Our Art Curator gains an insight to the working practices of a renowned 20th century garden designer
Russell Page (1906-1985) has written that he first gained an interest in plants whilst exploring the marquees at a local agricultural show as a teenager in Lincolnshire. A self-taught interest in gardening was nurtured by books from the local library. He trained as an artist at the Slade School followed by his first professional job in Rutland in 1928. He went on to design gardens all over Europe and then further afield in both North and South America.
Having travelled extensively to chateaux and country houses, Page took inspiration from the local landscape and formal gardens in Italy and France. Stationed in Cairo during the Second World War from 1943-44 and then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1945, he returned to Paris after the liberation in 1946.
Visions in box
Paris was to play an important role in Page’s life. A friendship formed while there as a student with Andre de Vilmorin was to prove significant, and later they worked together on developing gardens for a post-war population.
Looking at a chronology of Page’s work and life, it is striking to note the longevity of his working relationships. He would return to a garden several times over the years, re-visiting, refining and developing his ideas. In his introduction to The Education of a Gardener, Page describes his time in the Middle East, exploring the street markets of Cairo and the gardens at Gizeh zoological gardens.
‘One day in Cairo I ran into Feliks Topolski on his way back from India with hundreds of his vivid pen and ink drawings. He encouraged me to start drawing again and for the next three years I made rapid drawings every single day, almost all with a fountain pen, although later I always kept watercolours in my pocket. In this way I was able to absorb, by the act of recording, the endless pageant of new impressions.’
This collection of sketches in the Lindley Library provides a fascinating record of the places Page visited, but also of his influences. Spontaneous pen and ink work, coloured pencil and watercolours dating from 1943 onwards capture market scenes, garden designs, faces and figures from Egypt to France.
They reveal a fascination for the social spaces, architecture and structured forms. As Gabrielle van Zuylen observes, the problem of how best to link house with garden, and allow for the flow of movement in an outdoor space was one that preoccupied Page throughout his career.
The observation of people, movement and space is captured repeatedly in the sketches. Scenes from the Jardin des Tuileries are vibrant and engaging and the patterns of geometric planting can be seen incorporated into later designs.
The topiary hedges at Le Vert Bois and Mivoisin were also repeated in later designs for Vilmorin. The sketch shown here of an unnamed place was made during the same period, in the 1940s and may be a working plan for either Mivoisin or Vilmorin, with partitioned rectangular beds surrounded by pyramid and conical topiary.
In 1958 Page won a Gold medal for his garden design for Vilmorin at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Echoes of the forms captured in some of the early sketches can be seen in this design, with geometric planting and topiary hedges.
The art works are part of Russell Page’s archive which also includes photographs and papers: the details are available online. Photographs reproduced from the Lindley Library Archives can be seen in an exhibition at the Garden Museum, The Education of a Gardener: The Life and Work of Russell Page 1906-1985 until 21 June 2015
The collections described here can be viewed at the RHS Lindley Library by appointment.
Russell Page, The Education of a Gardener
. London: Collins, 1983
Schinz and van Zuylen, The Gardens of Russell Page
. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1991