Morris’s Earthly Paradise: Nature, Division and Structure

by

Paul Harper


As with all things that he turned his hand and mind to, William Morris was a passionate gardener, deeply knowledgeable about plants and steeped in the art and science of horticulture – although, as with some of the things that he turned his hand and mind to, his genius was for organisation. He was a great, and influential, creator of gardens. He was not much inclined to wield a spade.

For Morris the garden was a richly symbolic space. In his verse it is a place of sensual pleasure, love, erotic longing and memory – the unruly beauty of nature, contained and given human meaning.

He loved nature, but, whilst he was clearly inspired by the extravagantly bleak grandeur of Iceland, in truth he favoured the more regulated landscapes of southern England. Not for him the Romantic sublime of Helvellyn, he first found his muse in the wildish woods of Epping, and later on the banks of the gentle Thames. He extolled the rustic honesty of vernacular design and the bucolic simplicity of rural life but loved the teeming conviviality of the city. Kelmscott Manor in rural Oxfordshire may have been his spiritual home, but he was ever drawn back to Kelmscott, Hammersmith. It is not to say that he didn’t love nature in wild and unruly form, but that his love was balanced by an essentially homely temperament and perhaps an Enlightenment sense of order.

This ambivalence is given idealised expression in his ideas on garden design. Here was nature humanised, circumscribed perhaps. In a lecture delivered in 1879 he summed up his conception of a garden,

       … large and small, it should look both orderly and rich. It should be well fenced from the outside world. It should by no means imitate either the wilfulness or the wildness of nature, but should look like a thing never to been seen except near a house. It should in fact look like part of a house.

Morris was a pattern maker and in his patterns we see a kind of schema for his love of nature. In his textile and wallpaper designs he developed a distinctive visual language based on natural forms, richly layered, with all the spiralling luxuriant abundance and fluid energy of vines, branches, leaves and flowers – stylised and regulated through a process of repetition, division and structure. Similarly, his gardens can be read as complex but orderly patterns. Long grass walks ran between neatly planted orchards of apple and cherry trees; nearer the house; there would be square beds, defined and protected by low hedges or wattle fences, containing a lush profusion of colour and form; the walls of the house itself might be trained with climbing plants – jasmine, honeysuckle, roses and passion-flower – all the parts conceived as one complete whole. Burne-Jones’s wife Georgina compared the garden at Red House to those depicted in medieval illuminated manuscripts, evoking a delightful image of precise geometry combined with free embellishment and brilliant colour.

So far, this narrative conforms to a common image of Morris: medievalist, Romantic, designer of quintessential English interiors and gardens.  But what is always important about Morris’s endeavours – his designs and crafted objects, his writing or his gardens – is not the actual products in themselves.  These were just by-products of what he most valued – the sensuous and intellectual labour of making them. For Morris, the garden is a place where physical labour and aesthetic labour converge, and as such a formative locus of his political thinking.

The association of gardening and flowery wallpaper might suggest a gentle Fabian, but Morris was a radical Socialist who pioneered a kind of proto-Ecological Socialism. His ideas had evolved as a response to the nineteenth-century expansion of industrial capitalism, which he observed as having a detrimental effect, not only on the material, social and spiritual wellbeing of mankind, but on the ecosystem that sustains us.  

Seen from our own times, the connection between Morris’s radical politics and his gardens may not be immediately obvious. Aesthetically, it may lie in the balance between a human instinct for pattern, for making sense of our environment, and the freeness of nature. The garden becomes a model for an ideal relationship with nature – man and nature in harmony, and gardening, as an activity, becomes a practice of harmonizing the human will with an external reality, a letting go of the self – a microcosm in which we learn and act out this relationship.

We must learn to love the narrow spot that surrounds our daily life for what of beauty and sympathy there is in it. For surely there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty; and it is this reasonable share in the beauty of the earth that I claim as the right of every man who will earn it by due labour… that is the claim which I make for you in the name of art.

