Some thoughts towards a critical language for gardens

September 16, 2007

in Articles, General Interest

“Originality is very overrated as an artistic measure of quality.” Grayson Perry, RSA Journal Autumn 2008

A series of three pieces by Peter Osborne, artist and creator of Clearbeck, addressing some of the problematic aspects of reviewing/criticising gardens and a response by Bridget Rosewell

Part 1

The debate about whether gardening is an art and whether gardens should be critically evaluated has rightly caused people to ask whether there is an appropriate language in which to do so.  The immediate thought is that there are certainly terms in use, like ‘parterre’ which are bits of such a language but neither a complete set of useful terms or an agreed evaluative framework.

It is important to say before starting that it is easy to be upset about the term ‘criticism’ because of its common and partial meaning of finding fault.  In fact the worth of criticism is often the very opposite of this because it can elucidate more fully what we can enjoy.  Just as, say, music criticism, even at the level of programme notes, can deepen our pleasure, so can garden criticism, as evaluative description, enrich our experience of gardens.

One striking fact about the debate so far is the lack of agreement about what gardening is or should be, and it is obvious that there cannot be an agreed language unless we can decide this.  The immediate problem is that the question of what is a garden, especially a good or great garden, has become embroiled in the discussion about different types of garden.  To further our agreement about a basic language relevant to gardens we need to disengage ourselves from this and see the elemental.  What is then a garden as opposed to say a poem or a painting?  I put forward a simple definition which I hope people will challenge and define:


We may want to add things to this; for example that gardening is a four-dimensional experience in that to the 3-dimensional components, such as plants and fountains, we add the fourth dimension of time as we move around it.  Also there is the relation of the garden to other things within or beyond, such as the house here or the landscape there.  We can continue to expand our thoughts but the basic definition is useful so we can consider what sort of language we use.

I suppose people will take it for granted that the language will be a verbal one so that discussion can be as fully understood as possible.  It is interesting to note that the art form with the most developed critical language is literature, largely perhaps because it uses its own language.  Studying William Kent, I looked at his close friend Alexander Pope and was struck by the richness of perspectives and language used in the Penguin Critical Anthology compared with say the really excellent book on Kent by Hunt.  (Interesting though, that I have just used a spatial term –perspectives- for literature).  And I noticed that someone said of Rudolf Arnheim, of whom more later, that he ‘ parsed the grammar’ of painting.

So how should we approach this challenge of agreeing a verbal language of gardens; theoretically or anecdotally?  The former is more reliable but like Green of the lower third’s essay (‘There are many kinds of road, long, short,..) rather boring.  The latter is more fun but may miss things out. Let us mix them.

Hunt detects three main influences on Kent’s garden ideas, his experience of: being a painter; theatre design (Note); and living in Italy for 10 years.  These lead us to think of aspects of garden experience: painting of each successive view, theatre of time and movement; and Italy of traditions with their combinations of components, formal and informal, built and grown.

This means there is a key focus on the garden as a physical thing, with its own spaces, forms, colours, textures, etc.;  that there are traditions which have formed our expectations to greater of lesser extent, and that our experience, whether static or in movement, is an aspect of perception and therefore of the psychology of perception.  Put simply, we understand from this that we need a language which describes the garden as an object, as an experience and as historically related.  We may note that without the first two any writing on the third (History) is likely to be limited, and I think this is true of both art history and garden history.  But conversely if our experience of other gardens is limited then this may affect our understanding and appreciation of garden practice.  I am thinking of two things here: what range of gardens have we seen and in what ways have we experienced them.  For example Kent would have experienced several post-Renaissance Italian gardens but few English 17th century ones.  We experience a vast range via media but potted in a limiting way.  (How rare, even on TV, for example, does the camera travel us through a garden).

We need then an encompassing language of the garden as object, experience and context.

Describing garden as object it is easy to use descriptive terms such as ‘border’ or ‘rockery’ rather than general one such as geometry, shape or tonal contrast, though these latter are likely to be of more value in a critical approach, not least because they are more valid for the compositional structure of a garden rather than just its details.  To those who object because they prefer a ‘holistic’ approach we say that they are talking about feelings rather than the forms in the garden that produce their feelings.

The basis of such a language already exists because it is the same as that developed for what is called ‘basic design’ in art.

Peter Osbourne – artist and creator of the garden at Clearbeck, Lancashire

Clearbeck website

Read the second article – Pretty as a Picture

Read the third article – A Joy Forever?

Read Bridget Rosewell’s response to the series

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