Art or Science? a review of Througham Court by Pat Webster

February 25, 2015

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

I’ve never managed to get into Througham Court yet. One day I will. Meanwhile, thanks (many thanks) to Pat Webster of the excellent and truly interesting website Site and Insight where this first appeared, we get a view…

Anne Wareham, editor

Portrait Anne Wareham copyright John Kingdon





Througham Court – review by Pat Webster

Througham Court Copyright Pat Webster2013-76 s

Are gardens intellectual endeavours or places to soothe the spirits? If a garden is intended to be a conceptual work of art, does it succeed if it has to be explained? And what responsibility rests on the person viewing the garden to understand the ideas that shaped it?

Make the questions personal: should I have to work to understand what a garden is about or is it enough merely to enjoy what I see? If I don’t understand the ideas, on what basis do I judge the garden?

Visiting Througham Court in Gloucestershire made me consider these questions.

One of England’s most unusual contemporary gardens, it showcases the interests and enthusiasms of its owner/designer, Christine Facer Hoffman, a medical scientist turned garden designer. At Througham Court (pronounced “thruff-um”), I saw many objects and sculptures that highlight important 20th-century scientific discoveries: cloning, birth control and genetic sequencing, among others. Fibonacci numbers and risk and probability theories appear on gates, paths and fences. Black holes and concepts of time are explained in the Cosmic Evolution Garden. All of this is presented within the framework of a 1930s Arts and Crafts garden that sits next to a house dating back to medieval times, amidst a gloriously rural Cotswolds landscape.

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Througham Court dates from medieval times, with many later additions

Traces of the Arts and Crafts garden remain. The drystone terrace, with its semicircular steps sprouting small rock plants, raises visions of ladies in white gossamer gowns. The topiary, the old croquet lawn and the sunken garden near the house underline the feeling of nostalgia that Arts and Crafts gardens so often arouse.

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Typical Arts and Crafts semicircular steps full of flowers tucked into crevices lead from one level of the garden to the next.

I visited the garden on a rainy day with the members of the tour I was leading. We entered through a handsome gate called Anatomy of a Black Swan.  On the gate a variety of symbols representing risk and probability set the tone for what was to come. (The name of the gate refers to a theory developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that describes unexpected events with significant consequences. Events like the rise of the internet, the September 2001 attacks and the 2008 financial meltdown are black swans.)

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The Anatomy of the Black Swan gate leads into the garden at Througham Court.

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The detail on the gate is more visible in this photo taken from inside the garden.

Just inside the gate was a slightly elevated viewing platform. From it I looked out over the topiary and the drystone terrace, onto the countryside beyond. I tried to avoid looking down at the floor of the terrace, a combination of black, white and red rectangles that to my eyes sat uneasily beside the more familiar traces of the past.

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The Chirality Terrace: intriguing or jarring?

The viewing platform is called the Chirality Terrace, a name that demanded an explanation. Which Ms Facer Hoffman provided. In mathematics, chirality is the property of a figure that is not identical to its mirror image. Chirality also relates to right-handed and left-handed molecules. Hands are an example of chirality: the mirror image of the left hand can’t be superimposed on the right hand, no matter how the hands are positioned.

Mirror imaging plays a big part on the Chirality Terrace. The word itself is spelled out backwards and upside down on a stone pillar; its image reflected in water reads correctly.

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Raindrops disturb the reflection in the water, making it impossible to read the word Chirality the right way around.

The word Alice (of Alice in Wonderland fame, honouring the mathematician and author Lewis Carroll) is carved into the tiles, right-side up and flipped down. A profile carved on a bench is repeated, Janus-style.

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The bench and other objects in the garden are made with top quality materials.

The letters on the stone wall (shown in the first photo of the Chirality Terrace) are part of a DNA sequence; the formula on the patterned floor shown below alludes to … to what? I can’t remember. But after a lot of poking around on the internet, and with the help of a molecular biologist friend, I learned that the letters and number refer to two forms of a specific amino acid (alenine).  The colours have meaning as well: black represents carbon, white is hydrogen and red is oxygen, elements that are the basis of all organic life.  The blue that represents nitrogen is shown in the formula’s lettering, and possibly elsewhere.

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I don’t remember what these equations were about. Perhaps someone can tell me. But do I care? Should I?

I enjoy learning new things. I like hearing someone talk about their passions. I love the idea of seeing those passions displayed in an unusual way – in this case, in a garden. But at the same time, I like discovering things for myself. I like puzzling out an exhibition in a museum, trying to understand the ideas the artist is exploring without depending on an audio guide.

