In a Fading Portuguese Village, the Gardens Bloom Again

A landscape designer has transformed the town of Santar with a series of lush, connected plots where everyone is free to roam.

Article by Nancy Hass

In the gardens of Casa dos Condes de Santar e Magalhães, a parterre of boxwood and rosebushes ending in an avenue of camellias. Photography by Ricardo Labougle.

In 2013, Jose Luís Vasconcellos e Sousa, a now-62- year-old retired private bank executive living in Estoril, Portugal, cold-called the legendary Madrid-based landscape designer Fernando Caruncho with a proposal. Perhaps Caruncho, whose minimalist works evoke the monumental quality of 1970s land art, could create a con- temporary extension to complement the 400-year-old formal garden of his ancestral estate in Santar, a vil- lage in Dão’s wine region, 90 minutes south of Porto.

But not long after Caruncho arrived and stood on the colonnaded granite veranda of Casa dos Condes de Santar e Magalhães, a 16th-century manor house with views of the Serra da Estrela mountains in the distance, he knew that Vasconcellos e Sousa had been asking him the wrong question. Below him lay the meticulous 1.2-hectare post-Renaissance garden — a terraced French-Italian fantasia of boxwood topiary obelisks, rosebushes in disciplined parterres, spring-fed fountains, marble statuary and an allée of Italian camellias whose petals carpet the ground in late winter.

But walking through the town with Vasconcellos e Sousa, Caruncho saw the estates of several other grand families who had been in the verdant valley for ages, as well as the twisting lanes with several hundred modest houses belonging to the 1,000 or so villagers. Such a layout, he knew, was unusual: in other communities where nobles had reigned, their villas were outside of town, distant from one another and from the locals; in Santar, the skeins were tightly knit.

A pathway along ancient granite garden walls and olive trees in the gardens of Casa das Fidalgas. Photography by Ricardo Labougle.

“I thought, ‘Why not take advantage of this?’ ” says Caruncho, who trained in philosophy as well as landscaping in his native Madrid, making him as likely to reference pre-Socratic Greeks, the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Al-Andalus Islam as botanical genus and species. “Why not just leave your perfect garden as it is and instead bring all the others back to life, to join with it and return dignity to the whole town?”

And so the men began a nearly decade-long collaboration, connecting the series of walled properties with gates and bridges in a unified 20-hectare master plan, one that incorporated the agriculturally cultivated countryside. Their aim was not merely aesthetic, Vasconcellos e Sousa says on a recent summer day, as he stands on the veranda in the battered straw hat he wears to protect himself from the sun.

Now accessible to outsiders interested in gardens, viticulture and the complex relationship between the local aristocracy and the people, the resuscitated properties are an attempt to restore the town.

Santar has been steadily losing its population since the 1960s, with young people leaving for better opportunities in the cities and wealthier European countries while the older generation subsists by cultivating their small plots of grapes, olives and fruit trees on the outskirts of town, selling their crops to large regional cooperatives. The landowning families have felt the pressure, as well.

It takes vast sums to maintain large historic estates, and their fortunes were made during Portugal’s centuries of rapacious colonialism, but that was long ago, and their wealth has mostly petered out. A few families have already sold their land to large-scale winemaking operations; others have let their properties run fallow.

Vasconcellos e Sousa’s mother, Maria Teresa Lancastre de Mello, Countess of Santar e Magalhães, who died in 2015 at age 86 and through whose lineage the house was passed — his father, José Luís Andrade de Vasconcellos e Sousa, was equally titled — was able to maintain the estate’s garden but had trouble keeping up with the constant repairs demanded by the 9,000-square-metre manor.

Its remaining original construction — in the vernacular idiom, with touches that prefigure the Baroque, and an Orientalist flared red ceramic tile roof — dates to the late 1500s. Until 1990 or so, when a more modern kitchen was installed, the family used the original 17th-century one, with its giant domed Romanesque fountain and basin once used to rehydrate salt cod brought by fishing boats from Norway.

