How to create Paradise
Words by Leo Russell
Randle Siddeley’s lessons from a lifetime of garden design
Randle Siddeley has been designing gardens for almost five decades, in Britain and around the world. During this time, he has created some of the most beautiful and celebrated contemporary designs. In August he sat down with Russell Simpson to discuss his career in more detail and share some of the lessons he has learned along the way.
The early days
After school, Randle attempted one course in furniture design and another in architectural design, but his more extravagant ideas were a bad fit for the modernist preferences and minimalist tastes of his teachers. So eventually he went to work for his father – an interior designer – and when a client came along with two properties that needed gardens, Randle volunteered.
In those early days, there was plenty to learn, so Randle asked for help from everyone he knew. One florist at Pulbrook & Gould took him under her wing and taught him most of the basics. He also learnt through the more painful process of trial and error: ‘Simple things like not using limestone: it gets dirty in London, and there’s no easy way to clean it.’ To begin with, nobody took him seriously, but more than 45 years later he’s still designing gardens.
'I had a clear vision as to the potential of creating spectacular landscapes.’
One of Randle Siddeley's garden creations. Image provided by Randle Siddeley.
The principle of asking for help and getting advice from the most talented people you can find was useful when Randle started working abroad.
The first international project was a garden in Istanbul and the major challenge was sourcing the plants, because nobody local had large enough nurseries. Randle soon realised that you have to find people to collaborate with, especially on international projects, who you’re often trusting with the ‘grunt work’, as well as locating the right materials, advising on the appropriate plants, and even installing the gardens.
One of the gardens Randle remembers most fondly was his first country house, in Bagendon near Cirencester. To begin with he was hired to ‘titillate the front of the house’, but over the next five years his brief kept expanding, until he had shaped and planted the entire grounds. Another favourite project was outside Quebec, in a place called Saint-Siméon: ‘I arrived there and looked at it and I said “Normally I like to create paradise, but this is paradise.” So I’m somehow going to have to be able to complement the paradise that we’re in.’ It was a big estate and the team had little more than three months to install the design, before the winter weather made gardening impossible. ‘So there was a lot of work there, and fortunately the client had the means to achieve our vision.’
The paradise of Saint-Siméon, outside Quebec. Image provided by Randle Siddeley
Connecting with the client
Over the years, some things have remained constant: ‘We always like working with water – it’s nice to have the calmness and noise in the background.’ At the same time, the demands of clients can change, and so too the way people use their gardens. ‘We’ve gone from being indoors and having a back yard,’ Randle explains, ‘to being sort of alfresco and wanting to be in the open as much as possible.’ That’s why it’s vital to know how a client intends to use a space. Do they have children? Do they host barbeques? Do they plan to use the garden for daytime relaxation or evening parties?
"I like to look into someone’s eyes and see their smile. And if I feel that the chemistry is there, then I’m happy to work with them."
Open about expectations
There are a few more principles that help when managing the relationship with a client. From the start, you have to be open about the expectations from both sides. ‘The way that I like doing things is to explain very clearly to the client that we are going on a journey, and this journey means that they are going to have to do their own homework, and then we’ve got to collect all our thoughts and ideas into a mixing bowl, and in that mixing bowl we’re going to say, well actually no that ingredient is not going to work so let’s take that out.’
It’s also important that there’s chemistry between the client and the garden designer, because it’s a relationship that can last many years. ‘I like to look into someone’s eyes and see their smile. And if I feel that the chemistry is there, then I’m happy to work with them. If I feel that there’s negativity there, and I can see there’s going to be conflict, I would rather pull back and say, sorry, I don’t think this is going to work.’
In London he doesn’t have a garden of his own, meaning that if he wants to get his hands dirty, he will pay a visit to one of his projects. For example, the other day he returned to a garden he had designed decades ago, worried that he would not recognise the place now the trees had all matured. However, soon after arriving he looked around the grounds and said, ‘Yes! This is the parkland I really wanted.’
Paradise on earth, one of Randle's creations. Image provided by Randle Siddeley