Virtual Garden Visit: Gibberd Garden, Harlow

Mar 20, 2021

From a visit by SGLH member Marion Shawcross

Frederick Gibberd, the eminent mid C20 architect, was well aware of the relationships between buildings, landscapes and people. So, when in 1949, he was appointed to plan the New Town at Harlow, Essex, he commissioned up-and-coming architects to design the housing communities, and asked Sylvia Crowe to work with him on the landscape.  Much of London, especially in the East End, had been damaged in the war, and the New Town was to help solve post war overcrowding by providing decent healthy homes, with access to greenspace.

Harlow was innovative for providing low rise social housing with decent space and light standards, and individual gardens. The 10 storey ‘Lawn Court’, the first tower block in post war Britain, was built vertically to preserve a stand of oak trees that would otherwise have been felled.  Gardens and green spaces were spread throughout the town. Gibberd was also enthusiastic about public art and commissioned works from Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, Auguste Rodin and Barbara Hepworth.

Gibberd was committed to the area and the family moved there in early 1950s. In 1959 they bought an unremarkable bungalow in 4 acres of land at Marsh Lane on the North East side of Harlow.  A pool, gazebo and lime avenue already existed but otherwise the garden was undeveloped.  Over the decades Gibberd and Thea, his first wife, developed the garden into a series of green spaces, cascading away from the centre towards open country. Shallow stone terraces were built around a pool, with flowers colonising the gaps, Jekyll fashion. Beyond the pool a variety of contrasting and playful spaces were created, bounded by shrubs, newly planted trees and existing wild woodland.

One of the most stunning and unifying aspects of the garden is the sculpture – there are over 80 pieces, some hidden and some ostentatious, some bought from renowned galleries, some ‘objets trouvées’.  Two Roman columns and four stone urns were rescued by Gibberd from Coutts Bank on the Strand, which he was re-furbishing at the time. Gibberd’s second wife, Patricia Fox-Edwards, gave him a sculpture by her friend, Gerda Rubinstein, as a wedding present.  

The garden is formal, the planting is relaxed. Hard garden features include terraces, a grotto, a gazebo and a castle for climbing on.   It has many different moods, contemplative, inspiring and enchanting. Sylvia Crowe worked with him on the initial framework of the garden, and his friend Geoffrey Jellicoe suggested ideas throughout. It was the wish of Gibberd and his wife that the garden should be left for the enjoyment of the people of Harlow and the Gibberd Garden Trust ensures that this wish is fulfilled.

Inormation for visits, post lockdown:

Gibberd Garden

Harlow New Town

Harlow’s Sculptures