Criticism of criticism by Anne Wareham

May 23, 2014

in Editorial

“Your descriptions of Seats & Gardens . . . are often imperfect, frequently flippant, & sometimes false…….Be advised therefore from a friend to your Fame, as well as your Peace of mind; and do not print any thing that will either hurt or offend the Owners of Places, when in so doing, you will bring upon you much, & I fear, some well-deserved Criticism from Real Connoisseurs.”  

William Mason, in correspondence with William Gilpin in the 1780’s

Gilpin’s reply: (note – ‘writing for the ladies’ was intended to indicate a deplorable popularism..)

“Get you along – get you along, you & your friend, out of the precincts of taste. Go, cultivate some clod of earth. In the regions of landscape – of lights, & shades, & glowing tints, you have nothing to do. – I write for the ladies! – No, sir, – nor for such critics as you, & your cold,  unanimated friend. I write merely, & solely for people of picturesque genius – whether gentlemen, or ladies, I reck not.”

Anne Wareham:

Tristan Gregory’s piece about Rousham produced criticism of thinkingardens for publishing such a piece, and whether his criticisms were accurate or not got rather neglected. So I feel a need to address the issue of publishing garden criticism on thinkingardens.

Hellebore 2 March 2014 Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 055 (2)

For what it’s worth we owe thinkingardens to my being angry. Not temperate and rational, but angry about the garden world’s dishonesties and complacency. I care a lot about gardens and about honesty, and my therefore my anger is deep and abiding and gets continually fed.

So I sympathise with Tristan’s feelings, expressed so robustly, about Rousham and I’m glad to be able to enable him to have a voice. He would not be able to tell his truth anywhere else that I know of, except for his own blog if he had one. (which he doesn’t as far as I know.)

And I have always made Veddw  available to criticism. I know how it hurts and I also value it. Criticism of thinkingardens hurts too and I publish it.

At the same time I feel distressed to think that we may, as has been suggested in the comments, be sabotaging my efforts to develop and promote garden criticism.

Iris.March 3 Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 031 Iris unguicularis

Though if I am doing, I have been doing this for the past nine years. We started early with Bridget’s review, which produced howls of anger – in writing and at Chelsea, where Dan Pearson collared me and told me Bridget had no right, as an economist, to criticise his garden. And there was an outcry too when an American correspondent wrote about her visit to this country on thinkingardens and called a garden ‘crap’. And so on.

There is an obvious suggestion that I should edit out the most vigorous comment and make sure thinkingardens is balanced. Along the lines of the BBC perhaps – so that one view must have another view to counter it?  And if I cannot produce two or three people with opposing viewpoints then the one person must offer all? And that I would be more effective in my aims if I did so? Or perhaps that I should just make sure any adverse comments are kindly expressed?

March 3 Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 005 Heelbore by cess pit s

I take that seriously. But, going back to my opening, I have to say that this is probably beyond me. There is a context – of the overall garden world, where, to summarise, all gardens are ‘lovely’ and woe betide anyone who says anything different. And my woe has been well betidied for doing so over years.

So my perspective is that robust comment and criticism is in itself a balance, and a welcome one.

As Philip Clayton said on twitter in response to Tristan’s piece: “what a relief! Rousham, the holy cow to many design type folk but it didn’t do much for me when I visited. Thought it just me!” How many more of us have felt bewildered, angry and confused when faced by the reality of an overpraised garden? Especially if we travelled many miles at great expense of time and money to do so?

But if the cost is that thinkingardens speaks to no-one because people are offended and upset, then that is clearly self defeating. And a shame.

Daffodil March 2014 Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 008 s

So. I have thought about what some of you have said.

And, I will continue to publish and offer a forum for a range of views and responses to gardens, books and other garden related things, and I will not censor those pieces, but continue to rely on my contributors to do their best within their own priorities, demanding only that people tell as near to their truth as is humanly possible.

But – I will ask that those of you who support my aims, but not the way I do it, to begin to do it yourselves. I have no exclusive rights to garden criticism of any kind and I encourage you all to find ways to promote the kind you wish to see and to get it out there into the wider world. And I will cheer you every inch of the way. And help, if I can.

And for those of you who find the whole idea of being critical of gardens terrible: there will always be a great deal else on thinkingardens to entertain you.

PS and in case you think I am speaking just academically – here’s a piece I wrote earlier about being criticised.

M Hellebore March 2014 Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 048 (2)Anne Wareham, editor

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J Sherry April 26, 2014 at 3:57 pm

I have not been to Rousham, so have no view of the garden, but I found nothing in Tristan’s piece which could cause offence – to me, it read as a sound, objective, review of a garden. And picturing some of the garden, from his review (e.g. the host of dark sombre yews), I found myself agreeing, even though I have not seen them; I know that I would feel the same.

I cannot believe that you have been criticised for publishing a garden review which contains some criticism of the garden reviewed. Is one supposed to review a garden & just write “nice” things? As to the idea that alongside you should publish a review saying how wonderful the garden is, well that’s nonsense – is garden reviewing different to, say, book reviewing? I am not aware of any paper,magazine, whatever, which reviews books, feeling obliged to print a glowing review if one reviewer doesn’t like a particular book!

I hope you don’t change your format.

Victoria Summerley April 23, 2014 at 11:47 am

I’m sorry, but the personal circumstances of the owner should have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the critical assessment of a garden – or of any work of art, come to that. Unless, of course, the person making it has used some sort of life experience as an inspiration for their design or concept. Do you really think people went around saying things like: “We ought to be nice about Bach’s latest cantata because he’s got 20 kids, the poor guy, and he’s been in jail.”? Or “I think old Monet’s lost it a bit with all these waterlily paintings, but he’s a nice old buffer, and he’s losing his sight, and he loves his garden, bless him.” Of course they didn’t! As people interested in garden design, we are doing ourselves a real disservice if we expect it to get different treatment from every other branch of the creative world. Let’s grow some balls (but preferably not box).

Elspeth April 22, 2014 at 5:24 pm

I support integrity, honesty, controversy, and openness. In any industry. And I support what you are trying to do for the garden industry.

I actually love Rousham. But I think debate is healthy. And we should always challenge ourselves to think more deeply based on the opinions of others.

I do intend to come to one of your suppers one of these days!
Best
Elspeth

Founder
MyGardenSchool

Tristan Gregory March 24, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Far too easy to be drawn into detailed conjectures and refutations when a debate or argument rages and the details and points become tangled. Discourse though, complete with rhetorical flourish where provided, is no threat to the gardens, merely the quality of the gardening and it is the former that Anne has persistently put at the forefront of this blog from book review to sweeping reflection. I am grateful because here I see a future for my profession and garden accordingly by rejecting and re-making what has failed based on the patterns of what has succeeded both at Kentchurch and elsewhere.

This is a difficult art and if those of us who practise it are excused our errors we will fail professionally, commercially and artistically.

Thank you Anne for keeping us at it

Deirdre in Seattle March 24, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Criticism that just repeats bland platitudes, it is not really criticism, and pretty much pointless. I prefer to read an honest, considered opinion. I found Mr. Gregory’s opinion that resources are being misdirected quite interesting. In most gardens, resources have limits, and hard choices must be made as to where to spend them. The owners of Rousham are certainly entitled to make their own choices, and Mr. Gregory is entitled to disagree with them.

annewareham March 24, 2014 at 9:37 am

Thank you for these thoughtful comments. My heart did lift, though, when Victoria’s comment came in (see comments on Tristan’s review) = “George Bernard Shaw pointed out that “a drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned”. W H Auden remarked: “One cannot review a bad book without showing off.” So why do we feel we have to tiptoe through people’s emotional tulips when it comes to gardening? Let’s say what we think and not wrap it up in some kind of weird PC cotton wool.”

I do hope that your thoughts mean that criticism and reviews of the kind you are wishing for will begin to appear elsewhere. They will no doubt appear here too – not everyone is as passionate or acerbic as Tristan. (Oh, and I do make my editorial concerns clear to potential reviewers) (AW)

Kate March 24, 2014 at 8:43 am

Hm, really made me think. As usual!

I think there’s a difference between criticism – well argued, reasonable criticism – and abuse: if someone’s going to describe a garden as ‘crap’ then they have to be prepared to argue their case. Being purely negative is easy; being positive and/or constructive is more difficult. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and if we want gardens/gardening to be taken seriously then criticism – and dealing with it – is part of the process. Falling into line and saying something is wonderful when you think it isn’t is just a case of the Emperor’s new clothes.

I’ve been to gardens that people assured me were marvellous but which I disliked; I’m allowed to, and I’m allowed to say so. Everybody has a right to a point of view: economist, visitor from abroad, alien with sticky-out ears, all entitled to an opinion of a work of art (which I’d argue many gardens are). At the same time I think there’s always – er, maybe that should be almost always – something positive to say. Even if it’s just about one particular plant.

Jill Sinclair March 24, 2014 at 5:19 am

Anne

My sense is that people have an affection for Rousham, not just because of its historical importance, but because it is still privately run by the family on a shoe-string, rather than having been handed over to the National Trust or otherwise turned into a more commercial enterprise with gift shops and tea rooms (Tristan points out its striking lack of the “infrastructure of financial extraction”). So some readers may have felt it was unfair to criticise such a valiant place so strongly – describing the owners as displaying “artless, destructive sloth” for instance is pretty harsh.

Your point about criticism perhaps needing to be “kindly expressed” seems relevant here. Rousham is not above criticism, and it does sound from Tristan’s piece that visitors may be disappointed with current aspects of the garden – but private individuals trying to preserve and keep accessible an important garden do in my view deserve our understanding and goodwill.

Still, the particular example does not detract from the need to maintain our critical faculties more generally in the face of all those roses and box balls!

Jill

Beth March 24, 2014 at 4:57 am

Anne, Thank you for writing this post to address my and others’ concerns over this issue. I understand your difficulty as the editor of a site that is pledged to offer honest reviews of gardens and discussion of garden topics — you don’t wish to censor all-too-rare honest assessments of gardens, out of fear of discouraging serious critical discussion.

