The Problems with Conceptual Gardens by Charlie Bloom

August 3, 2017

in Articles, General Interest, Recommended Reading

I believe that Jay Sifford’s interesting piece about garden design suffered because I accepted his use of the word ‘Conceptual’ in the title. Some people got little further, due to the feelings they have about Conceptual Gardens as understood in the UK. The term has come to be quite specific, as Tim Richardson discusses here.

The comments on Jay’s piece develop the discussion about terminology. At Veddw I have definitely included what I tend to refer to as ‘meaning’ in the garden – I have attempted to honour the people who have lived on the site in the past and to remind people who visit of the lives and history of these people.  But I don’t think of it as a ‘Conceptual’ garden. Or even – this term now seems to be superseding Conceptual – a ‘Statement Garden’ (see We’re surrounded by ‘Statement’ gardens’ if you can get behind the paywall).

Perhaps we need a new term altogether? I have tended to say ‘gardens with meaning’ but I’m not entirely happy with that. All ideas and thoughts welcome.

Meanwhile, Charlie Bloom and Simon Webster made their own statement about Statement gardens into their own Show garden at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show – a ‘No Concept garden’. Charlie discusses it here.

Anne Wareham, editor

Portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes






Charlie Bloom:

I penned this piece after exhibiting a Show Garden at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show, Colourbox Garden. This was a show garden that had been a team effort, with a ridiculously small budget and a desire to build a simple, non intrusive, back drop for plants in full bloom in July.

Colourbox Garden by Charlie Bloom and Simon Webster at Hampton Court Flower Show

Colourbox Garden by Charlie Bloom and Simon Webster -and friends.

Our ethos was ‘no Conceptual meaning’. Though all artistry has a concept at design, the definition of Concept, as in Conceptual art is an entirely different animal, as I discovered at art college – the very one which vomited out Tracy Emin.

The art school experience glorified Conceptual content and designer ego over any actual technical knowledge or talent. Embryonic fine artists like myself were downgraded and dismissed, in favour of inexplicable installations and splats on canvas, accompanied by pretentious waffle. It didn’t matter whether you could hold a pencil right, or even knew what a paint brush was, as long as you could string a nonsensical number of sentences together to justify the dog poo you’d just freeze dried and put in a bell jar.

The majority of people probably perceive ‘art’ as a landscape painting, a lifelike sculpture, a well-crafted piece of furniture, expressions of artistry that have involved a skilled hand, technical understanding and an in depth knowledge of the materials. The pretentious followers of The Conceptual hated the anachronism of the general public, the perceived ignorance of uncultured people and wallowed in self-importance, the basic premise being ‘We understand it and that’s all that matters’.

That’s fine if your audience is actually happy to pay for the experience.

Colourbox Garden by Charlie Bloom and Simon Webster at Hampton Court Flower Show

Colourbox Garden by Charlie Bloom and Simon Webster – and friends

The feedback we received from the general public for our Non-Conceptual Garden was astounding. The consensus was that they appreciated the garden’s simplicity and horticultural merit, but most especially that it did not require mental acrobatics to enjoy and was not connected to any large sponsor, pushing their agenda.

So therein lies my problem with the Conceptual at Horticultural Shows. Horticultural/ Flower Shows are attended, generally by people who like, or have an interest in plants and flowers. They are not on the whole patrons of the Conceptual art crew. People paying for the privilege of entering a Horticultural/Flower Show have done so to be wowed and inspired by the skills and knowledge of horticulturalists; they have come to see plants in all their simple glory, grown to perfection by experts in their field; to marvel at expert planting in ‘Show Gardens’ – gardens being the appropriate word there.

Colourbox Garden by Charlie Bloom and Simon Webster at Hampton Court Flower Show

Colourbox Garden by Charlie Bloom and Simon Webster and friends

They haven’t paid out to be patronised by ‘Designers’ who seem to have limited horticultural knowledge and are catering to a niche Conceptual audience. By making the plants the fill ins, around the ‘intellectual wank’ they devalue the skill and knowledge that has gone into producing them.  Significantly, I was honoured to be given much praise for the garden from top nursery men and woman from the floral marquee.

I believe we supplied a paying public with what they wanted to see and in the end they are the ones who fundamentally support horticulture in their day to day lives.

Many gardens within the ‘Conceptual ‘ category at the shows bring to the fore political and environmental issues we all should pay more attention to. And many also take their planting choices seriously. My issue with Conceptual at Horticultural Shows starts when concept and designer ego is all important and horticulture a secondary consideration. I believe this is both patronising and arrogant and after having talked to hundreds of people over the course of the show, I know I’m not alone.

Charlie Bloom 

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Skr August 10, 2017 at 11:26 pm

We have vitriol for a contemporary artist, a complete dismissal of contemporary art as being skill-less, and appeals to populist aesthetic priorities. If it weren’t for all the garden images, I could have mistaken this as another angry screed from a representational painter upset that the art world turned it’s back on his or her aesthetic priorities with the subsequent loss of sales.

I for one am quite happy to see Landscape as being a suitable medium for contemporary art beyond the rarefied world of land art. For far too long Landscape has been viewed as kitsch and craft and far too infrequently viewed as art.

annewareham August 11, 2017 at 9:54 am

I wondered when someone would say that! Xxx

Vanessa Gardner Nagel August 6, 2017 at 3:15 pm

I don’t have time to read through this entire thread right now, but I find your comment intersting, Anne. It does seem as though there are different terms in the UK from what we use in the US. ‘Conceptual’ doesn’t seem to mean to you what it does to us. We both have other words that don’t mean the same thing as the result of two different, but also similar, cultures. While you may need to find a different word, conceptual works very well for us. Let me know what you finally develop. Perhaps it will work for both of us, perhaps not. But I do I suggest we respect the differences in our languages.

annewareham August 6, 2017 at 3:21 pm

Yes – Conceptual garden (with a capital usually) derives directly from Conceptual Art, which, as Charlie illustrates, is a thing here. Has been for years. Not with you?

Miriam Heppell August 6, 2017 at 2:47 pm

Agree entirely with Charlie Bloom. I really cannot see how the RHS shows will continue to attract the public with the gardens that have become the norm over the last couple of years. It wasn’t always like that. A quick flick through old show photos indicates that artistic ‘ideas’ gardens have grown in number. They may be fine for some city square but most of us want to see a proper garden. Anne I’m sure like most privately owned gardens yours has developed along several lines of thought over a long period of time. Maybe we should call this type of garden ‘The Evolved Garden’ which encompasses all the ideas, trials, toil, blood, sweat and tears of many years.

annewareham August 6, 2017 at 1:13 pm

Quote from this week’s Spectator – a review of Matisse exhibition ‘Matisse in the Studio’ by Martin Gayford.
“Some years ago, I praised Matisse to a prominent member of the New York art world. ‘Oh’ she responded, ‘these days I think we expect a bit more from art than that’. (Probably she was thinking of the conceptual and ‘post-visual’ idioms that are ultimately descended from chess-plating Duchamp.)
What, I thought, – more than energy, beauty, light, colour, grandeur and harmony?”

Bill August 6, 2017 at 7:30 am

The EXPRESS newspaper has ‘hi-jacked’ Charlie Blooms garden for a garden article which is just a selling advert for sponsers.

So is that a compliment for her garden..?

Charlie August 6, 2017 at 12:18 pm

Unfortunately we don’t have any control over media day…. The RHS use my garden images to market themselves too… mugging here gets nowt ?

Charlie August 6, 2017 at 12:18 pm

Muggins…. god I hate auto correct

Paul Steer August 5, 2017 at 10:54 am

I have to confess that I do like an intellectual wank – (will I go blind ?) . Not all conceptual art or gardens are nonsense but there are some that do cause a kind of blindness – a bit of an emperors new clothes effect – we can get caught up in the glamour of ‘ celebrity ‘ status. Buried beneath the hype can be a genuine wish to express something about this world we live in. Tracey Emin is a good draughtsman, her drawings can be full of sensitivity. I believe there can be a marriage between horticultural knowledge and art – but what do I know ? I was impressed by the garden you made Charlie but did feel the brightness of the cubes distracted from the beautiful planting .

Charlie August 6, 2017 at 12:25 pm

Easy with the intellectual wank hahaha… it has its place, but my issue is a paying Horticultural public aren’t that interested and just find it all mind numbingly annoying. The customer is always right, apparently x

Bill August 5, 2017 at 10:35 am

I suppose that ‘old fashioned’ bedding arrangements could be a ‘concept’ but it made a pleasing arrangement.

I saw the Charlie Bloom garden on tv and I thought it looked like a real garden and the idea that it was not, not expensive meant that it had a lot more going for It. It was a pleasure to see it and some of the planting was very good.

It was also a ‘quick’ garden. (vs not a ‘instant’ garden) which I also liked too. Plants in flower at the right time of the year in the right season.

Bill August 5, 2017 at 9:49 am

I have a lot of problems with these new concept gardens, unless its explained to me I have no idea that its about some idea or cause… Its a bit baffled by it all

Helen Gazeley August 4, 2017 at 12:59 pm

Couldn’t agree more, and your point about art colleges was brought home in spades when my husband and I visited the Graduate Show at Brighton College a few years ago. All dismembered plastic dolls, tents and, where paint was used to portray objects on paper, a total inability to look any better than a ten-year-old could manage.

I think, if the economic climate becomes more difficult, we’ll be seeing a lot more of your sort of garden, Charlie, and the shows will be all the better for it.

Charlie August 6, 2017 at 12:19 pm

Art school…. massive con, engineered towards talentless sensationalism

Nicola Berry August 4, 2017 at 11:07 am

Really enjoyed this piece. Completely chimed with my own art school experience – at the time I felt I learned nothing except the art of BS. I tested it once, submitting a knowing pile of BS – and lo and behold got a great mark. There was zero meaning, except the overblown nonsense narrative I made up to go with it. Now in garden design, I smell it again. Glad I’m not the only one who finds this stuff wearing. Although I do agree with Lou, above, that garden designs with a concept cannot be dismissed wholesale – but the successful ones are few and far between.

Charlie August 6, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Not the only one at all xxx

Lou August 4, 2017 at 7:57 am

Spot on. Great writing. Though I believe all ‘conceptual’ pieces, art, garden or otherwise, cannot be dismissed wholesale, I do find my heckles rising at certain output. Your garden at Hampton was something special. I, and I suspect many others, wanted to take it home, install it in my space. It had it all; peace, colour, water, a happy place to sit, to be. As someone who probably got a better art degree by playing the concept card, I am now reformed. Lovely to meet you too.

Charlie August 6, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Well that’s a compliment, Thankyou x

Phillip Michael Skerritt August 3, 2017 at 6:55 pm

Well said.Stick to the basic terminology that people understand and let the plants and the design do the talking.

Charlie August 6, 2017 at 12:21 pm


julie quinn August 3, 2017 at 5:29 pm

If a garden needs to be explained then it isn’t what I call a garden, it’s an installation. Unfortunately sponsors cannot bear to let the garden speak for itself and thus reflect glory on them for having paid for it. They seem to insist on the garden making a point about their product or political view. I am bored with them and avoid flower shows that have them.

Charlie August 6, 2017 at 12:22 pm

I agree

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