Manifesto

“Art has to move you and design does not, unless it’s a good design for a bus.” David Hockney

The thinkinGardens group is exploring a new way of thinking about, and discussing, gardens. This manifesto sets out the agenda for change, and asks the reader to contribute to this debate.

Aims

It was Nikolaus Pevsner who in 1944 said that gardens are Britain’s greatest contribution to the visual arts. They are certainly the envy of the world and an icon of British culture. For centuries they have run a course parallel to architecture in the development and expression of British taste.

Yet today most people enthusiastically take gardens for granted, regarding them as an anodyne balm for the pressures of modern life and certainly not as a source of mental or artistic provocation. It is the object of the thinkingGardens group to reinstate gardens as a stimulus to pleasurable and productive debate and to foster gardens that offer deeper artistic expression.

The value of gardens

There has never been a greater awareness of gardens in Britain. The British countryside has not been physically fought over for 450 years and prosperity since the Second World War has allowed for the repair and presentation of most kinds of historic or contemporary garden. Everything is there, in good order at the same time, to see and enjoy. There have also been great leaps in our knowledge of science, botany, and horticulture. Garden-lovers never had it so good. There has never been a better time to reconsider what gardens mean to people. Yet still the view persists both in the media and the general public that gardens are just comforting or jolly, rather than artistically inspiring.

Gardens engender a huge amount of tourist income every year. According to the British Tourist Authority, gardens are the fourth most popular reason for overseas visitors coming to Britain. Gardening is the nation’s most common pastime. Interest in gardening as a pastime – the planting and maintaining of gardens – is more widespread than ever before. Everyone aspires to have a garden. Hundreds of hours of television and acres of column inches are devoted to it, and while not everyone wants to look after a garden it is assumed that everyone can.

The problem for gardens

There has always been tension between garden design and garden planting and their relative importance; but the idea that the two of them should add up to something greater than the sum of their parts – a challenging garden – is ignored or regarded as elitist. How sad to see a brave and ambitious heritage in gardens abandoned. No amount of clever planting or nor any number of tastefully calming gardens can compensate for the loss of that more vigorous attitude.

In the 18th century gardens played a major part in the arts and were a significant arena for discussions of taste, the nature of creativity, philosophy and politics. They offered in themselves an opportunity for new artistic expression. It was then that Britain’s reputation for gardens was established. But the 19th century then marked the end to this ambitious approach to gardens. Garden-makers became fixated on the skills of cultivation, and rarity, and how plants were displayed. Even the very public, late-Victorian debate between architectural formality and naturalistic or ‘wild’ gardening (Reginald Blomfield vs William Robinson) was still a matter of preferred styles of planting rather than a questioning of what gardens might have to say.

In the 20th century, following the massive rise of home ownership and gardening as a popular pastime, plantsmanship was cemented in its Victorian position by great horticultural writers – Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West, E.A. Bowles and Christopher Lloyd. The bigger aspects of gardens had been hijacked by gardening and the elevation of the gardener as an object of human interest equal to the garden itself.

Conclusion

Gardens have lost their greater ambitions. They are no longer a stimulus for artistic debate nor are they an accepted medium for creative expression; television has reduced gardening to entertainment. We now judge gardens principally on the quality of their plants, planting and housekeeping which, while they are vital raw materials in most gardens alongside design, are only a contributory part of what gardens have to offer.

A parallel can be drawn between current attitudes to gardens and the way we look at paintings. Imagine visiting an art gallery only to consider the colour association, brushwork and framing of paintings, instead of the artist’s philosophy, thinking, context and narrative, and the way atmosphere is evoked. Yet this is the way we approach gardens now. The raw materials of gardens – the plants – are deemed more interesting than the gardens themselves and the ideas they provoke. This has to be reversed. Gardens are in a horticultural ghetto and after 200 years it is time they were released.

  • To be a source of provocation in the widest sense (that this is welcome can be seen in the setting up of catwalk garden shows such as Chaumont in France, Métis in Canada and Westonbirt in England);
  • To give gardens due respect as an artistic medium beyond the processes of horticulture, so people can feel free to enjoy the greater agendas and ambitions of gardens;
  • To explore ideas of all kinds, such as philosophical, scientific, historical, social, narrative and more;
  • To encourage non-gardeners and artists in other media, and the intellectually curious, to look into gardens thoughtfully and to expect satisfactions from gardens that are not purely horticultural;
  • To encourage in the general public a spirit of enquiry toward gardens and a regular expectation of an exciting, critical appreciation of gardens;
  • To establish a culture of gardens that accepts and enjoys the idea of artistically ambitious gardens, but does not regard such ambitions as snobbish or a slight on the very real pleasures of gardening as a practical skill, or on the ecological ambitions of gardens;
  • To produce gardens that have more to say for themselves and more positively represent the 21st century.

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