Wry Society: The poet landscaper

Will the marriage of the 12th Earl of Alderhampton and his go-getting young wife survive its brush with the world’s most avant-garde – and Byronic – landscape designer?

Image: phildisley.com

It was a thunderous autumn day in Rutland when the monster digger finally turned off its engine. Thank heavens, thought Jago, whose head had been rattling with Advils since August. The 12th Earl of Alderhampton put down his Lapsang Souchong and gazed out of the drafty mullion windows to the triptych of landforms that now dominated the grounds of his estate, Mumberley.

It had all been Poppy’s idea, of course. The couple first met when she came to the house to study one of his Rembrandt’s for her degree in fine art at Oxford. She’d found herself more interested in studying its extremely eligible, if somewhat retiring, owner. Within a month, Jago had whisked her off for a blissful weekend at the Danieli during the Venice Biennale, and six months later they were married. 

While half his age, the newly minted and fiendishly tenacious Countess had heaps of ambition to turn the Jacobean estate into an achingly hip arts and leisure destination. She had barely graduated before she’d repurposed the orangery as a plot-to-plate supper club and launched a Pilates pagoda and beauty cabin in the woodland. But that was just the beginning. What Mumberley really needed was something magnificent, a monument that would endure for centuries – and there was only one man for the job. 

Santiago da Silva was the landscape designer that every forward-thinking estate owner with towering ambition wanted. He’d transformed the fortunes of galleries and gardens with his wildly avant-garde landforms. He’d constructed his own minimalist mausoleum in his Tadao Ando mansion in the Andalucian hills, and advised governments on ways to re-green urban ghettos. But a grand English estate had so far eluded him. 

Now, however, the first phase of Prometheus III, Santiago’s vision for Mumberley, was almost complete and he’d flown in to monitor the final stages. Jago and Poppy ventured across the lawn and perched perilously on the edge of the enormous void, peering into the crater and up at the vast mound that was being turfed into an awe-inspiring, voluptuously curved landform. 

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Prometheus III was certainly ambitious – an excavation of Olympian proportions with a towering sculpture that emerged from the void and would breathe fire into the night sky via 100 copper torches.

“Isn’t it wonderful,” cooed Poppy. “It’s the piece I am most proud of,” said Santiago, his voice cracking with emotion. “The darkness of life,” he said, pausing dramatically for the clouds to break and a sunburst to flash across the ravine. “And the transformative powers of light.” 

Poppy looked positively euphoric as she gazed up at Santiago, who was standing, in his loden moleskins, chunky cashmere rollneck and knotted silk scarf, in a rather contrived Byronic pose. Jago rolled his eyes and stomped off in search of a pot of tea. He’d been listening to this claptrap for six months. At site visits and over supper, on the phone and via email, Santiago’s absurd obsession with eulogising his work was driving Jago potty. Not that he could confide in Poppy – she was enthralled with Santiago’s vision for the grounds and was sure it would revive the fortunes of the estate. Why on earth hadn’t they booked him into the local Malmaison, thought Jago, as he darted back to the house trailed by two eager lurchers. 

Later, as Jago came down for dinner, he could already hear Santiago’s oratory echoing up the grand staircase. By the time he reached the drawing room, the designer was regaling Poppy with vivid descriptions of his work. “Each stone is touching another,” said Santiago as he sat a little too close to her on the faded chintz sofa. “Existing together, but alone. Purified by water lapping over them. It symbolises a river of love.” As Jago strode in loudly, Santiago quickly slid away. 

Through the pea soup and baked seabass, Santiago lectured on. By the time the elderflower sorbet arrived, Jago excused himself with a crashing headache and consoled himself that the tedious Spaniard would soon be up with the lark and on his way back to Spain.

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Half an hour later, as Jago was reading The Field, flooded with relief that he would not need to entertain Santiago’s mad musings for at least another eight months, Poppy came up to bed. “The power of his work is just extraordinary,” began Poppy as she curled up next to him. “It has a transcendental force, a life-giving energy don’t you think?” And Jago realised, with a sinking feeling, that though Santiago was going, the ghost of his inane twittering would remain to haunt him.

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