Thursday, 30 May 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 2

Another arrangement will be, that the gardener is paid a certain amount in  wages, more or less, according as a house is provided for him or not, and in that case the usual arrangement is that the owner and the gardener divide the profits on the sale of the flowers.  This, of course, is just applying to the garden the system which all, or nearly all, the farms in Tuscany are worked, for it is rare to find a contadino sufficiently well to do to be able to rent a farm on his own account.  Some cheating in the settlement of accounts is inevitable, but not to such an extent as might be supposed, for a computista or accountant is employed who goes through these, at stated times, and who can tell to a nicety how many barrels of wine or of oil ought to be forthcoming. Of those unhappy forestieri who have bought land here, and attempted to manage it themselves, I hardly know one, among my own personal friends, who has found it possible to get a supply of vegetables for his own table, and who has not been thankful eventually to resign the charge of management into the hands of a professional fattore.  
But to confine ourselves to garden arrangements. There is yet another set of conditions under which many of those are worked: the sale of flowers is agreed for, but not that of plants.
Where the gardener is allowed to sell both flowers and plants, good-bye may be said to any idea of pleasure in the garden, which then becomes only a market garden, “kept”,  up to the very door and windows of the house, in the most appalling state of mess and disorder.
In the case where no wages at all are paid, the landlord is bound to provide a certain amount of “plant”, glass houses and fuel to work them, as the Tuscan winters are often bitterly cold, and unless means of forcing were liberally provided there would be nothing for the gardener to sell.  Although labour of all kinds is as yet very cheap in Tuscany, gardening, properly carried out, is a somewhat expensive pursuit. Fuel is very costly, and many different kinds of earth are required:  castagna, scopa, terra bruga, of all of which a supply must be provided every spring for re-potting.  These are often brought from a great distance by very primitive “wild-men-of-the-woods” looking people.  They generally try to persuade you that their price is precisely that which was asked, and which you paid last year; but a  reference to your account book will probably show that a considerable addition is being made.  But to do them justice, their trust in the English word is unbounded, and, although they can neither read nor write, if you point to the entry in the book, and say, “You see this is what I paid you last year”, the little attempt at an addition is at once abandoned.  I was taking the address one day, of one of these gentry, and asked, “Well, but is that all?” and the answer was, “If you put Il Feroce on the envelope every one will know whom the letter is for.”
No Tuscan will ever spend one franc for the purpose of making two francs, and the way the poor plants are starved is afflicting to see, - pots only half full of earth, and that of a very poor quality.
The subsoil here is always a mystery, but, as a rule, it is safe to assume that it is bad, and one constantly sees fruit trees and fine old ornamental firs that have struck something fatal at the roots, slowly decaying till they are cut down.
It is extremely difficult to get a Tuscan gardener who has been accustomed to selling, to be content to forego the practice, even if his wages are on a scale to afford him a larger profit as well as the advantage of being a certainty.  I have known several instances here of foreigners who have bought properties and have endeavoured to keep the garden entirely for home use, but who have been obliged to revert to the old system of the country.
It will therefore be easily understood, that the well-ordered English garden is a thing not to be achieved here in Tuscany. One may reproduce it with a certain amount of success, as I believe we ourselves have done; but I would almost say that if you wish to enjoy your English garden in Italy, you must suffer the ghost of your English “standard” to sleep. By enjoy, I mean possessing your soul in patience, and not crying for the moon.   And you will, also, very soon discover, as I did, that any little knowledge you may have appertaining to garden matters in England is absolutely useless here in Tuscany, where all the conditions of soil and climate and methods are so entirely different.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Roaring Dell

The Quantock Hills are where Lyrical Ballads was conceived and largely written.  In mid-May the landscape is enchanting, the tall woodland trees all shades of light green, showing branches still visible, dry leaves  and wild garlic underfoot. You hear the streams in the deep narrow ravines before you can see them. We walked from the famous waterfall at Holford steeply up to Alfoxden House, with wide views down to Kilve’s delightful shore and the sea beyond, with the long Welsh coast for horizon, and discovered a hidden, abandoned walled garden, warm in the sun.  
On the open moorland we met mares and foals strolling on the road, and drinking from Wordsworth’s muddy pond, not far from several aged thorns. 

