Are Gardens Art? review by Helen Gazeley

August 8, 2014

in Events, Recommended Reading

The promised review of the Royal Horticultural Event at Wisley. Thanks to Helen Gazeley for the review, Suzanne Moss for organising the event and Charles Hawes for the photographs.

And here is a recording of the entire proceedings. (warning- it’s over an hour long…)

Anne Wareham, editor

The panel, Are Gardens Art? at Wisley. Copyright Charles Hawes

The panel left to right: Noel Kingsbury, Anne Wareham, Andrew Wilson, Katherine Aalto, David E Cooper.

Helen Gazeley:

Are Gardens Art? This was the question posed to the panel and audience at the debate chaired by Andrew Wilson,

Are Gardens Art? Wisley event. Copyright Charles Hawes

Andrew Wilson

held at RHS Wisley on 28th June.

Noel Kingsbury Are Gardens Art? Wisley event. Copyright Charles Hawes

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury kicked off by stating his position: that we’ve always seen individual plants as art objects; that breeding is an art form; that creating a garden requires, not only the technical knowledge of how to grow plants, but the artistic ability to combine them. Plants, he regards as his materials, much as a sculptor regards his stone and chisels. I think we can safely say that Noel considers gardens as art.

Anne Wareham, Are Gardens Art? event at Wisley Copyright Charles Hawes

Anne Wareham

Anne pronounced herself bewildered by the question. Proceed by the current thinking—that if you say it’s art, it is—then obviously a garden is art. The involvement of all the senses and the play of light, and an offer of food for the mind are most definitely a recipe for art. But, more to the point, is garden-making worth serious consideration as a means of expression? If it is, it needs to takes its proper place within our culture and be properly analysed and critiqued as art.

Kathryn Aalto Are Gardens Art Copyright Charles Hawes

Katherine Aalto

Kathryn Aalto—garden designer, historian, writer and speaker—took a small step back. Gardens are often refuges with a purpose of protection and respite. Gardens as art must have the intention of being art.

David E Cooper. Are Gardens Art 2 Copyright Charles Hawes

Professor David E Cooper

David E Cooper, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Durham University weighed up the question in a way that promised dissent, possibly bloodshed, if opinions became too heated.

He examined the similarities between art appreciation and appreciation of a garden. Gardens have a practical function: they interact with the natural environment; activities take place in them—games are played, vegetables grown, relaxation enjoyed. These additional functions are not incidental to appreciating them. To concentrate purely on the aesthetics is not to admire a garden as a garden, and we should beware the danger of looking at the garden as art: the need to find meaning in a design, a reduction in the importance of beauty. “I suspect,” said David, “that the garden nowadays appeals to many people because it is unlike most modern art works in being a location of beauty.”

The fact that David’s introduction had to be halted while torrential rain hammered on the roof was politely ignored by all present, though clearly a Sign.

Wisley Are Gardens Art wet Copyright Charles Hawes

Rain stopped play….

But I found David’s analysis deeply attractive. Compare gardens with some of the extremes of furniture design. A chair might be very easy on the eye—minimalist and sleek—yet very hard on the bottom and therefore useless for its purpose. A garden that merely looks good is a picture of a garden, not to be explored, rather as a Greek temple in a Brown landscape proves disappointing once you enter its rank and dripping interior.

What was soon agreed was that intention is important, a point stressed by both Anne and Catherine.

This struck a chord, too. Intentionality lies not just with the creator, though. Look at every every garden open to the public. The garden becomes art for those who are inclined. To those who wish to get some air, find space for their children to scream, or scoff some cake, it’s merely a pleasant venue.

Context Are Gardens Art 2 Copyright Charles Hawes

The panel needed protection….

It seems strange then, as Noel a trifle bitterly pointed out, that some gardens are automatically considered art, especially by the media: Derek Jarman’s seaside plot, Little Sparta, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. Is it that they are created by artists and so are respected by the art elite in a way that gardens created by garden designers are not? Or are they, as David pointed out, less gardens as art, but more gardens as Art Gallery? (We’re back to a pleasant venue again.)

The problem, it seems to me, is that gardens involve gardening. They involve knowledge of some quite rebellious materials; they involve ongoing care, they involve seasonal adjustments. Noel argued that every act of garden maintenance is an aesthetic decision and, in time, you create a tapestry of decisions.

I personally think that this where gardens meet art, while not merely being art. It applies artistic principles in its use of colour, texture, shape, scent, perspective. Comparing it to a different art form, a garden is an unfinished novel. It might make it to final draft, but that’s still a step from published tome. The problem, from an art appreciation point of view, is that this is arguably where gardens are Not Art. They are never finished because they never (unless rather more Zen than garden) stay still. Nor can we ever get away from the fact that some people just want a cool, green place to drink coffee, the finer aesthetics be damned.

are gardens art 1 Copyright Charles Hawes

Andrew shows Anne how..

The debate ended on a vote: Are Gardens Art? David’s advice was not to answer (advice that this particular audience member followed) on the grounds that there are too many different sorts of garden to consider.

The fifty or so in the audience mostly ignored him, coming down strongly on the side of Gardens as Art, with only a couple of hands staunch in their defiance.

But I rather agreed with the voice in the row behind me. “Well,” she said, “some are, and some aren’t.”

Was she right?

Helen Gazeley Helen Gazeley portrait copyright Helen Glazeley website ‘Weeding the Web’


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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Bernhard Feistel August 17, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I presume the main thing is to create something (ideally unique), and think, and strive, and improve. Whether the result (or process) is being labelled art is, perhaps, only the main concern of minor faculties like salesmen, academics, institutions, journalists…


annewareham August 17, 2014 at 3:50 pm

O, it’s my concern too, because I would so like a wider appreciation of what gardens can offer, and as long as they are seen simply as a hobby for the middleaged they will remain in the cultural doldrums.


Bernhard Feistel August 18, 2014 at 7:37 am

Dear Anne, I am in no doubt that your garden is unique and a piece of art, and others are not (and perhaps don’t want to be). But I feel a certain unease when creative people are wasting their time defining art instead of making it. For less creative ones it just comes to: “if you can’t do it, teach it”. Yet, I feel intention alone won’t do either. In any case, I am still curious to read what you and Tristan (whose reviews I savour) have to say.


annewareham August 18, 2014 at 12:45 pm

I do hope that thinkingardens isn’t a waste of my time, or that Veddw suffers for it.

And I am clear that not all gardens are art just as all Sunday painters are perhaps not artists (you think?). That shouldn’t be used as a discouragement to those who will end up on the Tate. It was such a joy and illumination to me when I discovered Little Sparta many years ago and realised that a garden could be a means of expression as well as being decorative. It changed Veddw and I hope that we will offer the same realisation and possibility to others now.

My talk with Tristan won’t be recorded, sadly. But there is a great deal of discussion of the subject on this site. You must know that?!! xxx


Ellen van der Peet August 11, 2014 at 12:57 pm

I totally agree. I was thinking this way before reading. Not every painting is a Van Gogh or Rembrandt. Some are. It’s not the gardeners intention what’s the focuspoint. We have to recognize the gardens who belongs to the category Van Gogh and Rembrandt and which don’t….


Catharine Howard August 10, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Hello Helen I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and it made me realise I should not have bunked off RHS shows this early summer. This debate is an outward vestige of the dialogue I have battering around in my mind every time I move beyond weeding to any activity more interesting in the garden. Should I place the amaranthus with Himalyan nutmeg was today’s thought. Wouldn’t that look good? But of course within the strict limitations of a small quota of time within the year. Isn’t it exactly that which makes this question of whether a garden is art loop on and on. The transient nature of the plantings and the need to understand them and horticulture muddy the precise answer to the question.