Visiting Througham Court was like visiting an art installation that explored scientific concepts, of which I am woefully ignorant. The ideas were presented artfully, spread out in different garden rooms. But the audio guide was always turned on. As rain fell and umbrellas bumped, Ms Facer Hoffman led us through the garden rooms, providing information and answering questions with courtesy and aplomb. Non-stop information.

Garden tours work on schedules. Perhaps if I had been alone and able to wander through the garden, I would have been intrigued by the elements I encountered. Certainly there were many puzzling things. With more time, would I have examined the objects that sat on top of posts near the house? Would I have searched for connections? What could link the medicine tablet that sat on top of one post to the extended fingers that so clearly alluded to da Vinci’s Sistine Chapel paintings?

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Fingers almost touch as they do on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But what do these almost touching fingers mean in this setting?

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The dosage is obvious. But what are the medicine tablets supposed to direct our minds to?

And what did the outline of a sheep have to do with anything?

The sheep reminded me of the heraldic animals I had seen in the reconstructed Tudor garden at Hampton Court Palace only the week before. Was the link between Tudor gardens and the age of the house?  Between the touching fingers, the sheep and religion? But what about the pill? Where did it fit in?

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How many sheep do you know that have a black line dividing their bodies in half? Could this be a clue?

I didn’t ask the questions because the answer was provided before I could think of them. The elevated objects represented significant discoveries made in the 20th century. The sheep is Dolly, the first to be cloned. Another kind of black swan, perhaps.

This blog post isn’t a review of Througham Court as much as a ramble of thoughts about the value of discovering things for yourself.  It’s about the joy that comes from investing your time and energy in someone else’s creation. It’s about what a garden is (or can be), about what we expect, and how we react when we find the unexpected.

There were elements at Througham Court that I loved. The path cut through a field, outlined with a simple white line that disappeared over a drystone wall, was a huge success. I appreciated the spacing of the trees planted beside the path. At the far end, two trees were planted a metre apart; the second and third trees were planted two metres apart, the third and fourth trees, three metres, then five, then eight. (Yes, it was a long path.) Because Ms Facer Hoffman had mentioned several times how the Fibonacci sequence of numbers appeared in nature (in the arrangement of sunflower seeds, for example), I could understand the spacing and appreciate how she had, literally, made the Fibonacci sequence visible.

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Trees beside the path are spaced in a Fibonacci sequence: the sum of the two preceding numbers. 0+1=1; 1+1=2; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8; 5+8=11. And so on, and on.

I liked the flags that led my eye down the white-lined path. I liked the grass-covered mound nearby, and the sunburst pool edged with slate that reflected light and shadow in roughly equal measure.

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Slate set on edge makes this pool appear like a sunburst laid flat on the ground.

I was amused by the shrubs at the far end of the old croquet court, trimmed to form reclining lounge chairs. I liked the metal pieces that caged the cone-shaped trees, and the skinny trees that reminded me of the flagpoles in the field beyond.

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The grass in the old croquet court is mown in strips. From the side the strips looked like waves. I didn’t have a chance to see if the surface was uneven or if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

I liked the fencing that ran around the vegetable garden. Ms Facer Hoffman has a dog named Pi. The fence is topped with the endless sequence of numbers that make up the decimal points of pi. I liked this connection: it was amusing and the fencing was aesthetically satisfying.

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Ms Facer Hoffman told us the number of decimal places of pi displayed on the fence, but I don’t remember how many there were. Do the highlighted white number represent the Fibonacci sequence?

The Cosmic Evolution garden was less successful. I liked the plantings and the arrangement of the spheres but, like the Chirality Terrace, the area felt overly contrived.

And yet… After understanding more about the details of the Chirality Terrace, I was impressed by the depth with which Ms Facer Hoffman had explored the concept and made it visible. As I learned more, it became more satisfying intellectually. But it remained unsatisfying aesthetically. The red tiles jarred. They made me uncomfortable. (And I like red.)

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I believe that Charles Jencks’ Garden of Cosmic Speculation was the inspiration for this Cosmic Evolution Garden. I may be wrong

Would I have responded differently to this garden if I had been alone? Would I have taken the time to read the inscriptions under each sphere in the Cosmic Evolution Garden and try to decipher their meaning? Would I have connected the dark pool surrounded by black mondo grass with the idea of a black hole? It’s impossible to say, because I didn’t have the chance.


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Only once was I alone in the garden. I wandered into a small area to the side of a path and was captured immediately by the atmosphere. It was quiet and contained and intriguing.

