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Ellis Stones: Landscape Architect

Shirley Pipitone


Ellis Stones (1895-1975) was Australia's first popular landscape architect, the father of an Australian landscape style. Inspired by the bush, he sought to bring nature to the cities.

His subtle style is now pervasive and his pioneering interest in conservation of natural heritage widespread. "One of Australia's most distinguished landscape architects" (Turner, 1975), Stones was highly creative yet gentle and unassuming.

The Life of Ellis Stones

Trained as a builder, Stones was injured at Gallipoli in 1914. After a long period of major operations, acute pain, headaches and depression, Stones resumed building work, in defiance of medical opinion. He married in 1922 and had three daughters.

In 1935, a chance meeting with Edna Walling resulted in Stones changing career, first concentrating on garden construction then gradually undertaking design work. Stones constructed many of the rock outcrops, walls and ponds in Walling's gardens. In Australian Home Beautiful of December 1938 Walling wrote: "It is a rare thing this gift for placing stones and strange that a man possessing it should bear the name Stones... Lovely as formal gardens can be, it is these informal schemes, in which boulders form so important a part, that appeal so tremendously... they give us the atmosphere of the country, and the refreshment of mind derived from such" (Latreuille, 1990 p35).

After World War II, Stones did significantly more design work. While much of his work in the 60s was in city gardens, he designed some country gardens and factory landscapes, often relegating cars to the rear of the building because he regarded them as a blot on the landscape. He also did voluntary landscape design work, for example at Burnley Horticultural College. In about 1950 he started a small nursery and most orders included a couple of native plants.

As he grew older, Stones increasingly suffered from ill-health but he kept on working, bouncing back with incredible energy after any illness. He died in 1975 after a full day's work at Salt Creek.

Landscape Design Techniques

Guiding principle 1: Nature is the greatest teacher

Stones derived his inspiration from the bush and everything he did in the field of landscape, garden design and conservation was influenced by his love of the bush. His landscaping style was so subtle and simple that his gardens often "looked as if they had just 'happened'" (Latreuille, 1990 p xi). He considered that gardens should relate to their natural surroundings, then a minority view in Australia where "the green of the average suburb [was] a horizontal veneer no higher than the reach of a diligent gardener's snippers" (Boyd, 1960 p 28).

"His landscaping style was so subtle and simple that his gardens often "looked as if they had just 'happened'"

To achieve a natural look, Stones:

  • eliminated visual boundaries
  • softened hard lines of paving, driveways and walls with planting
  • retained existing features such as an undulating landform
  • used rock outcrops to give a touch of rugged beauty
  • used natural materials such as rocks, timber, gravel and brush fencing, and native plants where possible
  • sited pools appropriately
  • used a limited palette of plants chosen for their shape and texture, their capacity to reveal or conceal, to provide a focal point or a background
  • used shadows as a design element
  • kept design elements in proportion to the size of the garden.

In 1971, Stones wrote "the architect who designs a house to integrate with the landscape is indeed a great gardener... " (Stones, 1971 p 11).

Guiding principle 2: Gardens are for people

Stones was very conscious of people's need for outdoor living in an urban setting, describing it as "one of the great pleasures and privileges of the Australian way of life" (Latreuille (1990) p 157-160). He sought to provide somewhere to sit and do the beans, or an impromptu place for breakfast. His design strategies included:

  • considering the owner's way of life including possible future changes
  • creating effects of greater distance
  • screening for privacy, windbreak
  • creating a feeling of enclosure in some areas
  • creating views from inside the house and from terraces
  • using courtyards for outdoor living areas

One of his favourite maxims was "beauty attracts the eye where all the surroundings are unattractive" (Stones, 1971 p 67).


Stones believed that small courtyards should be simple and uncluttered to evoke a feeling of tranquility. He used structural materials suited to the building and the landscape, minimal colour and a limited number and type of plants, and he created seats naturally as part of the courtyard structure.

