Garden allusions, by Noel Kingsbury, Anne Wareham, and Yue Zhuang

April 6, 2016

in Articles, General Interest

This piece, originally posted as ‘Allusion in Gardens’ arose out of a discussion about my use of an informal box parterre at Veddw. The intention is to allude to the local field boundaries indicated on the Tithe Map of the area in 1848, creating a link with the surrounding landscape. Definition of ‘allusion’.

The discussion is between Dr Noel Kingsbury, Dr Yue Zhuang and Anne Wareham = a trialogue. We should do more of this.

See also a post by Pat Webster, written in response to this piece.

Anne Wareham, editor.

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

Veddw House Garden, Monmouthshire, Wales, UK. Grasses Parterre Copyright Charles Hawes

Part of the Parterre at Veddw, in spring.

Allusion in Gardens

Noel : Allusion is a fundamental element in all artistic traditions. Allusions can be recognised in a great many historical gardens – today however we will not understand most of them without having them explained to us – it is part of the nature of allusion that its language changes over time. I would argue that allusion is a kind of language, or a text to be read  – but both the speaker and the listener have to share that language.

China’s garden tradition, as I understand it, is an immensely literary one. Yue, could you tell us a bit about how allusion works in classical Chinese gardens?

Grasses at Veddw, s copyright Anne Wareham


Yue: It is very true that in China allusion is a fundamental element in all artistic traditions: poetry, literature, painting, and certainly gardens. During the eleventh century especially, allusion became one of the most important ways to make one’s garden literary and meaningful; it went on to achieve its peak in the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries.

I agree with Noel that allusion is a kind of language. In Chinese classical gardens, it can be divided into two: physical language and literary language. Physical language plays with gardening elements – plants, for sure, but also mountain / rockery and water, landscape settings or buildings, which are all basic elements of Chinese classical gardens.  Organised in different ways, these elements could form a variety of images, alluding to classic stories, poetry, or even cosmological patterns.

Allusion as literary language can be found in the names of gardens, and as texts, such as lines of poetry, written down on tablets hung in obvious places in gardens. Allusion in the Chinese language is very concise in form owing to the poetic nature of Han zi (Chinese characters) which function as an iconography — each character is associated with a group of images, which would stimulate vivid associations when read by an educated person, who’s mind would also refer back to literary history.

When text is used in gardens, there emerges a dynamic interplay between literary language and physical environment.  The image brought forth by the former is often strongly reciprocated by the latter, and vice versa.  For some seasonal scenes –  daffodils blossoming in early spring or a sunset, a scene can represent the world just as it is, a world no longer behind a ‘veil of perception’, ie. ‘being-in-the-world’ (to borrow a concept from Martin Heidegger). Literary language is able to capture ephemeral ‘beauty’ and retain it, and also make it possible for people of different generations to communicate.

Isn’t that what allusion is really about? That people in the present can understand and communicate with their preceding generations, and their tradition as well. For Chinese scholar-gardeners, this could be the essence of gardening — the awareness of one self’s existence in the world, a world not merely natural or spatial, but a world as a continuum in time.

Persicaria and geranium at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham SAM_3797

Noel: I love the idea of allusion as a means of speaking across generations. The trouble is we no longer speak the language of previous generations – and I suspect this applies to China almost as much as here. Allusion in the West which previous generations of artists and garden makers used was based on Classical and Christian mythologies. Very few of are now conversant with either. So – first question – how do we create and use a contemporary language of allusion?

And the very practical question two – how do you ‘get the message across’? Either allusion works or it doesn’t. One of the great failures of much contemporary art in my opinion is that you cannot understand it until you have read an essay’s worth of explanation first. To my mind that is a failure.

Crescent Border Veddw, copyright Anne Wareham


Anne: First – I’m not sure that ‘allusion either works or it doesn’t.’ I see it (if indeed ‘allusion’ is the right word) as part of the layers in a work of art.

A poem may simply offer pleasures of sounds as it is read aloud; it may evoke images and pictures for the reader; to someone conversant with the time and place of its creation it may offer resonances and meanings missing to later generations without explication; to a scholar the text may offer complexities which were beyond even most contemporary readers – the ‘Wasteland’  is a well known and obvious example.

Similarly a garden may offer such riches and depth – and one of the joys of gardens is how accessible they are, so that it is not generally necessary to understand the layers to enjoy the garden. Potentially, the more you know, the richer the experience.

As to the question of how – that is in the artist’s hands. There may be an issue of how far and in just what way Western gardens actually lend themselves to this language. But it is clear that a garden based on words and references to a foreign or dead language, or a forgotten culture, is going to be less accessible. That in itself raises questions about elitism or perverse obscurity.

Persicaria SAM_3777

Yue: I think Anne has hit the point by suggesting that allusion doesn’t work in an ‘either or’ way, and it is only part of the layers of a work of art.

An artwork, in my understanding, (a very typical traditional Chinese one but also reciprocated by Western phenomenological and hermeneutical aesthetic theories), is unlike a mathematical formula, which only requests a single and definite answer; the message to be communicated with a work of art is not univocal, but very flexible. (Allusion in China is a most typical example here, if we recall the poetic character of Chinese script as suggested before.)

