Archive for November 2011

The Water Terraces of Blenheim Palace

November 19, 2011

It was supposed to rain the whole week I was in Oxford.  Fortunately for me, it didn’t. So each day, my friend Jill would pile us into her car and take us sightseeing. Living in Oxfordshire, she suggested a “side trip” to nearby Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born, and a variety of gardens could be seen.

Blenheim Palace, Column of Victory, Capability Brown

Approaching Blenheim, one can see the Column of Victory, which commemorates the Battle of Blenheim.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Somewhat overwhelming in scope, Blenheim Palace is called "Britain's Greatest Palace" in its 2011 brochure. Sir Winston Churchill was born here, and proposed to his wife on its grounds.

A small bit of background: The palace was constructed around 1705; but the 2000 acres of parkland surrounding it did not come into their current glory until the arrival of Lancelot  ‘Capability’ Brown in 1764. He was responsible for the creation of a giant lake, man-made undulations and a series of water cascades. Churchill himself wrote that Blenheim’s unique appeal lay in its perfect adaptation of English parkland to an Italian palace. The “Italian palace” reference seems peculiarly relevant to the part of gardens I saw – the western water terraces, designed by the French landscape architect Achille Duchêne.

Blenheim Palace, Upper water terrace, Achille Duchene

The upper water terrace at Blenheim, designed by Duchene

On a second terrace below the upper terrace were placed two great fountains in the style of Bernini, modeled after those in the Piazza Navona.
Blenheim Palace, Water terrace gardens, Achille Duchene

Blenheim Palace, water terraces

The lower water terraces in late afternoon light.

The water terraces took five years to build, from 1925 to 1930, during the stewardship of the 9th Duke of Malborough.  The sphinx sculptures seen in the photo above have heads modeled after Gladys Deacon, his second wife. As I walked around, appreciating the late afternoon light and trying to keep stray tourists out of my camera’s viewfinder, I was struck by two thoughts. The first one was  how unexpectedly much I liked the lower terrace area, in particular the choice of electric-orange cannas for the large urns anchoring the corners of the pools (who knows what these containers hold in other seasons?). The second was how incredibly different this garden is from Chartwell, Churchill’s personal, country home and garden, with its walled garden spilling over with classically British, lush, herbaceous borders. He loved both, but I like to think he loved Chartwell more.

For more information on the gardens at Blenheim Palace, please visit its website. I’d love to go back and explore the Secret Garden, the Temple of Diana (where the Prime Minister proposed to his wife Clementine), and the wide scope of Capability Brown’s work.

Magdalen’s Deer Park and the “Y” Tree

November 4, 2011

In my last post, I shared some images from the “inner” garden areas at Magdalen College in Oxford. Beautiful, lush late-summer borders, meticulously maintained, and so forth and so on. The friend who toured me around, however, had other parts of the grounds she wanted to show me. So we passed through those beautiful blue iron gates and out to Addison’s Walk.

The Walk is hushed and meanders along two routes. We took the one that leads to the Fellows’ Garden. En route we spied a meadow which famously houses Magdalen’s Deer Herd.

Deer Grove, Deer Park, Magdalen College, Oxford England

Deer grazing in Magdalen College's Deer Park in August.

The Deer Park or Deer Grove is home to approximately 60 deer, which graze in the meadow from mid-July to December. Here, of course, I would have cursed them roundly and muttered imprecations about the damage they can and will do to my garden. In the Park, however, they seemed positively bucolic and appropriate. (I’m sure they are never allowed inside the blue iron gate to munch on the herbaceous borders I saw). A middling-sized iron fence keeps them inside the Park, but its height wouldn’t stop them if they wanted out. On the other hand, with a life as idyllic as theirs, why should they want to leave?

Ultimately, we ended up at The Fellows Garden, where we admired an oval pond with a heron sculpture
Fellows Garden, Magdalen College

and a beautiful, hand-carved wooden bench (with an inlaid quotation) in a sinuous shape.
garden bench, Magdalen College, Fellows GardenIt was a sculpture that we saw on the way back, however, that I found the most arresting. Ten metres high, a steel tree-shaped form presides over a meadow (Bat Willow Meadow, to be precise). The sculptor, Mark Wallinger, created it as a commission to commemorate Magdalen’s 550 anniversary.

Sculpture "Y", sculpture in the garden, Magdalen College, Mark Wallinger

A view of "Y" as one enters Bat Willow Meadow

The sculpture is difficult to photograph because the polished steel is hard to distinguish from the background of the meadow’s trees, and the edges of the “tree branches” are finely wrought in their design – to evoke, the sculptor has said, the shapes of deer antlers on the College’s nearby herds.

Mark Wallinger, sculpture "Y", sculpture in the garden, Magdalen College

Y's "branches" suggest the curved horns of deer, in honor of Magdalen's Deer Herd.

The sculpture’s setting, however, is perfect – no busy “gardenesque” plantings, just simple meadow grasses and a few wooden benches here and there. A lovely spot for a picnic, or quiet conversation.

For more information about the sculpture visit Magdalen’s website or Wallinger’s “microsite” there.

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