OPINION: A landscaper’s vision

A visit to an historic manor house in Ireland gets Warren Robertson thinking about the future.

Powerscourt estate is some 20kms south of Dublin. It’s exactly the kind of manor made famous in countless period pieces of Ireland and the United Kingdom, with rolling lawns, ponds and forests spread over 47 acres. Voted the number three best garden in the world by National Geographic, the true artistry of the landscaping really needs to be seen to be appreciated.

Described as being “the most ambitious formal gardens of the Victorian era in Ireland” the landscaping brings together a series of unique aspects from the manor house architecture, to sculptures, pools, fountains and numerous different, dedicated plantings. These are set against a backdrop of woods, mountains and river valleys, and so ambitious was the project that there are three volumes of the “Powerscourt Plans”(1893) currently held in the Irish National Library.

Strolling the gardens the effort and vision are immediately clear. Massive trees in subtly different shades of green, overlap against a bright blue sky to create a vision of beauty as clear as that of any great painted masterpiece. Paths have been laid so that turning a corner offers a whole new picture-perfect landscape and the various elements blend into thick foliage in a way that seems to complement the lines of the landscape and the imposing backdrop.

There is little doubt that the landscaper Daniel Robertson, who is said to have suffered from gout and directed work in the gardens from a wheelbarrow, fortified by a bottle of sherry, was a man of immense vision, subtle taste and immense creativeness, because unlike the painter who got to see their final work unfurled before them as they work their brush, Robertson simply had his final image in his minds eye.

See the gardens are only truly as beautiful as they are now because the trees have been allowed to grow. The small saplings that Robertson saw, are now dozens of metres tall, towering over the ponds and clearings as he intended. Mosses, ivy and vines have, over time, been allowed to climb up walls, creep along paths, and fill in gaps over what was once nothing but stark holes in the overall photograph.

My awe for this artist cannot be overstated, because as he created his greatest work, he also knew he would never see it as it was intended. The Powerscourt gardens are only as magnificent as they are now because Robertson planned for the future. All his work, was not for him, or his benefactor the 6th Viscount Powerscourt Richard Wingfield, who died in 1844, the year after the plans for the gardens were completed, but rather for us, the people who more than 150 years later would stroll the gardens and see them as he imagined.

In a world where we demand instant gratification that kind of thinking, and planning can be hard to understand. Why would they lay down foundations for things not even their children’s children would truly appreciate? The answer I suspect is to place themselves in a timeless place. A moment where they can appreciate a future they will never be a part of. Terry Pratchett once said, “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away”, and the gardens at Powerscourt live on.

So this year my three-year-old son and I planted oak trees. I may never see them reach their full height, or appreciate the shade under their branches, but for now, we get to watch them grow a few centimetres every month in their pots and imagine a distant future where we still play a tiny part.

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