Putting Gardens Back on the Cultural Map

September 26, 2007

in Events

A discussion on the cultural value of gardens

thinkinGardens held its first major event, a symposium to discuss the changing cultural value of gardens, before a large invited audience from the world of the arts, including editors, commentators, curators, artists, makers and designers at the RHS headquarters, London on the 26th September 2007.

Report by Stephen Anderton


Chairman for the evening was Corinne Julius, journalist and broadcaster, who welcomed an invited audience of sixty artists, craftsmen, architects, designers, representatives of arts organisations and gardeners.

Putting Gardens Back on the Cultural Map - Image 1

Corinne Julius chaired the event

Corinne Julius opened proceedings by explaining how, historically, gardens were not just about plants but dealt more with philosophy, an ideological viewpoint and a conscious social statement; today, she explained, gardens have become hijacked by undoubted pleasures of gardening, to the exclusion of gardens as a means of provoking ideas about aesthetics in people who are not necessarily interested in gardening but keen to look at gardens.

That gardens may be considered as ‘art’ matters, she continued, because it can offer new ways of thinking about them, help raise the nature and design of the gardens created, and very importantly broaden the language used to describe or discuss them.  What makes a work of art is a matter of intense debate amongst philosophers and art historians, but most agree that it has to do with intention.  A ‘work of art’ has a conceptual side, an intellectual framework.  The artist has a set of ideas that are exposed in what is created and the creation asks questions of the person viewing it or experiencing it.  The created object can be challenging, it may be – but is not necessarily – beautiful.  It is often a commentary on the society in which it is created.  Is, should, or can a garden be these things?

Julius asked why gardens no longer have a place on the cultural map as a means of discussing ideas.  Is it because gardens are now seen as about plants or at best an escape from the modern world and in no way a commentary on it – or is it because the Art world sneers at the accessibility and hands-on nature of gardening, the old ‘physical craft’ versus ‘intellectual art’ debate?  The view that gardening is about doing, not thinking.  Sir Nicholas Serota, of the Tate Gallery, who sent his apologies for not being able to attend the symposium, wanted his view to be forcefully put: ‘Of course gardens can be art.’

The aim of the evening, Julius concluded, and the aim of thinkinGardens, is to stir up and spread this idea and to get gardens out of the ghetto of gardeningthinkinGardens wants gardens to be seen as a serious education and provocation, and not just a wonderful pastime.

She then introduced the first speaker.

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The discussion was led by Jude Kelly

Jude Kelly OBE

Artistic Director of the South Bank, founder of the Solent People’s Theatre, and West Yorkshire Playhouse.  Arts representative to UNESCO. Chair of the Olympic Culture and Education Committee for London 2012.

Man is born to make art, stated Kelly, and always wants beauty and the provocation of paradox.  Gardens can offer that; gardeners, as makers, have a perfect opportunity constantly to fall back in love with humanity.  Today the argument is won that art is necessary to man, but the argument needs to be fought for gardens in particular.

In the arts there has always been an argument, caused by lack of resources, between whether to promote access over excellence; and of course what should be sought is excellence for all. The same principle should hold good in gardens.

Some creative artists actually fear garden-making, because it distracts them from the main area of work be being so deeply absorbing. Not all art is creative; many people, including gardeners, can do art quite uncreatively.  Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness, for example, was created artistically, its neighbours less so. A garden created as art invites and deserves analysis, but a garden made without any pretension to art need not be valued as such.

The profit-making ‘creative industries’ have become just another aspect of consumerism, and discourage at fresh, cultural development.  Those areas of the arts which need subsidy or, like garden-making, are not a repeated process, fall foul of this approach.  The messages of art and gardens include pain and loss and the creative industries cannot fill this gap.

In the locality of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in Leeds, Kelly saw all too clearly how gardens can do wonders to regenerate cities, and how damaging is the lack of gardens.  Yet, when such an area is in need of regeneration, it is to the ‘creative industries’ that the authorities turn.  Society keeps refusing the idea that gardens are a regenerative art.  Public parks have at last won public respectability and funding, but sadly not gardens.

The South Bank, created as part of the Festival of Britain, was made by young people with aspiration who knew how to handle space both indoors and out, and it is Kelly’s wish to revive that vision of creativity and playfulness at the South Bank.  In Portugal the Gulbenkian Museum – the equivalent of the South Bank’s Hayward Gallery – is a garden in itself, and Kelly, with the advice of Dan Pearson, is looking to garden every available roof space.

Putting Gardens Back on the Cultural Map - Image 3

followed by Dan Pearson

Dan Pearson

International garden designer, garden journalist in the Sunday Times, Telegraph, Observer, and broadcaster.

Pearson believes that good gardens look beyond the fence as well as at their own microcosm.  They can represent a philosophy.  In Japan it is accepted that it takes 25 years to become a real gardener, because gardens are generally regarded as an art form.  In Britain it was easier to discuss gardens as an art form 200 years ago.  Curious then, that in Britain with its rich gardening history we are only now beginning once more to discuss gardens as art. Gardens are a means of egalitarian self-expression, something which can be seen in the eclecticism of allotment gardens.  Gardens should be evaluated by all as an multidimensional dynamic art form, but no one should fear being judged because of that.  A romantic vision and an intellectual approach are not mutually exclusive. There may, however, be ways other than formal analysis in the press of engaging with a garden’s meanings, ways which deserve further exploration.

