Two sphinx-like statues foreground an intricate formal garden of geometric hedges and a square pond. In the background are cherry trees in bloom

Russell Page’s garden for the Villa Silvio Pellico, Italy. Photo courtesy of Villa Silvio Pellico


The mystic art of gardening

In an era of 20th-century suburban sprawl, the great designer Russell Page infused soulful philosophy into his gardens

by Caleb Smith + BIO

Russell Page’s garden for the Villa Silvio Pellico, Italy. Photo courtesy of Villa Silvio Pellico

Russell Page (1906-85) was a brooding, chain-smoking loner who somehow became one of the most glamorous landscape designers of the 20th century. Born in Lincolnshire, England, he spent much of his career in Paris and worked all over the world, travelling to southern Europe, the Americas, Australia and the Middle East. Page designed grand gardens for aristocrats, industrialists and institutions, as well as many small-scale projects for his friends. His only book, The Education of a Gardener (1962) – a memoir blending historical and philosophical meditations with practical guidance – is still admired as a masterpiece of garden writing, reissued by New York Review Books (2007) and Vintage Classics (2023).

For all his shimmering success, however, Page is something of an outsider, hard to place in the canon of landscape design. Though he was widely regarded as a great artist, he did not establish his own innovative signature style, and most of his gardens have been remodelled or destroyed. The significance of Page’s career seems curiously obscure. ‘Where does this man stand in the history of garden making?’ Fred Whitsey, the longtime gardening correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, asked after Page’s death. ‘He remains elusive.’

The question of Page’s legacy is partly a matter of style. Although he made many different kinds of gardens, he was most famous for highly formal designs in the classical French and Italian traditions. If you have ever looked at pictures of the gardens at Versailles, created by André Le Nôtre for Louis XIV, then you have seen the iconic example of formal design, with its rigid geometries and tightly controlled planting schemes. Most 20th-century English designers, by contrast, favoured looser, more informal landscapes. In recent decades, new kinds of naturalistic gardens, such as those of the Dutch master Piet Oudolf, have won prestigious commissions on both sides of the Atlantic, and now a new movement for ‘wild’ gardening is designing garden habitats for biodiversity and ecological repair. To contemporary eyes, classical gardens have come to appear rigid, even soulless, in their efforts to control nature. And so Page might simply be seen as an outmoded artist, the last of the great formal designers, left behind by modern times.

In the foreground pink hydrangeas bloom on a raised terrace above a formal lawn that leads to the distant lakeside. Trees shade the lawn

A shady sycamore grove in Russell Page’s garden at Schloss Freudenberg, on Lake Zug in Switzerland. Photo by Michael Boys/Corbis/VCG/Getty

As it turns out, though, Page’s thinking about gardens is too strange and too beautiful to follow such an oversimple script. A closer look at his writing, especially The Education of a Gardener, reveals how deeply he considered his own place in the development of garden-making. Like other midcentury designers, Page found himself dealing with distinctly modern conditions, trying to envision a future for home gardens in the era of suburban sprawl. Unlike many others, he responded to this problem in an unorthodox way – by adopting a quasi-religious mysticism.

Far from soulless, Page devoted himself to an esoteric faith, influenced by the charismatic spiritual leader G I Gurdjieff and the Sufi teacher Idries Shah. After training as an artist in England and France, Page widened his perspective to study the design histories of many other, distant cultures. In The Education of a Gardener, he praised the forgotten landscape architects from ‘the Zen sect of Buddhism’ in 15th-century Japan and ‘the earlier Mogul gardens in India’. To see a path forward in the 20th century, Page proposed, Western garden-making needed to reconnect with the universal spirit that had guided ancient Eastern traditions.

This, I think, was Page’s real contribution to design history – not so much a distinctive kind of planting scheme as a special role for the designer. He cultivated an image of himself as an artist-mystic, spiritually estranged from British imperialism and consumer capitalism which, he felt, tended to create ugly, life-stunting landscapes wherever they imposed themselves. Against the backdrop of mass-produced suburbia, he created therapeutic sanctuaries of unique harmony and tranquility.

Reconsidered in this light, Page’s work speaks to our own moment in unsettling, surprising ways. While today’s naturalistic and wild styles might define themselves against his classical formality, they also unwittingly echo his spiritual critique of colonial and suburban landscapes. Page’s career shows how a vaguely orientalist ethos can be appropriated as a kind of high-end branding. At the same time, though, he offers unconventional theories and practices that anyone can use, on any scale, for making gardens in the ruins.

