Over recent years the amount of stone seen in the gardens at Chelsea Flower Show has grown considerably as designers have increasingly appreciated the contribution the natural material can make to their designs.
This year will be no different. The Royal Horticultural Society’s Show at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, is being held 21-25 May and many of the gardens will include natural stone hard landscaping of one kind or another.
One of them is the Mindfulness Garden, which will include the work of one of the country’s top lettercutters, Martin Cook.
Martin is no stranger to Chelsea. For the past 15 years he has had a trade stand at the event, showing his carved and lettered sundials, benches and standing stones. He finds it (and the RHS Show at Hampton Court) a good venue for gaining new commissions for his work.
But he had not actually contributed his work to any of the show gardens.
Then, in 2009, while taking a break from his stand and looking around the Show, he started wondering if he could create a garden that would be acceptable for the show. After a lot of work he submitted a design and it was selected for the 2011 Show.
It sounds easy. But a lot of people have the same idea and only three out of every 100 applicants have their work accepted.
Martin’s first entry appeared as the Literary Garden. It had a lot of his lettercutting in it, on Portland limestone, slate and oak. There was a bridge, a water feature, a stepping stone pathway, a gateway entrance, all of it with poems cut into it.
Martin was rewarded with a Silver Gilt Award – just one small step below a coveted Gold (which first timers never get).
The garden was featured on television and in the press, including half a page in the Daily Telegraph and reports in magazines from all over the world. “The first person to interview me last time was from Australia,” says Martin.
The garden was visited by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and American comedian Joan Rivers. Alan Titchmarsh, who presents the TV coverage of Chelsea, commissioned Martin to produce an ornate, 1m-high Portland limestone cameo carving for his private garden. Inscribed on it is Titchmarsh’s favourite quote: “In all, let nature never be forgot.”
Getting into this year’s Chelsea Show was a little easier. Martin was contacted by the RHS as a previous medal winner and invited to submit a design. It still had to win the approval of the committee, but had a head start this time.
There are different categories of garden at Chelsea. There are the main show gardens, then there are the artisan gardens and there is a relatively new category called ‘fresh gardens’. It was a design for a ‘fresh garden’ that Martin was invited to submit.
“I had this idea that’s basically a meditation space within a bigger garden. It’s a place where you could go to contemplate, focusing the mind and being mindful of what’s going on round you.”
The ‘fresh’ gardens are 6m square. This time, Martin did not want to fill the space with lots of examples of his work but wanted to focus quite deliberately on particular pieces with a lot of plants around them. “In a way, having less lettering will give it more emphasis and more visibility.”
There will be 2,000 plants of 15 different varieties, including 750 grasses of two kinds. The plants have been grown by Davies Bros Nursery, Burnham, and will be planted by landscaper Chris Holland.
“From above and from three sides the garden will just look chaotic with a mound in the middle, but from one place, where there’s a circular oak seat on a York stone base, you will look through a tunnel in the mound, lined with polished stainless steel, to a carved standing slate at the other end. It will be like looking through a camera and suddenly everything comes into focus. I can almost guarantee the closing shot on the television coverage one day will be down the tunnel to the slate at the end. It will be a fantastic camera shot.”
On the stone below the seat Martin will cut the first and last lines of the Rudyard Kipling poem ‘If’ – If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs; you will be a man, my son.
On the slate, which will be the same diameter as the tunnel, will be a quote from Pythagoras: Learn to be silent. Let your quiet mind listen and absorb. In silence you will see benefits in all things.
The lettering he uses will, he says, be based on his knowledge of the history and theory of lettering, which is extensive. “I will use two different styles. The Kipling on the York stone surrounds you when you sit on the oak pod and that will be a rather scripted Italic, as if spoken. On the slate it will be capitals and more formal. I want it to have a uniform spiralling shape, which is best achieved in capitals.
“The amount of lettering was just the way it worked out. Last time it had to be saturated with words because of the literary theme. This time I wanted it to be uncluttered because it’s a meditative space.”
