Monday, May 11, 2009

Kenilworth Castle's Elizabethan garden

I couldn't help being reminded a bit of Bouvard and Pécuchet (see previous post) while watching on Friday an entertaining documentary about the recreation of Kenilworth Castle's Elizabethan garden. In the Bouvard and Pécuchet role of enthusiasts determined to landscape a garden and ending with a bit of a mess were the head of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, and his wife Anna Keay. I felt a bit sorry for them because the documentary makers were clearly not there to provide a flattering portrait (just as Flaubert can be pretty merciless at times and one ends up having some sympathy for Bouvard and Pécuchet). Nevertheless, I'm worried that Bryan Appleyard is right in his view that mistrusting TV documentaries is 'all very well, but it is clear that the Kenilworth Garden is an EH folly. “The most ambitious garden restoration of its type ever to have taken place in this country,” says Thurley on television. But no restoration is involved. The garden is an invention based on a single contemporary letter.'

The English Heritage site has extracts from the Langham Letter which starts 'Unto this, his Honour’s exquisite appointment of a beautiful garden, an acre or more in quantity, that lieth on the north there: Wherein hard all along by the Castle wall, is reared a pleasant terrace, ten feet high, and twelve feet broad, even under foot, and fresh of fine grass; as is also the side thereof towards the garden: In which, by sundry equal distances, with obelisks, and spheres, and white bears, all of stone upon their curious bases, by goodly shew were set...' The documentary showed the English Heritage team building the 'pleasant terrace' but finding the dimensions in the letter made it too steep to grow grass without the aid of some plastic stuff buried in the turf. Similarly an aviary was due to be built in wood but had to be reinforced with steel to comply with health and safety (the extra cost was the subject of legal dispute). The whole project raises lots of familiar questions about authenticity, not least because Lord Robert Dudley's original garden was itself a piece of artifice, designed as a temporary display for a royal visit.

Perhaps I should suspend judgement until I've visited the new gardens, although I talked a bit about it to my neighbour Nick Higham, who went for the rainy press launch, and it didn't sound terribly enticing to me. Now the garden has been finished, I just hope, as Nick says in his report, that the £2.1million of public funds will be recouped by increased visitor numbers.

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