Russell Page photographed in April 1966. Photo by Express/Hulton/Getty

In his introduction to The Education of a Gardener, Page recalls how his professional career began in the early 1930s when, after art school and some years abroad in Paris, he took ‘a very subordinate job’ under Richard Sudell, a London-based landscape architect. The work, Page writes, involved ‘designing plantings for the endless new blocks of cheap flats then being built in the London suburbs.’ His tone is dreary, lightly snobbish. He needed the salary to get by but, from the start, suburban expansion weighed heavy on his spirits.

Soon, though, Page’s first big commission took him out of London and, like a fairytale, into an enchanted past. The site was Longleat House, a distinguished but deteriorating Elizabethan estate. Page’s client, Lord Henry Bath, the heir to Longleat, showed him around, providing what turned out to be a crash course in garden history.

In the 1600s, the marquesses of Bath had built grand gardens in a formal style influenced by continental models, with straight lines and tightly clipped hedges, to complement Longleat House, an impressive work of Elizabethan architecture. Such gardens were associated with Renaissance ideals of aristocratic power, ordered hierarchy and control over nature. In England, though, they eventually fell out of fashion.

Gardeners collected exotic plants and ornaments, like tourists buying souvenirs, then jumbled them together

By the late 18th century, in the eyes of England’s ruling classes, formal gardens came to look too rigid, too abstract – too French. The legendary garden designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was hired to replace Longleat’s formal plantings with pastoral parklands. Instead of neat parterres and abstract shapes, demarcated from the landscape beyond, Brown favoured naturalistic forms – a clump of trees, the bend of a river – so that the garden seemed to roll toward the horizon. The effect was picturesque, though it required huge investments of work and money. Brown and his followers remodelled so many estates in this way that the historian Roy Strong would later dedicate his study The Renaissance Garden in England (1979) to the ‘memory of all those gardens destroyed by Capability Brown and his successors’.

Longleat’s gardens were remodelled once again in the 19th century, this time by adding what Page called a ‘profusion of exotic trees and shrubs’ imported from around the empire. Such abundance displayed Britain’s global power, but Page didn’t like it. English design, he felt, had fallen victim to its own imperial excesses. Gardeners collected exotic plants and ornaments, like tourists buying souvenirs, then jumbled them together. There was too much material, not enough focused intention. Good design, in Page’s eyes, called for some restraint.

‘We walked the open parkland for days,’ Page remembered, analysing what ‘the composition of the landscape seemed to require.’ Longleat was a kind of palimpsest of historical styles: Renaissance formality, Romantic picturesque and Victorian extravagance. Page tried to peel away the most recent layer, to restore the parklands in the spirit of Capability Brown. He preserved clumps of 18th-century trees, especially beechwoods, while adding some limes and scarlet oaks to harmonise the views. Remodelling the site for its future owner, Page was also correcting the past errors that had spoiled its quiet elegance.

After the prestigious commission at Longleat, Page’s fortunes were rising. He found a kindred spirit in Geoffrey Jellicoe, a well-connected landscape architect. The two shared interests both in classical design – Jellicoe wrote Italian Gardens of the Renaissance (1925) with John Shepherd – and in esoteric theories of the soul, including Gurdjieff’s. Page and Jellicoe started their own firm, taking on prestigious commissions. They also became involved with a new professional organisation, the Institute of Landscape Architects, and its quarterly, Landscape and Garden, edited by Sudell.

Page’s beat for the magazine was international garden history. He travelled around Europe, taking photographs and writing short dispatches, exploring various traditions – 17th-century French classicism, Islamic influences in Portugal. Page published a two-page spread with a one-word title: ‘Urns’. But the point of learning history was not to imitate earlier fashions. ‘We have inherited relics of all these styles and travesties of style,’ Page wrote in The Education of a Gardener. Too often, the effect was a nostalgic pastiche rather than historical fidelity, kitsch instead of creativity.

What older gardens did provide, however, were models of an ethos. In each of the traditions that Page studied, he saw gardeners responding authentically to the character of their sites, in accordance with the values of their local cultures and their times. The challenge for modern landscape architecture was to express the spirit of its era, just as earlier gardeners had expressed their own. Page’s excursions into the past were not time-travel fantasies; he was looking for ways to reorient himself in the present. He was beginning to find his balance – philosophically modern, yet historically informed. But then a world war disrupted everything.

