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The Bannermans at Hanham Court
Isabel and Julian Bannerman have worked together since they met in Edinburgh in 1982. Since that time, they have designed gardens at some of the great English houses: for The Prince of Wales at Highgrove; Lord Rothschild at Waddesdon Manor; the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk at Arundel Castle; Lord Cholmondeley at Houghton and for John Paul Getty II at Wormesley. But they are also much admired for their architecture and interiors, a distinctive style that evolved at their home, Hanham Court, a medieval abbey between Bath and Bristol. It took 15 years to restore the house and their award-winning garden. The garden, now open to the public, was acclaimed by Gardens Illustrated as the top 'Dreamy' garden of 2009, while the house is filled with glorious ensemble of art, relics, heirlooms, pieces, objects and implements. The Bannermans have been described by Min Hogg, the Founding Editor of Interiors Magazine, as"mavericks in the grand manner, touched with genius" for creating a style that"takes your breath away". A style that fuses a reinvention of Gothic Romantic with that quintessentially English quality of inspired, but unforced juxtapositions - Peruvian Freedom fighter posters next to Edward Bawden; oolitic fossils next to a plastic bag by Joseph Beuys. As Clive Aslet wrote in Country Life, it "comes as no surprise to find that the Bannermans are friends of the dealer Christopher Gibbs; they share his eye for the curious and wonderful, taking joy in over-scale pieces used to dramatic effect in an ensemble that is deeply and endearingly English. Witness the enormous medallion of Elizabethan hero, Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge above the hall fireplace, the striped sofa in the bedroom, the eruptions of Vesuvius, and Lutyens' rush-seated chairs; all have their place in a house that is as happily eclectic, yet harmonious, as a long garden border." It is a style forged by Isabel and Julian's upbringings - which had curious parallels. Julian grew up in Fordell House near Edinburgh and Stanhope in County Durham before the family moving to Wells, the epitome of the rural market town, then inhabited by a certain type of Antique Dealer. It was the Golden Age of 'Unwrecked England' and Julian would frequently visit antique shops with his mother. "My mother had 'an eye' and was clearly ahead of her times. It was her influence that got me going". The teenage Julian spent the holidays working for Michael Carter, putting Vanessa Bells through a re-lining table, wreathed in the smell of smoke and hot wax. Isabel's childhood, like Julian's, was dominated by the shadow of the relics of the past. As she remembers, "In the autumn of 1971 we painted, in very dribbly black oil paint, the letters ANTIQUES on the fanlight above a door of a terraced house on Wallingford high street which was to open the next day as my mother's first shop." Isabel, as the youngest, was co-opted for hunting trips in a temperamental mustard-yellow Volvo to visit Lavenham, Odiam, Chipping Campden, Hungerford, all the unspoilt market towns around the south of England. When her mother, Barbara Eustace, brought the treasures home, she wrote pithily accurate phrases such as 'Jokey pictures for Chelsea Bathrooms, exceptionally good frames 15 each' on luggage tags (also mustard yellow). In 1975 Barbara opened her celebrated shop in the King's Road. "Having caught the bug early," says Isabel, "I would spend every Saturday down Portobello Market and occasionally find things for my mother to sell, as well as vintage clothes for myself."
It was in Edinburgh that Isabel and Julian met. As Isabel says, "When I got to Edinburgh I found a junker's paradise and in Julian, I found my junking partner for life. Scotland seemed to be ten years behind the rest of the country and hence better than the South where the musty 'Steptoe' shops were being ousted by dipping and stripping and an influx of French and Continental tat. Scottish shops had much more eclectic hoards and an early find was discovered in a shop in St Stephen's Street - a pair of Mardi Dervish dresses (Lot 210). The Brass Chandeliers, (Lot 57), were from a little shop of treasures next to the chip shop run by Eduardo Paolozzi's brother. It was also a time of surreal moments: one night we went down to Leith, to a warehouse off Jamaica Lane, to see a man who was leaving on a boat the next morning and just wanted rid of his stuff. We bought the Regency sofa (Lot 285) and, a decade later, found the gorgeous red stripe at Robert Kime to cover it." The first house that the Bannermans restored was The Ivy in Chippenham which is still spoken about in conservation circles as "one of greatest rescues of a major house without a grant". The house - a Baroque Leviathan with vestigial 12 acres in the middle of traffic island - had been saved from demolition by a formidable campaign led by John Betjeman and James Lees-Milne. But it was Julian who courageously bought it and brought it back to its former glory (which put the famous diarist in his place: Lees-Milne recorded at the time that he did not think that 'that young man will be up to much'). But they became friends and it was on an outing to see James, his wife Alvilde and their garden at Badminton, where the Bannermans first saw the terracotta bust of Caesar (Lot 140). It had, said Alvilde, been a present from Vita Sackville West. One of the inspirations of these years was David Vicary, who lived nearby at Kilvert's Parsonage a painter, designer, gardener, who had worked for John Fowler and whose unmistakably postwar lithographs of standing stones are in the sale (Lot 205) along with furniture that he left to them (including Lots 65, 83, and 165). As Julian says, "His house was a study in eclectic genius, and he dazzled us with his limitless knowledge of houses and gardens in England and Europe." Camping in the derelict house with little electricity or running water was a magical and intense time. Isabel remembers how they bought a grand breakfront bookcase and exquisite girandoles to light the walls from Christopher Hodsoll - with whom they continue to collaborate in maverick mischief. A number of items of Christopher's, from both his home and wonderful shop are also included in this sale; compatible and complementary.
