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Home > Archive > Russell Page Archive: La Mortella

Russell Page Archive: La Mortella

On an island off the coast of Naples, Russell Page worked with Lady Susanna Walton, wife of the composer Sir William Walton, at their home La Mortella to create an unexpectedly lush garden on what was at first little more than a dry cliff face.

  • La Mortella, Preliminary Sketch Plan

    RP/1/10/13/1

    1956

    54.5 x 94 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A dyeline design dated 1956, marked ‘Preliminary garden plan, Garden at Forio d'Ischia, scale 1/200’ (reference number 82/136/1). The plan shows the entire plot and includes several buildings as well as areas of garden. The changes made to this initial layout can be seen by a comparison with the map drawn up by a surveyor in the 1970s (RP/1/10/13/6).

  • La Mortella, Colour Sketch Plan of Garden

    RP/1/10/13/2

    [1956]

    55 x 92 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A pencil and coloured pencil design on tracing paper, marked ‘Walton [20 decembre]’. The plan is similar to RP/1/10/13/1 and thus likely to have been executed around the same time. The changes made to this initial layout can be seen by a comparison with the map drawn up by a surveyor in the 1970s (RP/1/10/13/6).

  • La Mortella, Surveyor’s Planimetric Map

    RP/1/10/13/6

    1979

    99 x 120 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A dyeline plan marked ‘Rilievo plano altimetrico zona S. Francesco, Forio d' Ischia, prop "Sir Walton", scala 1:200, surveyor A. De Fusco’ (handwritten reference number: 82/136/1). The map shows the main pathways which were created to link the various parts of the garden, as well as the egg-shaped pool designed by Page and positioned below the house.

  • La Mortella, Rough Sketch of Garden

    RP/1/10/13/3

    [1977]

    42 x 37 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    An ink drawing marked ‘Walton House, Ischia, Philip Lord Moore, 57-77’ (there is also an inscription on the reverse: ‘Book, Ischia, Sir William Walton’. The rough sketch shows the egg-shaped pool which Page designed to sit below the house.

  • La Mortella, Arrangement of Pool

    RP/1/10/13/5

    March 1982

    38.5 x 52 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    An ink and pencil design on tracing paper dated 29 March 1982, marked ‘La Mortella, Ischia, Suggested arrangement of pool, scale 1/50’ (reference number 136/2). A drawing of an octagonal pool to be situated close to the egg-shaped pool.

  • La Mortella, Plan to Link Swimming Pool and Hydrangea Walk

    RP/1/10/13/4

    March 1982

    38 x 55 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    An ink and pencil design on tracing paper dated 29 March 1982, marked ‘La Mortella, Ischia, Suggested linking of main pool and hydrangea walk, scale 1/ 100’ (reference number 136/3). A more formal drawing of RP/1/10/13/5, showing the proposed design for a new octagonal pool.

  • La Mortella, Ischia

    RP/4/3/32 (1 of 4)

    June 1987

    A colour photograph showing a patio at La Mortella, Ischia.

  • La Mortella, Ischia

    RP/4/3/32 (2 of 4)

    June 1987

    A colour photograph showing a patio at La Mortella, Ischia.

  • La Mortella, Ischia

    RP/4/3/32 (4 of 4)

    June 1987

    A colour photograph showing a patio at La Mortella, Ischia.

  • Letter from Susana and William Walton to Russell Page

    RP/2/1/3

    [1981 or 1982]

    An undated letter from Lady Susana Walton to Russell Page inviting him to the screening of a film to mark Sir William Walton’s eightieth birthday on 29 March 1982, and asking for advice about linking the middle jet and lower fountain following the removal of some bamboo plants.

La Mortella, Zaro, Ischia, Italy

1956 to 1982

Archive of Garden Design Ref: RP/1/10/13

Described by their friend the actor Sir Laurence Olivier as “a south-facing stone quarry”, the Waltons bought their then barren plot of land on the volcanic island of Ischia in the mid-1950s (Desmond). Called Le Mortelle after the wild myrtle bushes which grew on the rocks, the land had neither a house nor, at that time, water. The task of creating a home fell to Susana Walton, and she took on the challenge with passion. She secured the services of Russell Page early on in the project, and he advised not only on the garden but also on the positioning of the house. He would return to La Mortella several times over the years: the plans in the archive date from 1956 to the 1980s. As was often the case with clients he considered friends, Page never invoiced for the design work.

Page assisted mainly with the design of the lower garden, known as the Valley. As ever, he worked with the existing landscape, incorporating the volcanic rocks into the design, and linking the separate areas that stretched across the rockface through a series of paths and steps. Two of the plans in the archive (RP/1/10/13/1 and RP/1/10/13/2) show his initial thoughts for the overall layout. This changed somewhat once running water arrived on Ischia and he was able to include pools in the scheme (see RP/1/10/13/6 and RP/1/10/13/3). Indeed, as Susanna Walton later recalled, Page used the positioning of three fountain jets, bursting out of pools, to create an L-shaped structure around which the rest of the design was created (“Susanna Walton”). The height of these jets is proportionate to their relatively low positioning within the garden scheme; as Page noted in The Education of a Gardener “a fountain jet is apt to look out of place at a high point in a garden unless there is a hill somewhere to suggest, at least, that your jet is expressing the force of water coming from still higher ground” (232).

