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.


Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

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

Previous post:

Next post: