An excursion to the Hauser and Wirth art gallery in Bruton, Somerset with gardens designed by Piet Oudolf has long been top of my wish list. Based on a flurry of recent visits, these are my impressions of Oudolf Field and the Cloister Garden in early autumn.
It was a perfect time to go, the planting seemed poised in time midway between late season colour and sumptuous seedheads.
The initial view of Oudolf Field greets visitors while crossing a cool stretch of formal lawn that acts as a relaxation area and transitional zone between the gallery proper and the naturalistic planting. A further delineation of space is marked by a rimless reflective pond, on the gallery side is a zone of wet meadowland and marginal planting. At the far end of the garden a shell like structure hovers above the garden.
It was worth pausing at this end of the garden before emersing ourselves in the planting. I like Louise Bourgeois’ all-seeing pair of black granite ‘Eye Benches’.
This, the most beautiful garden guide I’ve ever seen, is based on Oudolf’s original design and has a complete colour coded key to 115 genera used in the planting. Containing 26 000 plants it is a complex, seasonally layered scheme. The subtly mirrored, asymmetrical borders contain blocks of plants either side of the sweeping gravel path. To one side of the mid point are three looser plantings, the Sporobolous Meadows. Here the Dutch designer’s hallmark plants mingle in his characteristically painterly style. Side borders (in grey) are adjuncts to the main beds, this is where taller plants are found. The layout of paths encourages a meandering exploration of the space, the planting has a leisurely rhythm and, for me, the kaleidoscopic changes of perspectives were the greatest surprise.
The 1.5 acre site is rectangular, flat and bordered on two sides by rolling countryside complete with grazing sheep. Hawthorn hedges, dating back to its days as a field-proper, enclose the space, behind which on the third side a line of trees that screen the sports field next door. From here with the slight rise of the land, it’s possible to imagine what the once-pasture looked like before gallery owners Iwan and Manuela Wirth embarked on their ambitious project to reinvent the Grade II listed Durslade Farm.
Although I have been following news about the garden since it opened last September, I’d missed the arrival of the gallery’s largest single exhibit the Chilean architect Smiljon Radic’s Pavillion installed in March. I’m glad I did, I think I’d already come with excess baggage aplenty.
Until this spring the expanse of rough grass at the far end of the garden remained notably vacant. In retrospect, I wondered if the area was conceived as a plinthe with precisely this sort of folly in mind, even the rough hewn quarry stones looked at home. Without the help of the exhibit’s booklet, I’d never have guessed Radic’s inspiration was Oscar Wilde’s parable The Selfish Giant, making this his interpretation of the giant’s castle. Maybe the Swiss art dealers represent the big-hearted giant? The gardens and galleries are open Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am -5 pm. Admission is free.
Wending my way back towards the gallery gave me a chance to leave my whimsical thoughts by the wayside in order to appreciate the details of the planting lying either side of the gravel walkway. I liked the way Oudolf punctuated the surface with tufty clover-rich discs, nudging visitors towards the curving grassy paths between the slightly raised contoured beds. It’s easy to loose track of time in this garden, there’s so much to see and the stylishly pared back palette of plants is a plantaholic’s dream. Although planting is made up of about 70% flowering herbaceous perennials, my eye was drawn to the restrained use of grasses. Two in particular caught my eye :
Swathes of flowering Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ shimmer and shimmy, used in a mass their dynamic nature is almost hypnotic.
The hues of the panicum blend harmoniously with the planting, especially with the last show of colour from orange Helenium ‘Moorheim Beauty’. In general the planting is kept low, the result is an undulating quilt of meadowlike vistas.
A second equally upright but much taller Switch Grass, Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’, not yet in flower, creates blue tinted accents towards the back of the beds along with other statuesque perennials. North American prairie grasses tend to be late flowering, making them useful for autumn interest. Other than Molinia ‘Transparent’, this is the only other tall grass used in the garden. In flower tall panicums make a dramatic statement reaching 2 metres or more.
Lower growing Sesleria autumnalis, a European native, carries equal weight in the planting, providing stunning contrasts in the autumnal borders. As a near evergreen cool season grass it puts on a terrific year-round performance with a second burst in the autumn when it turns into chartreuse mounds.
I love the way the ripening seed heads stand out like dark rockets against the luminous foliage.
In just one year sesleria has filled corners like this, whereas it will take a while longer for others like the charmingly airy but slow growing Sporobolous heterolepsis to stand out. Next year there just might be a hint of popcorn or coriander in the air, thanks to the maturing prairie dropseed.
Slideshow of some other seasonal highlights :
The Cloister Garden
The Cloister Garden is where architecture of old meets new. This is a bold and dramatic space, overhung by more than shadows from the elevations of the buildings.
Oudolf’s planting is superbly refined hinging as it does on the use of just three grasses : Sesleria autumnalis, dwarf Molinia ‘Moorhexe’ and Deschampsia ‘Goldtau’, all of which appear in the larger meadow planting, here they create a different effect and mood. It’s hard to imagine any other plants that would work as well to complement the disparate colours and textures of the natural and manmade building materials : straw blond deschampsia and limestone; ripening dark seed heads of the molinia and wood/stone/tiles; and the space made airy by glowing autumn moor grass. I bet it looks stunning at night ….
On close inspection of both the plan and the gravel drifts, the seasonal planting is much more sophisticated than first meets the eye, there are seasonal treasures – in late September ethereal whisps of actaea plus fresh bursts of colchicum stud the mix. The dynamic spider was also created by Louise Bourgeois. I hope it stays.
I wished I could stay too, however, tea in the courtyard beckoned before the journey home. For those with the good fortune to live further afield than I, it might be an excuse to stay in At The Chapel, a trendy restaurant and boutique hotel close by. Incidentally, they manage some of the on-site catering for the fabulously funky Roth Bar and Grill. Bruton itself is worth exploring, the low-down was given in an article in The Telegraph earlier this year.
On his deathbed, John Steinbeck fondly recalled the picturesque village of Bruton as a place where “Time looses all meaning. All the peace I dreamed about is here.” He was reflecting on his extended retreat at Discove Cottage where he worked on a first draft of the posthumously published The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.
Even after only a handful of hours, I felt the same way about this artful garden. It really was like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole to emerge among the pages of one of my favourite reference books, Planting : A New Perspective (Timber, 2013) by Piet Ouldolf and Noel Kingsbury.
Note : There’s a great series on YouTube of gallery events last autumn/winter, Piet Oudolf in conversation with Tania Compton begins with a 20 minute discussion of the garden’s concept and design.