Germaine Greer: Yes, Gardens can be works of art – but you’d never know it from the Chelsea Flower show.

July 5, 2007

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

Post image for Germaine Greer: Yes, Gardens can be works of art – but you’d never know it from the Chelsea Flower show.

This is a post well worth a re-visit and some further discussion, which was less possible in the days when this was first published. (2007)

Anne Wareham, editor.

by Germaine Greer

Having fled Chelsea after a mere 20 minutes at the flower show, I find myself puzzled by the degree of revulsion I felt. As my eye becomes attuned to the beauty of even the most barren (especially the most barren!) natural landscape, popular gardening has come to seem more and more, and now utterly, hideous. In Andrew Marvell’s poem, The Mower Against Gardens, the mower denounces gardening as perverted and vicious; I seem to have caught his indignation. As the natural world becomes stressed to the point of disintegration and desertification, the tarted-up “outdoor rooms” that the Mower excoriates proliferate endlessly. There is much wittering about how important gardens are for wildlife, when what wildlife would really profit from is an abandonment of gardening altogether. Artful gardening certainly is, and there are some who would claim that it is artistic. Horticulture is certainly culture, but can it be art? I think it can, but it takes more insight than was evident anywhere at Chelsea.

Chelsea 2008 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens.

The beau idéal will always be for me my sister’s garden on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia. There, native plants are organised in a way that allows every one its full development, whether under the shade of moonahs and banksias, or on the patch of fine gravel that is the nucleus of the scheme. In my sister’s garden, stipas (feather grasses) grow to their full size, sweeping the ground with their dead-straight tresses like Katherine Dunham dancers, obeying the wind that blows across the ocean from the south, or across Port Phillip Bay to the north. Stipas were big at Chelsea this year, but the way they were used – dozens of them in hidden pots, crammed in serried rows between other plants from all over the world, bred up in the same greenhouses far from a breeze of any kind – had all the grace and beauty of a hair transplant.

My sister’s garden design has endured for more than 20 years because every plant is in its right place, with neighbours it can live with. The scheme is governed by her understanding of the local geology, soil science, weather patterns and botany. Knowing that they like to live in a monoculture, she has planted a group of 20 casuarinas to make a grey-green semi-transparent veil. I once horrified her by using some of the shed needle carpet in which they stand ankle-deep to light the fire in the sitting room. While I might say that Offshore (as the garden is called) is a work of art, my sister would prefer that it was known as a work of science. The annual Chelsea phantasmagoria is the product of bad art and worse science.

Gardens such as my sister’s should not be looked for in the commercial gardening circus, but we can perhaps blame Chelsea for the poverty of our expectations when it comes to real gardens. Most of our best-known, most-visited gardens are merely pretty, or, worse, picturesque. The efforts of gardeners such as Sara Maitland and Anne Wareham to raise our consciousness beyond merely oohing and aahing about dazzling mixed borders or crediting splashing water with promoting relaxation have so far had little effect. When, at Veddw in Monmouthshire, Wareham replants the lines of vanished hedgerows with box and fills the enclosed spaces with grasses and hardy perennials, she is linking the land-use of the past with the aesthetic of the lordly parterre. By giving expression to contemporary sensibility about conservation, she invites intellectual engagement. Gardening can be – should be – conceptual, which is simply a way of saying that gardens should have ideas in them and the ideas should be perceptible. As the late Ian Hamilton Finlay said, ” Superior gardens are composed of glooms and solitudes, not of plants and trees.” Try telling that to the arbiters at Chelsea.

Little Sparta copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens, Germaine Greer on Chelsea

Derek Jarman’s tiny garden at Prospect Cottage is a genuine work of art, but to envision it as a composed and static thing is to misunderstand it utterly. Jarman meant his own short but happy life to reverberate in his optimistic, unfenced planting, which perches on the Naples-yellow shingle of Dungeness like a flock of gulls, as fleeting and transitory as they are but bound, like them, to return again and again, always different yet always the same. I know of a garden on the mud of the Blackwater estuary that is crammed with shrubs, mostly box and privet, like sheep in a pen, so tight against each other that the gardener can hardly slip between them to keep them clipped. He would probably be amazed if I knocked on his door and told him his garden is an artwork. It is, nevertheless. Landscape architect Charles Jencks’s treeless, flowerless garden at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is as much a work of art as any installation by Anish Kapoor. Though this is gardening for grown-ups, children love it – much more, I suspect, than they could love the kind of garden that must not be walked on or fallen into.

Suburban gardening has no truck with Hamilton Finlay’s glooms or Jencks’s masterful monochrome. Every year garden centres announce new flower varieties of even more blinding combinations of saturated hues, with even less foliage. A riot of colour is just that: a riot. Gardens have never been so garish and restless. I long for someone to take the piss out of the whole chintzy gallimaufry by planting out her front garden with gaudy Perspex windmills and bobbing plastic bags.

Professor Germaine Greer

This article originally appeared in the Guardian, June 4th, 2007 and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

Comment from Andrew Wilson:

As an assessor and judge for RHS show gardens for the last 12 years, I found myself perplexed by Germain Greer’s response to this year’s Chelsea Flower which came to light on June 4.  “Having fled the show ground after a mere 20 minutes” she then at least tried to examine her state of “revulsion” at the horticultural spectacular.  Call me biased but I am sure there are many more revolting things on this planet.

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Comment from Anne Wareham:

Indeed, I do invite intellectual engagment and I would love that discussion to begin. So far it hasn’t – and perhaps that might once been for lack of a place to have such discussion. But now we have thinkinGardens, where uninhibited debate and discussion can and does happen.

So what is the question? My question, which I am attempting to answer at the Veddw, is this: how can we use gardens to communicate and express ideas and deep feeling in the 21st century?

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Comment from Leigh Hunt:

I certainly feel that we have lost the familiarity of looking for meanings in landscape and for understanding the language of ornament, and this hampers us from moving forward.

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Comment from Amanda Patton:

Anne Wareham states that conceptual references “only evoke a feeling response if they draw on images and ideas which are already part of the psyche”.  I would agree, but I also think that the best of our contemporary creativity draws heavily on our long tradition of the Arts without us necessarily being aware of it,…

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See also “Allusion in Gardens” by Noel Kingsbury, Yue Zhuang and Anne Wareham

Comments? Email info@thinkingardens.co.uk

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