The Gardens at Brantwood: Evolution of John Ruskin’s Lakeland Paradise by David Ingram

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Reviewed by Barb Scharf.

“It comes as something of a surprise to most people to consider Ruskin the Gardener. Ruskin has been much written about as an art critic and is admired for his beautiful watercolours; he is famous as a powerful voice on social and economic justice, and even championed as a prophet of climate change. Yet all Ruskin’s writings grow from the fertile soil of specific places. Brantwood is one of three special places – Chamonix and Venice are the others – that sit at the heart of his work.”

So writes Howard Hull, Director of Brantwood, in the Foreword to this beautiful book, and I concur. I was personally surprised to discover this aspect of Ruskin, though I was already aware of his renown as an artist and art critic, and I had some inkling of Ruskin-the-articulate-lover-of-nature, having come across numerous quotations  by him in vintage gardening books, things such as this snippet (referenced by Ingram), from Ruskin’s 1882 botanical memoir and opinion piece, Proserpina:

I have in my hand a small red poppy…an intensely simple, intensely floral flower. All silk and flame: a scarlet cup, perfect-edged all round, seen among the wild grass far away, like a burning coal fallen from Heaven’s altars…

Impossible to read such passages without a stirring of the imagination, and I was therefore deeply pleased to discover through Ingram’s book a little more about the man behind these words, and much about the garden which was one of his most abiding inspirations.

David Ingram, a British scientist, botanist and horticulturalist, with an astounding number of qualifications in his field – “OBE, VMH, FIHort, FRSE, former Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, RHS Professor and Master of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge” and “current Honorary Professor at the Universities of Lancaster and Edinburgh” – was working on an exhibition of Ruskin’s botanical illustrations, and thought it appropriate to visit the site of the artist’s home for the last 28 years of his life, the house and grounds of the Brantwood estate, located on the shore of Coniston Water, in the heart of Cumbria’s Lakes district.

Ingram “fell in love at first sight” with the natural beauty and creative landscaping of Brantwood, and was disappointed to find that there was no guidebook to the grounds. He offered to write a small leaflet himself, a small thing of perhaps eight pages or so; what resulted instead was this 120-page guidebook detailing the Brantwood garden’s historical past and ever-evolving present.

Ingram has deliberately omitted discussion of John Ruskin’s life, work, and philosophy, as this would be a life’s work for a researcher and scholar all on its own, and has concentrated on pure description of the garden. He describes Ruskin’s development of the estate, including pertinent examples of Ruskin’s art in order to illustrate key points, and discusses the reasons why many of Ruskin’s original innovations were allowed to return to nature during the time of his final illness.

Ruskin’s cousin, Joan Severn, who had cared for Ruskin’s elderly mother and then taken on the increasingly challenging task of caring for Ruskin himself in his troubled later years when beset by physical and psychological ailments, fully took over the Brantwood estate after Ruskin’s death in 1900. Severn eventually doubled the size of the estate – at its largest it comprised over 500 acres and included over a mile and a half of waterfront – by purchasing adjoining plots of land, and established her own ambitious and beautiful gardens around the house and extending down to the lakeside.

Whereas Ruskin’s vision had been all about the enhancement of the natural landscape and the encouragement of colonies of wildflowers, along with rustic stone walls and paths, Severn’s vision was more traditionally Victorian. She planted for colour and immediate effect, and her ambitious shrubberies, bulb plantings and flower borders were full of the showy cultivars which Ruskin had himself gently scorned as overly artificial and domesticated.

Joan Severn died in 1924, and the Brantwood woodlands and gardens began to revert to the state of wildness which is only ever temporarily held back by the gardener’s strongest efforts. Ruskin’s stonework, already deteriorating, disappeared under cascading waves of grass and shrubby overgrowth, and the carefully coppiced woodland vistas to Coniston Water grew in until completely obscured.

The house itself was eventually purchased by John Howard Whitehouse, a fervent admirer of Ruskin’s, and was opened to the public as a permanent memorial in 1934, though the former gardens were allowed to continue their return to nature.

By the early 1980s, the grounds had deteriorated to such an extent that it was felt that visitor safety was endangered, and a recovery effort was started. Youth workers and volunteers began the daunting task of pushing back the wild, and then, with the arrival of dedicated volunteer Sally Beamish, a much more ambitious project was started: the salvage of the remnants of the Ruskin and Severn gardens, and the establishment of new plantings in the “Ruskinian spirit”. Beamish became official Head Gardener of Brantwood in 1988, and the present gardens show her inspired vision.

It is exceedingly difficult to portray such a visual sort of undertaking in mere words, though Ingram has done a fine job in that aspect. Enhancing the writing are the many pictures he includes: images captured throughout the seasons in 2012 and 2013, as well as reproductions of period photographs and Ruskin’s own drawings and paintings.

This book is the sort of thing one purchases as a souvenir after a garden visit, and that was indeed its original intent, as a publication to enhance one’s firsthand visit to Brantwood.

Though I am an ocean and a continent away from England, with no immediate prospect of experiencing Brantwood in person, I have gained much from my reading of Ingram’s appreciation of this unique place. I have learned more of John Ruskin’s troubled genius, and I have found abundant inspiration in the well-told tale of the evolution (as the apt subtitle asserts) of this particular garden, with its parallels to the every-garden of the every-gardener who seeks to put a personal mark on a particular landscape, while preserving the spirit of the place in which one is fortunate to dwell for whatever length of time one is given.

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Barb cultivates her own much more modest garden beside the Fraser River in the rural interior of British Columbia, and, when she isn’t busy in her perennial plant nursery, blogs mostly about books at Leaves & Pages

David Ingram, The Gardens at Brantwood: Evolution of John Ruskin’s Lakeland paradise (Pallas Athene: London, 2014 – In collaboration with the Ruskin Foundation). 978-1-843680-99-4, 120 pp., soft cover.

Find out more about Brantwood here.

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