T H E
G E N E R O U S
G A R D E N E R
On first impression, it’s as if the millennia have rolled away in Charles Shoup’s garden at Cavogallo. Built along and above a third of a mile of the rocky, unspoilt shoreline of the Bay of Messinia in the Peloponnese, the eight acres of shady terraced garden hark back to the days of Plato and Socrates.
Not for Shoup the expensive, incongruously lush, watered lawns and orderly planting favoured by modern-day wealthy Greeks. The gardens surrounding his impressive nine-bedroom neoclassical villa − a reference more to a revivalist style fashionable in the early nineteenth century than to the original of ancient times − are composed of courtyards, paths, axes and formal vistas, with not a blade of grass in sight. This is not a climate in which lawns thrive without considerable assistance and expense.
Shoup has planted five thousand trees, including olives, parasol pines, cypress, citrus and palms, plus decorative specimens such as jacarandas, which provide much-needed shade in a climate that sees little rain from April to September and where temperatures can reach 40C. Most are evergreen, many are clipped into balls and columns, and they provide sturdy structure both during winter and in the dog days of summer.
As the property sits on top of limestone walls, built to stop the erosion of the shore, the height above the coastline gives it some protection against the battering of the sea. Along the front of the garden, salt-tolerant species − for example, Metrosideros excelsa and M. robusta, both of which have red bottlebrush-like flowers − provide a windbreak and a barrier against the waves. ‘Nobody local seems to know the wind-resistant qualities of metrosideros,’ says Shoup. ‘And it is absolutely unaffected by seawater. It starts flowering in December and goes on until the beginning of August.’
Raised in New York state, where the family money came from department stores, Shoup, who is in his late seventies, was in the same class at Yale as George Bush Sr. After wartime service in the US navy, he left America as soon as he could, living in Paris, Venice, Tangier and the south of France, earning his keep as an artist.
‘I was a painter; I wasn’t a very good painter but I was very successful,’ he says. He tells of life on the Riviera, of painting John Paul Getty and amusing lunches with Noël Coward – ‘the most charming person I’ve met in my life. He was more fun than a barrel of monkeys’ − Winston and Clementine Churchill, William Somerset Maugham and other ‘sacred monsters’, as he calls them, borrowing from Jean Cocteau. However, ‘To be a portrait painter, you had to be social. I got very sick of all that, so I came to Greece to get away.’