Once the stones are ready, they will be sealed using Dry Treat to help keep them looking their best during the Show.
Distribution of Dry Treat has been taken on by the Marble & Granite Centre (see the February issue of NSS) and Martin says he has had a test piece of Portland stone treated with it in his garden for more than a year. “It really does what it says on the tin – you don’t notice the stone has been sealed but it keeps the water out so the lettering always looks its best.”
The Marble & Granite Centre is the main sponsor of the Chelsea garden (see panel left). Martin also has the backing of the Merchant Taylors’ School in Middlesex, where he was educated, the Merchant Taylors’ Livery Company, the Bohun Gallery in Henley, where Martin has exhibited, and Informa PLC, educational publishers whose director Martin has produced an inscribed garden standing stone for.
Once everything is ready, the garden will be put together first at Martin’s home, so any glitches are ironed out – because there is only a week ahead of the Flower Show to construct all the gardens at Chelsea Hospital.
Martin still has his trade stand at Chelsea (on which his son, Matthew, who works with him these days, will be giving a demonstration of carving during the Show) and the pieces for that as well as for the Mindfulness Garden will have taken three or four months to produce by the time the Show opens in May.
Martin: “You end up having to commit completely to it – weekends and evenings go out the window for three or four months. But you can’t not give it your best shot. There’s just no room for ‘that will do’. And we have five months’ backlog of commissions – you can’t ignore them. But after Chelsea we will have a holiday.”
Before settling down to produce his pieces for Chelsea, Martin was working more than 15m up on a drawbridge between galleries at the British Museum in London. He did the lettering originally for the Norman Foster Great Court scheme and now whenever more lettering is needed he is called back.
Mostly, though, he works in outbuildings of the farmhouse where he lives with his partner Debbie, who Martin admits does more gardening than he does.
“I wouldn’t call myself a horticulturalist,” he says, “but I have a nice garden and I love it. I work the stone in it when the weather’s nice because the light is better outside.”
Once, most of his lettering was on memorials and that still accounts for 30-40% of his output, some commissions coming through Memorials by Artists, for which he was one of the early artists. Commercial work such as on the British Museum accounts for another 30% and the rest (and increasingly) is for private garden commissions. “We do a lot of standing stones with poetry and verse on them.”
His work forms part of many private collections and can be seen at Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, which is often considered Ian Hamilton Finlay’s greatest work of art. It is famous for its lettering in a garden of 275 individual artworks – Martin Cook’s among them.
You can also see his work on a Welsh slate standing stone in the Savill Gardens at Windsor, where it commemorates the
re-opening of the gardens by The Queen in 2010 and records the work carried out to create the rose gardens in which it is sited. On the other side of the stone is a verse about the scent of summer roses.
The stone for Martin Cook’s Mindfulness Garden has been donated by stone wholesalers The Marble & Granite Centre in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, which is also helping to pay for the garden.
Martin Cook says: “It’s been a fantastic partnership. I have had a working contact with Stephen Pike at The Marble & Granite Centre for many years – going back to when he was with his family masonry firm of Geoffrey Pike in London and they used to contract me to do some of their carving. He’s my longest standing contact in the stone industry.
“Stephen has always been incredibly supportive of everything I have done and I buy my stone from him – I am only 25minutes drive from The Marble & Granite Centre. When I told him what I needed for Chelsea he said ‘Right, we will sort it out for you’. The gardens are expensive to make so The Marble & Granite Centre’s help with a lot of the cost of it is certainly appreciated.
“I think Stephen and myself both think it is an exciting and interesting thing to do away from the normal routine of work. He hasn’t contributed to gain anything specific any more than I have designed it for any specific outcome. We think something more will come out of it, of course, but we are doing it for the enjoyment of doing it.
“Stephen visited Chelsea in 2011 when I had my first garden there and that was what excited him. It’s an incredible event and it’s been fantastic to be able to work with him on something like this. He’s a tremendously enthusiastic guy.”