Coombe House reviewed by Darryl Moore

May 1, 2008

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

The second of two excellent reviews of Coombe House, with thanks to Darryl Moore. This review particularly addresses the interesting effect that contact with the owner and maker of a garden may have. (apologies for small pictures – this is now quite an old post.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

Anne Wareham




The Relationship between Garden and Creator

Reflections on a visit to Plaz Metaxu (Coombe House), Devon by Darryl Moore

The Vista group visit to Coombe House to view Alasdair Forbes’ Plaz Metaxu garden proved to be interesting, not only in terms of viewing the garden itself, but also in relation to some of the debates it raises concerning gardens in general.

It is great that Alasdair has created this garden, which is certainly the work of his personal vision. A garden of a such a symbolic nature could be considered to be quite unfashionable and even difficult for contemporary tastes. It is also remarkable that he has created it without coming from the garden/design/horticulture world. But whilst this fact evokes admiration and accords him a certain maverick status, it also can serve to overlook problems regarding meaning, interpretation, and the relationship between a garden and it’s creator.

The experience of any garden is enhanced by the information the viewer has to draw upon when visiting, so the guided tour by Alasdair was useful in providing insights into a very textually layered site. Alasdair has a clear perspective on what the garden means to him, which has obviously been a strength in creating it, and he articulates this through a particular use of language, and a body of historical and theoretical references. These references are not those typically used in relation to most contemporary gardens and require a certain amount of background knowledge to fully understand and appreciate. Consequently in-depth debate was not really possible under the circumstances of the tour. However certain questions which queried the premise of the work were deflected by Alasdair, in a charmingly erudite manner, which seemed to effect a rather uncritical acceptance of the work.

Thus the tour acted to establish a framework for experiencing the garden. Alasdair’s particular, persuasive manner, was used to a somewhat disarming effect, as could be evidenced by the reactions of many members of the group. Experiencing the garden through his oracular presentation, seemed to create an aspect of reverence about the event, which was as much to do with his personality as with the garden itself. The projection of these personal characteristics onto the garden, invested it with a layer of meaning which possibly may not have been readable from the site itself, thereby conditioning the understanding of it.

This conflation of the producer and presenter of the garden, accords an air of authenticity and authority to Alasdair’s position, which enables him to be able to present his own work in the manner he feels is most befitting. This is obviously a beneficial situation for any creator, but it directs a biased viewing of the garden, framing ‘correct’ meanings, establishing the scope of possible interpretations, and making it very difficult to disassociate the maker from the work.

The desire to control the appreciation of any garden, is to an extent quite understandable, as obviously a great deal of the psychology of a creator is invested into the work. As gardens are very much tied up with not only personal, but also cultural identities and values, they are often rigorously defended spaces. The idea of the garden as an enclosure or sanctuary, applies not only to the physical space, but is also as a kind of metaphor for a mental fortress, which mediates between the private and public realms.

As a consequence gardens are obviously products of their creators, embodying their intentions and aspirations, which are inevitably reflected in some manner in the work. But to give predominance to the maker in the garden experience, over and above other factors, is somewhat problematic. Such an approach encourages a pathology of gardens, in which they are read as aspects of their creator’s personality, rather than as entities which can be interpreted in their own right, or as part of a larger more complex picture.

The preponderance of this psychological approach to cultural works, over the social and historical aspects, is a widespread cultural phenomenon. It fuses the Romantic notion of the artist, with certain misunderstood ideas from psychoanalysis, and is reinforced by contemporary media-fed ideas about celebrity culture. It is apparent as much as in relation to Van Gogh as it is to Amy Winehouse. And it is something that the garden world is certainly not immune from. The association of personality to place is obvious, if one considers the work of Beth Chatto, Christo, Vita etc.

On the other hand, the bracketing of a garden as a self-sufficient work, which can be analysed and criticised upon it’s own merits (in a formalistic manner), is a useful approach to interpreting the elements it contains, and considering whether they work in accordance with design or horticultural ideas. But this approach if employed exclusively is equally problematic, as it denies the fact that the influence of the creator has any influence at all over the gardens interpretation. Rather, a joined-up approach to reading gardens is needed to contextualise both these approaches, alongside the social and historical circumstances of it’s creation and presentation.

Therefore any critical reading of a garden needs to consider the social factors which surround the phenomenon of the role of the creator. Rather than privileging or discounting this aspect, the implications need to be realised and incorporated into the understanding of the work, alongside any historical, design or horticultural factors. Consideration needs to be given to the distinctions between the creator’s role in gardens which are part of a historical legacy as opposed to contemporary creations, and also the motivation involved in those where the creator/presenter is active in directing and controlling the experience of the garden.

Understanding the role of the creator in this way will help to place the problematic of personality into a wider perspective, which aims to provide a balance between all of the social and physical aspects of a site. As this balance will always be relative to the garden under consideration, a sensitivity to its complexity must always be an essential part of any successful critical analysis.

Darryl Moore

Portrait of Darryl Moore copyright Darryl Moore

Moore Design blog

Read Stephen Anderton’s review of Plaz Metaxu

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