A boxwood parterre with topiary and roses, bordered by lemon trees, in front of the manor house of Condes de Santar e Magalhães in central Portugal. Photography by Ricardo Labougle.
The landscape designer Fernando Caruncho conceived a pergola covered in wisteria to join the gardens of Linhares Ibérico Nogueira and Linhares Santar e Magalhães. Photography by Ricardo Labougle.

Vasconcellos e Sousa could manage the upkeep, but he feared that his three children, now in their 20s and scattered around Europe, might not want to assume the burden. And even if they did, who wants to stand by and watch the town of their ancestors become further hollowed out, waiting until it disappears altogether?

Still, transforming Santar into a cultural destination — Vasconcellos e Sousa and his brother, Pedro, an agronomist, winemaker and co-inheritor of the estate, would like it to one day anchor a nonprofit foundation — has been laborious and costly. Vasconcellos e Sousa began the project when he was still working at a bank in Lisbon (he and his partner, Patricia Poppe, live primarily in their Estoril home, not far from there), financing it with the help of Pedro and João Manuel Mora de Ibérico Nogueira, heir to another of Santar’s great estates.

They spent the first few years developing their plans with Caruncho and bringing neighbours on board. A turning point was when the Bragança royal family — whose ancestor Catherine de Bragança became queen of England when she married King Charles II in 1662 — agreed to turn their near-derelict Casa das Fidalgas into a 22-room hotel and spa. (The Santar hotel, as yet unnamed, is due to be completed in Europe’s spring.)

Because of his family’s long involvement with the town, it was important to Vasconcellos e Sousa that the villagers approve of the project, too. “You have to understand how hard it was to convince people to do this,” he says. “They thought I was a nut case at first.”

Many were persuaded as soon as they visited the vast stone-walled ground floor of the manor house to see the giant maquette Caruncho had made of the planned changes to the town. (This floor of the manor has been converted to a mini-museum, with vitrines displaying the robes of the bishops and a cardinal who were among Vasconcellos e Sousa’s ancestors. Caruncho’s son Pedro, an architect, has turned a structure near the gates of the manor, where firewood was once stored, into a small shop that sells silky tannic red wines made from touriga nacional, alfrocheiro preto and alicante bouschet grapes and fragrant, citrusy whites fashioned from encruzado and malvasia fina.)

But the gardens, which are irrigated entirely by the underlying watershed, are the main lure. Considering that Caruncho once transformed a property in New Zealand into overlapping sculpted mounds of escallonia to conjure the lava flow of a nearby volcano, and a golf course in Marrakesh, Morocco, into a Miesian grid of water and turf, these interventions, by comparison, seem subtle.

Known for precise of contemplation. His work is both sculptural and scholarly; Caruncho is convinced that society is returning to a pre-20th-century understanding of how humans are meant to live with nature.

Through his namesake practice, started in 1979 when he was 21, he has found that clients lately want to integrate agricultural cultivation with purely aesthetic pleasures, a balance of elements that coexisted before the Industrial Revolution but largely disappeared once the means of production became elevated above all else.

A variety of David Austin roses in boxwood beds in the gardens of Casa dos Condes de Santar e Magalhães. Photography by Ricardo Labougle.

“Santar presents a way to restore the original dignity of the land and its people while at the same time bringing it into the 21st century to modulations of space that harness the shade as well as the sun, he is loath to impose a signature style on the landscape, instead allowing its natural contours — the quality of the light and the history of the place—to inspire his designs after a lengthy period ensure it can be sustained,” he says.

To unify the village, each grand property now includes a well-defined vineyard, most with newly planted or revived orchards; the espaliered rapevines’ geometry and orderly fruit trees create a thematic structure. For the capacious acreage of Casa das Fidalgas, Caruncho planted the vines in undulating waves instead of the usual straight rows; from a distance it resembles a vast Op Art dreamscape. On the land of the early 19th-century Casa Ibérico Nogueira, there are now also 18 vegetable gardens, each 200 square metres.

