotland’ features work from artists and garden makers including Andy Goldsworthy, Arabella Lennox-Boyd, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Antony Gormley and Xa Tollemache. Through large format photography, Allan shows a different side of gardening which is more than just the visual. ‘Close’ presents us with landforms and land art in such a way that we are able to appreciate the larger statement about how we humans interact with our landscape.

The work of Lady Xa Tollemache at Dunbeath Castle, is featured both in the exhibition and in Allan Pollok-Morris’ accompanying book; Close: Landscape Design and Land Art in Scotland’ (Northfield Editions, 2010) and it is appropriate that Xa will be one of the guests presenting a lecture at the Botanic Garden during the exhibition.

garden1Xa Tollemache has been designing gardens since 1995 with commissions both in the UK and the United States as well as Europe and Scandinavia. Although many of her projects are traditional in theme, each has it’s own character, designed to fit in with the surrounding landscape and architecture. Fitting therefore that Xa’s lecture at the US Botanical Garden is entitled ‘A Garden Well-Placed: A Designer’s Harmony Between House and Garden,’ which she will present on the 28th March, 2011.

She feels that one of the most important aspects to consider when designing a garden is that it sits in harmony with its house: “When I go to a site for the first time, I spend a long time understanding the house,” she explains. “I look at the landscape and study the light and where it appears. It is pretty much the same anywhere I go.”

At Dunbeath Castle in Caithness – one of the gardens featured in the exhibition (pictured above and below) – Xa was presented with a conventional garden with a mixture of vegetables, fruit and flowers but lacking architectural structure: “I realised that it was unique to have the space here”, she explains. “I wanted to retain that feeling, but at the same time keep the idea of a decorative and working garden but introducing contemporary structures and focal points.”

garden2Xa agrees that it is important for a garden to evolve and improve but the task is made more difficult when you are dealing with a historic or very traditional garden, so how does she get the balance? “Classic Contemporary! This is putting a new slant on the well tested and tried classic designs,” she explains. “It is important to have a knowledge of the history. It influences my design but at the end of the day, the garden has to fit with the lives of the people living there.”

Her own passion for gardening stems back to 1972 when she and her husband lived at Framsden Hall, a house on the Helmingham Estate (pictured below). At the time she admits that she was only interested in shrubs and roses but four years later when they inherited Helmingham Hall, her husband’s family home for 500 years, she was faced with a much larger garden and a different set of gardening challenges. She learnt plant names by visiting nurseries, other gardens and seeing and learning what was growing in her own garden at Helmingham.

garden3She pays tribute to her head gardener Roy Balaam who taught her new skills in developing herbaceous plants. Very much a hands-on gardener, Xa developed the Helmingham garden into one of the UK’s foremost gardens. Rosemary Verey considered the garden as one of the most outstanding in the country and it has featured in many leading publications including House & Garden and the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. Alan Titchmarsh filmed there for his programme ‘Secret Gardens’ and included Helmingham in his book ‘Favourite Gardens’.

Her first love was for her horses and after successfully racing and eventing she specialised in the art of dressage, competing successfully nationally and internationally. Sadly, her top horses went lame and Xa saw this as a turning point – wanting to have a new career she decided on garden design for by this time she was feeling increasingly confident having redesigned elements at Helmingham. She took drawing classes from a professional designer and mastered the art of drawing up scaled plans and axiometric drawings as well as learning how to survey. The rest is, as we say, history.

garden4Outstanding examples of her work can be found at Cholmondeley Castle, Cheshire, Wilton House, Castle Hill, Devon (pictured left) and in a formal garden and woodland garden in Virginia. It was her work in her own garden at Helmingham, however, that enabled her to gain the experience and knowledge to take on commissions for others: “Helmingham has taught me more than anywhere about the importance of scale and proportion. It is also a wonderful trial field for plant combinations.”

Of all her commissions she is perhaps the most proud of Castle Hill in Devon: “Here was a blank canvass,” Xa explains. “But a historically important site. It also helps to have enthusiastic and supportive clients, like at Dunbeath.”

Her garden for the Evening Standard in 1997 won a coveted Gold at the Chelsea Flower Show that year – her first appearance – she currently serves on The Herbaceous Perennial Committee of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) judging frequently at RHS Shows. She is also a garden advisor to the four RHS Gardens and very proud to have obtained her Digger Driver Certificate, although she admits that she could be a liability on her digger and is not to be trusted!

Asked what she feels a gardener can learn from visiting other gardens Xa confirms that an outside view is very important: “Being in your own garden is like living in a goldfish bowl – it is very difficult to be objective so visiting other gardens is always inspirational, one way or the other!”

For her lecture at the USBG Xa will recall gardener and philosopher Alexander Pope’s message – ‘always consult the genius of the place,’ – we wish her well as she imparts her own genius on so many gardens and landscapes both in the UK and abroad.

Xa Tollemache has her own website at: www.xa-tollemache.co.uk

‘Close – A Journey in Scotland’ takes place at the United States Botanic Garden, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC until 5th June 2011 – www.usbg.gov

The accompanying book ‘Close: Landscape Design and Land Art in Scotland’ by Allan Pollok-Morris is published by Northfield Editions – www.northfieldeditions.com

All photographs (with exception of Lady Tollemache) © Allan Pollok-Morris: Dunbeath Castle, Helmingham Hall, Castle Hill, Devon, Cholmondeley Castle, Cheshire.