Plants as works of art

The Wall Garden at Nymans. ©NTPL/Stephen Robson

Another place I recently visited on the Ashridge Garden History Summer School is Nymans, in West Sussex. Nymans is an amazing garden created by several generations of the Messel family from the 1890s onwards.

A corner of the Croquet Lawn, with conifers and a Japanese lantern. ©Emile de Bruijn

Ludwig Messel, who had been born into a German Jewish family of traders and bankers, moved to England in 1868. His stockbroking business flourished and after a while he began to look round for a suitable country house. The railways had opened up Sussex and Kent, making this something of a ‘stockbroker belt’.

A fruit on one of the exotic trees - I was told what it was, but I have a terrible memory for plant names... ©Emile de Bruijn

Ludwig Messel bought Nymans in 1890 and began creating a garden, spurred on by the development of other nearby gardens such as Leonardslee, Gravetye Manor, Wakehurst Place and Sheffield Park. Nymans soon became a treasure trove of East Asian trees and shrubs. 

The neo-Medieval manor house as rebuilt for Leonard and Maud Messel. ©Emile de Bruijn

Ludwig’s son Leonard Messel and his wife Maud continued to enrich the garden, adding plants from Tasmania and the Andes and creating numerous prize-winning hybrid rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias.

The dovecote and the 'Toblerone' hedge next to the house. ©NTPL/John Miller

Leonard Messel bequeathed the garden to the National Trust in 1953. His daughter Anne, Lady Rosse, continued to be involved in the management of the garden. Nymans was one of the first properties to be acquired by the National Trust purely for the importance of its garden.

Baroque-style monogram seat. ©Emile de Bruijn

Alastair Buchanan, the current family representative, gave us a fascinating and entertaining talk about the history of the Messel family, including uncanny vocal imitations of past Nymans head gardeners and of Lady Rosse. The latter was apparently never concerned about the inequality between men and women, because it never occurred to her that any man could be her equal.

One of the sculptural topiary hedges. ©Emile de Bruijn

One of Alastair Buchanan’s contributions is clipping some of the sculptural yew hedges. Originally they were cloud-shaped, but they have now evolved into almost Henry-Moore-like compositions.

A fellow summer school student mentioned that she found the layout of the garden a bit confusing. The reason for that is probably that the garden grew piecemeal, as the collection of plants increased –  Nymans is a bit like the Wallace Collection in that respect, a collector’s paradise, crammed full of treasures. 

The Wall Garden. ©Emile de Bruijn

Ed Ikin, the current head gardener, who kindly took the time to show us round, has been trialling a tougher watering regime for the ornamental borders. Summer watering is now only done once a month. The plants have  adapted their root systems and leaf sizes accordingly, and the borders seem to look as lush as ever, even in this extremely dry summer.

Ed Ikin, head gardener at Nymans. ©NTPL/John Millar

Ed has just published a book called Thoughtful Gardening, with practical advice on how to garden in harmony with nature.

10 Responses to “Plants as works of art”

  1. Barbara Says:

    Keep these wonderful garden posts coming!

  2. Edward Shorthouse Says:

    Looks great! Well done for putting this together.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks – this blog is really about acquisitions, but I try to interpret that as broadly as I can.

  4. home before dark Says:

    Thanks for this post and the information about the Thoughtful Gardening book. Here in Kansas we are in a death-grip heat wave. My new woody plants are too young to survive without watering, but I am starting to read about strategies for coping with heat and drought. I rather like the fact that this garden went in willy-nilly rather than with a Divine Plan. Makes it more human.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Great to hear that this post has some relevance in Kansas too! In some parts of Britain this has been the driest summer since the Second World War.

  6. Rosie West Says:

    I had heard so much about Nymans, so thank you for this wonderful post. I added together Anne Countess Rosse + her brother Oliver Messel and got Lord Snowdon!

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Glad you like it. The Earl of Snowdon’s subsidiary title, which is used by his son, is Viscount Linley of Nymans – a nice reference to the garden.

  8. Aletta Says:

    I love the picture of the Henry Moore hedge. Last year, on holiday in France I came across a place called the hanging gardens of Marqueyssac, I took some photos of the topiary, there which is beyond belief.

    This is their website:

    They have 5 full time “topiarists” (yes, I’ve made that word up) who I believe have to have degrees in art to work there. I’m not sure the Trust could afford such a thing!

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks for that link. Perhaps Alastair Buchanan should add ‘topiarist’ to his Who’s Who entry 🙂

  10. Aletta Says:

    If he does and it enters the Oxford English Dictionary I want full credit… I will make my mark somehow and if butchering the English language is what it takes, then I’ll do it!

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