Stories from the Archive


This month’s treasures from the archive all celebrate the Glyndebourne Gardens.

Which came first, the garden or the opera?

Glyndebourne’s gardens may pre-date the house’s transformation into an opera house, but since the Festival’s inception in 1934 music and landscape have always had equal billing, with as much care taken over the outdoor ‘set’ as any onstage scenery.

Landscape was essential to John and Audrey Christie’s vision of Glyndebourne: a day out, far from the city, where the entertainment was structured so as to provide plenty of time to wander, walk and enjoy the beautiful gardens.

As the decades have passed and family, house and audience have all changed, so the gardens have grown and developed too. The war, of course, demanded particularly dramatic alterations, with the whole of what is today the Urn Garden given over to vegetables to feed the many evacuees billeted to the house. When the Festival reopened again after the war in 1946 it must have been a very different sight indeed that greeted the audience.

The garden has its challenges. Planted in order to generate a spectacular display for the three Festival months during the summer, it cannot follow the natural ebb and flow of blooming and dying back that most gardens enjoy. It’s a demanding, year-round process honed over nearly a century to a fine art, as the stories and documents from Glyndebourne’s archive demonstrate.

1970s Garden Layout Design

This scrappy, scrawled sketch is the wonderfully haphazard key to the glorious order of the Glyndebourne gardens during the late 1970s and 1980s. Drawn by celebrated gardener Christopher Lloyd, these particular drawings outline plans for the summer planting of the long beds that run the length of the Urn Garden – a solid, rippling play of colour and texture that must be carefully planned in order to endure a full three months of visual interest throughout the summer.

The garden has changed little in its footprint. Most of the large beds are still in the same place as they were during the original 1934 Festival, but details have developed. What was once a paved path is now grass, extending out into little recesses – popular as picnic spots today.

Functioning both as a home and an opera house, Glyndebourne’s gardens have always had to serve double duty, catering to the private tastes of the family as well as to the public. Any gardener has always had to serve two masters – something that can be clearly seen still in the striking absence of yellow in the gardens. Lady Christie was well known for her dislike of the colour, and so when several troughs of tulips (purchased as a deep red) flowered one year in yellow, Head Gardener Chris Hughes was mortified, and never to hear the end of it.

Audio Interview with Head Gardener Chris Hughes

Chris Hughes was the Head Gardener at Glyndebourne between 1989 and 2006 – a nearly 20-year period in which the garden saw some of its most substantial changes under the watchful eye of Lady Christie, who devised much of the planting herself in conjunction with gardening consultant Lady Mary Keen.

The construction of the new theatre in the early 1990s necessitated a dramatic re-landscaping of a garden much loved by established Festival audiences. The walled garden – the original entrance and a hub for picnicking and socialising – was lost, and new approaches to the opera house had to be created, including the lush, exotically-planted Bourne Garden. Focus now turned towards the lake and the gardens to the side of the house. A new terrace was constructed along the side of the Organ Room, and the bones of Glyndebourne as we know it today were set in place.

Hughes recounts all these developments and more in a fascinating, in-depth interview that explores not just a career but a whole era at Glyndebourne.

Felt Plant from 1956 production of Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail

Gardens and nature have an important history onstage as well as offstage as Glyndebourne. Many memorable productions have had vivid outdoor settings. Most recently, Claus Guth’s evocative La clemenza di Tito was set on a reed bed – handmade and painstakingly rebuilt each night during the interval, reed by individual reed, by the stage crew. Graham Vick’s Pelléas et Mélisande demanded an elaborate ‘carpet’ of hand-dyed flowers caught in a mesh web, while a production of Weber’s Euryanthe was dominated by large tree trunks, whose silent and imperceptible progress across the stage took the entire rehearsal process, considerable hair-tearing and a lot of ingenuity to achieve.

It’s a problem Peter Hall’s iconic A Midsummer Night’s Dream avoided by having actors and singers playing trees and bushes themselves, disconcerting the audience in the opening half-light by their unexpected movements. But this approach did bring its own challenges. One bush, positioned particularly comfortably, famously fell asleep during the performance…

This rather menacing plant belongs to the 1956 production of Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail. Carl Ebert’s production was an exotic affair, and designer Oliver Messel responded with palm trees and other lush and unfamiliar foliage. Standing about 18 inches tall, this prop is typical of Messel’s meticulous attention to detail and testament to the skill of the Glyndebourne props department. Made from felt, the individual petals are all hand-finished and sewn onto fine wire stems to create a ‘living’ plant that can not only droop or perk up at will, but also trembles pleasingly to the slightest of touches.

Written by Alexandra Coghlan and Julia Aries

Photo credits
Christopher Lloyd garden plan and felt plant, photos by Sam Stephenson

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