Is a Garden an Artwork?

April 15, 2007

in Events

Debated at the Oxford Literary Festival 2007

Reviewed by Matthew Appleby

with comments by Anne Wareham

Joe Swift – Garden broadcaster and designer

The majority aren’t art in my opinion. With most art forms there’s no barrier to entry, for instance naïve art, or three chord punk. Gardeners have to maintain that area that goes with the house, so for most people the garden is not a high form of art at all. Gardener designers have to have an incredibly detailed understanding of materials and medium. Our job is to marry a brief along with the site specific and a budget. That’s where it becomes a design like a car/product design. A Japanese garden can be art – the plants only grow very slowly. But for the vast majority of people in this country gardens are not an art form.

AW: Henry Moore’s materials were cheap? Good thing that there are other garden makers besides the private owners and those gardens produced by professional garden designers. And, indeed, gardens open to the public for money, which ought to have some claim to being something. Subsidiary question might be – who has made the gardens which are art?
James Alexander Sinclair – garden designer and broadcaster

Sometimes and occasionally gardens can be art.There are two main problems with garden design. Firstly there are far too many mediocre garden designers out there and the majority take themselves far too seriously.

Do we want garden designers to become as architects have become? They have stopped designing buildings and started making statements.

We can only reach such ecstasies through plants. Horticulture and garden design should be separate but in reality can’t have one without the other. With gardening there still has to be a person at the end of a spade. The vast majority of gardens are not that good but they make those that toil in them happy. It is impossible to be a half decent garden designer without being a gardener but possible to be a gardener without being a garden designer.

AW: Another garden designer fixated on the role and importance of professional garden designers. Is the spade really a problem or part of the essential equipment? or part of the prohibitively unattainable materials inferred in the first comment?

Alys Flower – head gardener BBC Berryfields

Art is anything and everything – calling it art is done to elevate the subject and is a result of privilege. The gardens that hold up as works of art hold up because they have money and power behind them. I worry that by doing that it gets raised to something only some people can do and understand. Those values don’t have a place in a garden. The garden is a craft or decorative art. Gardens are inspirational, beautiful, and may better us. But many of what are considered the best gardens, in country houses, are monuments to wealth and privilege and social inequality.”

Mary Keen, garden writer and designer

Some gardens can be great art such as Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden in Cornwall or Runnymede in Berkshire. They definitely can be art. Some gardens are great art, others are just fun. The English garden tends not to be done to a plan but rather a feeling in the gardener’s head. A survey we did in the Telegraph showed that what moves people isn’t the plants, it’s about space and a sense of nature. I tend to agree – I loathe places like Hestercombe, but then on the other hand you have places like the Barbara Hepworth Garden which is more of an outdoor gallery.”

AW: She’s right, if self contradictory – an art gallery is not a garden. Would be good to hear what the problem with Hestercombe is? And which bit of it?

Matthew Appleby

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