On Sunday I visited Blenheim for the first time thanks to Patient Gardener (PG) who'd given me a ticket to hear Helena Attlee in conversation with our very own Victoria about her new book (Helena's not Victoria) Italy's Private Gardens: An Inside View. Sadly PG couldn't make it as she was busy watching her son take his first flying lesson (which she's written about here - sounds most exciting).
Blenheim held a literary festival over the weekend, sponsored by The Independent (hence Victoria's involvement and my attendance) and my ticket allowed me to have a thorough wander around the park and gardens beforehand: more on that to come. The photo is of the Italian Garden, the one part which unfortunately isn't open to wander around, hence my rather poor shot taken over the hedge. Whilst there I was pondering how many gardens like Blenheim were strongly influenced by those found in Italy during the 18th Century and anticipating how this subject might be tackled during the talk.
However, my preconceptions were totally wrong and in the most positive of ways. Helena has travelled extensively in Italy over the past 20 or so years and has got to know many of the contemporary gardens and their makers during this time. Instead of a dry talk about Italy's well known gardens, we were treated to a warmer, much more intimate portrait of the people who garden in Italy today. Helena's tales were illustrated by the gorgeous photographs taken by her partner, Alex Ramsay who'd not only captured the beauty of the gardens they'd visited, he'd breathed life into them by showing the owners and their gardeners going about their daily tasks, or just showing them using their own space.
By the end of the talk I found myself grinning with the sheer pleasure from what I'd seen and heard. The book is (dare I say it) lovely, but different from most garden volumes because it's a record of the conversations Helena and her partner have had during their extensive travels and illustrated with informal portraits of the people they've met. This approach gets under the skin of why each garden is just so and for me is much more satisfying than the usual plant descriptions, views of each garden and their history, though plenty of this is also peppered in each article in the book. This approach also meant that the in conversation format of the talk was appropriate and worked well.
I left not only wanting to visit Italy to see all this for myself, I was also intrigued by Helena's implication during her talk that garden design and landscape architecture in Italy today isn't the art that it once was and is now in the hands of just a few, who more often than not hail from these shores. It seems strange that where we once revelled in the ideas of our Italian cousins (and epitomised in my photo) we now are the exporters of our gardening expertise and passion to Italy.
I also found myself giggling from time to time because unlike most of the day's other talks at the festival which were accompanied with a glass of wine, this one had tea and cake. I'm sure it was because of the time of day (4pm), but I like to think that it was in deference to garden visiting!