A career in art direction is a useful grounding for anybody wishing to go into garden design. Sheila Jack’s career shift was not so much a break as a continuum of research, editing, and presentation. Before designing the pages of Vogue magazine, her first job was for the architect Norman Foster; these visual strands from the past feed into her present-day job as a landscape designer.
We visit the project which turned Sheila’s design ideas into something more three-dimensional: her own urban garden.
Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista, except where noted.
“When we added my husband’s garden studio we needed to create a pathway to it,” explains Sheila of the garden’s current layout. “Our children were beyond the need for lawn, so there was scope to include more planting.”
I first met Sheila by the photocopying machine at Tatler magazine, several decades ago. Amid the madness, Sheila stood out as a beacon of clarity, in a crisp white shirt. A few years later I spotted Sheila, ever crisp, at 444 Madison Avenue, a recent arrival at Condé Nast in New York. While I failed to take my job on the 17th floor seriously, Sheila worked hard downstairs, in the scary offices of Vogue. Then she suddenly appeared on Instagram, with beautifully composed pictures of gardens, in focus. How had she got from there to here?
After Vogue, Sheila was art director of Harpers & Queen (before it was absorbed by Harpers Bazaar). She recalls that at the Chelsea Flower Show, “Harper’s & Queen were the media sponsors of the Laurent Perrier gardens, during the epic Tom Stuart Smith era.” That was when Stuart Smiths’s sophisticated take on meadow planting caused one of the few genuine revolutions at Chelsea, in the 1990s. “Seeing those gardens close up was hugely inspirational,” says Sheila.
“All of my white irises have been propagated by division from two plants bought at the Chelsea sell-off [when designers and stall holders off-load plants at the end of the show]. Many of the roses came from Chelsea too,” says Sheila. She started collecting these plants during her time at Harpers.
Sheila enrolled in an intensive one-year design course at the London College of Garden Design at Kew Gardens, where she was recognized with an award for “top student.” She immediately won two awards with the Society of Garden Design as soon as she graduated and her ability with a pencil is evident in the entries.
“There were a whole range of transferable art and design skills,” says Sheila of her two careers. “I enjoy doing pencil sketches to illustrate an idea or convey an atmosphere, combining that with photography and art and architectural inspirations to flesh out the detail.”
“My former life of page layout, editing photography, and art have given me a strong visual reference point,” says Sheila. “I’m interested in detail and how things are made, and how they in turn can be edited to the purest form.”
What does the first year of a newly qualified award-winning designer involve? “I am working on a range of projects from urban London gardens and roof terraces to a beautifully located riverside country garden,” says Sheila. “I’ve also been extending my professional experience by working with more established designers. I had an amazing week as part of Tom Massey’s planting team during the build of his Lemon Tree Trust garden at this year’s Chelsea.”
For more on this particular show garden, see: Chelsea Flower Show 2018: Heart and Soul at the Lemon Tree Trust Garden.
Has Sheila’s new career had an effect on her garden? “The planting is constantly evolving; there are more grasses, with delicate plants like Thalictrum delavayi and Selinum wallichianum. I’m lucky to be designing other people’s gardens now,” she adds, “so there’s not much time for wholesale changes at home.”