The following is an extract from the introduction to ‘Tom Stuart-Smith: Drawn from the Land’ by Tim Richardson, the first critical monograph about the work of one of the leading landscape designers working in the country today.
Tim Richardson writes:
“The story begins with Broughton Grange (2000), a celebrated commission which truly established Stuart-Smith’s reputation as a contemporary designer of note, and continues through a number of other spectacular private projects, many of them focused on walled gardens. There are also public and private designs undertaken in a variety of challenging historial settings, as well as a series of experiments in naturalistic planting – in the meadow at the designer’s own home, The Barn, at Vergelegen, in Massachusetts, and most recently at La Granja Alnardo in Spain.
In fact, the story really begins in the Hertfordshire countryside in the hamlet of Serge Hill, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest of London, where Tom was born and brought up. His childhood home is a substantial Queen Anne house (c.1710) with Regency additions, at the centre of a 100 hectare (250-acre) estate with walled garden, woodlands, herbaceous borders and a small park descending sharply into a valley bottom with uninterrupted views south. The idea of a ‘home’ has been unusually important to this designer: Tom still lives, with his family, just a few hundred metres away from the ‘big house’, in a converted barn sited across the lane. Other family members live very close by.
The woods and gardens of Serge Hill House formed the wellspring of Tom’s understanding of landscape. In his youth he would assist his father, a barrister, in an activity they called ‘wooding’. ‘Every single morning of the school holidays we would go off and plant trees or do some woodland thinning,’ he recalls. ‘We did that three years in a row and got a huge amount done. All these trees we see in the park today, I planted in my late teens and twenties – it’s when I got that bug.’ Tom’s parents also ran a small market-garden business from the walled garden, and during the school holidays Tom and his siblings would work there for an hour a day.
‘Self-sufficient’ and ‘nucleated’ is how Tom describes family life at Serge Hill with his parents and five brothers and sisters. There was a strong focus on music. ‘This family was our entire world,’ he says. ‘We used to put on our own plays, and every summer there was a week when around twenty people would come and play music. We’d have chamber music and even a little chamber orchestra.’ (The impulse towards music-making remains strong among the Stuart-Smiths; private recitals and concerts are convened regularly at The Barn.)
‘I think it’s quite easy to get buried in a large family, so I felt very strongly that I had to find my own niche,’ Tom reflects. ‘One of my brothers had already started to get into the trees, but like a great fat cuckoo in the nest, I sort of got in there and took over.’
It was early on during his time at Cambridge, at the age of nineteen, that Tom decided he wanted to go into landscape design, largely because of his ‘wooding’ experiences at Serge Hill. Through a family friend he was introduced to leading landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe, joining him on a walk round the garden at St Paul’s Walden Bury, where Jellicoe advised, and alter going for tea at his Highgate flat. ‘There was me thinking I was going to find out about planting herbaceous borders and things like that,’ Tom says, but with Jellico it wasn’t like that at all. It was all pretty cosmic. I was a bit bewildered by Jellicoe, but I did think he was pretty extraordinary.’ Other early influences were the plantsman, designer and journalist Lanning Roper, and garden designer and historian Penelope Hobhouse, who was a family friend and early mentor.”