Four of them are cultivated by local families, with eggplant, capsicum, kale, strawberries and crimson gladioli lining the edges like sentinels. Globe artichokes tower on 180-centimetre-tall spikes topped by lapis blue centaurea-like flowers. Four boxwood parterres in the Linhares garden are now a meadow of California poppies and Cosmos bipinnatus in fluorescent shades of tangerine and yellow that bloom from May to October.

Caruncho’s small gestures to link the properties are perhaps the most trenchant changes, challenging the country’s complicated attitude towards land ownership and privacy. “The Portuguese are very territorial,” says Vasconcellos e Sousa. “We love walls. The idea of going through someone else’s gate, of walking on their land, has always been unthinkable.”

But now, a rustic wooden staircase of Caruncho’s design, with an unlocked gate at the top, leads from the garden at Casa dos Condes de Santar e Magalhães to the neighbouring 17th-century Casa de Magnólia, named for the 200-year-old tree at its centre. To connect the former to the garden of the neighbouring Casa Ibérico Nogueira, Caruncho, who rejects what he believes is an artificial division between formal geometric landscapes and more profuse natural ones, built a wisteria-covered pergola atop a ramp.

And at the end of a path through the new Casa das Fidalgas vineyard, there sits an elevated, covered pavilion, with views of the entire town and the mountains beyond. Six metres tall and 12 metres long on granite pillars, it has open sides made from the trunks and twisted limbs of a Scots pine, pieced together like an airy geometric lattice. Around the base, Caruncho has planted a mix of Macassar ebony and osmanthus. Eventually the fragrant, flowering trees will grow tall enough to make the platform appear to be floating above the vines.

For Caruncho and Vasconcellos e Sousa, the pandemic delayed the project in some ways. But it was also a boon, proving that nature gives, even as it takes away: many of the plantings that Caruncho oversaw before Covid-19 have had time to reach near-maturity, now lush in the Portuguese sunshine.

As planned, it’s almost impossible to spot the landscape architect’s hand. This season’s harvest is expected to be among the best in recent memory, making it all the more satisfying that where there were once dusty, quiescent fields, new vines now thrive, laden with fruit. “You have to have an enormous amount of faith to do something of this scale,” says Vasconcellos e Sousa. “You have to believe that this is your purpose, what you were born to do.”

A version of this article appears in print in our fourth edition, Page 116 of T Australia with the headline:
“A Rebirth”
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Jasper Conran’s Garden In Dorset Runs Wild

After decades of perpetual movement, the British designer has taken to the quiet rhythms of country life in amongst his free-flowing gardens.

Article by Nancy Hass

A view of Bettiscombe Manor, the designer’s brick house, from the garden. Photography by Simon Upton.

Among Jasper Conran‘s most precious possessions is a signet ring given to him by his mother. Engraved with the Conran crest — a dove perched on two crossed snakes — it bears the motto “In peace lies wisdom”. A lovely sentiment, to be sure, but considering the polymathic British designer’s wildly accomplished and famously unpeaceful family, it’s easy to infer a bit of classic English irony in the gift.

Jasper’s father, who died in September at 88, was Terence Conran, the man who upended fusty British postwar design in the 1960s with his empire of Habitat stores, which introduced minimalist housewares and Scandinavian-style flat-pack furniture to the British high street. In 1973, he opened the upscale Conran Shop on Fulham Road in Chelsea, and in the late 1980s moved the store down the street to the old Michelin House, an Art Nouveau jewel, where it still stands today. There he continued to reshape the retail landscape, staging modern furniture by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe alongside traditional French cookware and global crafts. (There are now Conran Shops in Paris, Tokyo, Fukuoka and Seoul, and additional London locations at Selfridges and in Marylebone.) Over the course of Terence’s career, he also founded London’s Design Museum, a homage to graphic, fashion and industrial design, and opened more than 50 restaurants, including the still-popular Bibendum on the ground floor of the Michelin building, which ushered in the city’s era of modern cuisine and high-ceilinged brasseries when it opened in 1987.