Wooden boards defined a triangular piece of grass. The edging ended in a sharp point, which seemed pointless, and the borders weren’t well planted, but the chance to look and discover something without being instructed made the detour worthwhile. And only now, looking at my photos, do I wonder if the triangular shapes here were meant to recall the triangular trees beside the old croquet court. Were there other triangles I hadn’t noticed?

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A triangle of grass sits to the side of a main path. Is there a reason for it?

Ms Facer Hoffman’s garden is a garden of ideas. In the centre of a black bamboo grove, a small table stands on a metal disk. A sentence is written there: Never let your memories be greater than your dreams.

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An interesting sentiment: “Never let your memories be greater than your dreams.” Do you agree?

Clearly, this sentiment expresses something important to Ms Facer Hoffman. What, exactly, I don’t know. Certainly her garden does not rely on memories of gardens past. How the scientific ideas she illustrates relate to her dreams is far from clear, to me at least. And what does it matter?

I’d like to return to Througham Court with time to spare. I’d like to explore freely, to reach my own conclusions, in my own time. Would the garden reward the effort? Perhaps, perhaps not. And disappointingly, I’ll probably never know.

But of all the gardens in England I visited last year, Througham Court is the one that continues to occupy my mind. In my books, that alone makes it a big success.

Pat Webster

Site and Insight Website

PAT-WEBSTER-blog-page portrait

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Pam/Digging July 8, 2015 at 7:31 am

Pat, thanks for your very interesting discussion of this garden’s effects. I do enjoy gardens with a deeper meaning, and you’re right that one needs time to wander through them at leisure in order to figure out how you feel or what they might mean. Have you ever been to Bedrock Gardens in Lee, NH? I think you’d like it. The resident artist is adept at creating thoughtful, even challenging displays. And it’s a lot closer to home for you than this garden in England!

Pat Webster July 19, 2015 at 11:08 pm

Thanks for the lead to Bedrock Gardens, Pam. I have read about it but had forgotten — so now it is on my ‘want-to-visit’ list. This list is long and getting longer!

John Kramer March 25, 2015 at 4:04 pm

Sorry to be late to this, but I’m very glad that Sarah Coles mentioned Ian Hamilton Finlay. That was my first thought. I think the non-living materials in this garden have to be evaluated as art, and not (only?!) as elements of a garden. Finlay’s additions to the landscape have a very strong underpinning of concept, typography, and fabrication. Even if I don’t “get” them right away, the works resonates with a kind of is-ness that satisfies me. It’s a quality that I also appreciate in gardens. Througham Court, based on these few photographs, lacks this quality. That said, I’m sure this garden has other qualities to recommend it, and I appreciate any makers who are willing to share, with hand and heart, what interests them. (Which goes double for garden blogs!)

Pat Webster March 26, 2015 at 4:36 pm

John, your comment isn’t late, rather it keeps the conversation alive.

Facer Hoffman acknowledges her debt to Charles Jencks and the Garden of Cosmic Speculation and it is evident in many areas of the garden. Hamilton Finlay’s work is immensely satisfying in photos — it does appear to resonate with ‘is-ness,’ which I believe is an essential quality in any work of art. The pieces at Througham Court feel planned rather than felt, which may account for their questionable success. I have yet to visit Little Sparta but will be seeing it and Cosmic Speculation in September. Their relationship to Througham Court and what my responses to each will be is something I’m eager to discover.

Anne, is that a ThinkinGardens piece just waiting to be written?

annewareham March 26, 2015 at 4:38 pm

Sounds like it. Is that a volunteer? Xx

Pat Webster March 26, 2015 at 6:56 pm


Kjeld Slot March 5, 2015 at 8:58 pm

Thanks for your good and thoughtful post Pat. I love it! I think the garden provokes me; expensive materials, hides the lack of artistic skills.
I think your comments and questions in this text are much more interesting to read, than the items and objects in the garden you visit. Why? – because this garden seems to be a place like a hundred thousand others; a fine garden perhaps, but there is too much of it! It seems to be overdone and filled with things and stuff that in this case; gives us mathematic answers, instead of pulling aestetic questions. The materials are exspensive yeah! -, but the lack of tactility and tasteful (not expensive) materials, that love the wind, the sun and the rain, that invites the patina of moss and lichten, are nonexisting in this garden to me. I find it rather plastic-fantastic and performance anxiety. (if you can use such a word in English)

