Introduction from “Vista – The Culture and Politics of Gardens”

October 6, 2005

in Articles, General Interest, Recommended Reading

Vista - The Culture and Politics of Gardens

Vista – old and gold – some good pieces in here. This is the introduction to a book of essays edited by Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury, and was one of the very first pieces on thinkingardens, 12 years ago.

Anne Wareham, editor

Portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes


Vista by Noel Kingsbury and Tim Richardson


Gardening. Most of us do it: mowing, watering, pruning, plant­ing, weeding. What’s it all about? Why do we garden? Why do we garden in the way we do? Why does our neighbour do something entirely different in their garden? Such questions are at the heart of explaining why we engage in any cultural activity. But is gar­dening or garden visiting a cultural activity like going to the ballet or theatre, or singing or reading? We argue that it is, although there may well be raised eyebrows in some quarters at such a description.
Like all cultural activities, there are reasons for why we do what we do, and why the neighbours do what they do. Explanations will inevitably involve discussing questions that are essentially philosophical or sociological in nature. In other words they will involve making a connection between gardening and the wider intellectual and cultural world. Once judgements come into play, as soon they must, then we stray into aesthetics and ethics, and from ethics into politics.

In most areas of cultural life these questions are raised routinely, but about gardening only rarely. In other words there is very little intellectual or critical discussion of gardens and gar­dening. Vista is intended to help redress this balance. But why should we bother? Apart from pleasing a few intellectuals who like something to discuss over their Sunday lunch, why should we be exploring these deeper questions? Surely gardening is simply a harmless hobby that gives pleasure to millions, and so long as we all live and let live there is no need to ask too many questions?

We want to ask questions for a variety of reasons. One is that we believe our gardens and our gardening will benefit as a result as nothing ever improves if no one questions it. Not only may our gardens, as pleasant, beautiful, inspiring places, be improved through some discussion, they may add another dimension entirely – that of being meaningful.

One of the most talked-about gardens of the last half century is Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta. This is not a garden of interesting plants, or clever design (although the views are impressive), but a garden that is about words, ideas and above all meaning. The immense amount of interest that this garden has generated indicates perhaps that many of us are ready to explore gardens semiotically, to look at them as reflections of the world of ideas, words and meaning, of society, of culture and of politics.

Furthermore, gardening is not just about what we do on our own little patch, or in our window-boxes and hanging baskets. It is about gardens that are open to the public, about public parks, and with a little extension, about wherever we deliberately put plants for ornament, such as road embankments and the environs of the neighbourhood supermarket. These are all public places, the quality of which directly impinges on all of our lives, and yet all too often we are surrounded by ill-thought-out and degraded public landscapes. Bringing gardens and horticulture into the realm of intelligent public discourse and the ongoing debate over our relationship with our environment, will, we believe, contribute to a climate where we may see improvements.


The reason we feel Vista is necessary now is because there seems to be a gulf between academic writing on gardens which tends to be about history and commercial writing on gardens, which focuses either on practical horticulture and plantsman-ship, or on descriptions of individual gardens. There has been no single outlet for thinking on gardens that ranges wider than these parameters, and so when interesting new work with a gardens aspect is published, it tends to be secreted away in the specialist journals relating to other disciplines, where interested readers might not find it easily.

One motive for launching Vista is frankly hierarchical. For the past century or so the status of gardening and garden design in the hierarchy of the arts has been extremely low and in Britain the position has been shored up by a determinedly anti-intellectual streak among many influential gardeners and garden writers. This is a traditional British malaise, of course, but in the case of gardens and gardening in the twentieth century it all but obliterated any serious critical discourse.

It is worth noting that this was certainly not the case in the early eighteenth century, when English landscape design was considered to be the cutting edge of international avant-garde art and discussed as such by the leading intellectuals of the day. The eighteenth century saw Joseph Addison and Richard Payne Knight meditating deeply on gardens, the twentieth century saw — well, we will refrain from naming names. Vista is not going to change the gardens culture overnight, or on its own, but we hope it might contribute to a deeper appreciation of the place of gardens in our culture, and help reveal the riches of the subject to those involved in other disciplines who might otherwise have dismissed the subject as unintellectual, irrelevant, old-fashioned, hobbyist, irredeemably bourgeois or simply uncool.

Noel Kingsbury and Tim Richardson

‘Vista’ is published by Frances Lincoln and contains essays by David E. Cooper, George Carter, Martin Hoyles, Clare Rishbeth, Louisa Jones, Tom Hodgkinson, Gilles Clement, Tony Heywood, Rozsika Parker, Noel Kingsbury, Fernado Caruncho, Charles Chesshire, Nori and Sandra Pope, Tim Richardson, Lorna McNeur, Anne Wareham.

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