Pimpernel (2020) h/b 304pp £50 (ISBN 97819102588110)
This is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary place. F. was by training an art historian not a gardener, but has since 1992 been developing, almost single-handedly (save for one heroic part-time helper), a thirty-two-acre garden at Coombe House in Devon as a ‘vocational necessity’. The gardens are his expression of a spiritual and psychological vision that draws its inspiration from a wide range of sources in philosophy, poetry, art, myth and ‘wisdom teachings’. His vision is realized and articulated through some thirty separately landscaped areas of the grounds named after deities in the Greek pantheon (and mapped for the reader in the elaborate endpapers). These deities are identified and celebrated not through statues but, F. tells us, through their ‘felt presences’ induced by the plantings and the ‘spatial gestures’ of the landscaping. Every detail of the gardens—the lawns, hedges, bowers, groves, flower-beds, fritillary meadows, water features, walks and vistas—has been lovingly pondered and sensitively realized to create these numinous effects.
F. signals his underlying purpose in the book’s title, Plaz Metaxu, the ‘between place’, which in the Introduction he calls his arrière pays, the hidden backcountry for his garden’s cultural influences. He sees his creation as existing in a ‘fabled space’ between its physical embodiment and its imagined evocations, and the book takes us on a guided tour, first past the entrance stones, which have been inscribed to reinforce these messages and prepare the visitor for unexpected experiences as well as the more familiar pleasures and consolations of visiting beautiful gardens.
The body of the book then describes in great detail the areas devoted to the different deities that serve as the archetypes inhabiting each separate garden within-a-garden. These include major figures like Artemis, Hermes, Hades, Pan and Ariadne, as well as many minor but, for F.’s purposes, very suggestive ones like Auxo (‘Growth’, a luxuriant walled garden), Pothos (‘Longing’, an orchard harking back to its archetypal origins as Eden), Kairos (‘Opportunity’, the lawns conveying the brief moment when things are possible), Orexis (‘Desire’, a spatial reaching-out), Themis (‘Natural right’, a reminder of our dependency on stable regularities) and Ananke (‘Necessity’, shaped like a constraining noose). Significant places are also represented, for example by Ithaca, Epidauros, Eleusis and Imbros, the latter pair twinned thematically as well as spatially to commemorate respectively female and male ‘points of view’. Everywhere there is the same attention to possible symbolic resonances of this kind in the structural planning.
These topical chapters are interrupted and divided first by an Intermezzo, explaining the flows of water to the central lake (Narcissus, an easier association to predict); and then by an Intercession, further meditating on the betweenness of Plaz Metaxu as a kind of interval, which is represented physically here by a slate caesura inscribed into a lawn in the heart of the garden. There are many other such inscriptions, disks, statues and artworks dispersed through the gardens, and these provide some welcome moments of light relief from the intensity of the commentary when Forbes confesses to the practical difficulties in maintaining them. The marble bricks outlining the Pan figure on a hillside opposite Themis, for example, were undermined by badgers, grubbing for pignuts. One feels he might have quoted Horace Epistle 1.10.24 at this point, naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret.
There is an appendix charting the chronology of the garden’s development, and a very full set of notes referencing the huge range of sources on which F. has drawn and adding more personal reflections. The volume is completed with a detailed index, which is a very thorough and internally complex guide to all the topics, concepts and names discussed in the text. In what may be a symptomatic indication of the book’s expected readership, however, it is striking that this extensive index contains no headwords at all for the trees, flowers and bushes that were planted to populate these gardens and animate their themes, let alone for the wildlife that will have arrived unbidden.
The book is very lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced in a large quarto format. The whole design and production mirror the devoted care and thought that has gone into creating these remarkable gardens themselves.