A Matter of Words by Patterson Webster

February 9, 2017

in Articles, General Interest

This is an important topic to me. I love words and I love to find words in a garden, as long as it’s not about a garden being a lovesome thing, or something about being nearer God’s heart. So let’s find good ones in gardens more often?

Patterson Webster is a visual artist whose amazing garden, Glen Villa, is located outside Montreal in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

Anne Wareham, editor
Portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes




Patterson Webster:

I live in Quebec, the only place in North America where French is spoken by the majority of the population. But while French is the majority language inside the province, within North America it is a small island floating in an English-language sea. To protect the language, laws in Quebec limit the use of English. Any sign in a public place must be in French. If English is used, the letters must be significantly smaller.

Living in such a linguistically charged environment is a mixed delight, stimulating and challenging. Navigating daily between the two languages, is it any wonder that I am acutely aware of how words are used outdoors?

Copyright Patterson Webster

Words surround us. They appear in the names of streets and stores, on buildings and bus stops, in ads on the sides of buses and in graffiti scrawled on every available surface. They are ubiquitous and the linguistic landscape they produce shapes the way we see and think about the world around us.

Copyright Patterson Webster

So why do words appear so rarely in gardens today?

I’m not thinking here about words that convey straightforward information – directional signs, words on maps, plant labels and so on. No, I’m thinking about words that matter. Words that tell us something about the context of the garden and the intentions behind it. That give us, lucky visitors, an insight into the mind of the one who made it. That spur us to look at our own gardens in different ways.  

Copyright Patterson Webster

Bosco della Ragnaia

Historically, words revealed the character of the garden’s creator. In the Italian Renaissance garden of Bomarzo, for instance, the garden owner bragged about his creation. “You, who have travelled the world in search of great and stupendous marvels, come here, where there are horrendous faces, elephants, lions, ogres and dragons.”

Bomarzo copyright Charles Hawes


At the 17th century Villa Cetinale, the wealthy Cardinal Chigi made it clear that he didn’t care what anyone thought. “Whoever you are who approach, that which may seem horrible to you is pleasing to me. If you like it, stay; if it bores you, go away. It’s all the same to me.”

In 18th century England, garden owners were more discreet but the words they used still tell us something about them and their attitudes towards their social and cultural environment. Quoting Virgil and Pope at Stourhead, Henry Hoare highlighted his education and his position in society.  Lord Cobham at Stowe declared his political colours, linking Englishness with the virtues of Rome in the inscriptions at the Temple of British Worthies. At Rousham, General Dormer eulogized his dog Ringwood, “an otter-hound of extraordinary sagacity.” (It’s hard to know what to make of this memorial: was Dormer a man obsessed with death, as some scholars say, or was he simply an Englishman who loved his dog?)

Copyright Patterson Webster


Sadly, few garden-makers today use words for any purpose. There are notable exceptions. In a Zurich garden designed by Dieter Kienast, the words Et in Arcadia Ego that form a concrete balustrade speak clearly about the relationship of the garden to the Alpine landscape beyond. At Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in Scotland, serious and playful words reveal the artist’s mindset and link the site to other times and places. And those old stand-bys, memorials to well-loved animals, remain popular. One seen in a contemporary garden in New York state has an 18th century ring: “Candy Kid, a tangerine canary, mellifluous and saucy pet.”

The power of words lies not only in what they say but in what they suggest. Fruscio carved on a stone in an Italian garden brings the wind to mind; spoken, it makes the sound of the wind audible, no matter the weather. Picturesque cut into a board leaning into the water makes us question our understanding of the word and look at the landscape with questions in our mind. Look-out painted in red letters gives a warning as well as pointing towards a good place for a view.

Copyright Patterson Webster

Glen Villa

Words connect one idea to another, a place close at hand to another far away. When I name a feature in my garden the Asian Meadow, I link a part of my past, the years I lived in China, with the present day. Words on a bench at Veddw, spelling out versions of the property’s name from the mid 1500s to the mid 1900s, signal the current owners’ recognition that others before them have left their marks on the land.

Veddw Seat copyright Charles Hawes


Words offer evidence of our emotional connection to a particular location or person. A sign identifying part of a stream as Nanna’s Narrows tells me that the garden is used and loved by multiple generations. The single word Austin in a Texas garden displays the owner’s attachment to the place where she lives.

Copyright Patterson Webster

Words also offer a way to make explicit emotional responses to our surroundings. Tree Rings, a sculpture I made to honour an ancient maple tree, shows respect in the three words that sum up the life of the tree: Seed, Shade, Shadow. Webster’s Column, my sculpture celebrating my husband’s 50-year career as a newspaper reporter, columnist and editor, is inscribed with quotations. He selected them, and his choices say as much about his personality as they do about journalism and journalists. (My favourite is Benjamin Disraeli’s quip about journalists: “Today they blacken your character; tomorrow they blacken your boots.”)

