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The Garden Museum’s John Brookes exhibition

John Brookes
John Brookes

John Brookes: the Man who Made the Modern Garden, Nov 27-Feb 24

The Garden Museum’s latest exhibition showcases the life and works of influential landscape designer John Brookes MBE.

If you’re not familiar with him, he introduced Modernism to British garden design, revolutionising the way people used their plots.

The author of more than 25 books, John has inspired generations of designers around the world, creating public and private gardens on almost every continent.

As a student in 1950s Britain, he recalls, a garden was a place to show off an immaculate lawn, prize chrysanthemums and grow vegetables. It was reading Thomas Church’s Gardens are for People which opened Brookes’ eyes to gardens as a place for living, with patios, pools and barbecues.

One of John Brookes' designs for a city garden, 1960s
One of John Brookes’ designs for a city garden, 1960s

‘Private gardens didn’t matter’

When he began, Brookes says, there were “four or five of us, and the landscape architects such as Sylvia Crowe – who I adored – thought that private gardens didn’t matter; public space did. ‘You do this’, she’d say, if a private job came into her office.”

Brookes was an early pioneer of Modernism in private gardens, typified by his ‘Grid’. Through collaborations with architects he introduced structure and geometry; from the iconic courtyard of Penguin Books to the ‘sexy curves’ of spaces inspired by his Brazilian hero, Burle Marx.

In 1969, he published The Room Outside, perhaps the most influential garden book of modern times, in which he argues that gardens should be an extension of modern living.

He said: “We had been fed a diet of gracious living and country houses, with ordinary gardeners in the shadow of the grand names of gardening. Why couldn’t everyone have their garden designed?”

A Brookes plan with his signature 'Grid' system
A Brookes plan with his signature ‘Grid’ system

Designing gardens for £1

In the 1960s, he accepted an editorial post at Architectural Design, designing gardens for £1, “whether you’ve just acquired a desert or a jungle, landscape designer John Brookes will provide an easy to follow scheme.”

Cleve West, twice gold medallist at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, said; “When I found out that John was teaching (at Kew Gardens), I knew I had to sign up. John is not only one of the all-time great garden designers, he is a gifted and generous teacher.

“The growth of the garden design industry in this country is largely due to his influence so I had to get it from the horse’s mouth.”

Brookes also went on to found the Inchbald School of Design in Tehran in the middle of the Iranian revolution and was the first designer to have his name on a Chelsea Flower Show Garden.

At 83, he continues to design. As he wrote in 2007: “My experience is based upon that of my predecessors, and one is increasingly aware that… not only experience affects us, but time, of course, and social change. And there has certainly been change through my lifespan!”

Visitor information

  • Address: Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB, tel: 020 7401 8865, www.gardenmuseum.org.uk.
  • Admission: £10, concessions apply, see website for details.
  • Opening hours: Sunday to Friday, 10.30am-5pm; Saturday, 10.30am-4pm. Closed the first Monday of the month.
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Mandy Watson is a freelance journalist and an incurable plantaholic. MandyCanUDigIt grew from the tiny seed of a Twitter account into the rainforest of information you see before you. Gardening columnist for the Sunderland Echo, Shields Gazette and Hartlepool Mail and editor of the Teesdale Mercury Magazine. Attracted by anything rebellious, exotic and nerdy, even after all these years. Passionate about northern England and gardens everywhere. Falls over a lot.


  1. It was a picture in a John Brookes book that made me want a garden – and I have admired him ever since. I’ve been to Denham’s several times and love the place. Once he was there pottering about and I had the courage to speak to him. It was a thrill to be able to tell him how wonderful Denham’s was. I was sorry to hear it has closed now. I hope he realises how much he is admired and liked. Julie at londoncottagegarden.com.

    • Thank you for sharing your memory Julie – it’s always a privilege to meet a hero and they turn out to be both decent and inspiring!


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