Yet any good editor makes clear her or his journalistic standards, and you certainly have a right to assert your own. It would not be out of line to require that all submissions follow a few general guidelines, which could include a requirement for respectful and honest discourse.

Disappointment with gardens can and should be described 1) to provide garden visitors with realistic expectations for visits and 2) to provide gardeners with honest and helpful assessments. However, all reviews should be professional and well-meaning in tenor, not simply opportunities to vent anger and level insults in a sensational manner (Helen’s comment described this quite well).

Editors of publications certainly do have (and often exercise) the power to either edit out or refuse to publish unprofessional insults. Expressing disappointment with specific areas of a garden for specified reasons is acceptable. Wholesale trashing of gardens is not. “This area was disappointing because…” is acceptable. “This garden was crap” is not helpful or acceptable and should not be published, in order to maintain journalistic standards.

You mention that this site was born of your anger over the lack of honest discussion about gardens. Anger is understandable and is the catalyst for much human endeavor. I understand that people who spend money and time to visit well-known gardens are justifiably angry when their visits are less than they expected. But respectful discussions cannot be entered into “under the influence.” As a writer, I know that every time I have published something in anger, I have later regretted it. Reviewers should take a second look at what they have written after a suitable interval in which to step back, take a few breaths and ask themselves: “Is what I have written reasonable, fair and respectful?” And they should be able to rely on you, their editor, to make sure that they do not cross over the line of what is reasonable, fair and respectful. This is will not discourage honest writing, but will only maintain professional standards that readers will respect.

We all appreciate your envisioning and establishing this site, Anne, and the daily work that you put in to maintain and improve it. I hope you will be able to rein in the baser instincts that all writers feel and submit to their editors from time to time — to set the higher, more professional tone of discourse that serious garden writing merits. Thanks, -Beth

susan harris March 23, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Keep up the good work! At GardenRant we’ve learned to have thick skins because we post contrary opinions (often about environmental issues!!!) and have to take the heat. But it gets easier.

annewareham March 23, 2014 at 10:58 pm

About environmental issues! Well, there’s practice at developing thicker skins for you….

Katherine Crouch March 23, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Dear Anne,
Keep criticizing! How else can we we be jolted from a benign reverie of thinking ‘well this is quite nice, decent effort, pretty flowers, jolly good lemon drizzle cake’ to a more honest ‘actually I’ve paid a fiver just to look at some roses and box balls – again’

Kathy

annewareham March 23, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Good of you, but I bet you might manage the latter all on your own. However, for the general good I’ll keep at it for a bit yet..Xx

Helen March 23, 2014 at 12:50 pm

I read the piece on rousham and whilst initially taken back with the robustness I found it refreshing. I haven’t been to rousham but had read some positive reports in the glossies. As you know I don’t tend to let gardening reviews affect whether I visit a garden or not but there was something about this review which has pushed rousham down my list.

Criticism is hard to do right. I was taught to critique paintings and literature and the standard approach is to analyse how these are put together and then form your own conclusion. I think if a criticism is analytical without trying to be sensational and is well argued then it’s harder for people to be offended. Sometimes though, and I think there have been cases of this on thinkin gardens the criticism has been more sensational then reasoned and well argued. Calling something crap is only going to offend regardless of whether it is justified or well argued. I think it is how you say something that is important, there is no need to downgrade the criticism or feel you have to include opposing views. I think that the British have been brought up to be so polite that we are afraid of causing offence but I know that there are few who don’t actually appreciate constructive criticism – constructive is the key word.

I was very careful to think about your garden when I wrote about it and how I reacted and why. As you know there were areas I didn’t like but I didn’t want to offend so I tried to explain why; I think you appreciated my honesty. However, I have visited some gardens recently which have made me despair and I just haven’t written about them as I could find no positives so I took the approach that no post was better. Maybe this is cowardly of me but sometimes I just don’t have the energy for the battle.

annewareham March 23, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Thanks, Helen, and I did appreciate your being clear and thoughtful about Veddw.

It isn’t simple, is it? What some people find constructive or helpful others say is killing people. (yes, I have been accused of killing people by publishing garden criticism)

So you may be wise to be quiet. Though when someone charges for a garden which you can find no positives in (and you are more generous than many of us) – who is going to warn people not to waste their time, money and effort?

And – there is also the whole issue of how criticism can help people see more clearly and appreciate gardens better for that.

Paddy Tobin March 23, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Dear Anne, please forgive me for being so laid back that I have not taken the time to praise your work and the forum you have provided for garden appraisal. We often don’t think too praise that which is so obviously good while we rush to complain about what is so obviously bad – the holy cows of the gardening world excepted, of course.

I both enjoy and value the material which you publish and hope you can put aside any doubts as to its balance and continue as you have to date.

With best wishes, Paddy Tobin, Waterford, Ireland.

annewareham March 23, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Thank you, Paddy. That means a lot.

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