Garden as an artform can (to me) reflect the world we live in, tiny worlds and big ones, but if the intention, or the idea of telling me a story from this world in these days over-dominate an aestetic willingness, – which I think in this case are gone with the sculptural qualities, – there is nothing interesting left in fifty years, when the idea no longer is relevant. Then we “only” have the aestetic experience left to enjoy. Sorry! I cannot find it.
But your post and pictures made my blood role Pat


Pat Webster March 6, 2015 at 4:38 pm

One of the most interesting things to me about this garden is the different reactions it provokes. Unquestionably, there is a lot going on in this garden, and there are sections that I didn’t show at all. Those I omitted didn’t fit into the story I was telling… which says something both about me and the way that a review shapes what you pay attention to. An old walled garden with lichen and a gorgeous little snail was one of them. This part of the garden was much like many others, but the rest was not.
I believe that Ms Facer Hoffman would argue that she is presenting significant ideas whose impact will last for centuries. The connection between the Fibonacci sequence and natural structure was the dominant scientific idea, and I believe she showed this beautifully in the spacing of the trees along the path through the field. Very simple, very effective. At least, to me!

Sarah Coles March 2, 2015 at 7:14 pm

A garden can be an intellectual journey, spirit soother, wildlife haven, sculpture park, a work of art or child’s playpen, whatever you like. When it comes to others’ gardens, I personally hate guided tours of any kind – the guide is a baffle between me and the garden. I need to wander off and be inspired on my own. But a piece of paper is fine, because it doesn’t get in the way, and I can look at it when I want further elucidation.

This garden sounds something of a mishmash, a bit of Charles Jencks, a bit of Jekyll, a bit of Hamilton Finlay and so on – maybe it isn’t. I like the nearly touching fingers (Michelangelo actually, not da Vinci in the Sistine Chapel), the trees in Fibonacci sequence, the concept of chirality which I’ve never heard before – though I think the chirality terrace looks hideous.

And I always wonder in a mercenary way whenever I see anything like this: where did the money for it come from?

Pat Webster March 3, 2015 at 4:07 pm

Sarah, I wouldn’t describe the garden as a mishmash but it was too full of ideas, images and potential inspirations to absorb in a single visit, particularly when the opportunities for quiet observation and thought were so few. Thank you for the correction — of course it was Michelangelo.

On the question of where the money came from, I have no idea. The garden was very well maintained, ditto for the house l — and as anyone who lives in one will confirm, old houses require a lot of upkeep which means a lot of money.The quality of materials in the garden and the care with which they were used all indicate there was no shortage of it.

annewareham March 1, 2015 at 7:10 pm

Interestingly, read explain or discover, Stephen Anderton discussed this issue in the context of a perhaps similar garden:

Jane February 27, 2015 at 11:08 pm

What an interesting article. I was glad to get the chance to see something of this garden but I would have liked some of the photos to be taken a little further away to see how the elements fitted into their setting. I’m puzzled by the purpose of such a garden. And as for the unwanted explication – I recently visited a small art gallery, where the artist greeted every comment on the work with a lengthy description of the circumstances that inspired each piece, as though nothing could be there that hadn’t been put into it by design. It was a sad mistake, killing everything stone dead. We have to be able to participate in a work of art by bringing our own thoughts and impressions, otherwise we just feel a shallowness in what is presented. In this case it seems that greater depth to the concepts could have been provided by the experience of the garden setting – I’m not sure if that happened.

Pat Webster March 1, 2015 at 6:48 pm

Jane, I agree with what you say about an artist explaining everything — if it can be explained, why not write it instead of painting it? A viewer of whatever type of art who works to understand what they are seeing gets more out of the experience than one who simply listens. Personal engagement leads to an exchange of ideas and makes for a more rewarding experience.
I appreciate your comment about wanting photographs that give a better sense of the context to see how elements fit into the setting. That can be difficult, sometimes impossible. But if photos are to convey a sense of place, that has to happen.

Christine dakin February 27, 2015 at 9:50 pm

The photos on the Trougham Court website are somehow more of an incentive to visit the garden but I think that anything in art which needs explanations is trying too hard to impress. The emperors new clothes? I do wonder how much this cost and how many people are/were involved in the creation of this garden.

Pat Webster March 1, 2015 at 7:01 pm

I’m glad the photos make you want to visit the garden, Christine. It is a complex site with so much to see and understand that a single visit is not enough, and I’d love to return to see and photograph it again.
There’s no doubt, the garden must have been expensive to build — the materials used are of a high quality and that doesn’t come cheap. I’m not sure I agree that art which needs explanation is trying too hard. Some things require explanation. For me the key is when in a process the explanation is given. When I visit a museum, I like to go through an exhibit on my own, looking and discovering what I can without someone telling me what I’m seeing or what I should think about it. I then like to go through again using an audio commentary. Learning more about what I’m seeing helps me clarify my responses so that when I go through for a third time, I’m able to combine, and sometimes modify, my initial response in view of what I’ve learned. This is in an ideal world, of course — rarely do I have the luxury of going through an exhibit three times!

