Thursday, 10 October 2013

Happy 80th birthday to John Brookes - influential garden and landscape designer

John Brookes is to garden design and landscape what Terence Conran was to household interiors – so major has his influence been on the way we have come to perceive the space outside our homes in the last 50 years. He has taught several generations of gardeners to to explore and enjoy the concept of “The Room Outside” through his pioneering garden designs, his prolific writing and his teaching. John is 80 this week, but continues to work at a pace that leaves most of us standing! 
John in his garden at Denmans last week
Although I have only known him for a couple of years, I’ve been privileged to work with John on two occasions in India. We have travelled, shivered and laughed together as we faced impossible driving conditions, unexpected low temperatures and ridiculous situations where we were either unable to make ourselves understood, or had been so misunderstood that the end result caused us to collapse in fits of merriment. 
John on safari in Ranthambore - December 2012

But we have also explored amazing forts, castles and gardens during long journeys through Rajasthan and climbed more steps in a day than most of us would normally climb in a month. We have also worked with charities near Jaipur and Udaipur and even been on tiger hunts in Ranthambore, although sadly we never caught sight of this amazing creature. 
     John is an entertaining travelling companion and I feel lucky to have had the pleasure of his company when visiting India. What’s more, he’s remarkably fit when it comes to climbing the huge numbers of steps that are part of any trip to an Indian fort!
     I first met him in the summer of 2011 in a private garden he designed in Sussex – Ecclesden Manor near Worthing. He was sitting in the summer house and I asked if I could interview him. I was surprised to hear he knew of “The Galloping Gardener” and when he asked me why I’d never featured his garden, I’d no reply except to say that I’d love him to show it to me. Within a week, he introduced me to the magical kingdom he has created at his home in Sussex - DenmansGarden.

That first visit to Denmans will always remain in my memory because John was a charming host and guide and talked passionately about the concept of garden design, while pointing out some of the unusual plants at Denmans and highlighting some of the understated views that make his garden so special. Since then I have visited John many times at his home and each time I find something new to amaze me in his garden – be it a plant or a vista.
Denmans in springtime
John’s list of achievements is impressive – four times a Chelsea Gold Medal winner; awarded an MBE in 2004 for garden design and services to horticulture; more than 1200 garden designs for clients worldwide; a host of books and magazine articles; lectures and teaching assignments worldwide; and on a personal level, one of the most gentle, charming and entertaining figures in and out of the garden I’ve yet had the pleasure to meet. I rarely encounter anyone in the gardening world who’s not acquainted with John – even if not in person, but through his reputation.
He trained with Dame Sylvia Crowe and notable plantswoman, Brenda Colvin and then went on to study landscape design at University College London. By the middle of the sixties he had set up his own private practice. Since then he has never looked back and is known all over the world for his pioneering garden designs at both private houses and public gardens, including the English Walled Garden at The Chicago Botanic Garden, Samares Manor in Jersey, the College Garden at Westminster Abbey and Zespol Palace Park in Poland, to name just a few that are accessible to the public.
Denmans in summer time (taken in June this year)
There are few garden designers who don’t own copies of his books, including the seminal “Room Outside” and “The Book of Garden Design”. And for a really interesting insight into his life, career and garden designs, it’s well worth reading Barbara Simms’s book, “John Brookes – Garden and Landscape Designer”.

As an octogenarian, Brookes will continue to travel all over the world as a garden design and landscape guru, advising clients and producing new designs for those lucky enough to enlist his help on the garden dreams. Fitting in lunch or dinner is not easy these days as he is so much in demand, but we will be returning to India again together in 2014 because John is the mind behind the landscape at a new project that I'm working on in Rajasthan.

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