On the Wild Shotover Ramble on Boxing Day, I found myself musing in front of the oldest oak on the walk, thinking that it was probably just 25 when King Charles held his parliament in Oxford, during the Civil War.
Simon Norfolk’s dramatic photograph, on the front cover of this section, of a Blenheim oak, captures a tree rooted in history. This photograph will be one of many fine images on display in Blenheim Palace when it reopens, on February 13, and hosts the 25th Anniversary Garden of the Year Photographic Competition and Exhibition. The exhibition will be on display in the palace’s magnificent Long Library.
Blenheim was the winner of the 25th Historic Houses Association/ Christies’ prestigious Garden of the Year Award in 2008.
The award was presented to the Duke of Marlborough at a ceremony, in May 2009. This show features images of all 25 winning gardens of the past 25 years.
Pride of place will be given to Simon’s photograph which certainly fulfilled the brief of this competition for professional photographers, which was to push the boundary in garden photography beyond the pretty picture postcard.
Landscape photographer Simon captured Blenheim Palace’s ancient trees back-lit at night to represent soldiers on the battle field at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.
In a contemporary guidebook to the palace and its gardens — William Fordice Mavor’s New Description of Blenheim, published in 1789, the extraordinary suggestion is made that the original design for the planting of the oaks imitated the disposition of the troops at the beginning of the Battle of Blenheim on August 13, 1704.
True or not, this oak represents the memory of all that has passed beneath its canopy. Blasted by lightning, the photographer says, of the five trees he portrayed, “the oaks at Blenheim seem like ancient pachyderms or baobabs clinging to the edge of life”.
Brighton–based Simon was born in Nigeria but has regularly exhibited in the USA and Europe and it is easy to see why his work is in demand.
Sir John Vanbrugh’s masterpiece of English Baroque architecture is described as Britain’s greatest palace and Blenheim was created a World Heritage Site in 1987, but it is the gardens that give me the greatest pleasure.
The legacy of Capability Brown’s landscaping (1760s) helped Blenheim Palace gain its World Heritage Site status. Glorious views were created both to and from the house, the finest of which is the majestic panorama observed on entering the park through Hawksmoor’s Triumphal Arch at Woodstock — the shimmering expanse of the lake, the Grand Bridge, and the dense canopy of trees on the rising ground beyond.
Although Vanbrugh built the bridge, it was Brown who provided the setting by constructing a wide cascade dam and creating a lake unparalleled in size and beauty at the time.
The oaks will have witnessed all the trends in garden design from then until now, because new gardens have been added in each century— it is a great place for a garden historian. The 19th-century additions were the Italian Gardens and Water Terraces. John Winston created the formal gardens on the east front when he laid out a symmetrical Italian Garden in the 1860s.
The ninth duke redesigned them in the 20th century, advised by his French architect, Achille Duchêne.
The Duke’s private garden was created four years after the house was opened to the public in 1950.
This haven was designed as a romantic English garden but became overgrown and almost forgotten.
Its restoration was undertaken by Trevor Wood, the head gardener, who replanted it, establishing new paths and water features in record time for the official opening in May 2004. It was renamed the Secret Garden. The Marlborough Maze (the second largest symbolic hedge maze in the world, at 1.8 acres), was a conscious effort to provide an entertaining garden for the younger visitors and was used in a recent TV production of Lewis. The Rose Garden, the Arboretum and the Pleasure Gardens all add to the variety.
This 25th anniversary exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see huge portraits of 25 outstanding gardens and compare them.
Previous winners include Sudeley Castle and Barnsley House (Gloucestershire), Hever Castle (Kent) and Forde Abbey (Dorset).
If you decide to visit while the exhibition is on, you can take advantage of the special offer available that allows you to enjoy the palace and grounds in every season. Every visitor who buys a ticket to the palace will be able to convert it to an annual pass absolutely free, allowing 12 months’ unlimited entry.
The exhibition is on until March 28. Details of opening times are available at www.blenheimpalace.com