Beth August 9, 2014 at 7:12 pm

As a gardener who came to gardening through reading garden books (not the other way around) this is a fascinating topic, as it combines gardening and philosophy, a bookish discipline. I tried to address this issue in a post earlier this year on my own garden blog (but of course could not provide a satisfactory answer, only points to consider):

Thanks so much Helen, for covering the discussion at this meeting, which I would love to have attended (if I didn’t live on another continent). Best Regards, Beth


Charles Hawes August 9, 2014 at 6:31 pm

I don’t know how that genius of a photographer managed to get such great pics in such challenging conditions – and without the use of flash (just saying).

I found it an interesting debate though I also think that the vote at the end rather debased the discussion. But then it was not a very sensibly posed question. Of course the answer is that “it depends”. What was good was to explore (as thinkingardens does constantly) on what it depends.

I also throw my six penny worth behind intentionality being crucial. In fact I think Anne will back me up in my saying that I came up with this in our in-car discussion of the way up. Then the question might be, how well executed is that intention? It might be good art or bad art.


Valerie Lapthorne August 9, 2014 at 10:46 am

Perhaps gardens are installation art. They are 3D creations that transform their space and are ephemeral or changing and can be viewed from different places, immersed in, and variously interacted with.


annewareham August 9, 2014 at 11:32 am

Yes. That’s right.


Paul Steer August 9, 2014 at 11:36 am



Tristan Gregory August 9, 2014 at 9:31 am

Intent is key. For those who are disinclined to intellectualise gardens the pursuit of beauty and technical expertise is enough. We are fortunate that the expression of our craft can offer so much and become all consuming in its own right.

Gardens can be and were so much more though and it is through critical appraisal and discussion that technical excellence evolves into something altogether more communicative. A renaissance masterpiece can be perceived as excellent or even moving by all those who queue up to see it even though only a tiny number of its visitors will be sufficiently well researched and experienced to see the creative and technical scaffolding within the work that supports this wider appreciation.


Paul Steer August 8, 2014 at 11:32 pm

Oh how I would have loved to have been there. I’m art trained so see with an eye for composition. I’m in tune with Noel Kingsbury and believe that creativity is a key part of the process of making a garden – the same use of aesthetic judgment is employed as when making an artwork.
I support the view that Jarman created a work of art making his garden – it is a poem to the place. However Little Sparta does seem to be a backdrop to sculptural and poetic pieces – which is something different.
I would argue that the work of performance artists is just as open to interpretation and is as changeable and fleeting as any garden. And like gardens too – may exist only in the form of photography or film yet they are established works of art. Not all gardens are artworks but the exciting thing for me is that they can be – if only for a fleeting moment upon this earth.


Sue Beesley August 8, 2014 at 6:20 pm

I feel strongly that the garden creator’s intent determines the answer. I intend my own garden (which is open to the public) to create a pleasurable experience for the visitor. This includes making the layout and planting pleasing to the eye for most of the year in terms of colour, form etc. It also includes the strategic placing of benches, the inclusion of a wide range of plants to please the more horticultural-minded visitors and a high standard of maintenance which seems to reassure the less knowledgeable. I do not think of it as art and would be troubled if it were critiqued as such.

Some of the garden’s vistas, at particular times of the year, viewed from a particular spot, do look quite sublime. This may make it appear temporarily art-like, especially in the hands of a good photographer, but move six feet to the left or right and the effect is lost. Creating a good garden is certainly a craft, but it doesn’t seem to me to be art. If I called myself an artist, perhaps I would see it as such, but I do not and cannot. I am a gardener.


Valerie Lapthorne August 9, 2014 at 6:01 pm

As a similar gardener whose work is open to view as yours, I agree with you on this.


Jack Holloway August 8, 2014 at 12:35 pm

As with most things in life the question is more important, more vital, than the answer.

We could ask the question equally: ” Are Gardens Science?” and I would have the same response. However scientists love answers and artists love questions. I’m certain the arguments pro and con would be as illuminating to the central question – which is “What is a garden?”

I would have loved to have been one of the 50 ( ;( ) in the audience, but South Africa is a little far to drive over…


annewareham August 8, 2014 at 12:55 pm
Abbie Jury August 8, 2014 at 9:45 pm

Your first sentence, Jack, absolutely hits the nail on the head. Which is why the vote at the end was redundant (I was there).


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