Great British garden-makers: Russell Page

Page’s The Education of a Gardener is probably the most influential 20th-century book on garden design. He was a gardener in the broadest sense of the word; he understood all the disciplines that are necessary to create a satisfactory space around a house. He also had the knack of writing in a manner that was never too specific, so that his readers could apply his wisdom to almost every situation.

It is the universality of its lessons that is the great strength of his book. It says nothing about decoration; Page concentrates throughout on the principles of the subject-styles, designs, sites, themes, plants and planting. ‘The art of composing a garden is a question first of selection and then of emphasis.’ It is the vagueness of such statements that fascinates his devotees and makes each sentence read like Holy Writ.

What is it about Page’s designs that makes them instantly recognisable? Although infinitely attuned to the character of every different house and situation, there is something about his work that is common to them all-symmetry and structure, proportion and harmony, scale and unity. His gardens are self-disciplined and correct-understated, unfussy and invariably inspiring. Grand but simple, they appeal to the philosopher in each of us. And he was brilliant at handling large spaces and creating gardens that require very little skilled labour to maintain; Page had a gift for understanding what his clients wanted and how much they could cope with after his departure.

Page was always thinking and adapting to new sites and situations. When commissions began to arrive for Mediterranean gardens, he learned to use olive trees, Italian cypresses, umbrella pines and cycads for structure, and native shrubs such as cistus, rosemary and lavender for evergreen colour and form. Some of his best work was done in Italy; the garden he made for Lady Walton at La Mortella on Ischia shows the handiwork of both designer and client.

Page’s brief was to make something from the bare rocky hillside that plunges down in front of the house. He started with a small pool at the bottom and surrounded it with native mediterranean plants cistus, lavender and rosemary as well as xerophytic cacti that would survive the absence of water.

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When copious supplies of water became available later, he enlarged and remodelled the garden around a long, Persian-style rill and replanted it with trees that have grown up to shade a large collection of ferns and tropical plants, supported by a system of overhead watering. Susana Walton, recently deceased, developed a deep knowledge of plants, and the combination of Page’s structure and her sharp eye has made La Mortella-now open to the public-one of the most admired of modern gardens.

But Page never lost his ability to ‘think big’. When asked, late in life, to design the sculpture garden for PepsiCo’s head office at Purchase, New York, he had to bind together a motley collection of modern installations scattered among woodlands and lawns around a lake. His first innovation was to insert a sinuous circuit of golden gravel to link the whole design office buildings, sculptures, lake and woodland before starting work on the spatial relationships and augmenting them with plantings
of trees and shrubs. Walking that golden walk is a most exciting experience-Page-issimo.

Charles Quest-Ritson

1906 Montague Russell Page was born on November 1, 1906, the son of a solicitor in Lincoln. He was educated at Charterhouse, studied painting at the Slade in London for three years, and then for five years (1927-32) in Paris. His skill as a garden-maker developed from a childhood love of plants. Before he reached his 18th birthday, he had made a substantial rock garden for a rich neighbour, met Gertrude Jekyll, seen her garden at Munstead Wood, stayed at Mark Fenwick’s Abbotswood and visited Hidcote Manor, the garden that influenced him-so he said-more than any other.

1927 When Page went to Paris to study painting, he encountered grand French architectural landscapes for the first time. It was their clarity and scale that most impressed him, and, thereafter, he always gave primacy not just to design, but to the relationship between a house, its garden and the wider landscape. Although he was a good plantsman, France taught him that structure is more import-ant than planting-paths, views, hedges, steps, grass and water make a much more critical contribution than anything so ephemeral as plants.

1930s A chance encounter with the future Marquess of Bath led Page in 1932 to restore the Capability Brown landscape at Longleat, simplifying and renovating the formal gardens around the house and planting an exotic mixture of ornamental trees and flowering shrubs along the long curving drive towards the Warminster gate. It was his first large commission, and set the pattern for much of his career-making huge but simple, formal and informal designs for extremely rich owners of large country houses. In 1935-39, he practised in partnership with Geoffrey Jellicoe, and in 1937-39, taught landscape architecture at the University of Reading.

1945 After the Second World War, Page moved to Paris and practised largely in France, but also in Switzerland and Belgium. Nevertheless, he was asked to design the gardens in Battersea Park for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Page intended the plantings to raise the spirits of the British people after years of war and shortages; they included 20,000 yellow tulips and great blocks of bright pink and crimson Floribunda roses.

1960s-1980s Page returned to England in 1962, the same year that his important book,
The Education of a Gardener (left), was published. His commissions included, in 1964, gardens for Don Bartolomeo March on Majorca and San Liberato, near Rome, where olive trees (above) were a key feature. The charming flower garden he made for Lady Caroline Somerset at Badminton in 1965 was one of his favourites-a series of small enclosures leading to a walled garden with a white-painted trellis at the centre and box-edged beds spilling over with old-fashioned roses and herbaceous plants. He died in London on January 4, 1985.