“I think that if I wasn’t a writer, I could be a gardener”,
Anton Chekhov, letter to Mikhail Menshikov, 20 February 1900
Anton Chekhov’s Garden is a project conceived by the Anton Chekhov Foundation. The goal is to create welcoming and tranquil places of beauty in healing environments in England, Russia and Ukraine where patients receiving care, as well as the personnel providing it, can take respite. Where possible and applicable, herbs will be used as a low-cost source of natural medicine.
The idea of the Anton Chekhov’s Garden project is inspired by Chekhov’s healing work as a doctor, writer and humanitarian, which itself was inspired by a deep and compassionate awareness of the part played by the natural environment in our physical and spiritual well-being. This is attested in the opening paragaph of Chekhov’s celebrated Ward No. 6 (1892), a story set in a mental asylum which comes to stand as a metaphor for contemporary Russian society:
In the hospital yard stands a small annexe surrounded by a whole forest of burdocks, nettles, and wild hemp. The roof on it is rusty, the chimney is half-collapsed, the steps at the entrance are rotten and overgrown with grass, and traces are all that remain of the plasterwork. At the front it looks out on to the hospital, and at the back on to open fields, from which it is separated by a grey hospital fence with nails. These nails, with their sharp ends facing upwards, the fence, and the building itself, have that particular despondent and cursed look only to be found in our hospital and prison buildings… [translation Rosamund Bartlett]
The Anton Chekhov’s Garden project will be launched with a show garden at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, 2-8 July 2018, designed by Anna Benn Garden Design and Hannah Gardner of New British Landscapes: Anna Benn and Chekhov biographer and translator Rosamund Bartlett (founding Trustee of the Anton Chekhov Foundation), were students together in Russia in the 1980s, and went on to co-author Literary Russia: A Guide, 2007.
Anton Chekhov’s Garden at the Hampton Court Show is a Russian-themed garden inspired by Melikhovo, the country estate near Moscow where Chekhov lived in the 1890s, and where he wrote his famous play The Seagull. Also a doctor, Chekhov treated patients here and was a very keen gardener. The garden is designed to be viewed as Chekhov would have looked out onto it from his wooden verandah, and is a place of tranquility. Set within a rich natural backdrop, it references the traditional Russian dacha garden, bursting in a ramshackle manner with flowers and crops, as well as the meadows and woodland beyond. Herbalism, which has traditionally played a very strong part in Russian medicine and culture is illustrated in the many medicinal plants grown here.
After the Hampton Court Flower Show, the garden will move to the Culm Valley Integrated Centre for Health in Devon, led by Dr. Michael Dixon, which has links with the The College of Medicine (and Integrated Health). In the context of this garden, the College is keen to demonstrate the role of the arts in health, and the value of plants and herbs, following two conferences in the last few months that have shown the medical benefits of both.
The Anton Chekhov Foundation, a UK-registered charity, was established in 2008 by Chekhov biographer and translator Rosamund Bartlett, working in conjunction with UK-based Russian film maker Elena Michajlowska, who was brought up in Vladivostok. The initial aim was to campaign for the long-term preservation of the remarkable dacha in Yalta which Chekhov built for himself and his family at the end of his life. The charity’s two other Trustees are the UK lawyers Alexander and Isobel Walsh. The goal of the Anton Chekhov Foundation is to honour Chekhov’s literary and humanitarian legacy through a variety of cultural and charitable projects. Its activities are currently focused on translation projects and the creation of gardens in healing environments. The charity’s patrons include Sir Tom Stoppard, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Frayn and Henry Marsh.
Culm Valley Integrated Centre for Health, led by Dr. Michael Dixon, has been described by the Chief Inspector of General Practice as “one the most innovative surgeries in the country”. It has a unique and holistic attitude towards patient care, reaching out to the community and providing support for vulnerable and at risk patients, and involving them in a host of health-giving initiatives and activities. When installed at the Culm Valley surgery in Devon, Anton Chekhov’s Garden will not only provide a sanctuary for patients, but its installation and care will also provide a focus for activity and social interaction, which have an important role in promoting well-being.
The College of Medicine (and Integrated Health) is a Registered Charity that explores and champions the role of medicine beyond pills and procedures. It has pioneered the introduction of non-biomedical interventions through social prescription for a range of social, psychological and physical problems and aims to support individuals and communities to take a more effective role in their own health and care.
Dr Michael Dixon, LVO, OBE, is a GP and National Clinical Lead for Social Prescription (NHS England). He was Chair of the NHS Alliance from 1998 – 2015, and is currently Chair of Council for the College of Medicine, and visiting Professor at University College London and at the University of Westminster. He is a strong advocate of preventative medicine, healthy living and integrated care. In his Devon practice, patients are able to directly access a range of health check and self-help initiatives, emergency and maternity services, NHS community services, and, for certain patients and certain conditions, complementary therapies. The philosophy is to help patients keep well instead of waiting until they are sick before helping them. Its success is demonstrated by the practice’s low referral rates and high scores on all performance indicators.