by Gail Pittaway
Hamilton Gardens is a unique public park in the upper North Island city of Hamilton, in which the history of the garden is being recreated, by geographical and historical sections. Rather than a Victorian-based botanical collection or an arboretum, the gardens celebrate the garden as an art form. Under the guidance of Peter Sergel, their visionary director, gardens have been created in consultation with experts from the countries and eras of origin. The Chinese Scholars’ Garden, Japanese Garden of Contemplation, Char Bagh Garden from India, an Italian Renaissance Garden, an English Flower Garden, an American Modernist Garden and Te Parapara (a Māori Garden), form the core of plantings. There are plans for a Baroque garden, a Pasifika garden and a Mediaeval Cloister garden. All have cultural and artistic components of reference with the eras they represent, but most overtly so is ‘The Mansfield Garden’, which is inspired by a New Zealand writer and her short story, The Garden Party, but is in fact a replica of many postcolonial wealthy landowners’ gardens from the era before World War 1.
Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is perhaps New Zealand’s most famous literary export. After a happy childhood and schooling in Wellington, she was sent to a finishing school in London by her banker father, then returned to New Zealand in 1906 at the age of eighteen. But she was back in England within two years, having convinced her father to send her back for further musical training. From 1908 until her death from tuberculosis in 1923, she lived a nomadic life with various partners, infatuations and friendships, which culminated in a lasting relationship with John Middleton Murry, editor, writer and critic, part of a literary circle of Modernist writers (including D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf), which alternately embraced and rejected Mansfield. They lived in London, Cornwall, Switzerland for her health, and France where, when war broke out, she was reunited with her beloved brother, Leslie, before he was killed in Belgium in 1915. Some of her most settled times were spent at the Villa Isola Bella, in Menton, on the French Riviera, a property which today is run by the New Zealand government as a creative residence for New Zealand writers.
It was in the last few years of her life after her brother’s death that Mansfield began writing stories about her childhood in New Zealand, ostensibly simple and playful narratives that dealt with social issues such as the class system, and psychological issues such as depression, betrayal and loss of innocence. The Garden Party (1921) is one such story, from a collection that was published posthumously. In this story, a wealthy Wellington family plans to throw an extravagant garden party but on the planned day a poorer neighbour is found dead. Laura, the protagonist, goes through the excitement of planning, the shock of discovery and her first encounter with death, and believes the party should be cancelled. Then, at the last minute, she catches sight of herself in her party finery, sporting a glorious new hat and decides the party should after all not be stopped.
In this environment of storytelling through plant and architecture, every plant has been checked for temporal authenticity and any plants mentioned in Mansfield’s works have been included. The garden has the facade of a two-storied wooden villa with pretty verandas and fretwork, a circular driveway for horses, carriages and cars to turn in, which even sports a vintage car, surrounded by an outer ring with luscious borders of perennial flowers and shrubs. Off to one side is the lower lawn tennis court on which a marquee has been erected, sheltering a long trestle table set with jars of cordial, plates of cakes and sandwiches, and fruit. At the other end of the tennis course a piano and other instruments – violin, flute and ’cello – wait to be played for the party. It is to view only and as such, it is a party in waiting, immaculately kept and none of it is real, not even the 15 types of sandwich mentioned in the story. All is sculptured, plastered, thrown or cast. None of the food is edible, nor the instruments playable.
It is a tribute to Mansfield, but also to that era of leisure and pleasure before the wars ruined everything. But the literary association with the writer and story reminds us of how none of this would have been created or maintained without the work of many servants and other low paid workers and in this case as well, dozens of volunteers and supporters, as the Hamilton Gardens still have a policy of free entry for all visitors.
Two site specific events have occurred in recent times in the Mansfield Garden. Every year in February, when summer is at its peak and the gardens are at their best, they form the backdrop for an arts festival. Some performances employ fountains, lakes and even the mighty Waikato River, which swirls by several parts of the gardens. Others adapt shows for the outdoor environment or the particular themes of each garden and, in February 2019, a production of a play about Katherine Mansfield was held in the Mansfield Garden.
The solo play, ‘The Case of Katherine Mansfield’, first appeared in the 1980s when Cathy Downes, who had devised and performed it overseas, toured it throughout New Zealand. With its combination of letters, diaries and short stories written by one of our most colourful and significant writers, the monologue uncovers some of the myths and mysteries about this author, using her own words. The play reveals some of Mansfield’s motives for writing about the homeland she had left, and which keep emerging in her stories, as well as her often cynical view of relationships and social expectations.
What a privilege it was, in February 2019, to see this play in the newly created Mansfield Garden – the perfect backdrop. The audience sat on the circular lawn with a fountain at our backs and relived a long-gone era, but one which produced this first truly modern New Zealand woman writer. That production, directed by Louise Keenan, made delightful use of the on-site vintage car, recordings of Debussy and light jazz, and the appropriateness of the setting and time of day. As the sun faded, so did Mansfield’s health and the last few scenes in gathering darkness were particularly moving and the site memorialised the inspirational writing and life of its namesake.
Then, in February 2020 in the same garden, an event was held that brought the culinary content of The Garden Party story to life. The New Zealand Symposium of Gastronomy and Food History was holding its annual meeting at Hamilton Gardens over the first weekend in February and, in recognition of the many food writers who would be attending and the perfect opportunity to celebrate New Zealand’s great writer, Hamilton Book Month (of which I am a co-director) hosted a welcome reception on the evening before the conference proceedings began. Well in advance of the weekend I researched the story and poured over the delightful monograph, The Katherine Mansfield Cook Book, which has been produced by the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace in Wellington. I also asked local experts about what food was served at the opening of the Mansfield Garden by the hosting stalwarts, The Friends of Hamilton Gardens, who had consulted their own experts in the creation of the sculptured food and drink displayed under the marquee in 2018, while I reread the original story and others by Mansfield for clues. The most detail is in the original story which mentions 15 different sandwich fillings, cream puffs and flagged (labelled) sandwiches, as well as ices and jellies. With my colleague and Co-director of Hamilton Book Month, Catherine Wallace, we planned a menu and sent invitations to local food writers, Book Month supporters and sponsors, an, of course the Symposium delegates — food writers, anthropologists, historians and chefs. After beginning with a budget for 25-30 guests we had to expand our offerings to accommodate the 55 people who accepted. Then came the planning and preparation for the reception catering.
With my Australian colleague and friend Professor Donna Brien from Central Queensland University, who was also a delegate to the symposium. I spent a morning making several hundred sandwiches — sadly only 10 fillings, but we faithfully created the egg and olive and lemon curd and cream cheese combinations mentioned in The Garden Party story. I had earlier prepared drinks, jellies, ginger and fruit cakes and purchased frozen cream puffs, and of course lamingtons, also as advised by the consultants. As we were not officially serving alcohol or hot beverages, cool drinks were relatively easy to provide — homemade punch and countless bottles of soda made with home soda streams, into recycled bottles.
On the evening of the garden party a small group of six volunteers set up the tables with embroidered tablecloths and set out seating for the few speeches we would enjoy, shortly before the guests began to arrive. It was all a huge success, but the highlight of it all was to be allowed to step down onto the tennis lawn on which the marquee and plaster food are all display only and not usually for public access. Our key speaker was Dr Peter Sergel who welcomed the delegates and guests and, after several other words of welcome and drinks and treats had been enjoyed, he produced the master key to take us down onto the special lawn, inside the staged set, so that story, food, drink all merged into one garden party.