Otherworldly Gardens by Mary Keen

October 11, 2010

in Articles, My Favourite Garden

An occasional series discussing what makes a good garden. This piece is one of two by Mary Keen. The second part, ‘The practicalities of making a garden’  will be published shortly.

Anne Wareham, editor

Photographs by Charles Hawes

Part One of ‘My favourite gardens and why they work.’

Writing about the emotions induced by gardens can be difficult. What I mean by ‘Otherwordly’ is not in the garden is a lovesome thing God wot category. For me, good gardens are places where human time stands still and you start to feel that there is something going on under the surface. If that doesn’t happen – if the garden doesn’t communicate some deep emotional message – then all the flowers and trickery are pointless. I want to find a way of getting people to see that what we see – the real tree or flower in real time or space – has a parallel and more important existence behind it. This isn’t an intellectual exercise – it’s about instinct.

I think children are aware of this and that we lose it with age. As a child, I was sent away to tiny school at a house where the resident children had outgrown their governess. It was an old fashioned place under the Berkshire Downs. I was eight, and as a dare one summer morning I let myself out of the house to run round the garden before we were supposed to get up. In the kitchen garden the paths were lined with pinks (‘Mrs Sinkins’ probably); the smell and sense of being alone in this ordered place, where everything seemed to be waiting for the sun, made me stop. I picked a pink to prove the dare was done and then I hung about, thinking about how the garden had a life of its own. How it went on breathing the scent of flowers, even when there was no one there to enjoy them. The lingering, the stopping is important – after all, don’t we want to be in the place where the daily worries and preoccupations stop? I am interested in what opens the inner eye that children have, that makes you aware of what matters. Gardens are good at that.

I have been wondering if there is some universal factor in any art form which never fails to stir the soul, to open the inner eye. Is it truthfulness? I didn’t say truth because I wanted to avoid the cliché of beauty is truth. But I actually do mean truth. It can also be called unity of purpose, being true to the whole concept, the idea of what you are doing or making. Of getting the feel of what a place is about. The question to ask is, ‘what is here that is true, that is underneath the superficial things? What is here that matters?’

Once, I was driving through Windsor and the traffic was jammed so I made a detour and found myself at a place I hadn’t been to before. It looked intriguing, so I stopped the car and climbed the steps and only when I reached the top did I realise I had chanced on Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s Runnymede memorial to President John F Kennedy, in Berkshire. The theory of association, much loved by 18th century garden makers demanded that you knew about Virgil or the paintings of Claude in order to trigger a reaction. Places that can communicate their story without anyone having to learn a language first, seem to me more powerful. If Runnymede can speak of death and memory to the uninitiated passer-by – if it could summon me from the car to experience something out of the ordinary – then that for me is a sign of ‘otherwordliness’.

The garden at Portrack House, (also known as the Garden of Cosmic Speculation) in Scotland, has been much discussed  and pictured, but the serpentine curves and mounds that Maggie Keswick Jencks made as she was dying (long before the fractal geometry add-ons) offer a similar flash of the transcendent. This is not memory so much as a reminder of what is true. (Memory can lead to the nostalgia trap, which is dire.) A reminder is real. It tells you what matters. And if you think about it, birth and death are perhaps the only otherwordly things that touch, that awake most people.

I went this summer to Kim Wilkie’s Orpheus at Boughton, Northamptonshire, in the rain and not in the best mood. When I asked Dan Pearson why some places held no magic (like the Alhambra for me) he suggested that it was important to be in the right frame of mind. At Boughton I wasn’t, but there are effects that transcend moods, weather and traffic jams – and Kim’s Orpheus, like Jellicoe’s Runnymede, was one of these. It is a place where you are hauled across the dividing line between the mundane and the spirit world, and you are confronted by your image and what lies below that, inside yourself. It is that power, that ability to possess your imagination, like Wordsworth’s sounding cataract, that seems to be the essence of any great work.

Barbara Hepworth’s garden in St Ives, Cornwall, is another place where I feel connected to something otherworldly. In what is a really small garden, she made mass, space and light matter and in it her sculptures are an overwhelming presence. But one also feels a sense of the woman who thought about man’ s position in the landscape and with the way humans relate to nature. In her garden, the sculptures are humbling. Before I went, I didn’t even think I liked Barbara Hepworth, but like Runnymede and the Orpheus pool, her garden opened my inner eyes.

The Paul Nash painting of the Vernal Equinox is not about death, but life. It shows how spring transforms winter twigs. We never see it, but it is there. Nash makes it the miracle that it is and reminds us that we have forgotten. Nash, like Maggie Keswick Jencks, was dying. He was living on borrowed time and bottled air when he painted it. How often are we aware of the seasons changing and time passing in a garden? Renewal is one of the things that is implicit in nature.

I tried to stop thinking about Wordsworth when I was preparing this paper, but I kept colliding with him. He is the arch priest of otherwordliness, of seeing nature as a separate and intensely powerful entity. ‘The sounding cataract haunted me like a passion‘, he wrote. Like Wordsworth, I want places to possess me. I don’t want to look at a place; I want to be in it. Being possessed to the point of being out of your ordinary mind is where the best places take us. I get it by – or preferably in – the sea, and at dawn/dusk in my garden.

Wordsworth believed that ordinary people were transformed into poets when they reacted to landscape – he called them ‘silent poets’. There are some things which cannot be put into words. I believe that the best gardens, like many landscapes, can deliver the emotional charge which makes silent poets of us all.

Mary Keen - garden designer and writer

Comment? Email: info@thinkingardens.co.uk

Comment from Sheppard Craige

Mary Keen writes that “good gardens are places where…..’you start to feel that there is something going on under the surface’. Much the same was said by the 20th century physicist Werner Heisenberg:

“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”.


Sheppard Craige
Bosco della Ragnaia
San Giovanni d’Asso, Siena, Italy

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

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

Previous post:

Next post: