This year has been one where talking together has been opening up, and not just under the auspices of thinkingardens. The RHS held a debate which Helen Gazeley reviewed here and which is now on YouTube, here – ‘Are Gardens Art?’ so you can judge it for yourselves.
There were the thinkingardens suppers, which you are aware of. And then the Herefordshire Horticultural Hub – an organisation well worth emulating – held a discussion, also on gardens as art. It’s great to have all this discussion – can we hope it may begin to replace the endless lecture with slides format?
Thank you for inviting me, Herefordshire Horticultural Hub and here’s wishing you many more interesting and companionable evenings. And thank you, Tristan for chairing it and writing it up. And apologies for the rather random pictures – no-one took any of the event itself. We were too occupied, so I missed all those people who had to leave after the discussion.
Anne Wareham, editor.
The topic for the original discussion had been “Are gardens art.” Having been given the privilege and responsibility of posing the questions to Anne, I had dutifully put together a selection which I thought might neatly plug any gaps in the obvious answer: “of course they are when so intended.” Therein lay the problem – who in an audience drawn from the Herefordshire Horticultural Hub would be likely to disagree? But in the event we had a lively, enjoyable and informed debate on why the perception of gardens as art really matters and how that message might best be put out amongst those yet to be converted.
One of the key themes to emerge could be summarised as engagement: for who, and how.
The who fell into two camps, the wider population who don’t feel gardens offer much beyond the tearoom and the space for the kids to let off steam, and the seasoned gardener and aficionado.
With regard to the first group I think we all agreed that the mainstream media reflected their wider audience’s ambivalence rather than seek to enlighten it. The subject of the BBC’s coverage of Chelsea came up, wall to wall coverage that strains the interest of even hardened enthusiasts and then ceases. A cheap way to fill up a mandated number of special interest hours perhaps?
Some present also felt that an overtly arty and elitist tenor to the discussion of gardening as an art would be found quite repellent by many people.
While we may not see much of the gardeners, they are key both to the commercial survival of the gardens and garden businesses that we work in. And they are also the likely source of those gifted individuals with the flair and confidence to create new works of horticultural art. At present horticultural practitioners are considered to amount to little more than refugees from academic pursuits and so gifted individuals may not be drawn into our fold.
Regarding the how to there was the particular matter of the garden review. It is worth pointing out that we did not arrive at a common position. On one side there were those who maintain a right to review is important in achieving both the intellectual engagement with the garden visiting community and the aesthetic development of the gardens in question. Irrespective of how uncomfortable the comment or “unqualified” the commentator a well reasoned review, especially one that invites discussion, will have value; an unreasonable or purely spiteful one need not be taken too seriously.
On the other side it was felt that to invite criticism and to feel obliged to receive it from all quarters with a stiff upper lip is simply too much to ask given the potential for commercial damage and more importantly the hurt inflicted when something so personal and as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of climate and circumstance as a garden is examined critically. Both points have validity and while my particular perspective can be guessed at I entirely understand the other.
Whether critical discourses like this have any traction outside of a very narrow band of enthusiasts and professionals was also a tricky point. Some may question the courage of a garden media establishment that prefers to ere always on the side of positivity but as commercial entities if there is no demand from readers and subscribers for anything but this then why risk it? It was also argued that even amongst our already small group a review was seldom felt to be a substitute for an actual visit. A change in the culture of horticultural appreciation may well be a worthy and even an exciting proposition but someone needs either to find the chicken or lay the egg.
Also on the subject of the “how” to get the message out about the possibilities gardens offer, an interesting observation was made about the potential for re-interpreting the materials and even the means of expressing horticultural art, thus extending its reach beyond the fixed and site specific garden. To substitute commercial concern for philosophical rigour in the big flower shows like Chelsea may be asking a little too much but what about the Chelsea Fringe?
This was an extremely lively discussion and there was more said than I can properly account for here. Indeed it would probably have continued on into the night had dinner and drink not been calling so persuasively. If we came to any conclusion at all then it was this:
That there is no better way to express what we feel about gardening than to talk about it, to argue about it even, with a group of diverse and passionate peers, even if one succeeds only in enjoying oneself.
Tristan is Head gardener at Kentchurch Court
(He insists on not having a portrait here)