A Joy Forever?

September 18, 2007

in Articles, General Interest

“Originality is very overrated as an artistic measure of quality.” Grayson Perry, RSA Journal Autumn 2008

A series of three pieces by Peter Osborne, artist and creator of Clearbeck, addressing some of the problematic aspects of reviewing/criticising gardens and a response by Bridget Rosewell

Part 3

Peter Osbourne Series - Image 1

Clearbeck © Peter Osbourne

What starts to emerge here is a hierarchy of values, the idea that some gardens may have greater overall worth than others.  Which garden is of greatest importance of all is a broad cultural question, though that too may have immediate practical impact, say, in which gardens to conserve.  But most people would, I think, recognize some different basic levels of value.  A parallel in art would be to agree not to replace a Leonardo on the National Gallery wall with your 2-year old’s latest, that the average amateur artist is not up to Cotman, nor he up to Leonardo.

Once again the more developed evaluative language of art may help us.  That, in fact, suggests 2 different hierarchies; one for gardens and one for appreciation.  Herbert Read established levels of art appreciation.  The lowest level was to like pictures just for their subject.  Then came levels concentrating on specific but limited qualities like neatness.  Near the top came analysis, an objective appreciation of compositional qualities.  But highest of all came empathy with artistic expression, which included not only understanding of composition and skills but how they all work together to convey an artist’s intention or feeling.  Read was primarily concerned with expression of feeling rather than intentions that could be objectively stated.  The highest response, therefore, is response to the artist’s deeper purpose while recognizing how all components are orchestrated to this end.

Similar hierarchies of learning generally start low with knowing, then understanding, something, progressing up to synthesis (seeing how things work together as a whole) and then evaluation, which involves judgement about importance or value as against accepted models.

These have much validity in suggesting an approach to levels at which people make judgements about gardens.  Lower levels might be about liking gardens for a particular and partial feature.  We have had visitors, for example, who like follies and who march straight to our pyramid and then leave without looking further.  Next might be about liking some particular quality, such as the ‘brightness’ of flowers or a particular trimmed neatness of maintenance.  Both are about predetermined preferences that do not take into account what the garden may really be about.  Beyond this there is more objectivity; the need to notice the particular contents and qualities of the garden.  But within this there is hierarchy in two ways: the extent of what is seen and the depth of seeing.

Peter Osbourne Series - Image 2

Clearbeck © Peter Osbourne

The extent of what is seen is challenging in a garden because of limiting perceptual habits.  We see what we most like and expect to see, and we tend to look too exclusively in the places where we expect to see it.  This is quite normal perceptual behaviour.  For example very many people look mainly for flowers and therefore look mainly down.  (I have a topiary bull leaping over my garden wall and am amazed how few people notice it).  So we have different levels in the extent of perception. At the lowest we notice only features that immediately interest; better we notice all the key features, and better still we are aware of the formal relations as outlined in ‘A Thing of Beauty’.

Also there is also a hierarchy in the nature of our seeing depending on whether we just notice, take in, understand, synthesize or value what we see.  These are rising levels of quality in the process of seeing.  At the highest level of true evaluation we not only see all key aspects of the garden but relate it to our wider knowledge of culture including symbolic, historical and other meanings.

From all of this we can summarise the highest level of garden appreciation.  It means seeing all that is there; everything from plants to landscape, from paths to buildings, from sculpture to water, etc. It implies seeing these not just as features but as forms, shapes, colours, spaces, etc.  But it also requires these things to be seen in a way which is more widely contextual, recognizing symbols and other historic references, but which is also evaluative in the best sense of seeing how all this expresses the owner/designer’s intentions and how that relates to garden history as it is unfolding.  Only then can the language of gardens be at its fullest.

Peter Osbourne Series - Image 3

Clearbeck © Peter Osbourne

Peter Osbourne – artist and creator of the garden at Clearbeck, Lancashire

Clearbeck website

Read the first article – Some thoughts towards a critical language for gardens

Read the second article – Pretty as a Picture

Read Bridget Rosewell’s response to the series

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

Previous post:

Next post: