It is fascinating when an artist—a painter, a sculptor, or a photographer—turns to garden making, and translates his or her well-honed principles of composition to exterior design and planting. Clive Nichols is one of the best known garden photographers, with images featured in countless books, magazines, and calendars around the world. His own garden blends his mastery of composition with the plant knowledge he has collected through his work.
Even though Clive and I are both British, strangely enough it was in Connecticut that I got to know him, some 10 years ago. He and I had both been asked there on a filming assignment for BBC television. When we got back home, he invited me to come and see his garden in Reading, to the west of London. I remember being amazed and excited by his daring and original use of vibrant color on walls, pots, and sculptures. He had matched these with selected flower tints to turn his small backyard into a lively outdoor studio for himself and a wonderland for his two small children.
So, when he recently told me he had moved house and had another garden established, I was eager to investigate. He now lives in a converted barn near Banbury, deep in the English countryside, and when I arrived on a summer’s evening, I found a picture postcard scene: his wife, Jane, and daughter, Hazel, saddling up their horses, his son, Robbie, playing with Murphy the yellow labrador, and chickens clucking and scratching in the grass. It looked idyllic. “That’s the theory anyway,” laughed Clive.
Clive’s office and photo library sit beside the entrance courtyard, and he has made a small gravel garden there for the use of his staff. As we began our tour, I started to probe into what makes a good garden photograph and how this affects the way he designs and plants. “The key is to have a good structure,” he said. “Big ideas and effects, and a bold scale, even in a small garden.” The big idea for this area, partly inspired by the gardens of Steve Martino, the internationally admired garden designer based in Phoenix, Arizona, is a large rectangular water trough, fed by two spouts mounted on a painted wall.
The paint color does not draw from Clive’s previous palette of dazzling tints; he chose a subtle reddish brown to harmonize with the rust and gold of the property’s ironstone walls. This organic theme extends to the only other object in the composition, a wooden seat, simply but beautifully made from a beam of oak resting on stone supports. “Attention to detail, in design and construction, is really important,” he noted. “So many gardens are ruined by ugly and badly made details, especially tables and chairs.”
The main flower garden occupies a space roughly 60 feet square on the west side of the house. He extended the existing wall to enclose the garden—essential because of the wind. “It’s absolutely freezing here in winter,” he said. “My father calls it ‘The Steppes!’” He left two wide openings into the farm lane. “I did this purely for photography, and used bales of straw to work out how big I wanted them,” he explained. “I like views that take your eye through a gap—from one space to a strong focal point in another space.” Here, you look through one opening toward the vertical spire of a 20-feet-tall piece of driftwood, which came from the Pacific Northwest, standing in a border. The other opening leads to an upright hunk of rock rising from the gravel. Edging stones, dug from the site, give the borders interesting curves. The ground, a heavy clay, was prepared with generous additions of gravel and compost.
For extra focal points and verticals, to frame and structure the internal views, he has planted a few trees: birch, aspen, crabapple (Malus ‘Everest’), and a pink-berried rowan, Sorbus vilmorinii. (A mistake, I predict, because the flowers smell disgusting and over time there will be more and more of them!) For seating he has made the clever choice of ironstone slabs, which give equally powerful horizontal form. He grouped them around a concrete dish of water. “That gives me some nice reflections to photograph,” he said.
Again, no bright paintwork decorates the main garden, but scatter cushions provide flashes of arresting color. “I think most gardeners are far too conservative with color. It’s fun to be adventurous.” The cushions bring zing into the composition, echoing the lilac and purple flower tints of perennials such as Verbena bonariensis and Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain’.
Clive has been much influenced by the prevailing planting trends for grasses, meadow plants, and prairie species, perfected in public gardens by professional designers such as Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith. I admire the way that even on this small canvas he has managed to evoke the sense of being in a big landscape. He accomplished this with the use of generous sweeps, drifts, and repetitions of similar plant species, instead of a large collection of different things growing in staccato clumps. The eye floats through the borders. This planting style works in tandem with the harmonious colors and soft wispy textures to create atmosphere—another vital ingredient in a good photograph.
Clive has also taken trouble to study the planting in gardens he has photographed, honing in on some of the best of the newer plant varieties. These include the erect-spiked violet and blue hardy salvias S. nemorosa ‘Caradonna’, S. n. ‘Wesuwe’, and S. xsylvestris ‘Tanzerin’; the short catmint Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’; and red Astrantia major ‘Roma’. In the shadier borders, fluffy carmine-purple Astilbe chinensis var. taquetii ‘Purpurlanze’ and lilac-pink Lythrum salicaria ‘Robert’ rise like sentinels from the surrounding vegetation.
Such plants make exciting silhouettes when backlit by the evening sun, which Clive took into account when he placed them. The warm-tinted grasses positively flare up; his favorites of these include Chionochloa rubra, Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’, and the very fluffy Nassella tenuissima, which he has repeated along the backs of the seating stones. He leaves everything standing through the winter as a dry flower arrangement of parchment colors, stems, and seedheads. Tulips and other bulbs planted in the borders and in the cluster of bronze containers by the house door inject some lively color in spring.
This is a much more subtle and sophisticated garden than Clive Nichols’s previous one, and an expression of his maturing skill as a master photographer. I can’t wait for him to move house again!