In 1986, having just started a garden maintenance round, one of my first clients told me of how they’d won a prize to have a consultation with a famous garden designer. ‘Who was this designer?’ I asked. ‘John Brookes’, they said rather smugly.
Until that moment I had no idea that there was such a profession but the very next day I bought a copy of John’s book, The Small Garden, and was blown away by his refreshing approach to outdoor space and the revelation that gardens were about lifestyle as much as plants. Town gardens didn’t have to be restricted to a crazy-paving patio and a lawn framed by skinny borders; they could be generous, creative and exciting.
In an instant, I knew that’s what I wanted to do and, in time, scraped enough together to enrol on John’s five-week garden design course at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. John gave us everything in that short time. He pressed us hard and took no prisoners, eager for us to get our money’s worth. I was constantly nagged for not carrying a notebook and, during our final project, when someone complained just a wee too much about forgetting his compass, John’s reply, ‘Well if you can’t draw a freehand circle you’ll never make it as a garden designer’, drew a collective intake of breath as we all panicked, wondering why on earth he didn’t tell us this before we signed up for his course.
On seeking some words of wisdom at graduation, John’s advice was ‘take your time’. Occasionally I wonder whether this was just a ruse to keep me off his patch but I’ve come to appreciate that a more considered and steady journey allows you time to fill that subconscious quiver and arm you with a more comprehensive and personal set of options instead of being a slave to the current trend.
A list of awards John has received in his life will fill a chapter of its own and the number of gardens he has made probably several books. Many designers throughout the world, therefore, will have been influenced, knowingly or otherwise, by John’s work. For decades he has helped us make the connection between art, architecture, history, plants and lifestyle. He’s also helped raise the profile of garden design as a respected profession and has supported the Society of Garden Designers as chairman and backbencher since it was formed in 1981.
Always generous with his knowledge and experience John has helped many of us cross the bridge between the dusty tradition of gardening and modern garden design. His attention to style, local vernacular and the clients’ lifestyle (‘curtains can tell you a lot about a client’) gave us clues how to tailor the garden so that it would sit happily in a given situation and how best to navigate that potentially tricky path between the clients’ expectations and the realities of garden design as a process not a product.
His teaching, writing and lecturing is matched only by his unceasing quest to both champion and challenge past and current trends with one eye on what the future might hold. His blog, ‘Raves and Rants’, shares his continued enthusiasm (and the occasionally disappointment) for art, architecture, landscape and travel and how these threads help us relate to design and the work we do as garden designers. It’s informative, entertaining, intimate and, written in that wonderful Brookesian conversational style (complete with cheeky laugh).
John has a marvelous habit of sharing the connections he has made in all disciplines and many of us have benefited from introductions that might not otherwise have happened. His guidance and encouragement as a mentor over the years helped me find confidence along a path that I didn’t even know I had the right shoes for and I’m very grateful for that. My one regret is not to have visited Iran with John. He talks about it with such passion. The fact that he did his best to stay there as long as possible during
10 A Landscape Legacy