Gardens, as art forms, deal with colour, form, texture, light and shadow, the tension of formality and informality, sculpture, architecture, space, and (above all other art forms) time.  Time is needed not only in their making, but also in their appreciation.

In the moss garden Saiho-Ji, in Japan, 40 minutes is spent in spiritual preparation before visiting the garden, and it becomes a sensual journey in place and time; what at a glance is seen as a moss carpet can then be appreciated as dozens of different species.  At the Maggie Centres, Pearson’s gardens must work closely with buildings to create healing spiritual oases.  Through gardens all people are given a way of reconnecting to nature and an understanding of their place in the ecosystem.

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and Stephen Anderton concluded for the panel

Stephen Anderton

Garden journalist and writer for The Times. Garden maker.  National Gardens Manager for English Heritage.

There is a need to broaden and revitalise our attitudes to gardens, stated Anderton.  The past 30 years have produced a surge in popular gardening and expenditure upon it; people love gardens.  Times are good in these post-War years: we have more gardens in more styles in good condition than ever before.  We have moved through times of earnest restoration to a time when we con concentrate on the daily life of our gardens.  We have the luxury, now, of pursuing gardens as a springboard to ideas and cultural debate.

But gardens in Britain currently have a problem: they are seen as balm more than provocation; they are the Classic FM of the three-dimensional arts.  They are often assumed to come about through intuition and hard work more than through artistic discipline; and while many great gardens are indeed made intuitively it does not mean that the makers were not unconsciously using artistic principles, which can be enjoyably explored by others.

There is a need to re-establish people’s acceptance of the idea that gardens can be about provocation, just as much as plants, the mechanics of design, and style.  What use is a play or a painting, if not to move people and provoke thought and discussion? Gardens need to be established as, quite naturally, expressions of philosophy, science or politics, as may be found in the examples of Little Sparta, Portrack and Stowe.

There is a need to make more acceptable the idea that gardens can be viewed by everybody and written about with an analytic, deconstructive eye.  Too many people are frightened of the idea of gardens being approached this way, and the word criticism is seen as inevitably pejorative.  In fact constructive criticism is the greatest respect a garden can be paid; it may seek to argue the writer’s opinions, of what is good and possibly bad about a garden, but more importantly it will show how a garden makes its effects, and give it a wider cultural context by comparing it to other gardens.  It will show a garden’s ambitions and the extent to which they are achieved.  Why should someone who opens a garden to the public, for any reason, feel happier ignored than reviewed?  To turn the tables, could not a garden which offers itself as an object of sensual pleasure, without any intellectual or artistic agenda, be regarded merely as a form of pornography?

Gardens need actively to offer more to the world of non-gardeners, and to raise society’s expectations of gardens.  The world of arts curators, editors and broadcasters needs to expect more of gardens and to feel it is wrong to present gardens as an expendable item, a jolly anaesthetic, or merely an area for historical exploration.  It needs people in the garden world – makers, curators, journalists – to speak up for gardens as a springboard to broader cultural debate and to offer their services in promoting the idea.  It also needs garden makers to want to make more provocative, ambitious gardens.

The object of the symposium is to encourage the arts world and editors to reach out to gardens, and for garden makers to feel the need to take their ideas as much to arts editors as to gardening editors.  To underpin the idea that gardens are part of our wider culture and a provocation to debate.

Putting Gardens Back on the Cultural Map - Image 5

The panel then led the discussion


Corinne Julius closed the presentations by underlining the need to look at gardens analytically, and to encourage free association and comparison with other arts in doing so.  If food writing can do it, who not garden writing?  We need to find a new critical language with which to explore gardens.  The evening’s participants must feel free to contribute to the ongoing debate via the website.  Julius wondered if the words of Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, on the subject of an exhibition of Japanese Living National Treasures, might apply to the present discussions: ‘ – an aesthetic convention where the principal desire is not to innovate but to excel.  Could some kind of thing be done in this country with, say, gardening?’


A full hour of passionate discussion followed the speakers’ presentations and two thirds of those present spoke.  As well as the matters referred to above, the subjects covered included:

  • The dearth of gardens past and present with ambition to develop a provocative agenda
  • The sad fact that most people who commission a garden designer want comfy beauty, not a thoughtful garden, and that it is up to designers to wean clients towards a more ambitious agenda.
  • The problem of offending garden makers through critical analysis of their work, in a climate where gardens are assumed to be above or not worthy of critical attention.
  • The difficulty of getting critical, analytical writing published, because gardening editors will not take the risk of offending the garden owner (chefs and actors seem to be fair game) and that things will not change here until garden makers and writers take their work to arts editors and persuade them to look at gardens.
  • The problem that so many people, especially young people, are divorced from and deprived of any contact with the soil, but that gardens as provocation and education may be a short-cut to their taking an interest in gardens.
  • The assumption that because gardens are widely seen as merely soothing and comfy, the making of them must also be a soothing process, whereas a garden can also be as troublingly, intellectually provocative to the maker as it is to his/her subsequent audience.
  • Is not a garden charging entrance money open to all kinds of discussion?  Does it not ask to be criticised?  What novelist likes to be ignored by the press, even a best-selling novelist?
Putting Gardens Back on the Cultural Map - Image 6

and the talk went on....

Stephen Anderton

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