Down in Nether Stowey we stayed in Tom Poole’s house where Coleridge spent the summer of 1807, and naturally we visited the cottage where he and Sara lived with their infant son Hartley and a succession of literary visitors, in uncommonly cramped quarters, from 1797-9. The National Trust has cleverly re-organised the undistinguished building to convey its original two-up, two-down arrangement, connected by a staircase within the chimneybreast, with a kitchen, yard, privy and well beyond, and a long rising garden, where Coleridge remained with a scalded foot, when the others walked to Holford, to
''that roaring dell, o'er wooded, narrow, deep, And only speckled by the mid-day sun; Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock Flings arching like a bridge; that branchless ash, Unsunn'd and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves Ne'er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still Fann'd by the waterfall!  And there my friends behold the dark green file of long lank weeds That all at once (a most fantastic sight!) Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge Of the blue clay-stone...'

 Upstairs is the manuscript of a poem Poole wrote to
'Coldridge! Youth of various powers: I love to hear thy soul pour forth the line To hear it sing of love and liberty, As if fresh breathing from the hand divine...'
 In another room lie quills, ink and paper, for visitors to pen their own odes, which is a nice touch.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 1

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902

“It is pleasant to have flowers growing in a garden.  I make this remark because there have always been many fine gardens without any flowers at all, in fact when the art of gardening reached its height, it took to despising its original material”
“We moderns have flowers but no gardens.”
“Gardens have nothing to do with Nature, or not much”
Vernon Lee
“Tidiness is one of the last gifts of civilization.  We now pride ourselves on our order  – we forget how very recent an accomplishment it is.”
‘The Soul of a People’. Henry Fielding
 Most of us have come under the spell of the charm of the old gardens in and about Rome, with their groves of cypress and ilex trees, their fountains and their statuary, all recalling the splendour of a bygone past, - delightful places in which to dream away the hot hours of the summer afternoons, to watch the sun slowly sinking, and flooding the desolate campagna with colour as it sets, or in which to sketch such favourite “bits” as we wish to have a memento of.  But I doubt if it has ever occurred to anyone to wish to possess – let us say, the garden of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, or that of the Villa Lante near Viterbo, or, even the most fascinating of them all, the old garden on the Coelian, where St. Filippo Neri was wont to sit; and where to-day the villa to which it belongs is, during the greater part of the year, uninhabitable, owing to the malaria from the campagna below it.
None of these are gardens in the English sense  of the word, a place in which to plant and cultivate the flowers we love best.
The lovely gardens of North Italy, along the shores of the lakes, approach much more nearly to our English ideal.  The abundance of water in that district, joined to a climate much more temperate than that of Tuscany, make North Italy the real home of Italian gardening.   And yet, – I do not know if anyone else shares the feeling I always have in these beautiful spots, belonging now-a-days for the most part to small German royalties – they are show places, lovely to look at and enjoy as part of a holiday tour, but somehow not places intended to be lived in.  It is just the same feeling of want of reality that comes over one at the Riviera in spring, when life is seen under a kind of artificial condition, which you keep expecting will suddenly dissolve and melt away, carrying with it the crowd of idle men and women, the roba scarta of the London season.
The well-ordered English garden, beloved of its owners, and cultivated by them and their forefathers for generations, is not to be met with in Italy.
One has to live some time in Italy before fully comprehending that, in making comparisons, these must not be drawn between things English and things Italian, but between English and Tuscan, or Roman, or Neapolitan, or North Italian, as the case may be.   And when I say that a garden in the English sense of the word, and the gardening sentiment as it has existed for centuries in England, and of which the last thirty years has seen such an astonishing development, is not to be found here, I confine myself strictly to Tuscany.
A Tuscan garden is not a thing of beauty, or toe be cultivated for pleasure; it is a commercial asset of more or less value to the owner according to the different grades of the mezzaria system on which it is worked.
In many large gardens the  gardener is paid no wages, but is at liberty to make what he can by the sale of the plants and flowers it contains, only in that case it is stipulated that the owner’s house is furnished with what is required, according to the Italian standard.   Italians very much dislike our English habits of having plants, and especially of bringing cut flowers, into sitting-rooms, thinking them, particularly the latter, very unhealthy.
By far the greater part of the flowers grown for the market are made up on a stiff wooden foundation of one shape or another, either for presentation on fĂȘte days, or for funeral decorations (when they are de rigueur), or for exportation.
The  Vienna florists’ shops are mostly supplied from Tuscany, particularly in the matter of laurel and bay leaves, for the foundation of funeral wreaths.  The stripping of the trees that goes on here for this purpose is something that would not be credited unless one had seen it.  I have known the Magnolia grandiflora trees to be entirely stripped of their beautiful foliage, and standing bare and naked all the summer.  These leaves are packed in large sacks and sent by rail to Vienna.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

