Monday, November 14, 2011
A Garden and a Library...
Many of us harbour a romantic dream of an Arcadian idyll; a blissful, bucolic refuge far from the city, society pressures and stress. We imagine we can wander out to our potager to pluck some dew-fresh Listanda de Gandia or some Royal Purple Pod beans before retreating to our enormous country kitchen to create a Maggie Beer-style spread. We imagine we’ll have so many rooms in this rural retreat that we can convert one to a study, one to a flower room, one to a painting space and one to a library. (The hubster, naturally, gets the shed out the back.) As Marcus Tullius Cicero once said: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
This is what happened to my partner and I. Seduced by the idea of a villa rustica (working farm), a villa urbana (country house) or even a villa rundowna, we started looking for a country home. The problem was, we wanted an enchanting place with a large, mature garden within easy stroll of a village, in a high-rainfall area, within an hour’s drive of Melbourne. Easier dreamed than done. To paraphrase Jane Austen: If only we could all find such a place. Then a real estate agent suggested a old timber house called ‘Windermere’. It needed work and had been on the market for a year, he said: were we interested? It was love at first doorknob. We didn’t even make it to the butler’s pantry. We took one look at the rambling overgrown garden, the colonial-style floorplan, the enormous rooms and the lovely country road (Arthur Streeton's old estate was just across the way), and signed off the same day.
There was just one problem. The house, like us, was worn around the edges from stress and wear. Soon after we moved in, the walls gave way, the rotten deck collapsed, the oven died, and the central heating gave up in sympathy. The garden, meanwhile, limped along until it, too, fell onto its horticultural derriere, and a brutal winter and sodden summer finished off the rest. The idea of ‘Howard’s End’ had turned into World’s End. We were at our wit’s end.
Then Mother Nature intervened. Spring came and the magnolias and rhododendrons burst into life. Our 100-year-old rhodies erupted into the prettiest shade of Pompadour pink, while the camellias bloomed into flowers Chanel would have been proud of. Motivated, we tugged on our gumboots and went to work. My idea, rather ambitiously, was to design a ‘creative retreat’, filled with books, photos and mementos of our travels; a house for those, like us and our friends, who love to garden, read, write, create or simply contemplate life over a glass with a lot of gin in it. Having long been drawn to the work of Cecil Beaton, Fréderic Méchiche, Kelly Wearstler, Windsor Smith, Mary McDonald and Jane Coslick–people who mixed cheeky irreverence with sublime design–I imagined a space full of whimsy, personality and delightful surprises. We knew we had a long way to go.
A year on, we are still working on our endearing old house, and have come to love it, despite the ghosts (two), the faulty electrical system, the endless To-Do list, and the horrendous weeds. (A result of the high rainfall.) We have converted the garden to a Writer's Garden, with beds shaped like exclamation marks and full stops, and renovated the interior with a pitifully meagre budget. Thanks to our lovely Afghanistan tradies, who not only painted a two-story house for $2000 but regaled me with tales of their home country, the place is looking a treat! It's certainly come a long way from the days when I couldn't even grow a hydrangea.
Winston Churchill once said that we shape our buildings and then they shape us, and I think the same could be said of our homes and gardens. We try to create our homes and gardens by giving them form, depth, dignity and character, but in the end, I think it’s our homes and gardens that give those things to us.