Spectacle – or not? by Tristan Gregory

October 8, 2012

in Articles, General Interest

Here are thoughts about how people in the past created gardens to offer them respite from the pressures and anxieties of their age, and opens the question about whether we might do the same. It’s the first of a two parter, but this part stands alone well enough. The next bit you will have to wait for…

Anne Wareham, editor

Bodnant Rhododendrons and Embothriam Copyright Charles Hawes

Tristan Gregory:

We live in an age where we are encouraged to see the world as a series of spectacles.  The Olympics were of course a spectacular success and the Opening Ceremony was accorded the highest praise; it was a Spec….Tac….ular and then on a more everyday level we have spectacle on our televisions, in our shops and then of course there is the matter of spectacle in gardening.   Who for example would dispute the impact and yes, the spectacle, of a well planned, executed and maintained prairie scheme.

Now before I continue I want to be very clear about one thing and it is that spectacle is positive and should I ever produce anything worthy of that description in any field I would be very pleased for if someone has both the confidence to proclaim it and the skill to achieve it then there is a little sliver of the world that is theirs.

The issues I have with spectacles, particularly of the horticultural kind, are these:  Firstly that they are self-contained and indivisible and so are difficult to transfer outside their particular context.  Secondly spectacle is not for every day and I will be the first to admit that there are few days where I feel spectacular enough to fully appreciate all the colour and noise, the power, of a truly great herbaceous planting or perhaps the display of Rhododendrons at a place like Bodnant.  Most of the time I am more comfortable in a peaceful, natural, place with blurry edges and sights and sounds reminiscent of times happy enough to have been kept at the edge of memory.

It was this that the landscape gardeners set out to achieve or sell in the case of Capability Brown.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Britain was experiencing the chaos and constraint of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation and the changes this brought about were seen in science, architecture, art and economics, even in the way in which society was ordered.  It may be said that the only thing that lagged behind was society’s capacity to understand what was going on.

It was only natural, therefore, that those with resources sought to use them to create a piece of rural perfection before all such places were lost to the sprawl of the cities into the countryside and of science into the minds of men.  Sounding familiar?

There were of course variations on the theme and I am not learned enough and thankfully for your sakes do not have the word count to go into great and chronological detail on the subject.  So I will limit myself to saying there were some who banished formality and contrivance, including flowers, in favour of something starkly natural and others who allowed flowers as long as they were kept behind walls.  There were some who replanted woods and removed villages to emphasise the beauty of a particular vista and others who imported beautiful vistas by the wagon load in the form of ruins, lakes, weirs, temples and even mature forest trees.

Ancient tree copyright Anne Wareham

The important thing was that the finished project sat comfortably between these two quotes:

“the scenery of a garden should differ as much from common nature, as an heroic poem doth from a prose relation”.


“Art should never be allowed to set a foot in the province of nature, otherwise than clandestinely and by night”

When we look back at what has befallen so many of these gardens it must surely strike you how right they were that their world was coming to an end and much of what remains, such as a folly with no house remaining to view it from, is now truly haunting and therefore a greater philosophical weight than its designer would have perceived possible.  The cities took many and so did the Forestry Commission and farm subsidies. And the aristocracy has spent and been taxed away along with so many of their gardens. But this being Britain nothing changes completely, some people stayed rich, new money arrived, or the National Trust took over, so some of these places still exist for us to fade into on a soft summer day if we know where to look.

These places are, though, an answer to a two hundred year old problem faced by the very richest few at the top of a society defined by class differentials. Through visual and aural suggestion they gave their creators a hold on a way of life they feared losing.   We are not able to use our individual living space to counter a dull but spectacle spattered world by landscaping the spare hundred odd acres around our houses until it looks like the New Forest.  What we can do is use the space we have to create something that stimulates thought rather than overwhelms our capacity to think.

Tristan Gregory

Tristan is Head Gardener at Kentchurch Court

See also Tristan’s review of Bodnant.


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Tristan Gregory October 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm

When spectacle is succesfully employed in gardening, such as the planting of the Olympic Park, it is usually because the reason for it, the concept which it is to complement, is also grand and overwhelming be that an Olympic Games or the glory of the Sun King. The major sacrifice though is the particular beauty of many of its components be that the plants or the materials. Were these more compelling than the main event then its power to astonish and overwhelm would be reduced, their beauty distracts. The other problems are their longevity, as I mentioned previously, and their non-transferability. The Eiffel Tower is too expensive to replicate for most and too closely associated with its site were the resources available to do so, any copy is ridiculous. If true horticultural spectacle is to be recognised and valued we must surely recognise the challenges associated with it.

Regarding the exclusion of art from gardening it is rather the exclusion of the artist, their methods and mistakes, that is important.

Helen Gazeley October 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm

I agree that we’re overwhelmed with spectacle – with more and more images coming at us from all directions, they try to outdo each other to hold our attention. This is, I think, why so many of us are returning to an appreciation of a quiet, green contemplative space.

