Clare College Cambridge

The Fellows Garden



During the 1930s, the garden received little attention, and matters were not improved by six wartime years with a staff reduced to one ageing gardener. By the end of the War, the Fellows’ Garden was suffering from long neglect, and the College’s Governing Body entrusted Nevill Willmer with the task of redesigning the garden.

Two factors influenced his planning: his skill as an amateur painter and his theoretical interest in human perception. He conceived the idea of a number of landscape pictures to be seen from different vantage points, such as the west front of the college and the Master’s Lodge, the bridge over the Cam, and the Causeway that runs to Queens’ Road. Apparent distances were increased by gradually reducing the width of alleys or by placing brighter orange-red flowers in the foreground and more muted crimson hues in the distance. He wanted also to divide the garden into as many different sections as possible, giving each a special character with respect to such things as season, colour, scents, privacy, and use. Where possible, he preserved and incorporated certain existing features (eg the old brick wall, the Judas Tree, the Medlar, and the Swap Cypress), but others (sadly, the dead and dying elms) had to go.



One notable feature of the garden is the double-sided herbaceous border planted in colours of blue and gold, which leads from the sunken garden to the riverbank. One of Nevill Willmer’s interests was the perception of colour. Legend holds that he laid out his magnificent herbaceous border, of yellows and violet-blues, in order to illustrate his theory of colour vision, and that he delighted in leading delegates to conferences on colour perception into the garden at twilight, so that they could watch how the blues became lighter and the yellows darker, as daylight waned.



There is now a 10 year Masterplan to restore the Fellows’ Garden to Prof Nevill Willmer’s original 1947 design - assisted by the London firm of Elizabeth Banks Associates - as, over the years, trees and shrubs have overtaken the original plan and some of the intended views have been lost.