Topiary, paintings and pots in the Kentish High Weald

Posted: 7th June, 2019 Category: Culture, Gardens, People

Faversham Life visits the annual art exhibition held at Charlotte and Donald Molesworth's magical garden.

Words Amicia de Moubray Photographs Amicia de Moubray

Forgive us, dear readers, for taking you this week a little further away from Faversham than is entirely proper, but we cannot resist telling you about the chance to see the breathtakingly original garden of Charlotte and Donald Molesworth in Benenden, in the Kentish High Weald.

Charlotte Molesworth in her garden in Benenden

Charlotte Molesworth in her garden in Benenden

The captivating garden that surrounds their splendidly named house, Balmoral, hidden away behind Benenden Church, is the backdrop for an annual selling exhibition of paintings and drawings by Charlotte, ceramics by Colin Griffith and sculpture by Peter Clarke. It is open for the next three weekends. If you do go treat yourself to a cake. I had a fine slice of damson sponge oozing with jam.

There is something to fascinate at every turn in the Molesworths’ garden

To step into the garden is to enter an enchanted paradise – the outside world is quickly left behind as one marvels at the seamless way the house and garden organically blend. It all appears so natural, but the whole ensemble is the product of consummate artistry. Whimsical topiary in the form of peacocks, , a fox, and Molo, a much loved now deceased hound, along with other strong sculptural shapes are everywhere one looks. It is as if the topiary creatures might miraculously spring into life on the stroke of midnight. ‘It is all so easy once you look inside the plant and understand its structure,’ Charlotte claims.

Topiary in the Molesworth's garden

Topiary abounds in the Molesworths’ garden

That casual statement belies years of experimentation. It all started with the unwanted yew seedlings the couple asked for on their wedding present list. ‘We received loads and we planted them out in rows and once they started to get bigger, I began to waist them,’ says Charlotte. ‘It was all trial and error. I had never made a bird before but knew that was what I wanted.’

Fireworks in the garden

If you long for a topiary animal in your life, many of Charlotte’s paintings on offer are of her garden and feature the topiary. ‘I like to stop and paint, making myself focus on the garden. It is a marvellous opportunity to enjoy it.’ There is a confident exuberance about her pictures, reflecting her generous and creative spirit. Donald and Charlotte are the embodiment of a particularly English sensibility in everything they turn their hands to, whether it be the way they dress, cook, garden or paint. Most of us have dreams of living such a blissful bucolic life but it doesn’t quite happen. For the Molesworths, an artistic and pastoral modus vivendi is part of their characters. Their enthusiasm is extraordinarily infectious.

Charlotte loves painting in her own garden, ‘It gives me a chance to stop and look at it’

Several of Charlotte’s drawings are of ancient oak trees near Benenden. ‘I love their venerability; they are a link taking us back hundreds of years to our ancestors. I knew the trees before they were ripped and torn by the1987 storm. It is wondrous to see how they have redressed their balance. They are such survivors.’ Intriguingly Charlotte likes to draw with oak or ash sticks dipped in walnut ink. To seal the water soluble ink, she applies a beeswax finish garnered from her own bees.

A venerable oak tree drawn by Charlotte using an oak stick with a sharpened end

A glimpse of Charlotte’s studio

Colin Griffiths’s ceramics sit happily on display amongst the myriad delights of Balmoral. His work is varied and includes attractive spongeware, handsome bowls decorated with sgraffito and vessels with a Raku glaze. Long ago, Colin produced slipware full time but soon found himself working from 7am to 11pm to keep up with demand. It was too much and he trained as a homeopath. But his love of pots led to him enrolling in evening classes in Tenterden with Sue Fielding, learning how to throw on a potter’s wheel. Having accomplished that skill, he learnt the ancient art of raku glazes at Aylesford Pottery near Maidstone. He now works as a homeopath four days a week and a potter on Thursdays and at weekends.

A selection of work by potter and homeopath, Colin Griffith

Spongeware by Colin Griffith

Wandering around Balmoral it is salutary to reflect on just what Donald and Charlotte have created. ‘The house was derelict with just one light bulb when we moved in one Christmas Eve accompanied by three dogs, two donkeys, two cats and eight chickens,’ says Charlotte. The garden was the old kitchen garden of Collingwood (Cherry) Ingram (1880-1981) the celebrated Japanese cherry expert (subject of the recently published highly acclaimed biography Collingwood Cherry Ingram by Nakao Abe, who is speaking at the Wealden Literary Festival on the 30th June). It had a ‘magical air of abandonment.’ He would surely be thrilled to see what the Molesworths have created on his hallowed ground.

The enchanting entrance to Balmoral, Benenden

It was Charlotte’s mother who first instilled in her a zeal for gardening. ‘Mother’s passions were yew trees, old fashioned roses and cottage garden plants, geraniums, box hedging and topiary.’ Many of the plants at Balmoral boast a pedigree stretching back to Charlotte’s Kentish childhood and even beyond in the case of the double white primulas, originally collected by her mother in Ireland which she used to propagate and sell in ‘The Farmer’s Weekly’. ‘Gardens are like a friendship necklace. I sometimes forget the name of a plant but can always remember who gave it to me. Gardeners are so generous. There is a very good saying, if you want to keep a plant give it away.’

Colin Griffith’s pots on a splendid slate garden table in Charlotte and Donald Molesworths’ garden

If you fall in love with this beguiling garden you have the option of renting the Potting Shed cottage which the Molesworths created a few years ago to let out. Not surprisingly it has a high rate of repeat bookings.

An astonishing line of watering cans. Can they all be used?

The exhibition is open from 11am to 5pm in June on 8th, 9th 14th, 16th (not Saturday the 15th as the Green is closed for the church fete), 22nd, 23rd, 29th and 30th. Donations and proceeds from tea and cake will go to the Hospice in the Weald and several other local charities.

Full details : https://artgardenthree.weebly.com

Text:  Amicia.  Photography: Amicia