There are only six existing drawings in the archive, one of which is a surveyor’s plan, and they do not reveal much about the design process. Although illustrations of La Mortella were included in The Education of a Gardener, it was not specifically mentioned by Page in the text. The archive does include, however, Page’s handwritten notes about the garden (RP/3/1/2; there is also a slightly amended typed version: RP/3/1/3). This was written for a planned second book, with the provisional title In Making Gardens (the majority of the texts for this book have never been seen by the public). Although very much a draft, it is illuminating and worth citing at length:

The land was a narrow gulley and a hillside so steep as to be almost a cliff richly covered with the dark greens of Quercus ilex ‘Alaternus’ and common myrtle, and the gulley at its foot was a dry weedy hollow strewn with huge and beautiful weathered chunks of lava spewed out at some period by Nepomeo (sic) the now eroded volcano whose jagged crater rises steeply a mile away. […]

The house was to be backed against the cliff, its entrance perhaps thirty foot above the floor of the gulley where lay three huge rocks in a spatial relationship that might have been set out by a Zen master in Kyoto. To accentuate this I designed a more or less eggshaped pool planted now with water lilies and nelumbiums for eventually water was brought from the mainland to the island. […]

The plan is simple. The main terrace of the house is on the third floor and may be a hundred foot above the pool. Beyond and behind, a narrow and long flight of shallow steps leads up to a small fountain jet which you just see between myrtle hedges which flank the steps. […]

Steps, paths and dry walling all cut from rocks on the property make sunny terraces and gently curving paths and flights of steps leading up to the base of the house. The planting here changes to Yuccas, Agaves, Strelitzias, Russellia, Echeverias and many other succulents large and small. Here too are Convolvulus mauritanicus, C. cneorum, Nierembergias and sedums. To one side a little wooden hut which hides fountain pumps is covered with Mandevilla suaveolens white and intensely fragrant – against Araucaria excelsa and an equally tall Cypressus Arizonica glauca. The cypresses I placed to give vertical accents have all succumbed to the disease which has decimated Italy’s most characteristic trees but we have still superb plants of Magnolia grandiflora and Umbrella Pines and a forty foot jacaranda above huge bushes of white datura and blue white lace cap hydrangeas set in drifts of agapanthus, the main glory of this garden in June.

Ischia bubbles with radioactive springs and plants grow with a vigour and speed (Liriodendron tulipifera has reached fifty foot in barely twenty years) that I have not found elsewhere in Europe except around the northern Italian lakes and the huge circular crater of an extinct volcano which is now Lake Bracciano twenty miles north of Rome. […]

This is an untidy garden. Plants flourish exceedingly. Beds are lightly forked and not dug over. [?] begonias, ferns, iris, kaempferi seed themselves about. Putting in a new plant means sacrificing some of the heterogenous ground cover. […]

This is a garden that reflects its owners’ passionate interests. Plants which willy nilly decide to grow thrive in the most unexpected combinations. A frail wooden toolshed is a scaffolding for a mound of Mandevilla jasmine. Sambac reaches up to a covered terrace thirty feet above the ground on which a large stone bowl harbours the crimson and yellow Gloriosa rothschildeana scrambling thru a night blooming cereus twelve foot high.

The majority of the upper part of the garden, referred to as the Hill, which includes three tropical greenhouses, was developed by Susana Walton. A keen gardener, she had worked closely with Page from the outset to create an atmosphere in which her husband could fulfil his creativity: a “composer’s garden” as she later described it (“Susanna Walton”). Yet she and Sir William greatly respected Page’s knowledge and experience, and were no doubt happy to defer to him. Both chose The Education of a Gardener as their book choice on Desert Island Discs (Sir William appeared on the programme in 1982, Lady Walton twenty years later).

Following Sir William’s death in 1983, his ashes were buried at La Mortella. A plaque marks the site, now known as William’s Rock. In 1991, Lady Walton decided to open the garden to the public; it is now managed by the Fondazione William Walton in Italy.

Literature

Desmond, Steven. “Giardini La Mortella: A lost world of near-tropical beauty tucked away on an Italian isle.” Country Life, 26 January 2018, www.countrylife.co.uk/gardens/giardini-la-mortella-one-great-gardens-world-172698.

“Giardini La Mortella.” Fondazione William Walton, https://www.lamortella.org/en/garden

Page, Russell. “La Mortella.” Unpublished manuscript, undated [1976?] (Archive of Garden Design RP/3/1/2).

— “La Mortella.” Unpublished typescript, undated [1976?] (Archive of Garden Design RP/3/1/3).

The Education of a Gardener. Harvill, 1994.

“Susanna Walton.” Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 13 January 2002. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009486t

van Zuylen, Gabriella and Marina Schinz. The Gardens of Russell Page. Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2008.

Walton, Susanna. La Mortella: An Italian Garden Paradise. New Holland Publishers Ltd, 2002.

“William Walton.” Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 27 March 1982. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009mkvb

Related material in the Archive of Garden Design

RP/4/3/32: La Mortella, Ischia: four colour photographs showing a plaque to William Walton and a patio at La Mortella, Ischia.

RP/2/1/3: Letter from Susana and William Walton to Russell Page.

Related material elsewhere

There is photographic material relating to La Mortella in the RHS Lindley Library reference collection (PAG/2/1/12; PAG/2/2/2; and PAG/2/3/9).