Visiting gardens abroad, he cultivated a cosmopolitan perspective in a time of violent nationalisms

‘Our practice ceased to exist,’ Page wrote, bluntly, ‘and all my modest accumulation of plans, photographs and 18th-century garden books went up in flames in the first London blitz.’ His firm was defunct, his archive in ashes, destroyed by the Luftwaffe. ‘Gardening belonged, it seemed, only to the past; there was no future – only the pressing present.’

Page joined Britain’s War Department, going south and east to distant stations – Egypt, India, Sri Lanka. He never publicly discussed his wartime work, which may have been propaganda, but the travels expanded his education. Page was learning ‘that life can be otherwise experienced than from the European point of view.’ Visiting gardens abroad, he cultivated a cosmopolitan perspective in a time of violent nationalisms. His writing emphasised the moving spirituality of Eastern cultures. ‘There were all the marvellous mosques to explore,’ he remembered of his time in Cairo, where he heard a voice ‘chanting verses from the Quran – every sound vibrant with meaning and devotion.’

Even on the other side of the world, though, Page saw the grim signs of British imperial expansion. In one telling passage, he talked about arriving in Sri Lanka, ‘with its ancient cities of a former Buddhist civilisation buried in the tropical forests and the thin veneer of 19th-century British red brick architecture which has made Colombo as commonplace as Southsea or the Bronx.’ Colonisation had imposed a generic, industrial surface not just onto the land but also on to human cultures, everywhere.

When peacetime came, Page found himself adrift. He had no money and no vocation. His mind was rattled. ‘I was totally at a loss in a world to which I had become unused,’ he confessed.

Page turned to friends for help. Under the mentorship of the Austrian émigré painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had settled in London, Page retrained himself, starting with ‘the problem of really drawing’. Before he could compose again, he had to rehabilitate his eyes. ‘To study the nature and form of the object in front of me gave me back the possibility of another kind of vision and another kind of discipline, and little by little a vast weight of accumulated superficialities fell away.’

Page understood his discipline as a practice of looking through surfaces until he discerned a deeper reality, then making shapes in harmony with what he found. This blend of meditation and composition became his postwar therapy. ‘I felt refreshed and quiet because I knew again that there is a continuing reality behind the appearances and problems of everyday.’

It is hard … to see Page’s gardens from his point of view without acknowledging how mysticism shaped his art

Two French acquaintances, Stéphane Boudin and André de Vilmorin, helped Page set up a new practice in Paris. He started over, working on many scales, from grand chateaux to smaller urban plots. He also joined the circle of bohemian intellectuals and artists who gathered in Gurdjieff’s salon on the rue des Colonels Renard. In 1947, Page married Lida Gurdjieff, often referred to as the famous mystic’s daughter, though some reference sources identify her as his niece.

Gurdjieff’s teaching appealed to educated Westerners who rejected mainstream Christianity but still craved some kind of transcendence – a spiritual vision beyond the confines of Church or nation. His ideas influenced Page’s former partner Jellicoe and the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as Page himself. Drawing from various world religions, Gurdjieff taught artists to align their work with universal principles of geometry and balance.

Even sympathetic readers of The Education of a Gardener have struggled to assimilate this aspect of Page’s thought. The Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox, in his introduction to the New York Review Books edition, waves it away as ‘the purest baloney’. The English gardener and television host Alan Titchmarsh, introducing the new Vintage Classics version, does not mention spirituality at all. But it is hard to understand Page’s book, or to see his gardens from his own point of view, without acknowledging how mysticism shaped his art.

Explaining his theory of composition, Page wrote that ‘every object emanates – sends out vibrations beyond its physical body which are specific to itself.’ The landscape designer Kevin Barton, who studied Page’s archives for a master’s thesis in garden history, shows how these comments echo Gurdjieff’s teachings. Page had learned to think about design as a way of recreating cosmic geometries. When the vibrations were in harmony, the composition worked; the garden attained its peculiar ‘magic’.

While Page’s philosophy became unorthodox and orientalist, his practice became more traditional and, on its surface, classically Western. After two decades away from England, he acknowledged: ‘my approach to designing was modified by the greater formality of classical French planning and the more sculptural approach of the Italian tradition.’

