The word ‘Paradise’ comes from the old Persian word for ‘walled enclosure’ and some of the earliest gardens were just that: irrigated walled enclosures in the middle of the desert. This is the image with which the acclaimed landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith opened his talk on walled gardens at the Festival of the Garden, which he curated at Charleston farmhouse in July.
Stuart-Smith also referred to the Medieval ‘Hortus Inclusus’, meaning enclosed garden, illustrated in texts such as the Roman de la Rose, a place where wealthy nobility could retreat from the world and conduct courtships in private.
Water is central to the walled garden, as a sacred emblem from which all goodness flows. Stuart-Smith spoke about how a fountain in the middle of a garden can be compared to the ‘Omphalos’ stone at Delphi, which literally means ‘navel of the Earth’, helping us to feel centred.
He then spoke about some of the walled gardens he has designed. One of the most celebrated of these is Le Jardin Secret in Marrakech, where he has created two walled gardens on the site of a former riad: an Islamic garden, divided into a four-part geometric pattern with rills of water and planted with olive, palm, pomegranate and fig trees; and an exotic garden showcasing plants from around the world.
He is also working on the Jellicoe Garden, part of the Aga Khan Centre at King’s Cross in North London, which combines formal elements of a Persian garden dating back to the sixteenth century with more naturalistic planting such as might be found in an English garden. Here it has been decided to make the pavilion – another key element of an Islamic garden – roofless to avoid the London grime.
When he talked about the three-acre walled garden which he has worked on at the Encombe Estate on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, Stuart-Smith was almost reduced to tears. He spoke of the ‘Narnia effect’ of entering the magical world of such a garden, where he has created a flower garden within an orchard, with topiary, roses and a fountain in the centre.
He ended with a reference to the Italian novel and film ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ in which a wealthy Jewish family in northern Italy at the outbreak of the Second World War seek refuge in the garden of their mansion but are unable to escape the rising tide of fascism. Sometimes, it is necessary to look over the wall of a garden, he concludes. Perhaps this is the opposing philosophy to Voltaire’s Candide who advises ‘We must cultivate our garden’ as a response to the horrors of the world.
Charleston itself is a walled garden, probably built originally for the very practical reason of protection from prevailing winds from the downs, but later becoming a sanctuary for Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and their social circle. Now, under the tender care of head gardener Fiona Dennis, it is blooming with roses, hollyhocks, zinnias, globe artichokes and old-fashioned pinks, a little slice of paradise in Sussex.