Symmetry, what could possibly go wrong?

We all learn in lots of different ways, some of us learn by rote, observation or books. Sometimes we even learn from our mistakes but far less painful is to learn from the perceived mistakes of others.

A case in point is the East Parterre at Witley Court in Worcestershire, part of the gardens commissioned by The Earl of Dudley and completed around 1860.

Now there are a myriad of garden design terms bandied about with an airy waft of the hand, especially during the ‘Show Season’. Symmetry, asymmetry, focal point, rhythm, balance, scale, proportion and unity are just some of them.

In your own garden you might not name the principles of design that are present, but, as Ms Capulet so eloquently said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
 by any other name would smell as sweet.” The world of design is dominated by these principles, they are, I suppose the ‘Rules of Design’ and sometimes, like all rules, they get broken. After all, they’re not Laws of Design, merely Guidelines.

Personally, I think the two most important principles are Unity and Balance. Design principles shouldn’t be confused with a design style, they do not go in and out of fashion, they are an enduring element of any successful design. Without them you can find yourself with a jarring design that simply falls short of the mark, sometimes its easy to spot, other times less so. 

Areal view of East Parterre
Areal view of East Parterre


On the face of it this French parterre de broderie should work, its perfectly symmetrical, all the elements balance with each other and the scale is perfect given the size of the mansion. However, as you walk around you are left with a real feeling of discomfort.

Could it be that the vandalized fountain of Flora, the Goddess of Spring has been reduced to four Tritons drinking imaginary yards of ale and seemingly worshipping a foot? Possible but actually that whimsy is one of the best parts of this area. 

Make mine a yard of ale
Make mine a yard of ale                            

The English Heritage blurb would have you believe that this Parterre was designed to be, “looked down on from the most important rooms of the house or from the raised balustraded areas”.

You might therefore think that given the grandeur of the ballroom, with its many windows looking over the East Parterre and out to the countryside beyond, its majestic steps, sweeping down to this easterly section of garden, that this would be one of the ‘most important rooms’ of which English Heritage are referring to.


You might also think that given the alignment of the fountain of Perseus and Andromeda, directly with the steps from the South Portico, that symmetry would be replicated here with the fountain of Flora and her Tritons being the focal point of the Ballroom.

Well gentle reader you would be wrong to assume any such thing. It would seem that William Andrews Nesfield (the landscape architect) and The Earl of Dudley considered the servants passageway running between the Dining Room and Sitting Room to be of the utmost importance, as it is the windows of this room that aligns perfectly with the focal point of the fountain. Which although very nice for the servants does result in this section of the gardens being discomfortingly out of balance with the architecture of the house. 

Annoyingly out of kilter
Annoyingly out of kilter


As I say, its always nice to learn from others, and should I ever be commissioned to design such a garden, I think I’ll stick to a design that unifies House and Garden with a sense balance. Sometimes its better to bend, rather than break, the rules.

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