PRODIGIES FASCINATE: We are riveted by the 7-year-old violinist ripping through Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata and the 13-year-old Oxford University graduate breaking new ground in mathematical knot theory. But what of another rara avis: the horticultural savant? The British garden designer Dan Pearson was 6 when he helped his father engineer a lily-pad pond at their Arts and Crafts-style home in the south of England; at 8, he was tending an elderly neighbour’s greenhouse. He won a seat at the Royal Horticultural Society school at Wisley at 17, and at 25 was named house garden designer at the Conran Shop on Fulham Road, then at the forefront of British interiors; within a year, he had opened his own studio. (My personal connection with him goes back nearly that far: In the mid-1990s, he designed the gardens of Torrecchia Vecchia, the 1,300-acre estate of my late uncle Carlo Caracciolo, south of Rome.)
He was, says Christopher Woodward, the director of London’s Garden Museum, which maintains a Pearson-designed miniature jungle of unusual botanical species, including snowflake-leafed Afghan fig and Canna x ehemanii, with its magenta trumpets, “truly a wonder child.” Over the years, Pearson has written five books, narrated a garden documentary series for the BBC, been a garden columnist at The Telegraph and The Observer and created landscapes for the fashion designer Paul Smith and the former Apple chief design officer Jony Ive. Now 55, he is among the most famous horticultural figures in the United Kingdom, a country where master gardeners have massive followings.
Although he travels the world on commissions much of the year, in 2010, he and his longtime romantic partner and collaborator, Huw Morgan, built themselves a country refuge amid the green hills of Somerset, a 90-minute train ride from London. Pearson speaks reverently of the area’s “sense of place,” and Hillside, his secluded 20-acre estate, is at once wholly original and a manifestation of Britain at its most indelible: a three-dimensional tapestry of woodlands, streams and meadows.
DOWN A ROAD barely wide enough for a single vehicle, Hillside’s farmhouse comes into view: a 1,500-square-foot two-story buff-coloured stone building with small windows and a chimney at each end of a red-tiled roof. With the help of the London-based architect Adam Khan, the late 18th-century house, its plain facade set off by espaliered Comice pears, has been turned into a spartan lair where raw textures — stone, wood, concrete — prevail over minimal vintage furnishings.
No matter the weather, much of the activity takes place on the open-sided wooden porch sheltered by sheets of corrugated cement board. There is a deep sink in which to rinse and prepare vegetables from the garden and fruits from the orchard (pears, quince, crab apples and plums). Near an oak plank dining table and a stove top with a cluster of espresso makers are weathered Adirondack chairs flanking a reclaimed metal barrel that gathers rain from the roof. Inside, down a hallway-cum-mudroom, one of Morgan’s sculptural black stoneware bowls sits alongside vintage pieces on a 1950s ebonized wood credenza; nearby hang hand-woven baskets that Pearson has picked up on his travels. In the airy modern kitchen with counters of Welsh slate, Morgan makes fruit jams and compotes with produce picked from the trees, and when the weather turns colder, the couple takes toast and tea in the winter room, which has a fireplace at one end and a wood stove at the other. A guest bedroom — outfitted with little more than a single bed with an embroidered suzani, a nightstand and a reading lamp — is panelled in dark-stained pine. “With so much going on outside,” says Morgan, “we wanted calm and quiet. Sombre interiors make the light streaming in more interesting.”
Pearson leads us outside to experience that light, which is vivid and unfiltered. We walk past the terraced orchard and into a young stand of hazelnut trees, which he planted in 2012. “It’s important to plant trees as soon as possible because they map time,” he says. Once we pass the converted barn where Pearson spends each Friday writing at an oval Eames-designed wood-and-metal desk, we are surrounded by wildflower meadows, 14 acres in total; he considers their establishment among his greatest accomplishments at Hillside. The fields had been grazed into near nonexistence for decades, so to revive them, he oversowed with a local seed containing yellow rattle, a semiparasitic plant that over eight years weakened the grass, allowing wild geraniums, wild oregano and bedstraw to flourish. He bends to examine a low cluster of flowers at our feet: wild orchids with their violet petals and mauve spikes. A Gunnera manicata — giant rhubarb from Brazil — sits halfway down the hill next to a natural spring, its display of massive lobed leaves as shocking as a sculpture in the rough. Farther in is what Pearson calls his “Japanese moment”: a bridge-crossing in a wild environment of moss-covered rocks and various types of ferns, yellow daisies and late-blooming water irises, their delicately ruffled amethyst petals like tissue paper. Japan has been on his mind of late: He travels there every year to consult with the head gardener of the Tokachi Millennium Forest on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, where, between 2004 and 2008, Pearson created a series of gardens with the local landscape architect Fumiaki Takano. The 600-acre expanse, featuring undulating hills and native perennials like Lilium auratum and Aralia elata, was commissioned by the publisher Mitsushige Hayashi to offset the carbon footprint of his newspaper business.
For Pearson, green public spaces are far more than merely recreational; they are restorative. That catechism may be best embodied in the gardens he completed in 2008 and 2016 for two of the United Kingdom’s 23 Maggie’s Centers, facilities on the grounds of National Health Service hospitals that provide free emotional and practical support for cancer patients and their families. With buildings by architects including Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, the centres are meant as a retreat from the medical environment; for the West London centre, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners on a sliver of land next to Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith, Pearson fashioned a woodland walk lined with rough-barked plane trees that contrast with fragrant winter boxwood sarcococca. The British sculptor Hannah Bennett made ceramics for the path, matching their colour to the bark of the planes; the arrival courtyard is lined with white magnolia Merrill. “A garden is the perfect metaphor,” says Pearson, “for life and regeneration.”
Although Hillside is intended largely as a rambling natural environment, albeit a carefully conceived one, not even Pearson can resist the lure of ornament. Nestled on the other side of the barn from the main house is a single-acre plot of botanical pyrotechnics. It’s barely visible from the house — “I wanted the views unencumbered by the man-made”— but when he sits in the barn to write, the glazed doors to the east frame funky red American leopard lilies and the pink-and-chartreuse fluorescent spikes of African Kniphofia rufa. Equally alien-seeming are the drifts of arching white dieramas, or angel’s fishing rod, from South Africa, with their clusters of nodding bells. Pearson stands for a moment, utterly still, the grasses tickling his worn boots as he takes in the juxtapositions: the natural and the gnarled wrapping itself gloriously around the fanciful and the strange. “Proof,” he says, “that we, as humans, are a tiny cog in a very big wheel.”
Photographs by Alexis Armanet
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