Residency at Tresillian House, Cornwall
In October last year, I had the pleasure of visiting and casting a collection of works for the walled garden and orchards at Tressillian House near Newquay, in Cornwall.
After a rather stilted telephone correspondence, with alternating speakers darting out of potting sheds and studios to improve audibility and connection, we finally pinned down a period to visit the house and select produce from the gardens.
The turn around would be fairly quick as they were already picking the last apples of the year. We would head across to St Agnes, sleep off the drive, then make our way to the gardens and house to explore possible apple varieties and walled garden produce for a new site-specific collection.
The gardens of Tresillian House were largely derelict when John Harris became the estate’s Head Gardener in the early 1990s. As he showed me around the now beautifully restored and managed grounds, he described the enormous fallen trees they had lifted out and the ancient building stumbled upon whilst clearing the site.
The original walled garden dates back to the late eighteenth century. The garden project has been two part; to restore the site and to reintroduce older methods of gardening and varieties of fruit and vegetable. The latter were almost entirely lost with the demise of many estate gardens after the culminate effects of the First and Second World Wars.
Harris gardens with a moon calendar, timing his planting and harvesting to the cycles of the moon. Moon gardening is a concept I had encountered before, largely through discussions of biodynamic growing techniques with an Italian wine-maker friend. Harris didn’t explicitly describe his method as biodynamic, but he did explain that there were ancient and cross-cultural influences underpinning his reasons for working this way. He had studied Maoris and ancient South American farming methods and written a book on the subject of moon-cycle gardening.
This discussion of moon-cycles and water tables stayed with me in particular given the history of the orchard site. The central stone showed in the image below is in fact a mullion stone, a section of the old chapel that once rested on the same site between the 14th and 15th century. The chapel had in turn been built on the location of an ancient spring. I understand that it was quite common to overlay sites of spiritual or pagan significance with constructs of the next dominating religious ideology. At the time of my visit I’d been reading about pre-Christian mythology surrounding ancient Celtic springs, the story of the Fisher King and his well-maidens. These women supposedly guarded the springs, offering sustenance to passers of such places, and represented the duty of landowners to the health and wellbeing of the land itself. It felt fitting, therefore, for an apple orchard to be laid atop the now derelict site of the chapel. A completed loop, returning the focus to nature. Feminine archetypes rebounded about the place: moonlight, apple trees and ancient wells.
This sense of looping back to the beginning felt all the more applicable to the project since Harris is dedicated to preserving heritage apple varieties, aware that there were once many more heritage varieties grown across Cornwall. He pointed out several as we walked around: the Cornish Gilliflower (traceable to a single tree in a cottage garden in Truro); a variety of Lady’s Fingers (on account of the ribbed base); Box Apple (a great Cornish dessert apple, tastes like elderflowers); Apple Pears (as it sounds, an apple shaped like a pear); Cornish Mother and Crimson Queens. There are 84 varieties of Cornish apple growing here. All are utilised at the house and locally for cooking and cider.
I selected a range of Cornish varieties to cast and create the collection back at the studio. The preservation of these old Cornish apple varieties seemed to best exemplify the intention of Harris’ work to restore the estate gardens. Though the walled garden was bursting with flowers to cut, pumpkins and squash, the apples best carried the stories of the place for me.
The apples from Tresillian House are currently available through the General Store, Peckham: www.generalsto.re