However, I do think there’s a difference between the spectacle produced by the media and crafted displays/landscapes produced in gardens. Horticultural spectacle surely doesn’t overwhelm thought – though it might for a time overwhelm our emotions. Surely, rather, it stimulates ideas, lifts us out of the mundane, and encourages us to think of possibilities beyond the ordinary. Some will be difficult to transfer out of their context, but others are not. Before “the scenery of a garden should differ as much from common nature, as an heroic poem doth from a prose relation”, Sir William Chambers says, “there is scarcely anything in which art is not apparent; and why should its appearance be excluded from Gardening only?”

Tristan Gregory October 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I think the reason I find spectacle difficult is that it can’t go on. Not only is it a great challenge to produce in the first place and I salute those that do but for the space to retain that impact it must surely change. For me spectacle is a place to visit not to live, a bit like Christmas it is a thing that is best remembered

annewareham October 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm

I have to admit – I believe I garden for the Wow! And it can last through the year, if not through years and years. I caught sight of the Veddw reflecting pool today, and it made me catch my breath. I love our hedges year round and I think they are a kind of spectacle. I don’t think spectacle has to be loud or flashy, or even colourful.

And I love the way the spectacular roams round the garden as the seasons and flowers change. I’m an excitement freak.

I don’t see nature in the form that it surrounds our garden as a contradiction nor that which I want, even ‘perfected’ in the garden. I think of a dialogue between the garden and its context and history.

And I’m after thought in the garden..is that contradictory?

Nigel Dunnett October 8, 2012 at 7:15 pm

I deal unashamedly in horticultural spectacle! I think a lot of what I do is about unlocking those lost childlike emotions of awe and wonder and joyfulness, and this can be done as much with planting as with any other art form. I was lucky enough to be involved with planting the London Olympic Park and we created acres of glowing vibrant meadows. The public response was extraordinary and often highly emotional. The crucial thing is that we created a fully immersive experience – people were part of the plantings, rather than as so often happens in gardens and parks, the planting is observed and looked at passively. Of course, subtlety and calm are equally important, but all these things don’t exist in isolation – they are all part of a continuum of emotional response, and in many ways the effect of one is enhanced by being in the presence of the other.

Thomas Rainer October 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm

This was a nice piece. The idea of spectacle is one that is particularly relevant to me now. Like James, I have been somewhat suspicious of horticultural spectacle for most of my career. For some reason, I associated the radical pursuit of color or texture as a substitue for substance. All candy, no meat. Perhaps this is what you meant by something “that overwhelms our capacity to think.” For years, I have been an advocate of a more subtle kind of naturalism–a humanistic endeavor that seeks to convey emotion through playing with our associations of nature.

Lately, however, I’m changing my mind about spectacle. The creation of horticultural spectacle is the purest expression of the craft that is garden-making. Spectacle requires enormous skill–skill that I fear we as a culture are losing in the digital age. When I see a border like the one at Great Dixter–one of the great spectacles in modern gardening–I don’t see a frivolous flower border. I see two centuries of innovation in garden craft constantly tweaked.

I think there’s a great danger when we start to separate craft from concept. Some of the greatest artists of their generations were great craftsmen first. Then they learned to bend the craft to say something powerful. Cezanne, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ernest Hemingway all mastered a craft first then tweaked the craft to support world changing ideas.

I recognize the critique that gardening is too much about craft only, not enough about thought, content, and intellectual substance. But we cannot forget that the garden is a delightful balance of craft and concept. All craft and no concept creates silly, ornamented spaces. But all concept and no craft creates a garden with very little to say.

So the pursuit of horticultural spectacle is something we need more of, in my opinion, not less. Gardeners or designers who learn how to use space and plants to create visual and (perhaps more importantly) emotional effects wil be the thought leaders of the next century.


James Golden October 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I’m intrigued by the idea of spectacle. In my acre in the woods of western New Jersey, I have a garden that gives me quite a bit of spectacle in late summer and early fall (of the “new wave” naturalistic kind), but I also recall, I think, that Aristotle considered spectacle the least important of the five parts of drama (my memory is rusty on this). And one need only look around at our culture to see how overwhelming spectacle has become, distracting, obliterating any ability or desire to think, to look or see beyond the surface of things. So I also distrust spectacle, much as I find it appealing. Your phrase, “create something that stimulates thought rather than overwhelms our capacity to think” makes me think. I look forward to your next part to see where you’re taking this.

Paul Steer October 8, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I find myself in agreement with your summary, I truly feel the small garden I have is a blessing in the old fashioned sense. It gives me a space to breathe and think in. There was a time when I worried about how the garden looked, the weeds and the disease etc, now I am letting go of plants that do not like being there in favour of those that do, and enjoying it more in the process. Spectacular no, quiet yes.

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