Milton’s Comus and the Ghosts of Trees

by The Creekside Hermit

Winning competition entry to design 13 Gates and Fences for Townsend Street/Comus Place, London.

Part of my inspiration was Chinese painting:

“Gates quite often seem to be both symmetrical and geometric and I felt the urge to create something asymmetric and organic along the lines of a Chinese screen”

The full proposal:



INSPIRATION:   John Milton’s ‘Comus’ and the Ghosts of Trees.

I was intrigued by the place name – Comus Place.  I knew that Milton had written a masque called ‘Comus’ and that the action takes place in a wood. My inspiration was to design gates and fences using trees as a motif to reflect this.  I wanted to create the feel of an urban wood in conjunction with any trees already on the site.  Additionally, it would be an opportunity to commemorate John Milton, one of the great poets of the English language, who was born and spent most of his life in London.

I visited the site to get a feel for the area. One thing I noticed was the lack of trees. The site contained the few mature trees to be seen and I wondered what would happen to them – would they be preserved or uprooted?  I found out that, ironically, the trees are going to be uprooted to enable building to take place.  However,  the good news is that replacement trees will be planted.


I then looked at the plans, specifically the architectural designs.  It was immediately obvious that my initial idea would not work and that something more abstract was required to fit more comfortably with the sleekness and clean lines of the architecture.


I decided to use photographs of the trees on site as a starting point. I began to think of the images as  ghosts of the uprooted trees and to intensify this decided to use only the reflections cast by the trees as a basis for my drawings. This would commemorate their loss and result in more abstract images which would also serve as metaphors  linking the past to the present and the place-name to the design.  Milton  himself was a proponent of monism or animist materialism, the notion that a single material substance which is “animate, self-active, and free” composes everything in the universe: from stones and trees and bodies to minds, souls, angels, and God.


Taking into account the requirements of practicality, security and safety I opted for 6 mm mild sheet steel.  This can be laser cut and either galvanised or powder-coated for a long-lasting, economical finish.

The dark areas on the drawings are the areas to be laser-cut, creating a free-form lattice.  This allows light through and there are also flat uncut areas, for reasons of privacy and security, and which give a background for the play of reflections from the new trees.


As the walls surrounding the site are to be grey I felt that galvanised steel would be a good cost-effective option and I have based my initial colour-scheme around this.  It will give the  required shadowy tone and will be visually pleasing when, in conjunction with the lattice of the cut-out reflections, the actual shadows of the replacement trees are cast.

Asymmetry and Mirror Images

Gates quite often seem to be both symmetrical and geometric and I felt the urge to create something asymmetric and organic along the lines of a Chinese screen.

The drawings are based on one image of the reflections cast by a tree on site (see sheet 4).
As there are 13 gates and fences in total a design based on one image will give both greater cohesion and a feeling of rhythm and flow.

When I looked at the schedule I realised that Type B appears only once, as a set of gates on the Beckway Street elevation (no 3. in the Schedule of Gates and Fences).  They  appear to be the main gates for the development and are the one unique image.  Taking this as my cue I used Type B as a matrix for the remaining types, i.e. Types A, C and D are derived from Type B.

I noticed that Type A appears only twice, as gates, quite close together on the Townsend Street elevation and I thought it would be interesting to use mirror images.  As the designs are made from sheet steel it would be simple, and no extra expense, to flip them to create mirror images.

Mirror images would work especially well on the Comus Place elevation as there is a long run of Types C and D, both as gates and fences.  For example, the mirror image could be used when each type is used as a gate.  (Types C and D are already mirror images of Type B with the Beckway Street gates acting as a pivot.)  Please see sheet 3 for illustrations of mirror images.

Comus Place Shared Surface

The gates and fences need to fit in with the idea of the shared space and they form a threshold between the public and private lives of Comus Place. The play of light through the lattice organically links outside and inside as well as the trees on either side of the fences.  I also aimed to create a scheme which links the immediate past of the site to the more distant history of London by commemorating one of her  greatest poets, John Milton. Perhaps a stone-carver could be commissioned to produce short extracts from ‘Comus’ and a stone devoted to a brief biography of Milton? This would additionally anchor the gates and fences to the shared space.  My inspiration for this is Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton-Finlay’s garden in Scotland (

I feel that Milton himself, republican, rebel and passionate advocate of free speech would be happy to think that he was being remembered in a democratic shared space and that ‘Comus’ is playing a part in the theatre of the street of modern day London.

Rather than praising an aristocrat, the famous concluding lines of the masque, recited by the Attendant Spirit, urge:

Mortals that would follow me,
Love virtue, she alone is free,
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the Sphery chime;
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heav’n itself would stoop to her .