Words and photos by Rosie Vizor, Russell Page Archivist
The Garden Museum would like to thank the Geraldine Stutz Trust for funding this role.
Russell Page was an internationally renowned British garden designer from the 1950s until his death in 1985 but he lived much of his life and created most of his masterpieces abroad. He is revered by the Italians who dubbed him ‘L’inglese’ but he felt most at home in Belgium, declaring to his Italian pupil Paolo Pejrone ‘La Belgique – c’est à moi’. What better place than Belgium then, for the Russell Page Archive Council – a group of individuals who support the cataloguing and publication of Page’s work – to take its second tour of Page’s gardens.
This blog post explores Page’s influence on two of the gardens that we visited; Hemelrijk and Kortrijk. These two gardens were designed with different approaches. The design of Hemelrijk was unique due to Page’s special relationship with the de Belder family who owned the estate. It was very much the product of informal conversations between Page and two of his closest friends, who were also horticultural enthusiasts. Contrastingly, Kortrijk was a set piece of formal design, which was more typical of Page’s design process with his clients.
The group began at Hemelrijk in Essen, home to the de Belder family since 1961. Page was good friends with the family, who were passionate and knowledgeable about plants and trees, developing an impressive arboretum at Kalmthout and a collection of botanical books. Page would come to Hemelrijk to unwind from his strenuous schedule, and it was easy to appreciate why he chose this as his peaceful retreat as we walked through the grounds on a crisp morning, with sunlight beaming through the rare and spectacular trees displaying an autumnal spectrum of colour.
Page inherited the claim of designing Hemelrijk from John Bergmans, who had landscaped the land for the family for the first nine years, redesigning the woods with kidney-shaped patterns and wavy paths. Page understood Georges, Jelena and Robert de Belder’s vision to create a ‘natural looking, idealistic, Arcadian landscape’ but there was never a master plan or formal commission. Indeed, Page never took any form of payment even though he could charge up to $1000 a day, preferring to work for nothing for clients he liked. His designs were sketched offhandedly on the corner of a coffee table in the morning or evening and were often forgotten in a drawer, with the essence of the design being captured rather than the plans being formerly executed.
This process is evident in the walled garden that Daniel de Belder showed us first. Robert de Belder planted a beautiful oak tree in the centre of the path and pierced a doorway at either end, creating an axis. Page had the idea of making a Persian garden out of the irregular quadrangle, with kaempferi (Japanese irises) planted in narrow basins in a cross-shape in the centre to create an orderly, symmetrical design. The irises didn’t survive the winters but Robert and Jelena kept the spirit of the design by introducing Ilex crenata microphylla (Japanese holly), to maintain the shape of the cross with hedges. Page then had the idea to create four quadrangles in the corners of the cross axis, making many sketches which were never really referred to or looked at, but Robert and Jelena followed the spirit of the vision.
Due to the earlier drought, as we walked through the woodland garden we had to rely on our imaginations to picture the scenes that Daniel de Belder and Diane van Strydonck described; a palette of pink and white shades created by the three cascading circles of hybridized Rhododendron yakushimanun with Rhododendron Britannia, and Russell Page’s pond (now completely dry) reflecting Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cypress). Passing by an enchanting, Taxodium distichum (Swamp cypress), Metasequoia, Vitis labrusca (Concord grape) and John Bergmans’ kidney-shaped pond, we eventually came to Page’s favourite spot; the terrace at Georges’ house, which now belongs to Diane. This was the place where the family met at weekends for Sunday lunch and where Page spent many hours sat drinking coffee, exchanging ideas with the family.
The most important design that Page created at Hemelrijk was the lake. 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’. We retraced their footsteps but unfortunately due to the drought this summer the lake was empty.
In comparison to Page’s lake, Georges’ pond that he’d dug in the Western part of Hemelrijk was puny in dimension and Page jokingly dubbed it ‘l’abreuvoir du roitelet’ (the wren’s trough). Daniel recalled that “sure enough a week later an escapee eagle from Antwerp Zoo chose the pond as a landing spot, somehow restoring Georges’ design capabilities”.
At 28 Wolvendreef in Kortrijk there was a different story. Council member Helene De Witte is the niece of the previous owner, Mrs Franck De Poortere, who had been dedicated to maintaining the garden that Russell Page designed in 1952-1953. The garden appears on the front cover of Gardens in Flanders; quite a tribute to Page. In fact, Page designed gardens for all three of the De Poortere brothers in Kortrijk, who owned a carpet factory. However, after a long period of struggling to sell the property the decision was made to demolish the garden and divide it into separate plots. As this was happening, the Minister for Culture and Heritage decided to protect the garden by giving it a listed status. The garden, which has since been sold, is undergoing restoration by Paul and Antoine Deroose under the supervision of the Flemish authorities for Monuments. Russell Page’s plans and writings have been instrumental in restoring the garden. However, the process has raised some interesting questions with regards to how Page’s vision should be achieved.
Restoring the garden back to the original plans exactly should be an easy task but when you start questioning whether the plans and the finished result decades later truly reflected Page’s original intentions, it becomes more complicated. Different garden designers made modifications to Page’s original design over the years, including Jacques Wirtz and Willem Bursens. A swimming pool and garden pavilion were built on the northern area where there was initially a vegetable garden. Negotiations between the garden designers, those working on converting the house and the Belgian authorities could be heated, we were told.
One of the most contentious topics has been the four large trees in the front garden – a lime tree, a beech tree and two oak trees, which rather dominate the view. One of the first questions that Paul and Antoine asked the authorities was: ‘shouldn’t we think about the fact that these trees are all too big in relation to the initial intentions of Russell Page?’. Indeed, Russell Page specifically states in The Education of a Gardener, ‘I repeat that I find it difficult to use forest trees, chestnuts, limes, beech or planes as specimen trees in a small garden’ (164). Helene De Witte elaborated that ‘if you use a big tree in a small garden, you make everything about it … that’s your main focus’. Although Page did include trees in some of the plans for the property, he did not indicate which type of tree or their exact positioning. Paul states that ‘when we make a garden plan now, we always draw the trees at maturity’. The discrepancies in Page’s plans make it difficult to decipher his original intentions. Paul argues that removing the trees would honour Page’s original intentions but unfortunately it is simply not up for discussion with the authorities. We were left with many questions; did Page plant the four trees which stand there himself or did he simply agree to the idea of trees? Whatever happened, shouldn’t they be replaced with smaller trees to preserve the proportions of his original design? Were there clues in the dates and annotations of the different plans? The experts and council members argued over the drawings for so long that we were late for the bus!
Having spent the last few months cataloguing the second deposit of plans from the Russell Page Archive, it was a real privilege to be able to see some of the gardens he designed in reality. While travelling between gardens, we listened to readings of extracts from Page’s second, unpublished book On Making Gardens, the draft of which is held in the archive at the Garden Museum. After wandering through Page’s masterpieces and listening to his sermons on colour, water and all the other elements that go into making a garden magical, it was easier to appreciate how Page believed that a garden was an expression of spiritual perfection, and his work a way of serving a higher consciousness. Visiting Page’s gardens prompted a reflection on the ephemeral nature of gardens; as living things they renew and transform every year, perhaps moving further away from the origin of the design. The concept of a listed garden is therefore arguably antithetical to the natural evolutionary spirit of a garden. Page anticipated that his gardens would mutate over time and made an attempt to counter this by preserving his legacy through his archive. While I am very glad that we have this wonderful resource, and can take measures to preserve it for future generations, it doesn’t beat walking through what remains of the gardens that he designed on a sunny autumn day in Belgium.
Below are some photographs of the other stunning gardens that we were generously invited to visit on the trip.