Joseph Valentine February 27, 2015 at 4:47 pm

Thanks to Pat for her insightful and non-judgmental review of this most interesting garden, which I would love to visit. Although the scientist in me finds much of the symbolism in this garden fascinating, I’m not sure why non-scientists would find it that much different than other gardens that display a preponderance of sculptural art. Forget about the inside story, you either enjoy the artistic elements as they relate to the garden or you don’t. I have visited some “artsy gardens” whose display of abstract sculptural forms seem to have absolutely no connection back to reality. At least in the case of Througham Court, Ms Facer Hoffman can provide an explanation (and scientific, no less) for each and every element. I like a little quirkiness in gardens. I’m not into hubcaps and glass balls but many of the elements here look like they are made from the finest materials and they intrigue me.

Pat Webster March 1, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Througham Court seems different to me than gardens where the sculpture contributes primarily to the aesthetic of the site. In a way it more closely resembles Italian Renaissance gardens, where the meaning of the garden as a whole is built up from a series of experiences with fountains, statues and such, rather than presented as a straight-line narrative that has to be viewed in one way or from one direction only. This garden created meaning for me by the accumulation of sculptural elements placed in a way that made me curious about what I was seeing. You are right — Christine Facer Hoffman has used materials of a very high quality and it shows.

James Golden February 27, 2015 at 2:17 pm

Nothing wrong with the concept of a garden of ideas. Can’t most gardens be seen as gardens of ideas? I like the review because Pat Webster doesn’t rush to judgment, and of course one can’t judge on seeing a few images. I’ve seen this garden elsewhere, in Tim Richardson’s book The New English Garden, for example. I can say with certainty that what I like most about this garden has nothing to do with the features representing explicit scientific concepts. I’m fascinated by the concepts themselves, but I’d rather read about them in books, not see them represented in symbolic form. I react negatively to such overt didacticism, but I’m intrigued enough to want to see the garden.

annewareham February 27, 2015 at 2:38 pm

One more for the list, James? (I’ll get a list for you soon but this one is difficult to get into. At least it has been for me. Think you may have to be a group.)

James Golden February 28, 2015 at 3:08 pm

Thanks, Anne. True for so many of them. You need a busload.

Pat Webster March 1, 2015 at 7:18 pm

Can most gardens be seen as gardens of ideas? I’m not sure. Those where non-horticultural ideas are the dominant and controlling motif are few and far between. Little Sparta is one — I’ll be taking a group to visit it in the fall and am eagerly awaiting the opportunity. Studley Royal is also on the itinerary… another garden of ideas, perhaps?

Katherine Crouch February 26, 2015 at 8:07 pm

oh dear, I am feeling aged and traditional. I like the old Arts and Crafts bits of this garden and the new slate sunray pond and the caged obelisk trees. Cummerbunded sheep and pills? No thanks methinks. This garden’s new elements are just trying too hard, as if the owner is shouting,’I am a very intelligent and erudite person, d’you hear?” Calm down dear, it’s only a garden. Do try to get out more.

Pat Webster March 1, 2015 at 7:21 pm

Your comment makes me laugh, Katherine. I believe Ms Facer Hoffman is intelligent and erudite and has shown this in her garden. Does she shout her erudition? Some among our group rather complained that they couldn’t hear her!

Pat Webster March 1, 2015 at 7:23 pm

Forgot to mention: I also liked the Arts and Crafts elements, the caged trees, the stone sunburst. I loved the white line along the path through the field, and the gorgeous flags.

Kate February 26, 2015 at 2:38 pm

the picture with the “equations” (actually chemical structures) marked L and D are examples of chiral molecules. That is, there is a left-handed one (L) and a right-handed one (D), mirror images of one another. As a scientist, I enjoyed looking at these garden photos, but I wouldn’t do this in my garden. My personal approach is more intuitive than analytical.

Pat Webster March 1, 2015 at 7:28 pm

It takes a certain bravery to put this kind of science into a garden. Easier because more immediately accessible would be to put a large sculptural apple under a tree, with the word Newton written on the apple. Througham Court is an unusual place — less analytical than illustrative of scientific ideas.

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