Introduction by Bob Chaplin


Afterword by Stephen Bann


A Natural Parterre

Throughout the history of landscaping there’s a persistent dialogue, and antipathy, between the formal approach and the natural approach. In England during the eighteenth century the grand swathes and vistas of Lancelot “Capability” Brown had all but done away with the formality of the enclosed Elizabethan knot garden that was an offshoot of the medieval monastery garden.  During the early nineteenth century, John Ruskin in his writings, and William Morris in his arts and crafts movement, championed a return to a pre-industrial sensibility. The formal parterres made in the French manner that utilized brightly colored bedding plants and colored gravels were back in fashion and for them this garden style epitomized the worst and mindless aspects of the industrial. Landscape gardeners were similarly driven. William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and Fredrick Law Olmsted advocated a return to natural garden styles. It was not a return to the grand, but a gentler, more personal style using plantings of indigenous and introduced species. About the same time, in 1830, Edwin Budding patented the first practical lawnmower.

The mowed lawn is a historically recent garden feature. In the contemporary garden the mown lawn represents the formal, and the meadow the natural.  In his book “Second Nature” Michael Pollan concurs “…nature in America has often been regarded as divine. Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.”

In the spring of 2008 I allowed four sections of my mowed lawn to grow wild. Each section is a thirteen feet square, with three foot wide pathways between the squares. In the squares I planted seeds and transplanted wild plants. At the end of the growing season I cut down the growth. The following year I again outlined the four squares. On April 30th 2009 I made the first cut. Through the growing season I mowed the surrounding lawn and pathways fourteen times. This time I did not add or take away any plants growing in the squares. I recorded the changes and noted the plants that grew in the squares. The four squares continue to evolve.

Afterword by Stephen Bann

                                                             I am the Mower Damon, known

                                                             Through all the meadows I have mown.

                                                                                           Andrew Marvell

The modernist house on Oak Bluff, Avon, where Bob Chaplin resides, looks out over the wide expanse of the Farmington Valley in Connecticut. Not far away is the Lewis Walpole Library, at Farmington, devoted to the collections of English eighteenth-century aristocrat Horace Walpole, who made one of the most decisive and memorable comments pertaining to the history of gardens. Looking back on the achievements of the English architect, designer and landscape gardener, William Kent, Walpole exclaimed: ‘He leaped the fence, and saw all nature was a garden’. Walpole’s own country house at Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham, may by now be cut off from any broad view of the valley of the Thames by a barrier of intrusive contemporary housing. But his posthumous outpost remains in the form of the Library at Farmington, and the Farmington Valley still impresses the onlooker as being an almost seamless stretch of natural vegetation from the viewpoint of Oak Bluff.

As a contrast to Kent’s open view of landscape, the most prominent historical garden in the vicinity of Farmington is doubtless the Sunken Garden at Hill-Stead, created by Beatrix Farrand in the early twentieth century as a component to the adjacent country villa which was hung with Impressionist paintings. Farrand’s intention was to match the bright colours of the paintings with the multifarious hues of the flowering plants. Around the time of the Second World War, the upkeep of this garden became too onerous, and so it was seeded over for a time. Only in the 1980s was it finally reclaimed and replanted, chiefly with perennial plants, by volunteer members of the Connecticut Valley Garden Club and Garden Club of Hartford.   

Bob Chaplin’s creation of what he has termed a ‘natural parterre’ in front of the house at Oak Bluff is surely rather more in tune with Kent’s philosophy than with the Impressionist palette of Beatrix Farrand. From the Spring of 2008, Chaplin has enabled four large square sections of his mown lawn to grow wild – that is to say, to sprout uncontrollably giving rise to whatever varieties of plant form happen to develop on this wide-open spot. He has at the same time undertaken a methodical photographic survey of how the plot has developed through the sequence of seasonal and yearly variations that took place over the entire period. This record is the basis for the current publication.

Bob Chaplin’s photographic survey, extending over time, inevitably takes the form of a narrative. I am reminded of another visual narrative that unrolled not long since in the not very far distant landscape of Connecticut, in the vicinity of Westport. In Frank Perry’s memorable film, The Swimmer (1968), the character played by the 55-year old Burt Lancaster decided to cross the whole extent of this seemingly wild and verdant valley by dint of swimming indefatigably across the adjacent pools of his former neighbours. The valley that appeared from above to be nothing but green virgin forest was thus broken up into a sequence of significant points of encounter by the pool-side, each in fact more ominous than the previous one, as the swimmer’s conversations became emblematic of his life being relived. I hasten to add that Bob Chaplin’s narrative does not have any such doom-laden connotations. But the comparison recalls, nonetheless, that his project began quite simply as physical hard work, and has ended up in the form of a complicated narrative record. The encounters between formality and wildness that he has revealed along the way are rarely less than surprising.

One can of course go a lot further back, for instance to the period that precedes the career of William Kent, in tracing the cultural significance of the venerable practice of mowing. Bob Chaplin is indeed right to see the mown lawn as a comparatively recent garden feature, and also to note that the first practical lawnmower was patented as late as 1830. But the practice of mowing with a scythe has a far longer history, and a rich poetic tradition has become attached to it. Andrew Marvell in the second half of the seventeenth century adopted ‘Damon’ (a creature lifted from the pastoral poems of Antiquity) as an actor in his contemporary discussion about garden trends, and their relation to the wider landscape. In ‘The Mower – Against Gardens’, Marvell argues against the importation of artificiality in any form into a natural setting. In the extraordinary complaint entitled ‘Damon the Mower’ (from which my epigraph is quoted), he directs the mower’s thoughts about nature towards a recognition of physical pain, when he is grievously wounded by his own scythe. In ‘The Mower’s Song’, indeed, the eponymous Damon voices his regret that he can control the growth of plants, but that he cannot protect himself from the impact of his beloved:

                                           For JULIANA comes, and she,

                                   What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

I can myself well recall the pleasure that I once experienced when, on a visit to a friend’s garden set within a primeval landscape in Western Australia, I discovered that their lawns were invariably mown by an enterprising local teenager called Damon... In the present case, it is also a pleasure to be able to recognize the shadowy presence of Damon – and to cast the mythic mower as an extra performer in Bob Chaplin’s poetic narrative of contemporary landscaping.