David Hicks was a star in the 1960s and 70s; a self-made man who epitomised a new era when it seemed like talent and energy was all it took to break through stuffy establishment rules. His big idea was to mix the traditional with the modern in his interior designs, creating a look which had broad appeal – an idea which we take for granted now. He wrote eleven DIY books, he appeared on the very first makeover-type TV programmes, he was rarely out of the gossip columns, he had a burgeoning global business – and was related to the Queen by marriage. He was difficult and exasperating but I am touched by the fact that he had loved gardens since boyhood and, when his business affairs started to unravel, he turned to gardens as a place in which to express his irrepressible creativity – and, I suspect, as a place of solace. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of his death on March 20 1998; the perfect time to recall an exciting day I spent in his masterpiece of a garden at The Grove, Oxfordshire.
‘Come for lunch’, the hand written letter from Lady Pamela Hicks suggested, ‘and then you can help yourself to the garden’. I had been familiar from childhood with both the interior and exterior style of Mr David Hicks as my father, a painter who rarely admired any other living artist, was a big fan. Experiencing these interiors, as well as the garden, was going to be a huge treat. The Grove is a comfortable farmhouse to which Hicks downsized when his finances needed attention. It belonged to the estate of Britwell House, a grand house a few miles up the road which Hicks bought at the height of his career and is set in flat, Oxfordshire countryside. You enter by a simple five-bar gate across the drive, which skirts a mini meadow with artfully arranged fallen trees. The front door is modest but pretty and welcoming with mops of deep purple clematis over the Gothik style porch designed by Hicks. There is no sign of the famous garden – just an intriguing, arched garden door.
It was a memorable lunch which I thoroughly enjoyed but the most important reason for spending time in the house is that the garden really begins and ends here – inside out. That is to say, the design pushes two sight lines out into the countryside, one from the sitting room window and the other from the dining room. These are not cosy English Arts and Crafts type sight lines but powerful and proclaimatory ones, inherited from French design of the seventeenth century. However, Hicks always serves up a traditional dish with a modern twist. The scene from the sitting room is rather like a stage set but the parterre in the foreground is not an affair of arabesques but one of geometric, cubic shapes, rather masculine and modern. Mirror image L-shaped rows of stilted hornbeam come next, but he has backed them by a hornbeam hedge to block out the negative space, while retaining the strong verticals created by the trunks in front. The extent of the stage, or room, is indicated by a clairvoyée, a kind of see-through fence, beyond which a living tent, supported by a metal structure, terminates a further run of hedges in the same material. The overall effect is to guide the eye on an ever receding path. This was not mere historicism but a modern interpretation of a traditional template, boldly mixing old and new. He exploits the rules of perspective to conjure grandeur, as in the past, but is also unabashed to use quirky modern features like longer grass at the margins and the DIY pyramidal caps made from marine ply on the clairvoyée.
In the dining room I was seated directly opposite the window and was mesmerised by another great vista. I love the confidence with which Hicks created his world. This house was much smaller and very much less grand than the one he was obliged to downsize from but his answer was to build himself room after room – outside. The scene begins with a black rectangular pool set in a carpet of green and enclosed in a room of clipped horse chestnut with an avenue of Spanish chestnut beyond. Who would ever think of pleaching horse chestnuts in this way? Hicks believed he was the first, and I suspect the last, to do so but there’s something marvellous about that, as is the fact that the pool is a disguised swimming pool, which he said he bought because it was going very cheap. This pragmatic attitude is in evidence throughout the garden – he achieves grandeur by some very down-to-earth means and is never ashamed to show off his clever tricks. As his garden how-to book of 1982, Garden Design, shows, he believed that good design is within the reach of everyone, even if you live in a standard new build house.
The rest of the design fleshes out these two grand features in a series of more intimate rooms and galleries, each with its own theme. The Magnolia Garden is an original take on an old theme – plant evergreen trees in a grid pattern in a courtyard for serenity and pattern. Hicks makes the unusual choice of magnolia grandiflora and sets them in a lawn but isolated in their individual box boxes, enclosed by hedging. The repeating pattern, the large leathery leaves and the crisp box squares make for a graphic design where texture and line make a simple but original horticultural statement. There is a Statue garden where a Greek God spins his discus alone in a green room, and a snail, also alone, on a pedestal, his back protected by a yew arc. The Catalpa Walk, features trees which are not often used in Britain but whose large floppy leaves must have attracted Hicks (they are fast growing too), terminating in a display of showy, architectural fragments. The Pot Garden is a direct translation of his famous Tablescapes where objects on a theme are arranged in generous multiplicity. Hicks cut tabletops from out of the lawn and dressed them with a collection of containers of the same shade of green. The Gothik Tower was a 60th birthday gift from his wife and is complimented by a delightful little play moat with draw bridge. And just when we are adjusting to the fact that this is a green garden he throws us by making a Red Garden with fagus purpurea.
The notable absentees at The Grove are flowers. Ironically Hicks had a great love of them, writing in his book on flower arranging: ‘flowers give me more pleasure than almost anything else in life’. However, he preferred to keep them hidden away in areas where they could not compromise his design, that is, in two cutting gardens, one just for roses and the other, known as the Secret Garden, a romantic space filled with a sensual mix of traditional cottage garden favourites such as lilies, tree peonies, poppies, foxgloves and roses. This was a bold choice and is typical of Hicks not to be overly concerned by the prevailing trend as exemplified by his famous gardening friends such as Verey, Chatto and Hobbs.
Before leaving I had the privilege of studying the two delightful scrap books that Hicks made while developing the garden at The Grove. They are large leather-bound tomes full of cuttings, sketches, lists, plans, notes and invoices. They are things of beauty in themselves and bear direct witness to Hicks’ design process. The Grove is not generally open to the public but it would be wonderful to have a proper monograph on this garden, for its aesthetics but perhaps even more as the insight it gives on an extraordinary man of his time.
My grateful thanks go to Lady Pamela Hicks for generously sharing her time and the extraordinary garden which is part of her home.
For a taste of the interior design style of David Hicks see his son Ashley Hicks’ website: http://www.ashleyhicks.com/david-hicks/
For a real sense of Hicks watch this film of him talking of the garden with his friend Rosemary Verey in 1993. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcZSEjlS8i4