Thursday 13 January 2011

'Urban Baskets' unpacked in North Wales

'Urban Baskets' opens this weekend at two venues in North Wales where it will be on show  until March 12th. The exhibition has been divided between the Denbigh and Ruthin Library Galleries and details of the opening hours can be found here.

Sadly, I will not have a chance to visit either venue, or to run any workshops, due to the ongoing financial constraints that are currently squeezing the cultural life out of Britain so, if you have a chance to visit either venue please tell me about it!

Tuesday 4 January 2011


In a park in the little village of Nanteuil-en-Vallee is to be found this living willow labyrinth, it is one of the nicest I have seen, well maintained, sitting happily in the landscape and visually pleasing even on a grey winters day.

Although there was no sign to say who had created it, I guessed it was probably done by Joel Rouill√© as he has become an expert at these constructions and runs a business based in Villaine Les Rochers undertaking a wide variety of commissions for public spaces.  I subsequently checked Joels website and found it there. Joel  acknowledges that it was his neighbour  David Drew, the British basket maker, who  introduced this type of  diagonal woven living willow fence to France in 1994 when he planted one around the potager outside his troglodyte home in Villaines. This was in fact the second version as the first had been planted around his previous vegetable garden in Somerset.

The following year David and his wife Judy created a sensation at the International Garden Festival at Chaumont with a much larger version of this fence. Constructed of zig-zag willow walls using his now perfected technique and white gravel, it had a strong visual presence that altered with the seasons. The completed installation offered a unique experience to anyone entering between the walls and it became one of the most popular exhibits that year.  As a consequence of the publicity they received  the living willow fence is now a regular feature in  parks and gardens worldwide.

Image from a postcard of David and Judy Drews installation at Chaumont Garden Festival 1995.
Original photo:Yann Arthus Bertrand

The way that David makes them is as immaculate as topiary and he has developed his own techniques for their planting and pruning. This makes them distinct and aesthetically superb but there is a historical precedent for both diagonally woven fences and living woven fences. In medieval paintings, particularly of the Italian and Dutch Schools, there are often fences that look similar in construction but, despite some serious research, I have never tracked one down where the fence is obviously alive rather than constructed with dead sticks.  It is not difficult to imagine, however, that if the fence was planted in the ground from freshly cut wood there is every possibility that they were living fences.
More recently a German landscape designer Arthur Weichula (1865-1941) developed techniques for creating snow barrriers  for railway lines, bridges and buildings out of woven and grafted living wood (mainly poplar).  According to Konstantin Kirsch in his book Naturbauten aus lebenden Geh√∂lzen (1996 ISBN 3-922201-17-2) Weichula not only ran a successful business creating living trellis fences, but he also published a book describing his techniques and successfully applied for patents for his tools and techniques.
Image taken from 'Grown Home an exploration of processes for the manufacture and culture of willow products' 2003 Lois Walpole

Medieval gardeners created their fences to keep animals in or out or to act as windbreaks for cultivated gardens. Arthur Weichula saw a practical and commercial  purpose for these fences but I feel sure they would all have also enjoyed the evolution of the diagonal living wood fence into something  that can also have a place in landscape design equal to that of topiary. Both plant and sculpture, Joel's Labyrinth is the successful result of a symbiotic relationship between man and nature where neither can exist without the other.