Hemelrijk 93 2910 Essen Belgium
1973 to 1976
Archive of Garden Design Ref: RP/1/5/15
At Hemelrijk, Russell Page worked closely with the owners, his good friends Jelena and Robert de Belder, to help deliver their vision for the more than 260 acres of parkland. It was a work of friendship rather than a commission and, as at La Mortella (the home of Sir William and Lady Walton), Page never submitted an invoice for his designs.
Page’s stays with the de Belders were a welcome break from his busy schedule. All three were united by a shared passion for plants. Jelena de Belder (née Kovačič) was a highly knowledgeable horticulturist, with a degree in agronomy. She met Robert de Belder on a visit to see the ancient trees at the Kort nursery in Kalmthout; Robert and his brother Georges, who ran their family’s diamond business, had bought the property, with its 21 acres of rare trees, in 1952 to protect it from possible destruction due to a proposed building project. Jelena and Robert married within a few months. They set about transforming and expanding the former nursery, and the Arboretum Kalmthout is now considered to be one of the most important botanical collections in the world.
Georges, Robert and Jelena bought Hemelrijk, not far from Kalmthout, in 1961. A much larger property, stretching to over 250 acres, it encompassed open meadows and woodland areas, and once had been home to a nineteenth-century castle (this was demolished in 1970). As at Kalmthout, the de Belders set about filling the space with an impressive collection of plants and trees; it would eventually contain around 6,000 specimens.
Page started designing at Hemelrijk in the early 1970s, taking over from John Bergmans. Presumably due to the informal nature of Page’s working process with the de Belders, with many decisions being made during conversations on the spot, there are only four drawings of Hemelrijk in the Russell Page archive collection, and two of these are freehand sketches. All of them relate to the walled garden, the shape of which was a slightly skewed square. Robert de Belder had planted an oak tree at the centre and added entrances at each end of a pathway. Page suggested devising a layout inspired by Persian gardens by adding another pathway, effectively creating a cross. The sketches (RP/1/5/15/12 and RP/1/5/15/11) show an octagon shaped structure at the intersection of the two paths, with narrow canals of water along the north-south axis, to be planted with Kaempferi (Japanese irises). The four sections of garden created by the crossed paths would each have their own character, with different designs for each suggested.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Page returned to Hemelrijk on a regular basis. One ongoing task was to assist with the planting of thousands of rhododendrons, many in shades of pinks, mauves and whites such as Rhododendron yakushimanun with Rhododendron Britannia.
Although not documented in the plans, Page’s key addition at Hemelrijk was the new lake. The working out of the design is described in Rosie Vizor’s account of a visit to the garden by the Russell Page Archive Council in 2018:
Looking out across the large open area of low-lying fields bordering the Netherlands with water sometimes stagnating in the centre and an avenue of willow trees across, one morning Page said to Robert: “Go and get as many sticks as you can carry and follow me”. Only after Page had finished a huge bowl of coffee, the pair set off with Robert carrying all the sticks and placing them around the perimeter precisely as Page directed. The idea was that the perimeter could never be seen or guessed from any point, creating an air of mystery. The construction of the lake followed the initial positioning of the sticks exactly; it was designed by ‘pure gut feeling’.
Following his death in 1985, Jelena de Belder wrote a personal reminiscence of Page, some of which described her experience of how he worked:
His morning walk in the garden was always a source of inspiration. My husband skipped the office if he could and left later when Russell took his mid-morning coffee. He did not mind, perhaps even preferred, to drink his mid-morning coffee alone, sketching or taking notes. That was his most creative part of the day when he stayed with us. He used to be so concentrated, sitting in the library at the long table facing the garden, that he did not notice if I entered on the tip of my toes in the room. After lunch, the food was not of great interest to him, he retired for a short rest and then went into the garden again and again. He made many sketches, plans and suggestions for Kalmthout and Hemelrijk, not only for the gardens but for the buildings as well (the new hall in the AK, our house in Hemelrijk, the terrace in front of Diane’s house and the general disposition of our various collections). We followed most of them and sometimes regretted it when we did not. We gardeners often hesitate between many possibilities, trying to find the right place for every plant we had collected or could not resist. But he had a feeling or experience for the right one without hesitation. His capacity to get the feeling of the place, to absorb the surroundings, to see the potential without being influenced by the existing, was fabulous. I have never met another person who came close to it. […]
He imagined exactly the shape, the size and the contours of our pond, which we call Russell pond, without touching a pencil or paper. He felt it with his whole body and walked the contours without turning his head a single time. I marked the edge of the pond with a stick which my husband firmly stuck in the ground. It looked so right without the slightest correction, on the spot we considered most desolate. We could not wait to start the work. In three weeks it was ready, the soil softly modelled around, permitting a good drainage of the whole area. Three months later, 27 Bewick’s swans spent the night on the newly dug pond on their way to Siberia. It was a consecration!
De Belder, Jelena. “Souvenirs on R. Page.” Jelena and Robert De Belder: Generous as Nature Herself by Diane Adriaenssen, Laconti, 2005, pp. 101-104.
Horyn, Cathy. “The Meadowlands.” New York Times, 1 April 2007, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/style/tmagazine/04well.belgarden.t.html?auth=login-google.
van Zuylen, Gabriella and Marina Schinz. The Gardens of Russell Page. Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2008.
Vizor, Rosie. “La Belgique – C’est à moi: The Russell Page Archive Council Visits Belgium.” Garden Museum, 9 November 2018, https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/la-belgique-cest-a-moi-the-russell-page-archive-council-visits-belgium/.