Sculptures lend themselves to display in gardens. The play of light and shadows cast by trees and shrubs brings them to life. A sculpture can be viewed from all angles and if sympathetically positioned, enhances the space in which it stands. I was fortunate to witness just such effects when I was invited to the final day of the Surrey Sculpture Society exhibition last Monday at Ramster Garden, Chiddingfold, Surrey. The exhibition featured 93 mainly figurative works in a beautiful woodland garden setting.
Ramster Garden is in the The Weald, the area between the chalk escarpments of the North Downs and the South Downs, from Hampshire in the west to Kent in the east. The garden’s acid to neutral Wealden clay soil with pockets of sand, provides the perfect conditions for growing rhododendrons and azaleas. The garden was originally created out of native oak woodland in 1890 and added to from 1922 by the great grandparents of the current owners. The sloping site and rich collection of acid-loving plants reminded me of the grounds of Caerhays Castle in south Cornwall which I visited in April.
Unlike that visit, when it drizzled ceaselessly all afternoon, the weather on Monday was perfect: bright sunshine and a gentle breeze. Our route took us past the formality of the Tennis Court Garden along Acer Avenue to a path around the western perimeter of the garden into the Valley of the Giants. Here there are magnificent specimen trees including redwoods. Before the descent into the valley, there are broad swathes of meadowland awash with oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare), meadow buttercups (Ranunculus acris) and wild orchids: possibly purple orchids (Orchis mascula), but I shall have to ask an expert to verify that. Set amidst the meadowland I spotted a graceful Acer backed by a huge white Rhododendron and unusual shrubs such as Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum Grandiflorum).
The nursery which supplied many of the trees and shrubs when the garden was first laid out, Gauntletts of Chiddingfold, specialised in Japanese ornamentation as well as plants, and this Japanese influence can be seen in ornamention around the garden, including a striking red bridge. The perimeter path eventually led us to The Bog Garden and a stand of Gunnera manicata, another reminder of my recent Cornish trip. The route of a rill flowing from Ant Wood was traceable upstream by a brightly coloured ribbon of candelabra primulas. As well as a collection of hybrid rhododendrons, I noticed in Ant Wood a pretty tree dripping in scarlet, the ‘keys’ of a snake bark maple cultivar, Acer davidii Serpentine, sometimes called Père David’s maple. Père David (1826-1900) was a French zoologist, botanist and missionary in China after whom several species have been named (see below).
To mark the centenary of the current owners’ family’s association with Ramster Garden, a new garden was laid out in 2022, the beds radiating from a stone Japanese lantern. A carved wooden dragon fashioned into a bench stands guard. Nearby on Loderi Walk stands the Loders White rhododendron, festooned with large white flowers. This is one of the hybrid rhododendrons bred by Sir Edmund Loder in the early C20, at the Leonardslee estate in Horsham about 18 miles to the east of Ramster. I love to see the lower limbs of rhododendrons removed to highlight the sculptural form of the trunks and branches and I noticed this had been done in a number of places, making a perfect backdrop for a colourful pair of parrots. And the bare trunks of Rhododendron Cynthia are sculptural forms in their own right.
I noticed a couple of fine handkerchief trees displaying a profusion of fresh white bracts, a full month after I had seen them in Glendurgan in Cornwall: a demonstration of the mild climate enjoyed in the valley gardens of south Cornwall compared with the south east. This is another plant named for Père David, Davidia involucrata and is sometimes called the dove tree.
The placement of the sculptures along the main path through the centre of the garden was masterful, taking full advantage of the woodland surroundings. For example, a charming sculpture of Red Riding Hood.
I detected a few themes running through the sculpture exhibits: dance, animals, particularly cats both wild and domesticated, birds, horses (especially their heads) and humans with their dogs. Not falling into any of these categories were the graceful Flora, the quirky photographer ‘Watch the Birdie’ and Shelf Life. I’ve picked out a few of my favourites in the images which follow.
Ramster Garden is open until 2 July. I plan a return visit for the autumn colour when it re-opens from 16 September to 12 November. Thank you to Beth Meades of Limeflower PR for inviting me and a friend to Ramster and to Rosie Glaister of Ramster Hall and Gardens for welcoming us on Monday.
Kew, 1 June 2023