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Meet the man on a life-long mission to find the perfect garden bench

 the Munder Skiles Wharton Bench
Finding stylish outdoor seating is a challenge, says Christopher Woodward, so is repro the answer? Pictured: the Munder Skiles Wharton Bench Credit: Munder Skiles 

Lot No. 599. “Garden Bench, iron”, read the auction house catalogue. From the picture, our curator had spotted it was a bench manufactured by The Bilston Foundry of Staffordshire to the design of artist Edward Bawden in 1956. But others had also made the connection. It sold for 10 times the estimate. The search for the perfect garden bench for the Garden Museum collection continues.

“I’ve been searching for the perfect garden bench for 40 years,” John Danzer laughs down the phone from Garrison, New York. Danzer was an American in Eighties London when he fell in love with garden furniture. “I spent every weekend at Clifton Nurseries in Little Venice. I furnished my flat with garden furniture.” He’s carried a pair of coiled wire chairs made in 1890s France to every apartment since.

“Those were the days when 80 people would crowd into the furniture auctions Sotheby’s held at Billingshurst,” he continues. Pieces still come up: at the sale of the furniture of designer Nicky Haslam at Bonhams on Nov 20 you can bid for two Regency gothic revival seats in wrought iron.

Think of what it takes to survive two centuries of English weather. You’re more likely to find a lost oil painting by Thomas Gainsborough than a garden seat of the same period. On lawns close to the house, Danzer explains, servants took out Windsor chairs, the cheapness of their wood disguised by bright, thick lead paint. Yes: peer closely at Jacques Rigaud’s views of Lord Cobham’s gardens at Stowe being enjoyed by guests in the 1740s and the lawn is scattered with dainty wooden legs.

The oldest benches I’ve seen are the stone slabs in the grounds of an 18th-century landscape garden in Dorset. These survivors illustrate how a picturesque garden was designed to be experienced as a circuit of framed views: you stopped your carriage, and sat on a seat to admire, discuss or sketch a view. And moved on to the next.

A Garden in Summer (c 1930) by Guy Lipscombe Credit: the garden museum

In the spring of 1786, visiting The Leasowes, a garden in Shropshire designed by the poet William Shenstone, Thomas Jefferson annotated his copy of the guidebook as if marking up paintings in a gallery: “The landscape at no. 18 and the prospect at 32 are fine”. And the seating? “Here and there a seat of board, rarely anything better.” For his hilltop house at Monticello, Virginia, Jefferson designed a garden bench slatted in the Chinoiserie style. Today, that Jefferson bench (around £3,000; munder-skiles.com) is one of the most popular pieces produced by Munder Skiles, the firm Danzer set up after leaving a career in Wall Street.

Like “rail replacement service”, “­reproduction garden furniture” are three words to make the blood run cold. (Or wince at childhood memories of shins banging on neo-gothic crockets; replicas of Victorian furniture were inexplicably popular in Seventies Hertfordshire.) The “Lutyens bench” can be bought flat-packed from a supermarket for under £200. (Although Candia Lutyens makes a version in oak which preserves the generous proportions of the seat her grandfather, Sir Edwin, designed for The Thakenham Estate in Sussex in 1902.)

What sets Danzer’s pieces apart is that he turned garden history sleuth and went back to the original documents. Jefferson made a drawing with instructions on construction, mouldings, and the use of iron as supports. It’s as finely judged, and spaced for the body, as a musical instrument. Another prize was a receipt dated 1922 for Edith Wharton’s purchase of garden sofas and chairs from Allez-Frères, whose shop was on Pont Notre-Dame, Paris, for her home at Chateau Sainte-Claire at Hyères, east of Toulon.

You can sit in Danzer’s reproduction seat if you ever visit Dumbarton Oaks, close to Washington DC. It’s a house set within a garden designed by Beatrix Farrand, the remarkable landscape architect who was also Wharton’s niece and travelling companion. Farrand is perhaps best known in this country for her rescue of Gertrude Jekyll’s archive of design drawings from a jumble sale during the Second World War.

Kidney Seat at Dumbarton Oaks

Like Farrand, Danzer is one of a succession of Americans who taught us to look afresh at a heritage we’ve taken for granted. (Another of his designs is based upon a simple chair seen in a corridor of a Scottish castle.)

From his laugh, it sounds as if he’s more at home with English indifference than American excess. In the southern states he’s battling designers – of the school of interior decoration he dubs “cushion management” – who obscure good furniture with an excess of fabric. “You can’t underline simplicity enough,” he argues, whether a chair is in wood, iron, or a poolside plastic scoop from one of Thomas Church’s California gardens.

There are four, or five, components to the perfect garden bench, from its volume and shape to the time of day it catches the light. It should be as simple as making the perfect gin and tonic. But, sadly, it’s just as rare. But get it right and you are couched beside Edith Wharton on a summer’s night, casting a fly over belle époque society. And, as Wharton knew, a good piece of furniture, like desire, never grows old.

Christopher Woodward is the director of the Garden Museum, London SE1

John Danzer will talk at the Museum on Nov 5 on “The History of Garden Furniture Design”. To book, visit gardenmuseum.org.uk