Land & Nature / The Colour of Death | The Garden at Hauser & Wirth

‘Cut down the dead tops of all herbaceous plants’, states the advice column in a tattered copy of Popular Garden Magazine, November 1970. ‘..unless they continue to have decorative appeal’. Almost half a century later and ‘decorative appeal’, when it comes to dead stuff in the garden, remains an indeterminable dispute. I have a stack of these old garden magazines by my desk, mostly published in the ‘60s and ‘70s, to which I often refer, sometimes unfairly, when marking the development of horticultural trends. I say unfairly as we did not know back then the things we now know, nor appreciate the things we now appreciate. The articles of these garden magazines were penned long before insecticides were frowned upon or ‘weeds’ put on exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show. The evolution of our understanding and appreciation of plants is one of the themes that came to mind recently while watching a new film about the Dutch garden designer, Piet Oudolf. Premiered earlier this Autumn, Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf (directed by Thomas Piper) is an intoxicating 75 minutes of herbaceous planting. The documentary follows Oudolf on visits to a handful of his creations, including the Lurie garden in Chicago, the High Line in New York and his own garden and studio in Hummelo, the Netherlands. The year-round seasonality of Oudolf’s designs is sensitively translated through considered cinematography and a pace conducive to an immersion within it. At the film’s heart, however, is the message that beauty is not necessarily a thing with petals, nor is it reserved only for the living.

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‘Beauty is in so many things you wouldn’t think of’, remarks Piet, ‘…but the moment you say that you love plants that are dead, then you have a problem. People don’t like dead plants’. Dead and dying plants feature in all Piet’s designs and, since its inception in 2014, play a significant role in his garden at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Somerset. I’d long wanted to see this garden, which featured prominently in the film, and at last found time for a visit earlier this autumn.

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It’s raining when I arrive; under the car boot I stuff notebook and camera into a crumpled waterproof, before crossing the farm yard footing of Hauser & Wirth’s West Country quarters. The gallery is situated just outside the town of Bruton in Somerset; a rural addition to a host of international art spaces occupying New York, Los Angeles, London and Zurich. In contrast with the comparatively modern architecture of these city residences, Hauser & Wirth Somerset exhibits its contemporary art in the restored barns of a once working farm. Since its opening in 2014, the gallery has gathered considerable acclaim, owing not only to the art exhibited but to an ethos of integrated visitor experience. Hauser & Wirth founders, Iwan & Manuela Wirth, together with Director Alice Workman, considered each component of the gallery as key to its central character, down to the food served and the setting in which it stood. This is what led to the commissioning of Piet Oudolf. Meeting me at the gallery Alice describes the initial thought process that took place. ‘The conversation with Piet was about how a garden would sit alongside the architecture and the surrounding landscape. We didn’t want the farmyard to change too much but the new planting should respond to the new architecture. So that was integral to what we ended up with’. What they ended up with was an attractive, relatively refined cloister garden featuring tall grasses and multi-stemmed magnolia trees, and the ‘Oudolf Field’; a one and a half acre meadow packed with thousands of colourful perennials. Alice describes how the field, once an orchard (as revealed by local maps), had an innate character of its own; its flat composition contrasting with the surrounding hilly farmland. ‘It felt as though it had been cultivated in the past, so we offered Piet the field as a blank canvas with which to do what he wanted. We trust the creative people we work with and give artists a lot of creative freedom, and that’s what we did with Piet’.

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The Oudolf Field is seen first through glass, framed by an enormous window at the back of the gallery. A small ornamental pond features in the foreground, just behind the first of 17 round herbaceous beds divided by grass and gravel paths. Near the centre of the garden sit 10 little grass mounds, circular and neatly edged. At this distance the planting appears as swathes of colour rather than a collection of discernible species. The colours run into each other, repeated here and there throughout the rectangular space. Although the rain persists under a gloomy sky, amazingly the plants display as luminous and vivid as on a much brighter day. Pink flowers of aster and persicaria are still full of vitality, as is the astonishingly lucid crimson of Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’. Grasses range dramatically in green, red, yellow and brown, from stout clumps of Sesleria autumnalis to the light and airy Molinia ‘Transparent’. And then there are the dead things–Piet’s signature seed heads, black and hardened. Phlomis and Echinacia stems float among the grasses while whole blocks of Eupatorium and Echinops exhibit newly darkened tones; the red and blue of their respective flowers having recently drained away. Their colour and form are integral to the autumn canvas of Piet’s design, intended to remain standing well towards the arrival of spring.

Balancing a planting scheme with decay like this in mind is not a simple task, after all there’s a fine line between beauty and a mess (cue the argument of ‘decorative appeal’). However if done well, the effect allows a garden to continually morph, altering its appearance as colour shifts in succession from one place to another. ‘The space always looks different’, Alice remarks. ‘There’s something really energising about the cycle of this garden; that feeling of time. Each change marks another moment in the year.’

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Keen to get up close and among the plants I head out into the wet and wander up along the central pathway. I’ve arranged to meet Hauser & Wirth’s Head Gardener, Mark Dumbleton, in the garden, and quickly find him absorbed in thinning one of the beds. We discus the stuff gardeners tend to discuss; seasonal demands of mulching and weeding, for example, and the upkeep of a defined and deliberate scheme. Regarding the latter he responds in favour; ‘I like the rules of this garden’, he says, ‘there’s no room for kleptomania. If I were to start introducing trees and shrubs we would end up with a mismatch. This garden is a concept, it’s Piet’s style and calling card. It’s hard to put your finger on why it works. Hypothetically’, he asks me, ‘what plant would you add to compliment it?’ We both think for a moment. ‘It’s actually quite hard to pick plants that don’t jar –that’s when you realise the definitiveness of Piet’s design’.

Leaving so many seed heads intact inevitably leads to a multitude of unwanted seedlings each spring, but Mark sees this as a small price to pay for a longer period of display. This moves our conversation naturally to the subject of decay. ‘I guess it’s subjective; it’s taste’, Mark suggests. ‘Some people look at it and say, “oh, it’s dead now”, but I think it’s stunningly beautiful. 99 percent of the stuff here decays attractively’. He singles out a large clump of blackened echinops: ‘they’ve really gone over now, but that dark leaf actually contrasts with everything else in the bed. The black leaf, for me, still serves a purpose’.

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As we’re talking, a visitor in the garden approaches Mark and asks would he mind ‘if I pulled off a seed head?‘ I almost can’t believe the timing. Mark suggests, with versed diplomacy, that the enquirer shake out the seed (from a stem of Phlomis) but leave the head in tact, because it’s there for its seed head. The visitor obliges and collects her seed, and Mark turns back to me with a smile. ‘Piet’s never set out to go, “look at my garden, this is how yours should be”. He always says that he just does what he feels is right, not what other people will think is right. Sometimes that’s the best way to do things’.

I spend another hour in the garden, drawn here and there through avenues of autumnal resplendence. I’m frequently stopped by a particular combination of colours or an encounter with an unfamiliar plant variety, referring each time to the gallery’s guide booklet containing Piet’s design notes. Alice’s remarks about the sense of time and change in Piet’s garden return to mind, recalling lines from a John Clare poem, All Nature Has a Feeling.

There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay

Is the green life of change; to pass away

And come again in blooms revivified.

Words by Matt Collins. Photography by Roo Lewis.

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