Since Andrew Staib wrote this article, sadly John Brookes has passed away.
John is sitting in the large kitchen of his home called the Clock House, a converted stable block set in Denmans, a garden he has fashioned for 37 years and opened to the public each year. Glass doors reveal a small, light filled terrace with strong shaped plants and a large palm tree.
Gwendolyn van Paasschen, an American designer and the chairman of the John Brookes Denmans Foundation, is with us as well. She has known and worked with John for 20 years and has for the last two and half years worked at Denmans, helping John write his memoir, organize his archives, and with the ongoing renovation of the garden, which until last year, had been open to the public. It is now set to reopen on the 1st May.
The Clock House used to host his thriving design school and is full of original paintings, sculptures, books and ornaments. It is the kind of house where every inch is bursting with creative focal points and well thought out proportioned furniture and balanced colour. It feels personal and there are no cliche furnishings. This originality reflects John himself, a no nonsense, pragmatic and highly dedicated garden designer who even in the Autumn of his life still swears like a sailor at empty trendy fads and clients who don’t dare to be themselves and go for what they really want.
One of the most well known landscape designers in the world, John has for 60 years been creating stunning and innovative gardens and spearheaded the revolution in garden design in the 20th Century. He has a passion for passing on his knowledge and has helped thousands of students around the world, writing over 25 books and countless articles. There is even a John Brookes School of Landscape design in Argentina.
He is beginning to slow down though. “I’m 84 and all this tripping around the world is a killer, I have a nice design in Scotland I’m doing at the moment and I am finishing off one in Russia.” Gwendolyn adds, “He is starting, after 37 years in his own garden, to take things out and rethink. He is not sentimental about plants, so when he took a mature golden holly out a few weeks ago even though we all wanted to save it, he was right, it was better gone”.
Gwendolyn has had first hand knowledge of John’s skills. “When I have seen him walk into a new space, John’s brain is like a computer. As soon as he enters a space he sees shapes, he sees negative space, positive space, he thinks how can I rearrange this space, create a view – it’s always about the shapes, the space and the proportions.”
John says, “Every customer is different, with unique needs and wishes. A garden is for people and an extension of the family home, but most people can’t think beyond a lawn, decking and a BBQ. They need to get inspiration from others. The lifestyle, the culture and the person and what they want all need to come together. I will try to look inside their house and that can tell me what they like. I want to know about my clients.”
John takes many photos of his gardens from the inside of client’s houses as this is where people experience their garden a lot and for him it is very important that the inside and the outside marry up.
“Smart magazines just show smart country houses which can be inhibiting for people with smaller gardens. People need to think about who they are and what they want to do, not just follow the trends.”
Gwendolyn opens John’s latest book, his soon to be published memoir, “A Landscape Legacy”. “Look” she says excitedly, “there is a picture here which John calls The Happy Lady.” Gwendolyn describes the picture: “She is sitting in her tiny garden with her back to us, with a glass of wine in her hand and she is completely content. This is the same in Denman’s. John wants us to feel that it is a private garden in the country that is completely peaceful. This is what he is wanting to do.”
While John describes himself as a designer not a gardener or a plantsman he uses plants exquisitely for their structural beauty. This is seen very well at Denman gardens which he has nourished and reinvented for many decades. “I want to simplify the garden – I want it to be less fussy. At Denmans I’m focusing more on Winter interest as the garden has to look good for the 6 months of Winter. Yes I like plants with big personalities- houses are big things.”
Denmans is a garden dedicated to the shapes and forms plants can provide – tall, wide, domed, explosive, elegant, contained – they are all present working with each other. Through the middle of the garden runs a river bed made from Sussex rocks that the previous owner, the plants woman, Joyce Robinson, who lived at Denman’s from 1947-1996, built in the early 1970’s. It ends in a real pond that John built in 1984 and is now reshaping.
Gwendolyn adds, “We are doing a lot of renovation to Denmans and hope to open again on the first of May, at least for a preview of what we are doing. We also hope to be back with a revamped cafe sometime later in the year. We have also started the John Brookes / Denmans Foundation to perpetuate John’s design legacy by teaching excellence in garden design, not just what is trendy.” Gwendolyn says of John and retirement – “He couldn’t do anything else.”
For more information on when Denmans will open to the public this year please write to JBDF.Information@gmail.com or email Glorious Gardens at email@example.com
Places to visit
Wisley Gardens! One of the UK’s most visited gardens, and one of the major 4 RHS gardens, the variety and inspiration you will get there is mind blowing. It covers 240 acres so expect to spend a whole day there or more! Wisley Lane, Wisley, Woking, GU23 6QB.