Behind The Bricks and Mortar

by Tony Venison

When I recall the garden at Lindsey House in Cheyne Walk my mind conjures up green images, grada-tions of green, with geometrical green shapes within a rectangular green frame of high walls clad in camellias' dense greenery and sundry climbers keeping their anonymity. Why did it make such an impression upon me that I am unlikely to forget it?

First, because I know of no others com-parable with it. Its owner, the celebrated interior designerJohn Stefanidis, acknowl-edges the influence of Keith Steadman, in whose rather wild garden in the Cotswolds "his use of green is something exceptional and immensely poetic".

But Mr Stefanidis's garden has such a a deep formality impressed upon it, every a plant being within a leaf-blade of exact proportion, that it is in a world of its own, related only to the house. You are not even inclined to raise your gaze up beyond the high, buttressed brick walls, with their arched alcoves, plinths and topiary, unless it is to look back at the satisfyingly plain, symmetrical facade of the house. That was built for the 3rd Earl of Lindsey in 1674 to be his Thames-side residence in the village of Chelsea, then surrounded by fields up-river from Westminster.

By the 19th century, the house had been divided into three dwellings, each with a garden. It was concerning one of them, at 100 Cheyne Walk, that Edwin Lutyens was consulted in 1911, and for which, in conjunction with Gertrude Jekyll, he devised a plan. The bones of that layout were still in existence when Mr Stefanidis came into possession of the property in 1984 and began to pay attention to the sadly neglected garden.

Today the imprint of Lutyens does not rest heavily upon it. But I do not believe the garden was ever typical of his work. Its lines and architectural features are more classical and restrained than would be characteristic of Lutyens's plans, and fortunately lack his tendency to excessive detail or prissiness. His designs here respected the need of the limited rectangular space for uncluttered simplicity. Basically, it was, and remains, a linear composition, with three parallel panels of lawn separated by two long, broad and straight paved paths.

These extended to the far end of the garden, as they do today, from a sunken paved court or terrace adjoining the house but divided from the rest of the garden by a simple, timber-festooned, stone colonnade.

Today, shrubs in Versailles tubs, camellias in terracotta pots, and hydrangeas, pyramidal sweet bays and box balls in pots enhance the terrace with their greenery, the garden furniture standing here in summer being neat, orderly and a startling shade of electric blue. Petunias in pots and potfuls of pansies take up the blue summertime theme, but not in a quantity that would be assertive.

An emphasis upon perfection prompted Mr Stefanidis to realign a garden door from the house to form a vista from the front hall, across the terrace and along one of the long, straight paths which terminate in a pair of singularly attractive, stone-arched, pedimented alcoves in the wall at the far end. A pair of statues that served as eye-stoppers within these alcoves having been stolen, topiary now takes their place, accentuating the overall green imagery.

The thieves left behind the stone plinths on each of which a monkey now strikes a gentrified-looking, remarkably Hogarthian pose. Both creatures are modelled in ivy trained over moss-filled wire frames. A standard ball-on-stem picce of topiary stands on either side of each plinth, creating a nice balance. And, of course, the whole effect, with irises encroaching into the alcoves, too, is of prevailing greens.

A splendid mulberry tree that overhangs the central panel of grass appears to spread its canopy over half the garden. It was probably planted in 1911, in accordance with Lutyens's plans. Its form provides just the large, dominant feature that is needed, without obtrusiveness. The gnarled and knotted trunks, like a doddery old man on sticks, lean over vvhat Lutyens's plan shows to be a circular lily pool. Empty and penetrated by the mulberry's roots when Mr Stefanidis found it, it must always have been difficult to keep clear of fallen leaves. Filled in with soil, a millstone-like, solid circle of clipped box covers the pool basin now.

This box circle breaks the lawn's flatness evident in Lutyens's plan. So, too, to a more emphatic degree, do evergreen yew hedges which conceal two parlours or enclosures covertly introduced at the far ends of the two outermost grass panels. Flag irises snuggle along between the hedge bottoms and paving on which the parlour's natural woodcoloured furniture stands. These are private places, with purply bronze cordylines and box balls on stems and other plants in large pots ornamentmg them.

Several small, square or rectangular flowerbeds encased in foot-high hedges like open-topped boxes, create geometrical patterns which line parts of the edges of these hideaways. Even so, a mannered minimalism is maintained—not too many pots nor flowers. A column of clipped ivy in a pot, man-high and looking quite severe in outline, stands at each enclosure entrance.

Topiary, whether in box, sweet bay, lonicera nitida or ivy, plays a significant role in this garden. Perhaps `'plays" is a misleading word. With exception of the ivy monkeys, the topiary is not jocular; there are no clipped peacocks or sitting hens. Rather, it is employed architecturally. A long, very broad, low skirting of box runs under the line of the colonnade near the house and domes of clipped box in pots delineate the line of steps down to the terrace.

Planting in the borders along either side of the garden is dense. Mr Stefanidis took Arabella Lennox- Boyd's advice on this and much else, as she helped him bring the garden together again. But his favourite, successful, camellias predominate, hardly a glimpse of brickwork being visible on the vine and ivy-hung walls behind them.

Climbing roses, indistinguishable among the greenery until they flower, intermingle here and there. They frame two stylish, white marble plaques of cupids, discovered in pieces in rubble in the garden, which now disport themselves with elegance and enchantment on the west wall. Here, white variegated hosta fringes the border, and there are panels of low, clipped box, and intermittent lines of lavender. Like a floral pattern on a fabric, the flowers and plants fuse together. It is the overall effect that counts.

Photographs: Michael Boys
‘COUNTRY LIFE’ Nov 5, 1992
Garden restored and maintained by Simon Rose

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