Fan the creative flame in your garden

by Alice Wright

Henry James' garden Image: JR P

As The Garden Museum celebrates the relationship between gardens and literature, we take a look at how gardens can spark the creative flame.

June heralds the Garden Museum’s second annual festival of literature and horticulture in the gardens of Petworth House and Park in West Sussex; the event is a celebration of gardens in “literature, history, art and life”.

The festival taps into a fertile seam, and for writers and artists working amid the bustle of city life there is a rich history of gardens, both private and public, providing a peaceful place to retreat, reflect and work.

In Eltham, South East London, the rambling grounds of Well Hall House are closely associated with former resident Edith Nesbitt, who lived there for 22 years and is certain to have drawn influences for her much-loved children’s books. Many resemblances to the house and garden can also be found in her adult novel, ‘The Red House’.

Not far away, in Bexleyheath, is another Red House, whose garden was designed by writer and artist William Morris. Inspired by the trellised, enclosed gardens of medieval illuminated manuscripts, Morris’ garden was laid out in a series of “rooms”. Small squares were enclosed with fences creating a herb garden, vegetable garden, and two areas full of old-fashioned flowers such as jasmine and lavender. It is no surprise that it was here that ‘The Earthly Paradise’, Morris’ longest and most celebrated poem, was conceived.

Rded House

Images: Courtyard -aldisley; glass – Martin Stitchener; garden- Rictor Norton & David Allen

Generations of urban writers have also found inspiration in parks and public gardens. Perhaps most famous is the relationship between Peter Pan’s creator, JM Barrie, and Kensington Gardens. The likes of Matthew Arnold and Ezra Pound could also be found scribbling lines on benches here in their time.

Contemporary writer Sarah Salway explored the relationship between London’s green spaces and literature for last year’s Chelsea Fringe, visiting and writing about a different city garden every day for two weeks. Picking places that she felt were particularly good to read or write in, she chose a piece of writing that connected with the garden and offered a writing prompt for others to form their own literary responses.

The gardens she features on her blog, , include the smaller or lesser known, such as St Anne’s Churchyard in Wardour Street. The churchyard is a little green haven in the heart of the city with a rich literary heritage – essayist William Hazlitt is buried here and the crime writer Dorothy L Sayers was churchwarden for many years.

“I like to imagine her writing in the churchyard sometimes,” says Sarah.

For writers, gardens whether public or private, can become valuable extensions to their studies or offices – places to think, recharge and find inspiration away from day-to-day concerns.

Many have taken this to its logical conclusion and created a permanent outdoor retreat from which to work. Philip Pullman, Roald Dahl, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf are just a few of the writers who have produced some of their best-known work from a garden shed. These were often distinctly unglamorous – Dahl rested a baize board across the arms of an old armchair to write in his hut, while Pullman used to work in a cobweb-strewn shed in his Oxford garden, which he refused to clean for fear it would disrupt his creative flow.

Dahl Shaw Pulman

Images: Shaw’s Hut – G Travels;Dahl’s hut-Tim Milkins; Botanical Gardens Oxford Will & Lyra’s seat-Jon

And with space at a premium, garden studios and offices are becoming an increasingly attractive option for creative people of all kinds.

Julie Slater, a successful accessories designer from St Albans, is one convert. In need of somewhere to work but with little room in the family home, she ordered a log cabin kit for her husband to construct. She finds the 3.5m by 5.4m studio the perfect place to muse on her latest collection, inspired by the changing seasons outside. “I’ve found taking a little bit of time just to be in the garden, looking out of the windows at the squirrels in the trees, it clears my head,” she says.

Julie Slater

Julie Slater’s garden office

Julie is not alone, garden offices are mushrooming around the country – even inspiring a popular blog,  – and the companies that build them are booming. Sam Cullen, who runs Sanctum Garden Studios with her husband, Gary, has seen the business go from strength to strength since it launched in 2010.

“Away from the house, the garden room not only provides a quiet oasis but it also looks wonderful,” she says, adding, “Installing a garden studio gives you that extra room, but without the big cost of a studio.”

Sanctum’s newest design, the ‘Stealth Studio’, was created for customers with limited space and tighter budgets. The smallest 2.4m by 2.4m studio starts at £4995 and is clad in recycled plastic eco boards.


Sanctum’s Stealth Studio

But you don’t have to move your whole office into the garden to benefit from nature’s stimulating effect. The London-based creative organisation YCN, which works with a range of artists from illustrators and photographers to film-makers and publishers, has created a roof garden on top of its Shoreditch office to bring inspiration to the working day.

In fine weather, agency director Nick Defty holds meetings there and it’s also a space for staff to socialise or relax. It holds a symbolic role too, with a seed planted and nurtured for each new member who joins.

“It kind of personifies what we do here in terms of nurturing creativity,” says Nicholas Fahey, a member of the project management team and resident gardener. “For me, it’s quite a personal thing, I come in early to look after it and I find it quite therapeutic,” he adds. “It’s a pleasure, and a nice way to start the day. It just puts everything in context.”


Nicholas Fahey and YCN roof garden

To invoke the creative muse in your own garden, Sarah Salway recommends devising interesting areas to sit and contemplate the garden from different perspectives, rather than simply ‘plonking’ a table and chairs in the middle. She also suggests drawing influence from Little Sparta, the garden of Scottish writer and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, who incorporated poetry by carving words on to stones. Sarah is currently planning a new patio to have a similar effect.

And the small, urban garden does lend itself perfectly to recreating the Arts and Craft style popular with the writers of the Bloomsbury Group with its vibrant perennials densely packed into beds to create stunning visual displays; walled or enclosed spaces; and terraces connecting the indoors to out making the garden a natural extension of the house.

To get the Arts and Crafts feel at home, use natural materials for the terrace, such as stone or brick. You can also establish hedges and trellises to divide the garden into the series of rooms so favoured by the Bloomsbury set -these nooks and crannies will then become ideal for hiding away to sit and think.

Peace is also crucial for quiet contemplation. Thick evergreen hedging or densely planted shrubs will help to absorb noise, and plants with thick branches right down to ground level, such as hollies and juniper, are particularly effective. Introducing more pleasant sounds into the garden will help to reduce the impact of city noise further. Flowing water from a water feature can mask unpleasant noise, as can birdsong, so consider providing food, water and nesting boxes, along with some greenery, to tempt feathered visitors in.

Then simply sit, muse, and wait for inspiration for that masterpiece to arrive.

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