Clever Cleve delivers the Alitex Lecture 2014

Cleve West

I've been thinking about the best way to convey how enjoyable Cleve West’s lecture was on Thursday evening and spoken to a number of people who came that night for ideas.

We all seem to have taken something from it which felt personal, something which has touched an experience shared – from allotmenteering to the joys of Chelsea, from a love of art, form and sculpture to a very personal testimony about the newly designed “Horatio’s Garden”, at the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Unit in Salisbury.

Anne Marie Powell calls Cleve, “Clever”, and maybe that’s just it – by revealing so much about one’s life, loves and interests we (the audience) were all enthralled. There were times I realised I should be scribbling notes but I’d just stopped to listen; if you ever get the opportunity you must hear Cleve West speak – utterly captivating.

That said, let me share with you some of his anecdotes, projects and stories. We were entertained by tonnes of images – those which had inspired Chelsea garden designs, amazing gardens visited, projects... We were gradually introduced to Cleve the artist, the visionary and the philosopher, perhaps, who takes inspiration from just about everywhere and everything.

A lover of nature and a hands on type of garden designer means that Cleve still gets his hands dirty and appreciates a garden which resonates with life. To complement this side of his nature, his understanding of form and shape have resulted in such extreme (yet brilliant) ideas as huge steel red pyramid sculpture seemingly tipping into water in the front of a French 15th century chateau. Daring but so fantastic it makes you want to go and buy a chateau so you can do just the same.

Cleve’s interest in sculpture has led to his collaboration with sculptors Serge and Anjos from France (perfectly possible I have misspelt this, so my apologies). Cleve first fell in love with chimney like sculptures created by them and was inspired to use them in his Chelsea garden this year (2014). It was only when he was tracing through old family photos he realised that on a childhood visit to Libya he had seen very similar architecture and felt that the whole thing was tied together somehow. Top tip from Cleve: Topiary can serve the same purpose as sculpture and costs a lot less!

Cleve spoke about being inspired by the Dutch landscapers and the extraordinary gardens which change thinking about design and planting – Piet Oudolf, Henk Gerritsen and Mien Ruys. Cleve is a student of John Brookes and cherishes the advice given out in his early days as a student “take it slow”, he said and Cleve thinks this has been reflective of his career so far(!)

In explaining the allure of the big shows such as Chelsea for garden designers, Cleve revealed the joy inherent in being let loose on the design of a show garden. As long as your sponsors are happy, it is probably one of the few opportunities a landscaper has to “let rip”, and live out ideas to the full. Somehow it relieves the creative pressure of working for clients where you are not necessarily creating on your own terms. Although Cleve was delighted with the more recent fashion to relocate show gardens in their entirety to a worthwhile place, for example the SAGA garden ended up at their head quarters.

As an anti-dote to the drama of shows Cleve enjoys allotment life. It has also formed the backdrop to a newspaper column he wrote, following the trials and tribulations of the allotment community where they have open days, they’ve built a pizza oven – it’s a whole lifestyle away from the shows. The top tip he passed on from his allotment learning is that it takes time but it does allow you to experiment, especially if you have a small garden.

I liked Cleve’s idea that you don’t have to re-invent every time you design a new garden. You can take a part of the design and develop it. The example he used was paving stones and instead of using grout in one design he allowed water to trickle down and through and it became part of a water feature. This went on to become the main element in a subsequent design where the water running through the pavers, was the feature.

Horatio’s garden at the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Unit in Salisbury was the moment when I simply had to put my pen down and listen. The design was inspired by the needs of the patients who often lay on their back for great lengths of time and are moved around whilst in their bed. Large wide paths were “begging for large pots of plants”, but that would simply never have worked. Cleve chose perennials not evergreens because the garden comes alive with the sound of insects, birds and wildlife. In the style of his Dutch mentors the seed heads and grasses form structure through the winter months. The height of the plants have allowed secret areas to spring up seasonally which allow patients and their families space – not forgetting the dedicated staff who can recharge quietly. This project truly felt to Cleve as though he had done something useful and good and is pleased to see that a number of other similar gardens are being created off the back of this, including at Maggie’s Centre for cancer sufferers and their families.

It is easy to see how Cleve is such a successful landscaper and garden designer. Aside from being a very down to earth, likeable chap he lapses easily into creative expression where colour, sound, harmony, texture and light are king. Just before he was going on to deliver his lecture he stopped outside the factory door. “Is everything OK?” I asked, a bit nervously, maybe he was getting cold feet. “Can you hear that owl?” Cleve said, “Isn’t it amazing?” Then proceeded to entertain over a hundred guests, with ease.

Thank you to everyone for joining us at our annual lecture. It was the first time we had held it at Torberry and we were so pleased to welcome everyone here so that you can see what we have been up to over the last couple of years. On behalf of Alitex I’d like to thank Cleve and hope that you all felt as inspired as the team here did.

Tags: alitex, cleve west, alitex lecture