The Bannermans - now with three sons: Ismay, Rex and Bertie - decamped to Hanham Court in 1993. It was brave move. The house had architecture from every epoch and was tethered to a Church. There was a cluster of tithe barns and an Elizabethan dog kennel - and 25 acres comprising hills, dells, ramparts, meadow, stew ponds, and woodland - all waiting to be moulded. There was a lot to do to draw out the beauty - both indoors and out. "When I rang Chrissie (Gibbs) excited to tell him we had cut down the worst of the Leylandii outside the house," said Julian, "he instantly replied, 'But what about all that Leylandii inside the house?' Staying the weekend was not for the faint-hearted. "Many friends found the borstal-cum-bed and breakfast feeling too overpowering," says Julian. "One room was christened 'Beirut' by Johnnie Shand Kydd after he had spent a night surrounded by shattered plaster and lath." But gradually the unpicking and unraveling brought out the early and simple beauty of the rooms, and once pictures and furniture were in situ it transformed the entire mood. Bizarre tapestry chairs came from Bath (Lot 59); the oak library table (Lot 89) was discovered in Liz Vincent's lair of Regency lacquer and dog bones. An Elizabethan model of a tomb (Lot 97) was found at Robert Kime, as was the Nash Bookcase, the cut velvet screen, and fragments of exquisite tapestry (Lots 88, 58 and 108). Edward Hurst and Christopher Hodsoll were the source for flattering mottled mirrors and library steps (Lots 215 and 85), while Lutyens chairs (Lot 92) from Oliver Hill were unearthed at the Edens' shop, along with squashy leather chairs and deep-buttoned chesterfields, pictures and incanabula, lamps and lanterns. There were also the sad trophies of inheritance: the Titchfield Hatchment, Sansovino mirror, a drawing of Vita Sackville West, a Regency globe and the collection of Staffordshire goddesses.
The house is admired by all who visit, but imperceptibly the balance of passion has shifted. The garden has gained dominance as their work in landscape design has grown in stature. From the start, the garden, say the Bannermans, has been slower and harder work. They created every flower bed - and then used the stones to mend walls. Finally, they planted plants. These became the subject of a new collecting passion: Isabel has become obsessed with selecting and recording, in a series of photographs from which she makes giant prints mounted on aluminium, the uncanny textures and sensuality of the plant kingdom she inhabits. Meanwhile they made their own 'stumpery' in the manner of their work at Highgrove; they delved in the dell and raised ruins, which, although newly made, look as if they had been there for 100 years. As well as being commissioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Bannermans won 'Gold' at Chelsea, and the competition to design the British 9/11 Memorial Garden in Manhattan - a sequence of curvilinear stone benches and clipped evergreens. Recently 'The Collector Earl's Garden' at Arundel Castle has brought them a string of awards, and their work for Simon Sainsbury in his last few years was mentioned by Neil McGregor in his funeral oration. Now, say the Bannermans, is the time to channel of their energy from furnishing and decorating indoors and turning their attention to their outdoor rooms; but they need to have the resources to gather together something extraordinary in the landscape. "Alvilde Lees-Milne always used demand 'what next?' in a garden she was assessing," says Julian. "Well, it is time for surprises in the garden at Hanham - next we hope will come all the things that we have been aching to get on with."