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Other People’s Gardens: The Innovations of Russell Page

The legend of Russell Page, one of the world’s most famed garden architects, began with a local horse show in the plains of east England. Unimpressed with the stallions and showmanship, the quiet, shy fourteen-year-old wandered off towards the merchants’ stalls. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a tiny pot-grown Bellflower plant, with gorgeous royal-purple blossoms and delicate leaves. It was love at first sight: he purchased the plant for one shilling, and proceeded to borrow every gardening book he could get his hands on from the public library. Page thought he wanted to be a painter, and when he came of age, he left for London’s Slade School of Art. He eventually dropped out, but his schooling left an undeniable imprint on the horticultural artwork he created for his clients. Writing about his approach to garden design in his 1994 book The Education of a Gardener, Page describes his gardening philosophy in artistic terms, designing his masterpieces “just like one of those black-japanned tin boxes of water-colours…my art gallery of natural forms…my palette.” Indeed, Page’s most famous landscapes – the viewing garden at the Frick museum, the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens at the PepsiCo World Headquarters in Purchase, NY, and the luxuriant villas of San Liberato and La Landriana in Italy – derive their beauty from the careful attention to structure and form which can only come from an artistic understanding of the garden.

Page never had a garden of his own; rather, he vicariously claimed ownership of his clients’ paradises, outfitting them as he would his own garden. “I have set myself one or two simple rules,” Page writes. “First of all, I try to put myself in my client’s place and imagine that I have to spend the rest of my life with the garden which I am going to lay out – in other words, that I am designing and planting as though for myself.” In laying out his vision for his own hypothetical, personal garden, he describes a desire for a panorama and a garden existing simultaneously in an unassuming hollow. Despite his adoration of the luxuriant French garden, Page wanted his works to reinforce and honor gardening as “a most intimate pleasure,” a return to nature. Man-made forms– such as pools, sculptures, and paths — were not intended as the focus of his gardens. For Page, the real sculptures were the trees and flowers, arranged so as to reflect the unpredictability of nature.

Upon initial examination, Page’s work appears dissimilar from gardens in Europe and the United States, which begs the question: why does the gardening community hold him in such high regard? After all, most home gardeners paled in spending power to the commissioners of San Liberato and La Landriana, who could afford to outfit their plots with square pools flanked by sphinxes, Doric columns, or garden mazes. Rather, Page’s lasting legacy is thanks to his design principles, tenets which carried the grand tradition of French gardens like Versailles, as well as the austere English garden, into the twentieth century, re-envisioning them through a modernist, post-war prism. He was there to witness the paradigm shift in how Europeans viewed their gardens pre-and-post-war (World War II dealt a huge blow to how Europeans viewed both public and private gardens; many landowners who’d suffered financial losses during the war fired workers and saw their Edens fall into a state of disrepair), and understood the importance of function, not just finesse. His resulting masterpieces, therefore, presented the modern garden as a seamless integration of tradition and innovation, somewhere between a Romantic painting and an idyllic, untouched paradise.

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