If we go one step further — an artwork is not to be taken as a static object created by the very artist, whose role is not like ‘god’, but more as a host offering a situation, in which everyone can participate in and experience. And of course, ‘the more you know, the richer the experience.’ This could be one of the reasons that allusion is more popular among intellectuals. Meanwhile it is important to assure the accessibility of allusion, as it would be a shame for the host if nobody would willingly come because of his/her elitist manner.

Therefore we come across Noel’s first question about the efficiency or validity of allusion nowadays. It is true that to a large degree, allusions in pre-modern Chinese gardens are losing certain layers of meanings, however, it doesn’t seem lack of its appeal among today’s less ‘virtuoso’ Chinese.

From urban park to neighborhood greenness, from city square to residential building clusters, allusions can be found fairly easily, especially in its form of literary language. Alongside the classical there is a proportion of contemporary language from, i.e. pop literature and TV series, with a same essence of being poetic.

Relatively it is more difficult to invent a new physical language of allusion. Are new materials and high-tech what we mean by new physical language? I am not sure. Maybe it is worth thinking to ‘invent’ or ‘discover’ a new way of building and living, which could accommodate us better in the no longer bucolic age of today.

Planting, Veddw, copyright Anne Wareham SAM_4315

Noel: Anne should be a little more open when she talks about garden allusions being based on “dead language, or forgotten culture”. You mean the classics don’t you? In the words of the schoolboy rhyme “Latin is a language as dead as dead can be, it killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me”.

Well now it’s dead!

The classics once provided a common language for western intellectuals, just as a similar body did in China. Now in a post-modern world we must re-invent how we use allusion.

I like Yue’s image of a “host offering a situation”. But I feel that from now on, allusion will have to assume less – the host will need to provide  more explanation or clues. There is no other way – and in fact just as many art shows provide such explanation in the form of interpretation then garden makers will have to do the same. Perhaps the explanation itself could be allusive and indirect – avoiding the heavy-handedness of actually spelling it out – leaving the reader of the text and the garden some leeway to make the connections.

I’ll end by describing one element I had in my last garden, that of a Natraj at the end of a canal-shaped pond – the image of the Hindu god Siva dancing the cosmos into existence, literally ‘lord of the dance’. Providing the knowledge that Siva is the lord of both creation and destruction, that Hindu philosophy assumes an endless cycle of death and re-birth, should allow anyone with any imagination to make the connections with gardening. Our poor Siva though was made of MDF, so in the new garden is now disintegrating fast. We’d better get a proper Indian cast-iron one.


Noel Kingsbury


Yue Zhuang

Principal Investigator for an EU Marie-Curie research grant

Anne Wareham


Then  James Golden put his oar in:

‘I find much to agree with in the ‘trialogue’ on Allusion in Gardens by Noel Kingsbury, Yue Zhuang, and Anne Wareham, but I’m disturbed by heavy emphasis, particularly Noel Kingsbury’s, on the need to find new languages (garden languages) to speak to the present.

Of course, we do need to do this, but not to the exclusion of rich allusory experience even if it comes from “a foreign or dead language, or a forgotten culture.” Perhaps I’m reluctant to abandon a world I know. However, I do know that understanding can grow over time. Full appreciation of a garden and all its elements does not have to occur at the moment of the first visit; experience can deepen as knowledge increases, as Yue Zhuang says.

Here are two cases that, while not examples of allusion, illustrate how such ‘hidden’ knowledge can deepen sensual, aesthetic, and intellectual experience. Several years ago I read Haldor Laxness’  The Fish Can Sing. The novel left me mystified. Though I knew a few Icelanders then, I didn’t understand their insular social life, particularly in previous generations, and sharp focus on things close to home. Not until about five years after I read The Fish Can Sing did I realize the book is a sharp social commentary and satire. Yet I enjoyed it on first reading, even without “getting” its critical meaning. And in retrospect, I now enjoy it more deeply.

Poetry provides other examples of this phenomenon. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover begins with this extraordinarily baroque and sensually appealing sentence: “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air …” I didn’t understand the meaning of this sentence at all when I first read it at age 19, but I got its music and could immediately take a sensual delight in its imagery. Later, after more careful study, I came to love it as a miracle of language. (Anne makes reference to The Wasteland, a much more obscure and difficult poem; none of us can understand it without the footnotes.)

In a similar way, one’s appreciation of a garden can grow and change over time, and can be enriched by learning. Allusion doesn’t either work or not, as Anne says; it does both – or not, if not well done. Initially, one is delighted by sensual appeal of beautiful plantings, stunning views, hoarfrost on branches. If there are elements not understood, what more is that than a sense of mystery, which leads to further thought, and perhaps discovery? Don’t most people enjoy some mystery? I don’t see use of classical allusion or Latin or other less-than-current cultural references as necessarily elitist. Do we need to dumb down our art and our gardens just because most people are no longer educated in such things? By analogy, do we throw out the lessons of the Enlightenment and all become religious fundamentalists because the world seems to be headed in that direction? Change happens. And the past usually comes back.

James Golden


Hydrangea Blue Wave at veddw copyright Anne Wareham SAM_4268

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