The Gardens of Russell Page

I lived in East Finchley and the neighbouring Muswell Hill and Highgate in North London from 2009 – 2011. Here I met, under rather unique circumstance, Ken Pledge, a former physics lecturer and a student of the Sufism teachers John G. Bennett, Idries Shah, P.D. Ouspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff. Ken lived in a semi-detached middle class house in East Finchley, in the very same house he was born in. He said that he was a “stuck in the mud” type of person and never lived anywhere outside of Britain. However limited he may have been in travel adventures, he was nontheless able to tell me many things about the world and introduced a gentle side of England to me, a world beyond the xenophobic inhumane Britain I experienced at the time (I was embroiled in a bitter, hostile legal war against the British state at the time, court battles and all). When I met Ken in 2009 he was already well in his 70s.Ken’s house was full of books. And I mean, it was not just full of them, it was filled out with them. Every corner of the house was “booked out”. Because most of the books were paperbacks many of them had started to yellow, which gave the house an additional old and dusty feel, like an old, over-crowded book store. It certainly was a bachelors denn, and catered to Ken’s eccentric character (he was for example himself embroiled in a war with the Gas company and refused to cook and heat for 2 years, a very bad idea that cost him some of his health). Because of his closeness to Bennett people ocassionally pilgrimed to him. Many communicated with Ken by letter about Bennett and Gurdjieff. He was tall, slim build, with a head of thin grey hair, stirn and with sarcastic wit. I did not understand much about Gurdjieff or Bennett’s work at the time, other that they brought ideas from Sufism to Europe and England after the First Word War. Back then, in the 1920s, those ideas were a revolution, speaking of mathematics, harmony, the machine character of the spiritually untrained men and other always relevant themes. Ken himself did not bring me actively to Sufism, but he inspired dorment spiritual ideas in me, a curiosity and a respect for people like him. He was a very special British personality, a type of man who should have been culturally presevered, but got lost in hypes, political events, and ever changing cultures.

While living in England (I lived there from 1998 till 2011), I was very bored by the traditional British TV garden shows, not because I did not care for gardens, but because these gardens – which I only saw on TV – were totally removed from my real London life. I did not have any access to gardens and the shows were extremely superficial – they had no intellectual charme whatsoever. I was more or less trapped in London, and in the so called rat race. All I had access to were parks with dog poo. This misery only started to change slowly once I made it to East Finchley and to Ken’s garden.

When I was at Ken’s house, we sat in the summers in his garden together with his then girlfriend. While the house was dusty, creeky,  and old, the garden was in relative good shape, with a trim lawn, and populated around the edges with dark leavy bushes and orange lilies. I had many pleasant, very British tea hours there, lovely tea china, milk, scones and all, while discussing literature and philosophy with him. It was a real priviledge to know him and to have enjoyed his friendship, his care and his knowledge.

In late 2011 I left England, or rather fled the country as the inhumane forces in the world were further rising , and returned home to Germany. Here I eventually discovered the gardener and garden designer Russell Page, who must have been an associate of Ken, as they both had the same teachers (Gurdjieff, Shah, Ouspensky, Bennett) and very likely frequented the same intellectual and artistic circles. What drew me to Russell Page was a text by Idries Shah “The Garden” in Shah’s book “The Way of the Sufi”.  Ken had given me a signed copy of this book and this very book came again into my hands when I started to engage with the ideas I am presenting on this website, when I started to seriously garden myself and to take photographs of gardens.

In “Way of the Sufi Gardener” Idries Shah narrates the story of the perfect gardener, the perfect carer for all beings, the man who sees things in detail and in the full. For me this story relates itself perfectly to Russell Page, who was a great garden designer, from an age, when there were still many private patrons who could commission large and elegant garden projects. Page is declared by many to be one of the most famous and outstanding garden designers of the 20th century. He was by association and mentality from the same age and allure as my friend Ken Pledge, and I could find connections with Sufi teachings in Page’s design work that constantly move and educate me. His attention to detail. His care and knowledge for the individual plant. His ability to imagine and make manifest a large living composition. His ability to grasp the large organic unity that connects all beings in a garden. His patience and dedication to growth. His search for harmony. His work with shapes, geometric patterns and wholeness. All this relates to Sufism.