Jasper, 61, is the second of Terence’s five children. His mother is Shirley Conran, a best-selling author of steamy blockbusters, including the 1982 “Lace.” (Shirley was the second of Terence’s four wives; they divorced in 1962, when Conran was 2 and his brother Sebastian was 5.) When Jasper wasn’t at boarding school, he was shuttled between his mother’s series of London flats and the 58-hectare Barton Court family estate in Berkshire, which his father purchased in the early ’70s. There was also a farmhouse in Provence.

The front entrance to the estate leads to the garden and, beyond the gates, which are flanked by trails of erigeron, lies untamed English countryside. Photography by Simon Upton.
Conran in repose, inside his walled garden, among tall spires of foxglove. Photography by Simon Upton.

It was a complex and tempestuous childhood, but a creatively fertile one, as well; Jasper, Sebastian and their younger half sister, Sophie, all became designers. After completing his O-levels, Conran came to New York to study at Parsons School of Design, and at 19 debuted his first collection, a 10-piece line of wedding dresses for the now-defunct Manhattan department store Henri Bendel. In the ensuing years, his output has approached that of his father’s. In addition to his namesake women’s wear label and J by Jasper, a diffusion line, he has created bone china for Wedgwood and costumes for more than a dozen ballets, operas and theatrical productions, including the Royal Ballet’s 2019 production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour.” In 2011, the board appointed him creative director of the Conran Shop; a few years later, after his father stepped down, he was named chairman of Conran Holdings. He worked to return the stores to their original glory until 2015, when he resigned in order to focus on his own lines. The Conran Shop was sold in 2020 to the British entrepreneur Javad Marandi, who has a large real estate portfolio in the UK, including the 40-hectare property on which the Soho Farmhouse, the Soho House chain’s Oxfordshire retreat, is located.

His father often wielded his brilliance like a blade (in his 2001 book “Q&A: A Sort of Autobiography,” he described himself as “ambitious, mean, kind, greedy, frustrated, emotional, tiresome, intolerant, shy, fat”), but Conran is known for balancing the same sort of aesthetic energy with a generosity of spirit. Still, he has experienced a certain inherited restlessness over the years that has led him to buy and sell a series of residences in the UK and abroad, turning each into a canvas for his signature style: a mix of English antique furniture and 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century art with an almost austere neutral palette, offset with deft slashes of colour. “It’s no secret I’ve owned a lot of old houses,” he says a bit sheepishly. “I’ve dreamed of them since childhood, when my mother used to take me round to see all the dilapidated great ones. I always wondered: ‘What has happened here? What are the stories?’”

Allium, foxglove, chives, alchemilla and roses grow in the tangled garden. Photography by Simon Upton.

He has possessed at least six, all of them historically notable. Perhaps the most spectacular was Ven House, a Grade 1 listed 18th-century manor in Somerset that he bought in 2007 and sold in 2015, and a 7,000-square-metre apartment that makes up much of New Wardour Castle, a limestone Palladian mansion in Wiltshire. He also keeps a flat near London’s Hyde Park and a residence made from two ship captains’ houses on the Greek island of Rhodes.

But the place he considers home these days is refreshingly (and relatively) modest: Bettiscombe Manor, an intact early 17th-century brick house on 28 hectares in Dorset, a corner of the southwestern English countryside that retains some of the untrammelled wildness immortalised by the 19th-century novelist Thomas Hardy. Until he bought it four years ago, the house was owned by his stepmother, Caroline Conran, a food writer who was married to his father from 1963 until 1996, and who was instrumental in the creation of Habitat. She purchased the house as a weekend refuge for herself in 1986. While Jasper and his own mother have had a fractious relationship over the years — he reportedly did not speak to Shirley for more than a decade, until shortly before his 2015 wedding to the Irish artist Oisin Byrne, which she attended — he and Caroline have always maintained a deep and durable bond. “She was probably the biggest influence on me,” he says. He visited her often at Bettiscombe through the years — “I always considered it an impossibly magical place” — but until she told him she wanted to downsize in 2015, he never imagined it might be his. “I wasn’t looking for another house, but this isn’t just another house,” he says.

