Coombe House, Devon reviewed by Stephen Anderton

May 1, 2008

in Articles, Garden Reviews, General Interest, Reviews

The Mind or the Eye?

Reflections on a visit to Plaz Metaxu (Coombe House), Devon by Stephen Anderton


The question of how much a garden maker’s ideas and intellectual agenda are necessary to a valid/correct interpretation of his garden also begs the question of who is looking at it, and why. Does the visitor deserve or merit the explanation? In this case, Vista ‘found’ the garden, and asked to be able to take a group to see it. Alasdair was as happy for us to go round the garden with him or on our own. The garden’s meaning (to him) was actually seen by him as optional. He is to be admired for that. Some of the group had already heard Alasdair speak about his garden in London and wanted his tour; some had heard him speak in London and did not want his tour. Some had not heard him in London and nor did they want an explanatory tour now to be their first experience of the garden.

I was one of the last. I like to see how a garden provokes me on its own terms, without explanation. I prefer explanation later, and then of course a second look at the garden. This was certainly a provocative garden, which is excellent news, and, in its way, it was a garden wonderfully fresh on the palette. Pity I could not have seen it without even knowing that there was an intellectual agenda – one sufficiently powerful for other people to want to hear about not once but twice; for me to have met it purely on its own terms. I know, it’s very rare experience to be able to see a garden with no preconceptions whatsoever, but it is an experience with great value and it’s one which I find is worth seeking out, especially in the case of a serious garden like Coombe House.

Personally speaking, I find that the great symbolic gardens are those where an idea has passed through the mind of the creator and been transformed into art, more than into a three-dimensional pun. If the transformation is good, then the garden can be appreciated and even enjoyed on its own terms without explanation, and then enriched by learning its intellectual agenda later. Thus, at Portrack, (Garden of Cosmic Speculation) most people (including me) praise and are moved by the DNA turf-mound and water work, but find much of the rest simply (!) an intellectual thesis made in 3D, a representation rather than a transformation of scientific ideas. I saw Portrack first with almost no background information, and was therefore able to see and question the garden as a whole, before wading into the intellectual background of each component. Ultimately, I find it exciting, moving and frustrating.

If a symbolic garden with an intellectual agenda is to stand on its own without interpretation (although enriched by it later) then it must also permit a visitor to form his own intellectual interpretations of it, and to admit that they may also be valid, if occasionally unwelcome. Thus, on my first uninformed visit to Little Sparta in pouring rain, I saw Finlay’s tablet by the pond inscribed SEE POUSSIN, HEAR LORRAINE and thought it neat; le rain was indeed very loud upon the pond. Valid or not?

It is possible for an overpowering intellectual agenda for a garden to be the excuse for unconscious flights of great ugliness. Ugliness is of course in the eye of the beholder, and if a creator wants to create what is considered ugly by most people it is his privilege. Equally, he may have created the garden as a 3D pun without thought to its purely physical aesthetic attractions; yet you can bet your life the creator would not enjoy it being seen as ugly in the eye of the majority of visitors. One’s own baby is always beautiful and clever; only other people’s dogs smell. We have yet to see The Ugly Garden on Main Avenue at Chelsea, or at any of the garden shows, come to that. Should a powerful intellectual agenda obviate the need to be generally seen as aesthetically satisfying ?

All this sounds as if I found Coombe House ugly, which is very far from the case. But the garden does beg lots of questions. I do wish more people had been able to see it first without its intellectual freight (I nearly said baggage). I was moved by the beauty of the rhythm of poplars along the lake shore,

and by the pollard willows and turf cones.

I felt the occasional flight of ugliness. More significantly, I was unable to understand why, aesthetically, any one element of the garden sat where it did aesthetically in relation to the next or within the surrounding landscape.

I wanted to hear about that reasoning as much as the symbolism – and maybe before the symbolism, too. (I must now study that symbolism and find opportunity to return.) But I left the garden feeling that – and here’s the rub – it did not satisfy me aesthetically, and for me would have to be supported by its intellectual agenda if it were not to leave me wanting more. In aesthetic and design terms, it was no greater than the sum of its parts. That does not matter in the least – surely no one is talking right and wrong here – but it does not make a great garden, just something fresh and wonderfully quirky. Perhaps a great garden is like a novel, something greater than the sum of its parts, a surprisingly satisfying whole; whereas Coombe House is more like an anthology of poetry; a collection of garden cameos on a grand scale.

Stephen Anderton – garden writer and critic

Discovering Welsh Gardens

Read Darryl Moore’s review of Plaz Metaxu

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