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The Illuminated Garden

by on 18 December 2020

Light and Magic Balance on Water

The Illuminated Garden

West Green House, Hartley Wintney, until 30th December

Review by Thomas Forsythe

Isn’t warm light in cold darkness a magical idea! Juxtaposing winter and light may seem at first to create an oxymoron.  But no, midwinter is time of hope, a time to look forward to days lengthening and sunshine returning.  The Romans had Saturnalia, the Chinese have Dongzhi and St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated across the Nordic countries.  All of us have a need to anticipate light returning after the winter solstice.  The greatest celebration of all at this time of course is Christmas, marking Christ’s coming as the Light of the World. 

So there are plenty of reasons why visitor gardens should be lit at night around midwinter, in 21st Century reversal of the illumined pleasure gardens of Georgian summers, Ranelagh Gardens and Vauxhall Gardens in London being the foremost examples.  There though pleasures were not so simple as the innocent delight of today’s wintertime illuminated gardens that we can visit throughout Britain.

Surely though, none can be as charming as the ten-acre wonderland of the gardens at West Green House, captivatingly lit in the chill of a dark December night.  As twilight falls, a short flip down the M3, less than an hour from London, and there is world a million miles away from the tribulations of 2020, a place where Covid seems, well … light years away.

Don’t get wrong though, Covid precautions are unobtrusively in place, staggered entry times, each family bubble following a set trail two metres apart, and all with masks capturing the erstwhile steamy breath.

And talking about catching your breath, from the moment you enter you walk into a fantasy world.  A pair of Chinese dragons, glowing red flank the path and then the magic begins.  Little elves are glimpsed in the trees, and peering into a grotto almost hidden just off the path, I could swear I saw a fairy run past.  Ok, I am already getting carried away, so I fortify myself with a hot chocolate with marshmallows and cream from a handy booth in the woods.  (The booth is real: a zillion calories real.)   An angel offers a protecting hand from her grand abode in a stone retreat as we walk over a wooden bridge across a stream and under a pergola decked with stars. 

Then we are astounded by what seems to be the signature image of West Green’s Illuminated Garden, lotus flowers.  Here there are a trio on a gigantic scale, towering above us, silent in the sky.  And soon we are to see more, floating on the lake.  But first a shimmering tunnels form our paths we cross the Five Bridges, blue on the zig and red on the zag.  On to a sparkling array of starbursts and shooting stars falling from heaven, and we are in the Fountain Garden.

The Fountain Garden has a different mood, more sophisticated.   The warming booth here offers waffles and prosecco, so we know that it is more sophisticated.  Here too we are reminded of West Green House’s summer role, as a country house opera venue, indeed its raison d’être.  Tonight though the dinner jacket and bowtie are swapped for thick overcoat and heavy scarf.   The fountains play in their formal patterns, just discernible in the dark and a larger-than-life figure of an eighteenth Century lady peers out from behind a mask of flirtatious finery carried on a lorgnette, not clinical PPE worn on ear-lacerating elastic.  Surely she is Amelia from Un ballo in maschera.   I am sure Verdi would not mind us rescuing her from the unhappy Swedish court to the far less fraught Hampshire countryside. 

A wonderful vista now comes into sight, the Chinese bridge, seen across the lake beautifully lit in luminous green, its reflection in harmonious symmetry seen in the waters whose gentle ripples in the dark lead to the reflected arc to twinkle like stars flung down.  Now we are with Puccini, in the Peking of Turandot.  The garden’s occasional Chinese motifs, the dragons at the entrance, this bridge and its neighbouring birdcage, and the Chinese chicken coop at the end of the route all point us towards old Peking.   

This vista is winning as a highlight, until it is trumped at the next station by an incredible trompe d’œil.  We seem to be gazing down into a mysterious ravine.  However, it is an inverted forest, all disconcerting purples and greens, disappearing in secretive depths.  It takes a while for your eye to untangle what it sees and your mind to fathom that it is a reflection of the tall beeches in an arm of the lake.  If we are associating an opera with this view it must be Wagner’s Götterdämmerung

Herein lies the uniqueness of West Green’s take on the Illuminated Garden.  This garden has a subtlety; in this garden you tell the story; in this garden the lighting works with the topography of the natural landscape.  In the big blockbuster garden illuminations, say at Kew, there is a brashness of colour and power that fights the natural environment.  Those son et lumière in French country towns on summer nights tell a story for you in pale projections.  In contrast, the scale and pitch of West Green’s Illuminated Garden makes for a subtle balance.

Nevertheless, colour is there and works well the Walled Garden.  This is a potager garden in the form of a symmetrical parterre.  The illuminations follow the symmetry, but in a host of complementary colours, beautifully balanced.  The potager’s edging fruit trees are elegantly under-lit, while its centre piece is another bold array of tall lotus plants bold and stately.  To one side busts of Roman nobility peer out from the flower beds towards the Nymphaeum.  Two rows of clipped bays lead up to the nymphaeum, but we cannot enter and view from the Walled Garden thorough a circular archway, the Moon Gate, that cants forward to centre the axis of the rising steps up.   We peep too, and what do we see?  … More lotuses (should that be loti?). 

Leaving the Walled Garden, are greeted by another larger than life opera character, it must be Verdi’s Violetta Valéry from La Traviata.  We can almost hear the brindisi.  Be assured that if you think a drinking song with a courtesan is inappropriate in a Hampshire garden, it is quite acceptable, for wasn’t she based on La Dame aux camellias, surely a lady in a garden!   She is showing us the way to the Orangey, but not before we have passed a small conservatory where we can look in to see a scene from Swan Lake: with swans.  Tchaikovsky’s music reminds us of opera’s sister art form, the ballet.   You see Violetta’s intention is to show off the Theatre Lawn, where we hope once again next summer to see West Green House Opera perform a programme that includes Puccini’s La Rondine and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Nearby in tucked in a corner is the Christmas nativity scene, a rather flat-pack piece of contemporary art by a local sculptor, the light to the world in a humble crib.  The theme of hope continues and another forthcoming gem from West Green House Opera for 2021 is the oratorio Invictus: a Passion, composer Howard Goodhall’s musical story of the last days of Christ’s life on earth.  

At the end of the hedge, a more secular idea hits us.  We walk along a mouth-watering and eye-popping row of candy canes, to double round to the parterre behind the House, where on the most charming permanent features of West Green House Gardens sends a relevant message.  A smiling African boy holds out a sundial, offering us light.  The sun’s orb circles to the south above Africa, and his gift is light.

Maybe this is a key message, or maybe the whimsy in the final garden, the Alice Garden, where we see the characters of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, sculpture and skilful topiary, magically lit.  (But do I see that Alice is wearing a face-mask?)

Reminiscing outside the tea room with a parting cake and another hot chocolate, I wonder which is the strongest of the charms, West Green House’s Illuminated Garden, the magic or the light.  Whichever it is, it has dispelled winter’s cold darkness.

Thomas Forsythe, December 2020

Photography by West Green House and Daniel Anselm.

  1. Seeing this reminded me of Charlotte Shout last year.

    There were illuminated things around downtown- seesaws, big bunnies, and a field of wheat are what automatically come to mind

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Quiristers of Winchester Chapel | Mark Aspen
  2. Invictus: a Passion | Mark Aspen
  3. Invictus: a Passion | Mark Aspen
  4. La Rondine | Mark Aspen

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