Copyright Patterson Webster

Glen Villa

Where a word is located affects how we see its surroundings. Laid flat on the ground, a word directs our vision downward, limiting for a moment our range of view. A word posted at eye level or suspended from the branch of a tree directs our vision outward, establishing a visual dialogue between what lies close by and what lies beyond or above. A word in the distance, barely readable, entices us to go closer.

The material used for a sign affects our response — words in marble convey a different message than the same words printed on plastic. At Broadwoodside, a garden outside Edinburgh, the Biblical warning, The Writing is on the Wall, is cut into terracotta plaster. Inspired by the humour, I reproduced the words at Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec. But instead of being cut into plaster, at Glen Villa they are in bright neon. Snazzy retro versus cool classicism: the impact is different.

Glen Villa

The size of a sign and the letters on it affect our behaviour. In the garden at Glen Villa, a trail leads from an old farm field to a clearing in the woods that serves as a (not terribly accurate) sundial. A dead tree in the centre of the clearing is the gnomon or pointer, and off to one side is a bench with the words In Transit/En Route. Sited along the trail are signs that ask simple questions: Where are you? Are you here? Are you here now? The words, written in a small run-on script in English and French, take an effort to decipher. They force even the fastest walkers to slow down and, perhaps, to consider seriously the question asked.  

Copyright Patterson Webster

Glen Villa

Words can mislead, of course. Knowing I lived in China, most visitors would assume that the China Terrace at Glen Villa is named for the country, while in fact it refers to pieces of broken porcelain I discovered on the site. Deliberately misleading words can be a source of humour. Playing off the idea of mislabelled plants, the tags hanging from eight identical trees in a courtyard at Broadwoodside label each tree with a different name. In the same garden, the Latin inscription on a stone bench turns out not to be Latin at all but a set of words that have to be spoken to make sense. Taking the time to figure out the joke adds to the pleasure of being in the garden. It makes it more fun.

Copyright Patterson Webster


Which brings me to the subject of the language used. At The Laskett, Sir Roy Strong’s garden in Herefordshire, an inscription in Greek appears on the pediment of the Victoria and Albert Museum Temple. Sir Roy describes his garden as autobiographical and his choice of a Greek inscription signals his scholarship. The inscription is not translated, either in the garden or on the garden’s website. If you ‘get’ it, fine; if you don’t … well, the problem is yours. But since most of us who visit The Laskett don’t read Greek, we feel excluded. The connection Strong makes is lost to us. And this seems a pity.

Copyright Patterson Webster

The Laskett

(Edward Gibbon made his choice of language a matter of propriety. “My English text is chaste,” he wrote, “and all licentious passages are left in the decent obscurity of a learnèd language.”)

Even when we can read a sign, we may not understand it. At Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in Scotland, words and the ideas behind them are often obscure. We may be puzzled when faced with an epigram from the French revolutionary St. Just, or a scrawl on a bust of Apollo identifying him as a terrorist, or the single word Claudi inscribed on a bridge. As visitors to the garden we have a choice. We can shrug with indifference at Finlay’s prompt, as the Renaissance Cardinal Chigi did to the reaction of his visitors, or we can stop and think. Why did the artist put those words there? What connections was he making between the garden and the larger world? What threads can we follow now, on the spot, or later, with reflections of our own or with Google’s help?

Little Sparta is a tough garden to understand and it’s easy to feel intimidated by the depth and breadth of Finlay’s allusions. For some, this limits the garden’s appeal. This, I think, partly explains why words that add to the experience of a garden are so rare nowadays. We lack a shared cultural history. When a message is difficult to understand, too often it’s the garden maker who is said to be at fault. When the words are in Latin or Greek, the garden can be dismissed as elitist and the gardener as a snob out of touch with today’s world.

To some, words in a garden may seem redundant. Intrusive even. But garden-making isn’t a thoughtless enterprise. It is done with purpose, to some particular end. Excluding words is ruling out an opportunity.

Walking through the woods at Glen Villa, visitors come to a place where the path divides. At the junction a sign is nailed to a tree trunk painted yellow. Two Roads.

Copyright Patterson Webster

Glen Villa

Some people will recognize the quotation, others will not. Does it matter? Is it important to recognize the source to understand the allusion? Does knowing the source enrich the experience?

I believe it does. But I also believe it isn’t essential. The connections I make when I see the words Two Roads inevitably begin with Robert Frost’s poem. But from there, my thoughts head off in different directions, depending on the day, as I choose one path or the other. The path chosen by the person who doesn’t recognize the quotation may lead to destinations I never imagined.

And that’s a good thing. Words ask us to see the garden through the eyes and minds of many people, not merely through our own. They enlarge the garden’s mental ground, broadening it into a collaborative process that includes rather than excludes.

It’s a matter of words.

Patterson Webster.  website 

Pat Webster portrait

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