His conception of ‘due labour’, or ‘useful work’ was not solely or even principally concerned with an aestheticized means of production or material outcomes. At the heart of Morris’s concerns was the question of how to live well,

Well now, to begin with, I am bound to suppose that the realisation of Socialism will tend to make men happy. What is it then that makes people happy? Free and full life and the consciousness of life. Or, if you will, the pleasurable exercise of our energies, and the enjoyment of the rest which that exercise or expenditure of energy makes necessary to us

To toil in the garden and then to sit back and take pleasure in the fruits of one’s work is the very opposite of alienated labour. For Morris, gardening is not merely compensation for the industrialized, alienated world in which it takes place, but rather something that forms an organic link between the self and the surrounding material and social environment. The acquisition of knowledge and skills grounded in this kind of physical engagement with the material world, and the pleasures that follow from it, formed the basis of Morris’s politicized theories of art and work.

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Gardening Wilderness: Ruskin at Brantwood

By

James A. Holliday

In autumn, when we visited, Ruskin’s garden was caught in the rain and wet through. Water had soaked into every surface. Drops balanced on large, flat leaves and ran down long ferns. Moss that blanketed rocks and trees, held water like a sponge in the bath. When it stopped falling, it still sounded all around. Between the layers of leaves in the treetops, raindrops continued to fall. From leaf onto leaf, drops fell and spat their sound. The sun was finding its way in and as I looked up to follow the raindrops’ sounds, I saw it soak into the leaves and whiten them. If we had been closer, we would have seen the skeletons that hold the leaves together.

Raindrops fell through the layers of leaves in the treetops and pattered onto the slate paths. These were washed purple. Like the hills around Coniston and the rest of the Lake District, purple slate drapes the surface. The paths here are slate; made from, and laid onto, the earth they are dug from. Ruskin, with no interest in straight lines or neat paths that kept natural growth hidden under stone, made paths that unfold through the garden. Stones were laid crookedly, with spaces between. In these spaces, wildness would grow. When we walked, the wet ferns that hung over the paths, soaked our jeans and shoes. The wet lichen and moss on the paths made it slippery underfoot while grass and weeds came up between the stones. But, we were walking a landscape, through the textures that grow in open land. Ferns and bracken cover the fells we had earlier walked through. Here, Ruskin gardened, but it was gardening to provide space for nature to take over.

As we moved through the garden, it was clear that Ruskin was a gardener who, rather than pruning and decorating, wanted to create a landscape that could exist without him. Ruskin was apprehensive towards mechanical aids to gardening and this extended to the glasshouses that were built – with his reluctance. For a man who believed so deeply in God, it must have been an oddity to try and control the sun and heat. But, while he was sceptical of the growing potential offered by the glasshouse, he found joy in the cracks between the bricks. Here, as with his crookedly laid paths, weeds and wildflowers would appear. Again, nature came through.

The treetops, so full of rain, canopied the garden at Brantwood and we stood surrounded by what felt more like woodland than garden. It was another reminder of how Ruskin stood aside to allow the natural world to come to the fore.  Before Ruskin moved to Brantwood, the woodland around the house was heavily, and frequently, coppiced. Trees were cut back and the wood turned and used for burning charcoal. We tried to imagine the absence of trees in the garden; tried to mute the sound of birds resting on branches and ignore the still present sound of raindrops falling. As the garden unfolded and we went deeper into it, trees were a constant presence. There was seclusion given by their height and the light changed as it fell through the leaves in different places. Now, we think so much about the impact of deforestation. Photographs of vast forests being blanked out and left exposed and weakened are so easily brought forward. It was strange, and sad, to think of the trees at Brantwood being absent.

After Ruskin’s arrival, the exercise of coppicing the trees was stopped. All over the grounds, the oak and hazel trees were allowed to grow. Held in his mind was the image of Botticelli’s Ascent to the Heaven of Fire. In this, Botticelli drew the Garden of Eden filled with trees. This was an illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy and it was from these trees that Dante and Beatrice ascended. In the illustration, the sun hangs low, breaking through the trees. And, so it was when we visited. Through the treetops, the sun found its way into the garden.