Use of rock

From studying natural rock formations, Stones learned important principles for achieving a natural look:

  • rocks should be partly buried to look as though they have been there for ever
  • placing rocks to create the appearance of a natural stratum
  • varying the size of the rocks
  • using boulders to attract the eye from a plain brick wall
  • using pebbles and boulders as a dry creek bed in a sometimes wet area
  • being bold.


In 1965, Stones gained the commission to landscape the architect-designed Merchant Builders project houses in Melbourne, a highly innovative move at a time when architects only rarely considered landscape as integral to their architecture. This commission brought recognition of his ideas and public acclaim. The subdivision Elliston was named after him.

In 1966, Stones visited European botanic gardens to obtain ideas for redesigning and improving the Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens. In letters of introduction to the Directors of several Botanic Gardens, R T M Pescott, Director and Government Botanist, Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens described Stones as "a landscape designer of considerable repute in this State, who has specialised in the use of stone in garden design" (Pescott, 1966).

He was a foundation member of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architecture and on 6 March 1975, was offered Fellowship of the Institute in recognition of his contribution to landscape architecture in Australia. At that time there were only 10 Fellows of the Institute.

The Visionary

Stones made a significant and lasting contribution to Australian landscape architecture:

  • helping to promote the role of the landscape architect and the profession of landscape architecture
  • nurturing public interest in the relationship between garden design and nature
  • encouraging Australians to appreciate the broader landscape
  • helping the average home gardener with garden design
  • integrating landscape design and conservation issues.

The role of the landscape architect

Stones saw the role of the landscape architect as critical in retaining the landscape amenity for future generations. In 1969 he wrote that the landscape architect "should come before the bulldozer, not after, as is usually the case" (NLA MS 5188: The Heidelberger 2 July 1969).

....he wrote that the landscape architect "should come before the bulldozer, not after, as is usually the case".

Stones supported the establishment of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architecture (AILA) to give landscape designers professional standing. In the absence of tertiary training in Australia, Stones and others, including professionals, gave public lectures on landscape design which eventually led to a landscape design course at RMIT. Stones was a foundation lecturer of this course.

Encouraging Australians to appreciate the broader landscape

Yencken (1997 p 394) quotes Stones as saying "the type of gardens I wanted to make were to remind people of nature. I realise now the reason I was so interested in landscaping was that my occupation and physical disabilities made it necessary to live most of my time in the city, when I wanted to live with nature. So unconsciously I was trying to bring nature to the cities and trying to keep some of the bushland areas in the cities." Stones encouraged interest in the broader Australian landscape, aiming to create a link between gardens and the natural landscape.

Helping home gardeners with garden design

Stones gave the landscape architecture profession a public profile. According to Latreuille (1990 p xii) "he really wanted to help people improve their environment and in so doing, to make cities and towns appear more natural. He maintained that he must always be available to anyone who wanted his services, at a cost they could afford".

In 1946, Stones started to write articles for Australian Home Beautiful, Unlike Walling, he intended his articles and books to help people improve their gardens themselves. He focussed on effects that could be achieved in a small space.

Integrating Landscape Design and Conservation

Stones's greatest vision was to seek conservation of Australia's natural heritage by sensitive landscape design of public areas. He deplored the climatically unsuitable English influence in domestic gardens and many public parks, the practice of clearing all vegetation before building, and the lack of a public authority to manage and protect the landscape. For freeways he envisioned "the whole length... as a beautiful bushland setting, with the statuesque river red gums a main feature... to welcome visitors to Australia" (Stones, 1974).

He deplored the climatically unsuitable English influence in domestic gardens and many public parks, the practice of clearing all vegetation before building.....

Stones was an active conservationist at a time when there was very little interest in preserving Australia's natural heritage. His conservation activities included:

  • President of Ivanhoe River Parklands Protection League from 1955 until at least 1963
  • presented petition to Heidelberg City Council on 31 January 1956
  • honorary landscape architect for the National Trust.
  • Vice-President of Save the Yarra League formed in 1958
  • member of National Trust Landscape Preservation Council from 1960

During his overseas trip in 1966, he obtained examples of how landscaping can assist water and air pollution and he wrote to many of Melbourne's Town Council's offering to address them on the issue. Their remarkable lack of interest was exemplified by the response from Essendon City Council of 15 February 1967: "It was resolved that the letter be received and the contents noted" (NLA MS 5188).

