In 1859 two Americans, Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, won a competition to transform an 800 acre wilderness into an idyllic landscape, which became Central Park, Manhattan, the most famous park in the United States. They were the first, self-styled, ‘landscape architects’.
Central Park has seen neglect, tragedy, destruction, and disasters, a series of mayors with conflicting policies, but today presents New Yorkers with a rural paradise in the middle of their stressful city. A walk, cycle ride or run in Central Park will restore the spirits of harassed citizens, the joys of a vast oasis or haven, to entertain, relax and inspire, the true purpose of any garden. Before Olmstead and Vaux took up the more formal title, talented gardeners, who had won fame for original design and winning ways, were recognised as artists by kings and popes, creating the masterpieces of Versailles and Rome.
The father of all ‘landscape architects’ is an Englishman, Lancelot (Capability Brown (1716 to 1783) who learnt his trade as humble gardener’s boy. He was the artist who changed the face of 18th century English landscape. He designed at least 170 parks, re-sculpting the lands around the country houses of dukes, earls, and barons, ending as Head Gardener at Hampton Court Palace. Most survive intact (though some have been converted into glorious golf courses)
Brown created the gardens at Highclere House, country seat of Lord Carnarvon, one house familiar to more television addicts from China to Alaska, than any other, otherwise known as Downton Abbey. Capability Brown made lakes, introduced romantic vistas, spaces often described as a ‘poetic wilderness’. His curves replaced formerly straight lines and geometrically planted flowerbeds.
To be a landscape architect needs a long training, and depth of knowledge from fine art to botany, from science to the environment. The two Johns, Murdoch and Wickham, studied together, founded their landscape architecture practice in 1983. Today’s affluent clients are still commissioning stately pleasure palaces to realise their dreams. In these two new Murdoch Wickham gardens water features can double as swimming pools, the differing gardens are ‘rooms’ to be enjoyed in the open air, each with a distinct character.
Icklingham Road, new build Surrey house, designed by neo-classical architect Julian Bicknell. A single acre of land has been transformed, says John Murdoch, to create ‘a cultural journey around the house.’ Each of several garden ‘rooms’ has its own character: English, Mediterranean, Chinese.
Crazies Hall (Crazies an ancient name for Daisies, formerly Henley Town Hall), is a listed building which reminds John Murdoch of an antebellum Mississipi mansion, something out of ‘Gone with the Wind.
The brief was to create an entire setting for the house and he designed a series of gardens, which he describes as ‘mostly restrained, as in library garden, west garden, sunken garden, but with one OTT Versace garden.’