Cleve West

 Here is an article on Cleve West, a great garden designer who produces some amazing gardens.

‘The worst thing about designing anewgarden for Chelsea,” says Cleve West, calling up his model on a laptop, “is that for the past two years The Daily Telegraph has won ‘Best in Show’. So, no pressure, eh?”

Poor man. It is tough enough aiming for a gold medal – with all the perfection of design and plant specimens that demands. To feel impelled to bag the top award as well is enough to make most people bury their heads in a compost heap. Yet Cleve, 52, sounds relatively calm as he conducts a virtual guided tour through his Libyan-inspired (I’ll explain later) design.

That’s not to say he is arrogant. Far from it. Within seconds of picking me up from the station near his home in Teddington, south-west London, he has called himself a “failed sportsman” and a “useless radio reporter” (his first two career plans), and has drawn attention to his creaking joints. On television he’s uncomfortable, too, he says, because dyslexia causes him to lose his train of thought.

But when it comes to gardens, he exudes a quiet confidence born of his twin passions for landscape and fine art. His approach is to combine the two, creating something atmospheric and unusual. There is no identifiable Cleve West look, no signature plants. If he’s known for one thing, it is for including sculpture in his gardens not as incidental ornament but as central statement.

This approach has won him five RHS gold medals; his 2008 garden at Chelsea also won the coveted BBC/RHS People’s Choice Award for the most popular garden. If anyone can pull off another gold, or even Best in Show, it is Cleve, whose unusual talent was evident 25 years ago when John Brookes, the doyen of designers, taught him at Kew. “He was a very bright student,” Brookes says. “I am delighted that his career has taken off.”

Cleve’s passion for landscape and plants was acquired when his parents moved from west London to run a guesthouse on Exmoor. Educated at Millfield School, where he was a sports star, he loved to roam the coombes (valleys) in the holidays. His knowledge of the basics came a few years later, during his time at what is now Brunel University, where he studied PE and fine art. In lunch breaks he used to tidy his great-aunt’s garden, acquiring skills that came to his rescue in his mid-twenties when a sports injury brought his career as a sprinter and long jumper to an end.

Debating between art and gardening, he spent his aunt’s legacy first on training in garden design, then on creating his first show garden at Hampton Court. Initially, Cleve worked with a sculptor, Johnny Woodford, but the partnership gave the impression that sculpture was essential to his designs (and that he was probably expensive, too). “The phone stopped ringing.” In 2001 he started a solo business.

Since then he has had a steady flow of work. If he’s not yet a household name, it is because he prefers designing private gardens to public spaces and, despite his good looks, doesn’t feel comfortable on television. That may change. He looks as if he enjoys his appearances on Three Men Went To Mow, the films for YouTube that he makes with Joe Swift and James Alexander-Sinclair. Both co-mowers are garden designers – and fans.

Chelsea 2008 bupa

Gardeners’ World presenter Swift says he is always excited by a Cleve West garden. “In America he would be seen as an absolute genius; here people think he’s a little wacky.” Alexander-Sinclair is equally enthusiastic: “There’s a predictability about what many people do at Chelsea, but Cleve’s gardens have quirks and individuality. His first Chelsea garden contained strange pieces of rotting wood. He will always give you what you least expect.”

Unpredictability is on display in the garden of the modern terraced house that he shares with print artist Christine Eatwell, his former college tutor. He has turned it into a series of small rooms, incorporating a hut in a hedge and sculpture within the tall water feature. If this were not a cold morning, it would be a lovely place to sit.

Indoors, however, is preferable to study his plan for the Telegraph’s show garden. “It’s such an effort and expense doing Chelsea that it’s nice to create something a little bit theatrical,” he says, as he produces the computer mock-up. The design was inspired by a trip to Ptolemais, a Roman city in northern Libya, four years ago.

“I was taken by the dramatic columns,” he says, “by the emptiness between things, the distressed look and the fact that it had once been lived in and was now abandoned.” Three columns, plus a fallen one, dominate the design, but this is no classical pastiche. “The nub of the story is contemporary elements working well against old, traditional ones,” Cleve explains. “People think that contemporary has to be shiny steel, glass beads and flashing lights, but you can mix them.”

The columns are the work of Serge Bottagisio and Agnes Decoux, sculptors who live in France and work in concrete and terracotta.

Cleve’s previous Chelsea gardens have been flat. This time he has created a sunken garden for “more intimacy”, surrounded by dry stone walls and irregular cobbled paths, reminiscent of ruins, but no more slavishly faithful than the modernist rill of water that borders the sunken space.

The planting is not themed in an obvious way. The trees that over-arch the garden are multi-stemmed Sophora japonica. Underneath he mixes clipped box and yew, with “fluffy” plants including acanthus and, in a surprise homage to his beloved allotment, parsnip flowers that form little yellow umbrellas. “If they don’t come out in time for Chelsea, I shall have given up my Christmas dinner for nothing.”

When Cleve West is not designing gardens for others, he is on his giant allotment (20 rods; four times the normal size) next to Bushy Park. His book about the joys and miseries of growing his own food is coming out in September. In the meantime, he is longing for the weather to get warmer so he can return to cooking pizzas in his newly installed outdoor oven.

Proudly, he produces photographs of the oven being built. These show Yvette, his ebullient Anglo-Indian mother, wearing eccentric hats as she attempts to help. Sadly, he explains, she died last April as a result of a medical mishap: a routine angiogram resulted in a thrombosis. “Her death put everything in perspective,” he says.

“Family and friends are what really matters. Perhaps that’s why I am not in panic about Chelsea.” Not yet, maybe, but there are three months to go and the pressure may be beginning to get to him. “The other night,” he confesses, “I dreamt that I got a gold medal but the garden wasn’t even finished. ‘Just do your best,’ my father told me in the dream.” He is, he is.


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