Kim Wilkie - 'Sculpting the Land' at NY Botanical Garden

Kim Wilkie is, hands down, my favorite living landscape designer. He is a genius.

The Orpheus landform by Kim Wilkie - click here for  photo source 

He is from England and is known for expansive land sculpting projects - sinuous waterways that meander through pastoral countrysides, stepped hillsides that sometimes double as grassed amphitheaters, and mounds with paths that spiral to the top. 

Wilkie was the speaker yesterday at the New York Botanical Garden's 14th Annual Winter Lecture Series. This thought provoking series features exceptional speakers that share their insights on "the emotional value of designing gardens that reflect personal passions and aspirations."  How could I not go to something described like that? I am a partial to the anything to do with 'the emotional value of designing gardens.'

Kim Wilkie and dogs       source- Telegraph article 

And anyway, when I saw it was Kim Wilkie I signed up immediately. He is one-of-a-kind which was amply demonstrated in his illustrated talk, 'Sculpting the Land'.  It accompanies his fabulous and informative coffee table book, Led by the Land (published by Frances Lincoln Limited). You can order it through Amazon or if you have trouble getting it contact the publisher:

His original training was studying history at Oxford and it was quickly apparent in his descriptions and references. In his talk, he alluded to Rousseau, Greek mythology and medieval stew ponds among many other gems. I thought it was 'grand' and reveled in his perspicacity (See? You start using those words when you listen to someone so smart). 

He described various giant land sculpting projects and showed 'before and after' photos that took our collective breath away.

Wilkie's grass terraces at Heveningham Hall.  source:

He explained that the grass terraces at Heveningham Hall(shown above) incorporate the existing trees which, at first, were a bother but then he realized that they broke up the expanse, adding interest. (my thought: They add shade too.)  The lollipop trees at the top which ring the entire landscape are Quercus ilex (holm oak).  The entire landscape looks amazing next the edifice it surrounds: 

Heveningham Hall - source article : Spectator

Wilkie had some very wise words for designers yesterday. One thing he said (I was scribbling madly) was that the "notion that you have to invent afresh is daunting and hubristic"... discard this idea. Basically just take others' ideas and do them your way "with elegance and respect". I thought this was good advice.  In fact, I see that Wilkie has taken the medieval idea of the 'snail mount' and made it his own in his elegant way. It is a great idea and I am very glad he has brought it back to life. 

The Orpheus landform at Boughton in Northamptonshire is one of his most famous works. His story on how it came to be is quite illuminating: the Duke of Buccleuch took Wilkie up a grass pyramid that was created by Charles Bridgeman in the 1720s. The remainder of the land was undeveloped.  ‘What would you do with this?’  he asked Wilkie, pointing just beyond.  And Wilkie told us, "It was one of those pivotal moments and I knew that in those 30 seconds I had to come up with something wonderful." So he thought and then said, "Why not dig down? a mirror image of this?" The Duke pondered it for a minute and said, 'Let's Do It!'...every designer's dream client.

orpheus landform - Kim Wilkie - source article  photo by Jon Lovie

 And so they created an upside down ziggurat, 22 feet deep, was dug as a mirror image of Bridgeman’s pyramid, with a grass path descending into a pool which mirrors the sky. He calls it Orpheus ( as in Orpheus descending into Hades).  He explained that when you descend down to the square pool a strange thing happens - the sounds of the outside world become muffled. It is an otherworldly experience. And he referenced artist James Turrell  (another personal fave) with the reflection of the sky in the water, even on an overcast summer day. 

And in addition, there is a trickling fountain that is based on Phi - the Golden Section! the golden ratio is 1:1.62. (I talk about this in my talk on Serenity by Design).

Wilkie described the stainless steel cube shown here. He explained that this 'perfect cube based on the golden section' was a frame that they could put a linen cover on and use for performances and showing films.  Ethereal art and functionality combined.

Orpheus photo by Ian Goggin click here for source

I cannot cover more than that here - I suggest you buy his book - you will not be disappointed!

He ended by answering a question to someone in the audience, saying  "a divine contained landscape was something a garden is about".

I could not have said it better.  Bravo, Kim Wilkie!  Bravo!

post by Jan Johnsen. I have another post about Wilkie's landforms in Longwood Gardens. Click here.


  1. Thank you, a wonderful article! I ordered the book straight away!

  2. Sadly, that stainless steel cube has something of the effect of a pea on a drum.

    Try - (James is a member of RHS Council)

    1. Oh how I love garden design controversy! and to be fair...Kim did say that his cube was not universally applauded... I guess I will have to do what James suggests and go there myself to see....
      I Love the website Thinkin Gardens....

  3. I am from the publisher of this title and can confirm that the book is not out of print or out of stock. If you are having difficulties obtaining a copy of this please let me know where you have tried and I will contact them.

    1. Oops! I will change the text asap!!!!

    2. done. and updated the post to include that info....

  4. Yes, he is a genius. I could live in one of his landscapes.


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