The Irish Garden – Jane Powers and Jonathan Hession

Jane Powers’ new book, with husband photographer Jonathan Hession, The Irish Garden, will be published next April. With 400 pages and describing approximately 60 gardens it will be the biggest treatment of Irish gardens in 15 years.

We are familiar with Jane’s writing from her years with the Irish Times, now with The Sunday Times and from her first book, The Living Garden, so we can be sure the book will be a joy to read. Jonathan’s photography has a deservedly high reputation and his recently published, The Atlantic Coast of Ireland, received great praise for the beauty of the photography. With such a combination of author and photographer I believe we are not only in for a great treat but for a book which will set a new standard in Irish gardening literature.

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Jane very kindly agreed to do an interview with me for the blog during the week. It was conducted through e-mail and I hope you enjoy it. The photographs are from the book.

Q: Your newspaper writings over the years have shown that you have a very special interest in Irish gardens and in Irish plants. What led a lady of American background to such an interest?

Jane:”I was born here, but I spent my childhood moving back and forth between Ireland and the USA. My first move back to America was as a babe in arms. The family of five children fell into neat categories in order of age: “the girls” (my two much older sisters), “the boys” (my two brothers, also older) and me. So, I spent a lot of time alone, much of it in the garden or, rather, in lots of gardens.

My parents were writers, classically penniless, but also afflicted by itchy feet. We were always on the move — too many moves. I remember the gardens in great detail, but not the houses. There were wonderful oak trees, acorns and lily-of-the-valley at one home in Minnesota — on the banks of the Mississippi, which I left when I was 5.

We moved then to Greystones, in Co Wicklow, and I clearly remember seeing cordylines for the first time. They seemed the most exotic thing in the world. I’ve loved cordylines since, and feel a bit protective about them when people say unkind things about them.

So, I accumulated a lot of time in lots of Irish gardens (and Minnesota and Massachusetts gardens) as a child, and I quite like them.

Mount Stewart Gardens near Newtownards, Northern Ireland.
Mount Stewart Gardens near Newtownards, Northern Ireland.

Q: What is it of Irish gardens that you think makes them particularly Irish? What do you think is the essence of an Irish garden? What distinguishes them from those of other countries?

Jane:  It has to be, first, the climate. We complain about the rain and the lack of proper seasons, but we are spoiled, blessed, when it comes to plant choice. There are few other places — the Pacific Northwest in the USA and parts of New Zealand, maybe— that can grow the same range of plants. Not all counties in Ireland can grow all plants well, but as a whole we manage pretty much everything. Lorna MacMahon in Galway can grow Asiatic primulas like mustard and cress, Billy Alexander in Kells Bay in Co Kerry can probably grow Australasian tree ferns in the creases in his rain jacket, and the late Ambrose Congreve grew great forests of Himalayan magnolias. And in my modest south county Dublin garden I can grow Mediterranean and Madeiran plants without any trouble. On what other civilised land mass of such a tiny size (300 by 170 miles?) could so many disparate plants thrive?

Q: Though we are historically and culturally so closely linked to England have we created a distinct Irish style of garden?

Jane:  I think we have. A lot of our gardens are based on English designs, but our climate, with its urgent growth and its insistent greenness, has claimed our gardens for Ireland. Jonathan, my husband, took the photos for the book and we got the proofs the other day. We were looking at them, page after page, the first time we’d seen the book on paper. It was really exciting, but more than that: we realised that the gardens were totally un-English, except for one or two in the North. So many of them have this glorious, unfettered and poetic quality. It’s partly the weather and the 11 months of growth per year, but it is also the free-spiritedness of Irish people. Irish gardens have a casual exuberance that is a little intoxicating.

The curvilinear range of glasshouses at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin.
The curvilinear range of glasshouses at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin.

Q: Which gardens would you suggest one visit to see the quintessentially Irish garden?

Jane: There are so many. It’s hard to choose just a few. And I don’t know if these are quintessentially Irish, but they are here, and so they must be Irish. Helen Dillon’s, of course, for pure, operatic, coloratura-soprano drama and perfection. Annes Grove in Co Cork for gothic romance. Killruddery for perfect baroque geometry. Birr Castle for its sense of history and its capturing of so many superlatives (tallest box hedges, oldest suspension bridge, first dawn cypress in Europe, and so many others). June Blake’s for a kind of intelligent dynamism that transcends ordinary gardening — I love watching her work things out and make her garden ever more reasoned and beautiful.

Q: On what basis did you select the gardens?

Jane: They all had to be open to the public, and welcoming to visitors. There are some that are open, in theory, but it’s not that simple to get into them, so we didn’t include those. We also picked gardens that were “happy in their skin”, that felt right for the landscape and environment. We included important historic gardens, even though a couple of these could do with a serious kick up the bum. We wish that we could have included many more (there are about 60 in the book), but we had to keep within the publisher’s brief. In the end, we actually had to cut 48 pages, so the book is shorter than we wanted. Mind you, it’s 400 pages, which is a huge commitment from the publisher.

Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, Co. Wicklow
Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, Co. Wicklow

 Q: Could you give a short outline of the book – contents, approach etc.

Jane: There are nine chapters and an introduction. I gathered the gardens thematically rather than by style or geography. The themes are a bit idiosyncratic, but I think they work. For instance, I have one chapter called “Lovely Day for a Walk” which includes gardens that offer delightful rambles as well as horticultural treasures: Kilmacurragh, Tullynally, Woodstock and Emo Court are some of the gardens in there. I also have “A Few Follies and Fancies”, which has lots of follies, obviously, but it also includes things that were fantastic in their day (and still are), such as the incredibly innovative glasshouses at Glasnevin. Another chapter, “Grand Big Gardens”, has the gardens of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the classic Big House gardens. We nearly changed the title of that chapter to “Stately Acres” because we were afraid that British and American readers wouldn’t understand the playfulness in the “grand big”. The book is being translated into German as well, so I’m not sure how that will transfer.

Q: Which garden, if any, would you take home to replace your own?

Jane: Well, rather than the gardens, I’d like to take home the gardeners — as gardens are more about the people who make and maintain them. I’d have Jean Perry from the Glebe in Baltimore (West Cork) to do my veg beds, as she is marvellously organised and organic, as well as having a good eye for the ornamental. I’d have Sean Heffernan from Mount Usher to do something marvellously architectural and textural with the planting around my tiny pond, and I’d give the rest over to Jimi Blake of Hunting Brook to fill with exciting plant combinations and the latest plants from all the most interesting nurseries.

The Bay Garden near Ferns, Co. Wexford.
The Bay Garden near Ferns, Co. Wexford.

Q: A shortlist for the American bus tour which has a week in Ireland? Five gardens!

Jane: Oh dear! I don’t know how to answer that! I mean, there are big and historic gardens that they would have to visit, but then they’d miss some of the more recent gardens. Obviously they’d have to go to Powerscourt (for the pomp), Glenveagh (for the juxtaposition of wildness and horticulture), Bantry House (the views! the mist! the drama!), Mount Usher (the trees and the exquisitely manipulated river with its beautiful bridges) and Birr (for the trees, parkland and history). But there are later gardens that I would love them to see. Helen Dillon, June Blake, Jimi Blake are all essential. Also, I’d like them to see Elizabeth Temple’s Salthill House (in Mountcharles in Donegal) for her meadows, and for the intimate atmosphere in her walled garden. Also, Iain MacDonald’s grass-and-perennial garden at the Bay in Camolin. There are madly interesting places too, like Dunmore Country School in Co Laois, where Tanguy de Toulgoët is gardening in a style that is part biodynamic, wholly organic and utterly French. There is Alfred Cochrane, at Corke Lodge, outside Bray, and he has made the most wildly theatrical garden with gothicky ruins and shaggy topiary. I could go on and on.

Q: Do the photographs capture the gardens as your mind sees them? Did you direct the photography or allow free rein?

Jane: I tried to direct the photography in some cases, because there were specific plants or planting combinations that were of interest to gardeners, and I wanted to include these. But, Jonathan made many visits to gardens on his own. Some gardens he visited 4 or 5 times to capture different seasons. And a few, he must have visited 20 times. He is obsessed with the Dillon Garden and June Blake’s, and a few others. Also, there were gardens where we were staying with the owners, or nearby, and he would get up at dawn for the best light, while I stayed in bed, all snug and warm. I told myself that he wouldn’t have wanted me with him on those early morning forays anyway. Sometimes there is only a tiny crack of time between darkness and harsh daylight — maybe just five or ten precious minutes when all is luminous and ethereal. He has a keen eye for the dramatic, as well as for the understated. Some of his photos show the gardens in ways that make me want to gasp and clap all at once. I know that sounds like I’m hamming it up — but they are very beautiful.

Corke Lodge, outside Bray, Co. Wicklow
Corke Lodge, outside Bray, Co. Wicklow

Q: Finally, what is important but I have not asked?

Jane: I feel it is an important book, as it is the first big book on Irish gardens in 15 years. But it’s also a personal book. Not everyone will agree with my views, but that’s good. We need to talk about Irish gardens more in a critical and constructive way. Some gardens are not fulfilling their potential, to be honest. There are evident problems with management, and the gardens suffer. Poor plant choice, indifferent maintenance, odd sets of priorities etc. It breaks my heart. But, we also have some of the most romantic, important and creative gardens in the world, and I’m glad that we have been able to celebrate them in the book.

Publishers: Frances Lincoln.

ISBN: 978011232228

Date of Publication: 2nd April 2015

Hardback, 400 pages, 305 x 250mm

Pre-order at: http://www.franceslincoln.com/the-irish-garden

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