Page’s work from this era is richly presented in two coffee-table books, both published after his death: Marina Schinz and Gabrielle van Zuylen’s The Gardens of Russell Page (1991) and the American Academy in Rome’s Russell Page: Ritratti di Giardini Italiani (1998). Both feature the same garden on their covers. Two stone sphinxes stand guard over the entrance to the garden, which descends a steep hillside in three wide, rectangular terraces. A straight path through the upper terrace establishes the main axis. It runs between two rectangular parterres and then, by way of a few steps, down to the middle terrace, which is almost entirely taken up by a shallow, stone-edged pool. On the lower level, a tightly clipped hornbeam hedge forms a maze-like arabesque pattern.

This is Page’s garden at Villa Silvio Pellico, south of Turin, Italy, and it practically poses for the camera. The geometry is clear and orderly. No paths curve into darkness; no vines snake through the scene. Van Zuylen calls it: ‘proof of Page’s understanding of the classical Italian garden.’

Page continued to be appreciated as a formal designer, even when he worked in England and the United States, where more informal styles prevailed. In 1958, he won one of English gardening’s highest honours, a gold medal at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, for a kitchen garden with French details, its vegetable beds framed by boxwood hedges. Ernestine Carter of The Sunday Times praised the garden’s ‘delicate formality’. Later, for Manhattan’s Frick Collection, Page made a courtyard with neat flowerbeds, a few trees and a reflecting pool. A New York Times writer described it as an ‘exquisite little classical garden’, a museum piece in its own right.

Deeper than English informality or French formality, the Islamic tradition was Page’s greatest source of inspiration

While these observers celebrated Page’s works, they tended to cast him as a conservative artist, defending classical formality in an informal age. But this is a misreading. Page dismissed the whole question of formality and informality as a shallow one of secondary significance. ‘The degree of formality you will use will depend on the character of the house and the idiom of the landscape,’ he advised. The formal clipping of a hedge or the informal curve of a flower bed were just ‘superficialities’. The real art of design was the deeper structure – form as shape, not affectations of formality. Or, as Page put it: ‘I like gardens with good bones.’

The garden at the Frick Collection in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Wally Gobetz/Flickr

He found his favourite kind of bones in southern Spain, near Malaga airport, when he went to see ‘a fine elaborate late 17th- or early 18th-century “Italian” garden of paved terraces, balustraded stairways, fountains and a quantity of statues.’ While Page appreciated these details, he ‘sensed that the site of both house and garden had been carefully chosen (as only the Moors knew how), and I set out to explore the less frequented areas of the garden.’ His hunch proved right, and ‘sure enough, I found an octagonal fountain of the 14th century falling to pieces in a cabbage patch and a long canal-like reservoir.’ The crucial thing was not the Italian ornamentation; it was the design below.

Deeper than English informality or French formality, the Islamic tradition that had made its way into Europe from North Africa was Page’s greatest source of inspiration. In it, he found a mystical view of garden-making as the art of bringing each site into harmony with itself and its environment – and so with the universe. This philosophy, as Page understood it, did not require him to imitate the surface details of ‘Moorish’ gardens. It allowed him to be flexible about style, using formal or informal touches as the site required. It also allowed him to salvage, rather than demolish, the best materials from his sites.

But there was a dark irony at the heart of Page’s career: very often, he worked for clients whose wealth came from the same mass-marketed consumer industries whose effects Page criticised so scornfully. His garden at Villa Silvio Pellico was funded by the Fiat automobile manufacturing fortune. His final project would be a sculpture garden for the world headquarters of PepsiCo. Page’s clients created and profited from the degraded suburban landscape; in his elegant sanctuaries, they enjoyed the privilege of retreating from it. What began as an ascetic reaction against consumer capitalism was now on the market as a luxury experience.

In the long run, Page’s design ethos became his true product. Clients who hired him were persuaded that his talent went beyond technical competence or a fashionable style. They were dealing with a deep soul whose gardens offered therapeutic – maybe even sacred – atmospheres.

Seen in this light, his legacy is not really elusive after all, nor is it confined to the classical tradition of formal design. We might detect Page’s influence in the orientalist minimalism of lifestyle magazines like Architectural Digest, with their glossy photographs of boutique meditation spas and Silicon Valley ‘Zen’ gardens. But we might also notice surprising resonances between Page’s ethos and the vital, progressive design movements that are actively reimagining gardens for social justice and ecological repair.

In 1985, the year Page died, a young landscape designer named Chris Baines introduced his ‘wildlife garden’ at the Chelsea Flower Show. In the midst of a festival known for elaborate, expensive floral displays, Baines used common, native plants to draw in pollinators and songbirds. Baines had recreated the home garden as an oasis of nature within the sterile expanses of suburbia. It was the sign of a new era, and now, almost four decades later, wild is ‘the word of the moment’, as one magazine writer observed in February 2022. The idea of the wild garden, which once seemed paradoxical, is ‘currently dominating design’.

