Friday, October 10, 2008
One of my dreams is to visit the great gardens in England, Italy and France but for now I will have to be an armchair traveler and see these beautiful places in the pages of books. I just finished a wonderful book about a garden that I was not previously familiar with. La Mortella, on a little island called Ischia in the Bay of Naples, is an amazing garden first begun in the 1950s by Susana Walton, the young wife of English composer Sir William Walton. I don't know a great deal about music and I'm embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Sir William either. He died in 1983 and Lady Walton still lives and gardens at La Mortella today. I recently saw a little article in one of my gardening magazines (Horticulture maybe?) with a profile of her and it mentioned her book, published in 2003, which is a chronicle of their creation.
Sir William Walton was smitten with the young Susana when he met her in her home town of Buenos Aires when he was there on a tour. He was 46 at the time and she was only 22. They were married shortly after that and lived briefly in England before moving to Ischia. Both of them disliked the cool gray climate of England and preferred a sunny, more tropical atmosphere. Sir Walton had fell in love with the Bay of Naples area twenty years prior to their marriage and wanted to settle there so he could write his musical compositions in a remote location where he could fully concentrate. An employee at a travel agency knew an Englishwoman who was renting an ex-convent on the island of Ischia. The Waltons jumped at the chance. The dwelling proved to be very uncomfortable and after six months, they rented another house where they would live for the next twelve years before buying their own property. They bought a hillside with a ravine that faced the setting sun which they called "La Mortella" ("the divine myrtle") after finding the name on an old map. Myrtle was growing wild all over their hillside, sprouting from rocks and crevices.
The Waltons hobnobbed with many famous friends who visited the island such as Maria Callas, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, but it was mostly a quiet existence. Sir Walton would spend months working on compositions and would only venture from his studio for meal breaks and brief walks. Suzanna devoted her time to the house and garden.
The story of the evolution of La Mortella is a fascinating one. Their land basically consisted of a sun-drenched and parched ravine full of boulders (their friend Laurence Olivier advised them against buying it saying that it was basically a stone quarry). Susana was adamant however and sought help from famed garden designer Russell Page. Page saw the potential for La Mortella and spent three days drawing out plans and dispensing advice. Susana clung to every word, writing down everything Page said, and would spent the next ten years developing the bones of the garden.
It was no easy task. It took workers seven years to build the terraces to the top of the hill. The garden had good soil but alas, very little water. It wasn't until the mid 1950s that the government brought drinking water to the island so during those first years, water had to purchased and delivered by truck. Cisterns were later installed to collect rainwater. The seedlings and small plants were being baked by the sun so straw roofing was installed to shade them during the first three years.
Russell Page made a second visit to La Mortella twelve years later and made a few revisions. He redesigned some of the slopes as well as a main fountain that would become a focal point. This also initiated a series of four fountains that would be added in future years.
Sir William Walton died in 1983 and his ashes were placed at the top of his favorite rock in the garden which is also at the highest point on the property with incredible views of the town and ocean.
Lady Walton continues to develop the garden adding rare plants from all over the world and erecting structures like the "Victoria House" for her collection of orchids. The garden is now a showcase of more than 800 plants from 4 continents with concentrations of palms, cycads, tree ferns, colcasias, water lilies and rare tropical plants. The garden is now open to the public but if, like me, you can't visit, by all means read Susana Walton's book. It is a fascinating story.
(A special thanks to Mellow D2B, mberry and archie.photo for allowing me to use their Flickr photographs.