‘Mirrors and Torrents’ was an apt name for Steven Desmond’s one hour tour of water features in historic gardens.  Through a beautifully photographed presentation ebbing and flowing over 2000 years we glimpsed the incredible travails designers and ornamental garden enthusiasts endured to harness the mercurial nature of water’s energy, strength and beauty.

As a former gardener, horticultural advisor, lecturer and author, Mr. Desmond was a font of knowledge and expertise.  However, it was in his role as specialist tour guide to historical gardens throughout Europe that his true gift was revealed. We had not just a technical expert, but a gloriously witty raconteur, with humourous stories and background anecdotes flowing from his lively presentation.

We journeyed from the mirror like surfaces of the ancient pools at Hadrian’s Villa outside Tivoli, Italy to the wonderful fountains of 17th Century Versailles. We were treated to stories of early feats of engineering and innovation in early warning pressure gauges, as well as the incredible artistic virtues of water and sound. The exploration of water features in historic gardens is rich with references to Gods, religion, philosophy and folly.

At Versailles we learned that owing to its locations far from a substantial water source, and relying on inadequate water pressure from an innovative aqueduct, a clever look-out system disguised the fact that only one of the magnificent 17th Century fountains could blow with fanfare at a time.  When the king went walking in his garden, scouts would alert the fountain operator to fire up the one ahead and diminish the one behind.

Too strong a pressure could also cause challenges to piping of great fountains of water.  One ancient fountain in the Italian mountains discovered an irregular flow rate could be regulated by an ingenious early warning system of placing bronze pears in the path of the fountain spray.  If silent, the pears indicated a smooth, consistent flow, but when set clashing and clanging together, the engineers knew to turn back the gauges or the pipes would blow.

Pictured: Elizabeth Kay (President, Friends of Te Papa), Steven Desmond, Robyn Vavasour (Chair, The Arts Society Wellington)

Like fashion in its day, the flavour of garden ornamentation flowed back and forth between the great cultural and design capitals of the world. While the British emulated the grand water parks and babbling brooks of the French, the French soon took to the serenity of English serpentine lakes and follies in their parks.

From torrents to mirrors, the flow of water in a garden takes one back to stillness and calm.  Desmond’s one overarching advice, ‘don’t try this at home’.

Sheryn Shackleton,

Committee Member, Friends of Te Papa