Monday, July 8, 2013

Shout Out for an Unlikely Garden Guru--John Fowler

Like most, I tune out wisdom by cliche. Wisdom by surprise, however, acts on me like an interesting  garden does; it energizes me.

Above is a book about interior design that I read in the 90s. The library no longer owns it, so I can no longer quote from it. It is mostly about a design firm that specialized in big, old, English houses, defining a style that was comfy, livable and condign with the houses' and the country's history. Colefax and Fowler did not single-handedly create the modern English County House Style, nevertheless, their fingerprints remain all over it. And John Fowler, who with Nancy Lancaster (an American from Virginia,) was head of the company, was the man who oversaw the decorative painting and soft furnishings. No one could do trim like him.

 So how does that make him a garden guru? Good question.

Somewhere in that big book pictured above, Fowler makes a remark incidental to decorative painting. It caught my attention because it described something different from the aesthetic modes that were zipping around through the 60s and 70s and influenced my taste.

Fowler said that a viewer's eye is pleased by the combination of bright and muddy colors. Always add a little mud, he said (or something to that effect;) it makes the brights stand out. Visualize such a combination in your mind's eye versus a Peter Max poster or a David Hicks' room. Works by 60s icons tended to be all bright on bright, all the colors at the same high intensity, while in the 70s things went all drab on drab, remaining at the same low intensity. Think of sage green and mauve, or grey-blue and beige or that ubiquitous (shudder,) avocado, burnt orange and mustard. These tints were everywhere, in the clothes we wore, the rooms we sat in, the possibilities we imagined, a mood of the times.                                                                                                                                But Fowler hearkened back to a different time (and mood,) all together.

Here is an early painting by Gainsborough. Note how dull the overcast day is, yet somehow an errant sunglow has escaped from the otherwise beautifully clotted colors to light up the artist and his family. Look how handsomely that crimson waistcoat shines forth. Even the grass upon which the family sits is luminous, and all the more luminous for the otherwise drab surroundings. Not only is this a fittingly accurate show of Brit weather, it is also (perhaps,) a loving tribute to the light of family love in individual consciousness, for this is Gainsborough painting himself with his own family. Note how the wife's clear, sky-blue dress seems to almost chide the sky.

So what does that out-of-the-blue art lecture have to do with gardens, or more specifically, my garden, as pictured above. Well, though I love it when plants blossom, it is hard to keep them all blossoming all the time. Plants need rest. Then how do you supply interest? You can do it with structure. You can do it with texture. You can do it with foliage color.

Lots of books will tell you to use variations of foliage color other than leaf-green so as break up what can otherwise be a boring mass of green. However, most colorful foliage is not as enticing as flowers, meaning this method shouldn't really work. Yet it does. Could this be so because Fowler is right about muddies and brights?  For in the garden, foliage can create constant highlights and lowlights, giving illusions of depth and light and therefore, of greater space.

So--in this post are pictures of my garden showing four useful foliage colors. I like using yellow-green and pale grey-green as highlights and dirty purple/brown, darker grey-green and blue-green as lowlights.

Above is a pic that contains three of these foliage colors; blue-green, pale grey-green and purple-brown. Sure they are dull-- but oh, what dulls!

My favorite may be the muted blue-green. Its coolness gives contrast to the more usual warm green of typical foliage, adding depth and giving sparkle.

Well, enough blathering. I haven't even mentioned red as a foliage color or all the variegated foliage possibilities that abound, but I expect that you get the picture.

Gardening is a visual art (among other things,) so you can learn a lot about it from things that claim to have nothing to do with it. Learning builds on itself regardless of how we humans chop up our naturally seamless lives into categories.

All this I have learned from a gentleman who named his favorite dull colors things like "Elephant's Breath," and "Mouse Back"-- and then used them to shine up the grandest of grand houses. There is something about that, a balance, a weird humility, a sense of wholeness, that I really like.


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