Stones consistently campaigned on conservation issues until his death, expressing concern about such matters as the destruction of forests for the woodchip industry and the environmentally destructive potential of town planners. He loved the quiet beauty of the Yarra Valley and he campaigned ceaselessly against the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works policy of diverting creeks underground into concrete drains in the name of flood control.

However, he also had a broader vision of integrating landscape design and conservation. In handwritten notes on Trees he wrote: "We are a cock-eyed mob, and are unintentionally helping to destroy this wonderful country" (NLA MS 5188). In a small pocket notebook Stones wrote: "... the natural landscape should be in evidence whenever there is an opportunity. Australia has a distinct landscape... strong and bold even cruel at times. This is our heritage, but we have not valued it when we have had to encroach on any virgin country" (NLA MS 5188).

The Vision Today

Much has changed in Australian landscape architecture in the last 20 years. Australian gardens and public landscapes now pay far more attention to style, even though this is still often Featurist, to use Boyd's term. While there is some acceptance of Australian plants, garden and landscape design usually still bear little relationship to the Australian landscape, particularly the indigenous landscape.

Stones was way ahead of his time and his influence is widespread, yet the calls continue for Australian landscape architects to replace the dominant gardenesque style with ecological sustainability (Bull, 1996), to emphasise Australia's distinct environmental qualities (Mackenzie, 1996), to accept native plants in our streets, parks and gardens (Snape, 1996).

Some progress has occurred in relation to conservation, for example, more landscapes are being classified by the National Trust of Australia, and the Melbourne Board of Works has preserved parts of the remaining natural land along the Yarra Valley for metropolitan parks.

Snape (1996) says we need a vision, but we have the pioneering vision given us by Stones. Stones arrived on the scene at a time when an Australian consciousness was beginning to emerge. His vision was forward-looking and different, seeking a way to integrate this emerging Australian consciousness through landscape. "Ellis Stones is remembered for his gentle, unassuming nature, his warmth and enthusiasm, his tenacity, and most of all his talent in... landscape design. He was a simple man with a simple approach. Halfway through his long life he found that he had a gift for creating beauty, and he spent the rest of that life sharing it with others" (Latreuille, 1990 p xi), using native plants, rock forms and water to emulate and extend our peculiarly Australian landscape.


Boyd, R. (1960). The Australian Ugliness, Cheshire, Melbourne.

Bull, C. A purposeful aesthetic? Valuing landscape style and meaning in the ecological age. Landscape Australia 18(1).

Latreuille, A. (1990). The Natural Garden, Ellis Stones: His Life and Work, Viking O'Neil, South Yarra, Victoria.

Mackenzie, B. (1996). An Australian Design Ethos. Landscape Australia 18(2).

National Library of Australia. Stones, E. Papers, manuscript, MS 5188.

Snape, D. (1996). The importance of Australia's indigenous plants. Landscape Australia 18(3).

Stones, E. (1954). Save our Bushland, Argus, 13/8/54, in NLA MS 5188.

Stones, E. (1971). Australian Garden Design, Macmillan, Melbourne.

Stones, E. (1973) Vandals in Grey Flannel Suits, Herald 17/10/73, in NLA MS 5188

Stones, E. (1974). Letter to Melbourne Lord Mayor 2/11/74, in NLA MS 5188.

Stones, E. (1976). The Ellis Stones Garden Book, Thomas Nelson (Australia), West Melbourne.

Turner, J. (1975). A Tribute, National Trust Newsletter 3(11), in NLA MS 5188.

Upper Yarra Valley/Dandenong Ranges Authority & Melbourne Board of Works. (1987). Upper Yarra River Revegetation and Land Management Guidelines.

Yencken, D. (1997). Edna Walling and Ellis Stones, Landscape Australia 19(4).

From the December 2001 issue of the Newsletter of the Canberra Region of the Society for Growing Australian Plants.


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Australian Plants online - March 2002
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants