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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