If not spectacle, what? by Tristan Gregory

October 15, 2012

in Articles, General Interest

Last week Tristan Gregory proposed that we may need respite from spectacle. (see ‘Spectacle or not’) This week he continues his theme by discussing what might come next..

Anne Wareham, editor

Roadside  copyright Charles Hawes

Tristan Gregory: 

In a previous piece I made a case for adapting the philosophy of landscape to make the space available to us into something more personal and better able to help us recover from life’s blend of alien spectacle and stifling monotony.  You could label this approach to life and gardening as ‘if you can’t beat it retreat from it.’  Perhaps it is possible that with some thought and energy the world that surrounds us might be made to feel a little more comfortable to live in.

In the eighteenth century a Chinese gentleman lived in the Strand named Tan Chet-qua. Described by a contemporary writer as a “pretty general scholar”, his particular passion was gardens.  For Britain this exile from a country that gave landscape gardening to the world proposed that: “the whole kingdom might soon become one magnificent vast Garden bounded only by the sea” but added, of the British, such was our “destructive brutality” that any attempt to improve our environs through architecture, public art or planting would fail.  The discipline to live in delicate and edifying places could only be found  in China it seemed.  As a resident of Hereford the repeated attempts to deface our doleful yet harmless bronze sculpture of a bull would suggest that we have not come far in 250 years.

It may seem lovely but implausible that Britain be made to feel a little nicer but I think there may be hope in some unexpected places.  For example, one of the things that we all use are the roads.  We have got so used to complaining about them that we have not noticed how beautiful some of them have become.  I am quite sure that the urge to stop suddenly and investigate the identity of a particular blotch of colour on the verge is not mine alone and I am sure that I am not the only one to be impressed by the abundance of flowers in the poor soils of many of our motorway embankments.  Then you have the derelict farms (A1(M) near Catterick) abandoned when the road went from being a gentle route to market to becoming an inaccessible barrier.

You even have public art standing in full view of millions of passers-by and yet unmolested, such as the Angel of the North, – or perhaps even our great road bridges.  I have a feeling that with a little more art employed in the design of the lesser structures like overpasses and footbridges, a little more imagination directed towards those strange empty spaces between major roads and a little more care taken when planting of trees and managing verges, that the road network could become the literal embodiment of Tan Chet-qua’s vision.  We would all feel better for it.

Wye Bridge copyright Charles Hawes

Then there are communal areas, which like the roads, have a focus beyond the space itself. The list of such spaces is enormous and includes supermarkets, shopping centres, malls and their car parks where the focus is the exchange of money for the components of everyday life. Must these always be brooding boxes on the corner of a grid of parking spaces?  There are our rail, air and sea terminal where journeys begin and end but which appear to be universally dedicated to maximum capacity at the expense of user experience.

Bit facetious ...copyright Charles Hawes

Finally there are the places where we live, and while we can’t all reside with Laurie Lee in Cider With Rosie land should we not expect a little more grace than a fake village of executive homes of a soulless grid of neighbour overlooking neighbour.

I understand that unity of purpose and conformity to notions of mass public improvement through art and the environment just isn’t very British.  However at its best landscaping rejects the challenging presentation of messages and hidden meanings in the design – for that go to Versailles. Rather, it should inspire by gently playing on and with our memories and imaginations.  I hope its time has come.

Tristan Gregory 

Tristan is Head Gardener at Kentchurch Court


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Faisal Grant October 16, 2012 at 11:17 am

It’s been happening to me that I’ve been getting sick of gardening because it’s so fussy – like looking after a patient in hospital. I’ve been dreaming of living in and maintaining nothing more than a landscape.
It occurs to me, reading what you’ve said, Tristan, that as long as we are all worrying about our own tiny space, the bigger picture’s being ignored. And perhaps the health and beauty of the world at large are being ignored.
Perhaps we’re all getting too precious. I mean, what’s the point of a small patch of spectacle if the wider world is falling apart? Not that any of us doing our own (harmless) thing is wrong, and not that I’m suggesting we all abandon our garden.
There’s much to consider here. Thankyou.

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