Virtually unchanged over 400 years, the manor has a far more human scale than the projects he is known for. Creaky, cosy and atmospheric, it has wide-plank floors covered in rush matting, a scullery with a Belfast sink skirted with linen and a cabinet that once held powdered wigs. Its last full renovation was during the reign of William and Mary, and when his stepmother bought it from a tenant farmer, there was no central heating.

Hornbeam hedges ensconce a 14th-century cottage, which houses Conran’s library and office. The garden is planted with old-fashioned roses, fennel, hollyhocks, raspberry bushes and lady’s mantle. Photography by Simon Upton.

Conran has reimagined it with his usual restrained panache. In front of a mantel-less fireplace sit a pair of white linen-upholstered George II armchairs with mahogany legs the color of burnt molasses; a needlepoint of a Welsh manor in a carved gilt frame — bought on his 21st birthday — hangs alone on a pale wall above a cushy white sofa strewn with violet pillows from Morocco. (In 2016, he opened the riad inn L’Hôtel Marrakech.) But it is the garden that perhaps best expresses how Conran has — as the family crest counsels — finally found wisdom in peace.

Unlike the formal gardens at Ven House, with their clipped all-green symmetry and stone fountains in the 17th-century style, the grounds of Bettiscombe tend toward the natural and the profuse. They seem a reflection of the unfussy rural character of the area — and of Conran’s evolving disinterest in anything too palatial. There are chickens. A shepherd brings his flock of sheep to graze daily. Conran employs just one full-time gardener, unlike the robust staff that were needed to keep his grander properties in order. “This is a different time of my life,” he says, recalling the partying he did in his younger years that was assiduously documented by the British tabloids, “and I’m feeling so comfortable and full of joy.”

Unlike the interiors, which evince his willingness to ruthlessly edit in order to let good pieces have breathing room (“I don’t do layering,” he notes), the garden here borders on the riotous. “It’s my id run away with me,” he says. During the pandemic, his desire to be enveloped by bright hues, the sweet fragrance of flowers in bloom and organic shapes has intensified: “Just being in the midst of that and seeing every day when you go out what has happened overnight is so exciting.”

Just outside the estate’s wild wooded area, oxeye daisies blanket a patch of meadow. Photography by Simon Upton.

The sense of purposeful imperfection begins as you leave through the front door to walk down a stone path: poofs of erigeron — fleabane — with tiny daisy-like flowers fizz from between ancient stones. The ornamental beds themselves, bisected by grassy promenades, are densely planted, the colours molten. In late spring there are parrot tulips everywhere, and the belled stalks of purple digitalis burst through blossoms of yellow euphorbia.

As the season mellows, the dahlias emerge, their nodding heads sometimes the size of Frisbees. Even in December, the garden bears flowers: Helleborus niger — Christmas roses — with their blowzy blossoms in faded Victorian shades of lavender and sage. There are a cutting garden, a vegetable garden and a greenhouse. Conran pulls fresh peppers, leafy greens and peas from the vines to serve with poached chicken drizzled with aioli; his guests drink chilled Meursault as they sit at the graceful, aged iron tables he has arranged in clearings.

Less than 100 metres away, near the orchard, Byrne, 37, has set up his studio in the 1830s structure that houses the apple press, still used each autumn to make cider. His works over the past year at Bettiscombe, mostly large-scale botanicals with a lush, exuberant edge, have grown even bigger and more vivid. Conran cuts lavish bouquets for him to paint, a gesture of quiet intimacy. “I’ve had my drama and my houses,” the designer says. “Now I feel as though I’ve landed.”

A version of this article appears in print in our third edition, Page 132 of T Australia with the headline:
‘The Wild Life’
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