“His (Page’s) main preoccupation was not that of making a beautiful garden but of harmony.” ~ Marella Agnelli, The Last Swan

One critique in the Financial Time wrote some very biting remarks abozt Russell Page’s association to Sufism and to Gurdjieff and Idries Shah in particular – Idries Shah was Page’s spiritual mentor in 60s London.

“Few of his fans now realise that Page’s landscaping related to an underlying faith. After moving to Paris he became a keen follower of the cuckoo teachings and mystic baloney of that Greek-Armenian exile from Russia, George Gurdjieff, and his assistant PD Ouspensky. He even married Gurdjieff’s daughter at the maestro’s request. Gurdjieff’s teachings on harmonious dancing, on healing by physical adversity and cosmic rays were stupendous nonsense, but were powerfully presented by his seductive gaze. Their stress on a hidden harmony in the universe appealed especially to Page the landscape gardener (…)

Even in 1979, in notes he left unpublished, he remarked how “a visitor (to Japan) from further west than China took gardening along with fencing, archery and other native skills to use them as transmitters for a revitalisation of concepts connected with human beings in their relationship with each other and their world”. I suspect this “visitor” was a Gurdjieff follower, the American William Segal who often went to Japan, admired Zen Buddhism and became a co-chairman of the Gurdjieff Foundation in Page’s lifetime. In England, Page worked in his flat in Knightsbridge and became interested in the pseudo-Sufism of Idries Shah. Long before the fashion parade of the King’s Road discovered Gurdjieff and Sufism, Page had absorbed this wondrous nonsense.” (on FT)

This is frankly the kind of attitude that marks Britain and British people so often as inhumane, cruel, loud and snarly and as such terrible and predictable in character. It is the kind of character that lead to the Brexit and a rise of the Far Right in the UK. Things that Ken and I saw coming back in 2009, nasty forces that are always around and seek to mislead humanity into war and destruction. The very same forces I encountered in 2009 and battled with and fled from eventually. These are the forces that also destroyed Europe and the world twice and turned Ken’s London into ash.

Every human being needs to discover it’s core humanity, and if she or he is blessed by the Gods, he or she can journey from a single moment onwards towards great achievements that are truly beneficial. For Russell Page this moment happened when he fell in love with a little flower, when he was 17. It was a Purple Campanula. In Germany we call them “Lila Glockenblume” (Purple Bell Flower), which is by the way Angela Merkel’s, the German chancellor, favorite flower. The Campanula is a flower that can be found all over Europe, beautiful, small, tender. In England it is also known as Canterbury Bells.

Russell Page has designed and built gardens all over Europe and the world and I see him as a garden designer of the world, a true guide with great vision. It is thanks to the Internet that his work and legacy has endured. However negative the effects of the internet has proofen to be on our culture, I am glad that there are also many positives. The presevation and enthusiam for Russell Page’s work is a positive. So far I read two books by and about Russell Page: The Education of a Gardener (Russell Page, William Collins Son & Co, London 1962) and The Gardens of Russell Page (by Gabrielle Zuylen & Marina Schinz , Frances Lincoln, 2008). The Gardens of Russell Page is a grande edition with beautiful photographs by Gabrielle Zuylen who is able to capture the “grande view” of Page.

Russell Page died in 1985 and is buried on the estate of his friend the Duke of Beaufort in an unmarked grave just outside the wall of the estate.

Ken Pledge died in 2015 in his house in East Finchley. I was unable to visit him again after I left London in 2011 due to my ongoing problems with the UK. He was a great friend and wonderful guide. An obituary can be found here: https://www.jgbennett.org/ken-pledge/

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