There is engineering here too, but it is well hidden and we didn’t notice it as hand built. Ruskin’s interventions have been left and nature allowed to grow over and into them. In the garden at Brantwood, Ruskin exercised his long held interest in water and encouraged it to move throughout his landscape, redirecting it and digging into the hillside to allow water to flow down the face of the garden. The sound of water wasn’t only from the last raindrops above our heads. Stones and steps positioned in the water, allowed it to form waterfalls. We followed the paths that went alongside, but also over the moving water. Ruskin’s design meant that moments to pause were orchestrated to meet dramatic natural moments. On the wooden bridge, we stopped and looked below at the stream falling over the multiple levels of stones and listened as this gentle stream frothed and foamed at different levels.

Ruskin did not garden from a distance. Tools were kept by the back door and he could work the garden after his daily writing. But, while it was Ruskin’s hands that laid stones, he was not alone. His politics, perhaps more in line with Socialism that had yet to be fully realised, were not only theoretical or for espousing. Politics as strongly believed as his were for practicing and shaping a life with. Brantwood was a collective endeavour that allowed Ruskin’s imagined landscape to be created. It also allowed him to use the skills and strengths of those around him to build a landscape that, when it had grown, would be seamless with what already surrounded it. Not only appear seamless but truly be so.

Tired and slumped in the ground is ‘Ruskin’s chair’. This, like the paths and waterfalls, is made of stone from the ground it sits on and moss and weeds grow on and around it. In a photograph, Ruskin leans against a garden wall. He looks old and relaxed as he rests his elbows on the wall. Between each stone, flora grows and is slowly covering the wall.

As Ruskin aged, his garden bedded in. As he stood back, the landscape could fully grow.

Let

The

Wild

In

by

Catherine Thomas


In November of last year we acquired our first (half) allotment. Two Landscape Architects with no garden pined for evening sun, chattering birds, the smell of earth, patio barbecues.

Our little slice of wilderness was sleepy with winter but full with promise of brambles and teasels and bindweed.

We began to plan and design our plot just as we might any other public space or commissioned garden. We studied the hedgerow on our western  boundary; its heritage as a field boundary on 19th century maps. We studied the views out across Tesco, Brislington and to distant rural hills; the allotment’s gently sloping topography; where to pencil out our spaces to sit and enjoy the vista. We studied the existing structure: the small teal shed, chicken coop, makeshift shower-door cold frame, and two thistle-filled baths. These objects (some immovable, others not) gave us our three dimensional structure. We studied the sun’s aspect, the prevailing wind, and the microclimates of shelter beside the shed and hedgerow; our planting beds and where the camping chairs might go started to be drafted up. We spoke to neighbours who shared their knowledge of the soil and it’s favoured crops. We began to choose a palette of plants: annuals and perennials; vegetables and flowers; plants to remind us of grandparents; fruits we could never find in the shop.

Whilst we drew out our layout, rooted up brambles, plotted paths and dug out levels through the winter, it struck me how the allotment’s human community – like the ruderals – had also fallen asleep. They waited for the thrill of seed potato day in March. Our community instead was ecological. The blackbirds, robins, song thrushes and blue tits coaxed courting calls in February. Ravens coasted overhead croaking. The blackthorn quietly budded and speedwells blossomed between the turf. A smooth newt escaped our re-levelling and digging. Whole worlds of yellow meadow ants protested at being dug up (I apologised). The pond we had found under a mat of grass greeted the frogspawn in March. The local foxes made a timetable to trot past casually.

With the number of urban dwellers forecast to increase substantially over the next century, and with small and medium towns expected to take a large proportion of this growth[1], the need for urbanised populations to connect with their natural surroundings grows pressing.

The ability of intimate green spaces to connect a person to their natural world – wild natural processes – is extremely important. As a Landscape Architect, always dealing ‘with the push and pull of nature and human development’[2], it is so exciting to me that this connection is possible even on the micro scale of an allotment.

It seems essential that an increasingly urban (and suburban) population should occasionally glimpse a world they do not inhabit: one that runs independently to and sometimes subversively against neat and orderly controls. A universal process; something greater than oneself; that is continually moving and changing. The connectedness of nature is a comforting experience that is central to wild nature’s relationship to human wellbeing.