The formal garden stands for abstract rationality, against the informal garden’s romance and spirituality

Reckoning with climate change and habitat destruction, garden design has begun to focus on sustainability, and some landowners have abandoned conventional gardening altogether. In the UK, Lowther Castle and the Knepp Estate – the kinds of sites that used to hire Page – are working with environmentalists on ‘rewilding’ missions, turning cultivated lands back into biodiverse ecosystems. On a smaller scale, gardener-activists like John Little in England, Mary Reynolds in Ireland and Douglas Tallamy in the US are reimagining home gardens as little wildlife sanctuaries, with biodiversity as their first principle.

Where does all this leave Russell Page? To some ecological gardeners, the classical style that characterises Page’s most famous works has come to represent the colonial, destructive arrogance of the modern West. Critics now describe classical gardens in almost monstrous terms. In Gardening in a Changing World: Plants, People and the Climate Crisis (2022), the English designer Darryl Moore calls them: ‘ostentatious displays of power and conspicuous wealth articulated through the medium of meticulously defined structural planting.’ From this point of view, the formal garden stands for abstract rationality, against the informal garden’s romance and spirituality. The formal garden represents imperial power and wasteful capitalism, as opposed to gentle sweetness.

On the surface, the new experiments in ecological garden-making look nothing like Page’s formal compositions. At the same time, though, in calling for a new ethos, the new designers often echo Page’s spiritual critique of Western culture. In A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future (2017), for example, the American garden writer Benjamin Vogt asks readers to ‘open our hearts and minds and rethink beauty – a deeper, functional beauty designed for species and environments other than our own.’

At one level, Page’s story provides a cautionary tale. His career shows how any design ethos, even a spiritual protest against empire and consumer capitalism, can become a kind of branding – distinguishing itself against the ugliness of Western, middle-class excesses only to elevate its own market prestige. To redress our social and ecological crises in a substantial way, garden-making would have to help create open, rather than private, sanctuaries for people and nature on every scale, from rewilded urban lots to sustainably managed state and national conservation areas.

At another level, though, Page’s own work provides resources that might be put to use in new, progressive projects. In fact, one of Page’s own concerns was to help gardeners decide which valuable pieces should be kept, which useless ones discarded, when we are working with a mixed-up site. Page approached his work as a set of restoration projects on long-inhabited properties where, he felt, both ecology and culture had been degraded over time. In the ruins, he looked for salvageable forms, then turned them into new gardens whose futures he did not control.

At the end of his life, in the early 1980s, Page returned to the informal, picturesque style that he had first used at Longleat half a century earlier. His commission was to remodel the sculpture gardens surrounding the PepsiCo offices in Westchester County, New York. When he died of cancer in January 1985, the project was incomplete, but his designs were eventually carried out and, unlike most of Page’s other gardens, this one has been well preserved over time. On a bright, warm day in June, I went by myself to wander through the grounds.

PepsiCo is the global distributor of soft drinks, Taco Bell franchises and Frito-Lay snacks and, as I made my way into the property, I had some uneasy feelings. I was thinking about how Page protested the flattening effects of consumer capitalism, yet worked for this conglomerate that suburbanised the planet. I was wondering whether his design might feel as sterile as an ordinary office park.

A small walkway, or ‘golden path’, led me into a garden of understated beauty. There was a pond in the centre of a green lawn, with a few mature weeping willow trees around its edges, swaying in the breeze. Tucked away in one corner of the larger park, I came upon Page’s small, elegant formal garden, where water lilies floated on rectangular pools. The overall impression was serene, but it was not lifeless. I recognised the sensibility that I first encountered in Page’s writing, and I thought again that there are some useful things to be taken from his work, despite its troubling complicities.

At its best, Page’s thinking leads beyond the oversimple debate between formality and informality, the artist’s composition and the ecosystem’s thrum. In one manuscript fragment, quoted in Barton’s thesis, Page pictured gardens as ‘ordered three-dimensional patterns fixed in time and space, through which flows nature, the vegetable world, proliferation, growing, dying, budding, flowering and seeding, impermanent undisciplined and usually the antithesis of order.’ He never wanted to dominate the earth by imposing abstract order on its thorny funk. He loved both art and plants alike with what he called his ‘verdant heart’. To a vision of the landscape’s future, he offers up a rebel spirit and an artist’s eye.