On the Verandah with Peter Watts

One day a few months ago Peter Watts came into my studio. He was talking casually about recently discovering around 60 photographs taken by Edna Walling whilst cleaning up his office and how he was donating them to the State Library of Victoria. ‘Who is this man?’ I thought to myself… I only knew him as my studio mate’s dad and here he was talking about his archive of one of Australia’s most renowned landscape designers! I needed to know more.

I invited myself over to Peter’s house in the Sydney suburb of Lilyfield. We sat on the verandah, which I soon discover is Peter’s favourite place to be, and looked out over his lily field. Yes, it’s literal. There’s a field of lilys in Peters garden, flowering every November. I missed the spectacle but the idea is enough to make me decide Peter Watts is pretty great.

Peter has had quite a career – for the last 40 years he’s led the conservation of some of Australia’s most important historic buildings, gardens and landscapes. As the director of the Historic Houses Trust from it’s inception in 1983 until 2008, he’s lent his guiding hand to the sensitive shaping of cities and spaces, and his voice to conversations around conservation. And it all started with Edna Walling. Well, sort of.

Towards the end of his architecture degree Peter started studying landscape architecture. “I’d gotten very interested in historic buildings and environments in my last few years at university,” Peter tells me. He needed to pick a topic for his final year thesis and knew of Edna Walling through her writing.

I started asking people about her and no-one really knew anything. I thought ‘Oh well, I’ll do a thesis on her then’. I really knew very little.”

The thesis essay began modestly, according to Peter, but soon he “got a bit obsessed” and started doing a lot more work than he needed to. He was working at the National Trust at the time and “a few of the wealthy old ladies there had Walling gardens so they passed me from one to the other.”

He didn’t know it at the time but he had a bestseller on his hands at the ripe old age of 23! Margaret Darling, who was the president of the National Trust at the time read his work and asked to publish it. “They published it as a book but it was really my undergraduate essay. I couldn’t believe it. I gave it to them as a gift, and didn’t ever get royalties. I was completely naïve.” The book was called Edna Walling and her Gardens and it sold around 20 000 copies.

Peter’s thesis on Edna Walling fuelled his interest in historic gardens and he was soon researching again. This time it was a survey of the historic gardens of Victoria, culminating in a book called Historic Gardens of Victoria: A Reconnaissance in 1983, and the formation of the Australian Garden History Society. “The Garden History Society has been a huge success,” Peter tells me. “It’s done lots of terrific work – funding publications, exhibitions, conservation projects and studies. It’s been a great advocacy group.”

In 1981 Peter and his wife Jo moved to Sydney where Peter took on the position of Director of the Historic Houses Trust (now Sydney Living Museums). He retired from the same position 27 years later, having built the newly formed organisation into a major cultural and research institution with a focus on managing, maintaining and interpreting buildings and environments of historic importance.

I’ve always been curious about conservation. How it happens, why certain buildings and places are conserved and not others, and how history melds with contemporary uses of space. Peter is the man to ask all these things. “Conservation begins with understanding a place. This happens through lots of very, very careful research – letters, documentary research, talking to past owners, old photographs, that sort of thing.” The second part of understanding a place is more physical – “In a garden it may be digging cross-sections to find where paths were, what the edge details were.” Peter tells me. “In a building you take things off walls, peel paint back, probing very carefully to try and let the place tell its own story.”

Once the place is understood as best it can, a statement of significance is written. Once written “you might decide it actually doesn’t have any significance – that there are 300 more of the same.” Or, it may be very significant. “It may be unique and peculiar, and it may have a very interesting history,” Peter says.

Then comes context, addressing how the place sits within the wider landscape of planning constraints, community interest, ownership, that sort of thing. A policy framework is then written which addresses all of the above research, understanding, significance and context. This guides what can then happen to the property. “It’s a very considered and structured process,” Peter tells me. It makes people actually think through what the issues are. We’re actually very good at conservation in Australia. In Britain, especially, its often about good taste.”

“Taste has nothing to do with conservation. Nothing at all. It’s about the integrity of a place.”

It’s an interesting thing, taste. Particularly in the way its expressed within gardens. Gardening, like any pursuit of beauty is influenced by taste, but the best gardens are concerned more with integrity. Integrity of place, particularly. We talk about Walling and how she captured this in her work, but how nowadays her style is perhaps seen as a bit outdated. “I don’t think she’s as well respected now as she was in the 80s and 90s,” Peter suggests. “She would be regarded now as a bit old-fashioned. She was a gardener’s designer – a brilliant plantswoman who understood the subtleties of gardening and design.”

Walling always thought gardens should be just a bit bigger than they needed so you couldn’t control them entirely,” says Peter.

I love this sentiment. Wildness in a garden has its own integrity, and to me it’s much more soulful than control. We talk about old gardens that have been handed down through generations of the same family and how they can so easily loose their integrity if not tended to with gentle eyes and hands. It comes to me, after talking with Peter Watts, that this is what conservation is about – gentle eyes and hands. It’s not about only restoring historic places to their former glory, but its about seeing and celebrating the layers, the stories, the integrity of a place.

Peter Watt’s garden is tended to with (mostly) gentle eyes and hands. He tells me of a recent war on slugs, but we won’t go there now. It’s small and lovely, with a hint of wilderness up the back. In addition to the lily field there’s a bunch of brugmansias, lots of begonias and a brilliant hills hoist clothesline in the lawn. The house is warm and rambling and the verandah is brilliant. Of course. For a man who’s spent the last 30 years meandering between the garden and the house, there is no better spot for Peter Watts than the verandah.

“I’m an indoor/outdoor person. I like the space in between,” he tells me. Of course he does.

This story was produced with support from The Australian Garden History Society (AGHS), of which Peter Watts is one of the founders. AGHS is committed to promoting awareness and conservation of significant cultural landscapes through engagement, research, advocacy and activities. Please check out their website for more information on who they are, what they do, and why they’re a great bunch of people.

Also, if you want to get access to the best gardens, Australia’s most interesting garden thinkers, and support an organisation focused on protecting and celebrating Australia’s cultural landscapes, perhaps you should consider joining AGHS?