The Seige of Calais

Cultural coincidence: in the same week a visit to Perry Green where this season the Henry Moore sculpture collection includes guests from the Musee Rodin, including the great Burghers of Calais, never very happily seen next to the Houses of Parliament, and rather incongruous there, given the English responsibility for their humiliation; and then the ETO production of Donizetti’s seldom-staged Siege of Calais, about the same event, which also occludes this dimension, casting the English army and king chiefly as a generic enemy of the brave citizens (and omitting or rather deleting the happy ending).  Both sculpture and opera celebrate heroic defeat  I don’t think there was any specific historical resonance for Donizetti, who apparently intended the work for the Paris Opera, though it premiered at the San Carlo in Naples, but the defeat both of the Carbonari and of Napoleon were fairly recent memories. For Rodin, perhaps the Franco-Prussian war and siege of Paris were background inspiration for his self-sacrificial Bourgeois.  An element of political reconciliation can also be inferred from the historical fact that the volunteer victims’ lives were in the end spared by intervention from Edward III’s queen Philippa.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Nathaniel Wells

A  wonderfully fine and warm bank holiday weekend, and a great walk in bluebell woodland along the cliffs of the river Wye near Chepstow, originally in the landscaped grounds of Piercefield House, a posh neo-classical mansion designed by Sir John Soane, built in the 1790s.  The estate was previously owned by the son of a planter from Antigua, who in the 1750s used his sugar and rum wealth to create an early example of picturesque landscaping, in the region where Picturesque tourism was hatched, with woodland walks, viewpoints on the beetling cliffs, a grotto, a ‘giants cave’, a ‘druid temple’, a gravity-fed fountain and a gentlemen’s bathing house by a cold spring.  All from the same impulse as the dramatic landscape at Hackfall in Yorkshire and its politer neighbour Studeley Royal, and all now in a  state of dereliction, including Piercefield House.  Which in 1802 was purchased by Nathaniel Wells, born in St Kitts, son of an enslaved mother Joardine and a Welsh-born planter, and educated in Britain as his father’s heir.  He  married successively the daughters of two Anglican clergymen, and two of his twenty children also became vicars.  Nathaniel was a rare example of someone of African ancestry and slave origins becoming  a prominent landowner, who undertook the customary local duties as magistrate, churchwarden, county sheriff etc, eventually holding office as deputy lieutenant of Monmouthshire.  The artist Joseph Farington in 1803 heard him described as ‘A West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners, but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a  Negro’ (manners and colour being evidently opposed qualities).   Perhaps such prejudice dissuaded Nathaniel from having his own portrait painted, as no likeness is known, though I like to think he is the fashionable gentleman in grey topper shown on left at back of the crowd at the Royal Academy in Cruikshank's Tom & Jerry 1821 illustration A Shilling Well Laid Out. 

On the customary Wye tour that autumn, Farington and friends walked along the clifftop and picnicked  'at the entrance of a subterranean passage cut through the rock' (the giants cave.)  “Not having knives and forks and glasses we sent to Pierce-field House and were furnished with them.”    They were joined by the head gardener, who said that the public days for viewing house and park were Wednesdays and Fridays but that he never knew Mr Wells refuse a written request.  Farington therefore wrote, but failed to take up the invitation, although he also spoke to a woman at the lodge, who “spoke most highly of the charitable and good disposition of Mr & Mrs Wells, and of Miss Wells, his sister.”  Farington, so keenly interested in racial appearance, added that Mr Wells “is a Creole of a very deep colour, but Miss Wells is fair.” 

as plantation/slave owner, Wells was among those who received compensation in 1830s when slavery was abolished in Britain's Caribbean colonies  - a proportionate share of the £20million allocated by the government.  For more information, check out 

Nick Draper
 The 1833 Abolition Act gave enslavers
 £20 million in compensation; enslaved
 Africans in the Caribbean got nothing!

About half of the compensation was paid directly to absentee holders in
Britain. They included over 100 MPs who sat in Parliament between 1820
and 1835; also included were more than 110 Church of England ministers.
They were identified in the records of the Compensation Commission
as either owners, trustees or executors. The compensation money,
the final pay-off to the enslavers, helped to build railways and country
mansions, to fund art collections, charities and to build modern Britain.