Urban encounters with the wild – whether that be through gardens, allotments, parks or even waste ground – are a heightened version of the sublime, ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’[3] – an experience associated with romanticism and wilderness. Where encounters with the sublime mountains and canyons of the 18th and 19th centuries were rooted in the majesty of huge scale, remoteness, and a connection with an almighty god, encounters with the modern sublime can lie in a sudden personal encounter with unexpected wildness. For an average suburbanite, this could be through a glimpsed view into some accidental brownfield meadow, or a chance meeting with an urban deer; ‘the imagination does the travelling’[4]. For those of us who are lucky enough to be able to interact with our own or a community garden, it is the sublime feeling of something ‘other’ and more permanent than ourselves that is key.

And so, when we did come across our fellow allotmenteers, they ruminated on the resolve of the badgers and slugs, or awed over swooping buzzards overhead.

The wild community, though often ephemeral in its characters, feels equally as beneficent as a human community; because with your fingernails soil-encrusted and having learnt the familiar call of the dunnock, you are as much a part of it as anything else. When we consider the wellbeing that our gardens and public green spaces afford us, we should remember – as well as the plotting, planning and controlling – to let the wild in.


[1] Simson, A. (2016). Benefits that trees can bring to urban futures. 4 Mar., Landscape Institute Conference, University of Sheffield

[2] Landscape Institute (2018). About.

[online]

Landscapeinstitute.org. Available at: https://www.landscapeinstitute.org/about/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2019].

[3] Burke, E. (1757). A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful. 2nd ed. [ebook] Project Gutenberg, pp.67-262.

[4] Farley, P. and Roberts, M. (2012). Edgelands: journeys into england’s true wilderness. London: Vintage.

Isatu Hyde and Kai Venus-Demetrio. November 2018

Exhibition foreword

When I was studying in London, the Victoria & Albert Museum opened its furniture galleries. I had become increasingly interested in modernist furniture. I enjoyed Le Corbusier but found wood more appealing. A trip to Kettle’s Yard had satisfied and continued my taste in wooden modernism. I looked forward to seeing the V&A chart the history of furniture. I cycled down from college, skirting around traffic and pedestrians on Exhibition Road and pulled up outside the museum. In the entrance hall, I took a moment to look up. I always try to look up. Here I was ringed by Edmund de Waal’s installation of white vessels, sat within red and placed in the domed roof above the ticket desk. I had come to see furniture but was prepared to stop at ceramics.

As a child, my parents brought me to the V&A. Our house was one dotted with ceramics. Ornamental plates rested on bookcases; a one eyed lion named Nelson sat on a windowsill and figurines, repainted by my mother, appeared throughout the house. In the museum’s ceramics gallery, my mother showed me the wider families of these pieces. It was interesting but they were fussy and decorative and served only to be looked at. At home, the pieces provided paused moments. I held the objects and studied them. I turned them in my hands and looked for seam-lines and discrepancies in the painting. But, behind glass, they lost me. It was the earthenware pieces and plain teapots that got me. Simple and beautiful in shape and finish, they could be used and asked to be handled. It was almost saddening to see them behind glass.

As an adult and with a bicycle parked up, I walked through the ceramics, to the new furniture gallery. In the glass cabinets, I noted the ornate pieces that I had seen throughout my childhood and the simple, utilitarian pieces that I enjoyed so much. In the furniture gallery, I walked through the different periods, the varying styles and materials. There were the heavily carved and decorative, dark wooden chairs that spoke of historic drawing rooms and dynasties. But, as with the ceramics, it was the minimally decorative pieces that had function and form at their centre. These are the pieces that can be used and their construction enjoyed. Their material is at the fore and celebrated without decorations.

As it is too, with Isatu Hyde and Kai Venus-Demetrio’s work. Theirs echoes the utilitarian pieces of furniture and ceramics of the museum but also brings quiet contemplation. Things can be monastic without involving God or religion. Experiences are full of reverie and thought without being hung on belief. Experiences like this extend to making, especially when this is solitary. Material and form are deeply considered. Function and usability are tested and resolved. These pieces by Isatu and Kai, provide paused moments in which to examine and pay attention to the details of construction.