When discussing modern gardens, certain places seem to come up a lot: Little Sparta, Sutton Place, Derek Jarman’s garden. But outstripping them all in terms of general interest is Charles Jencks’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfriesshire. When mention/plug to people a forthcoming book about contemporary conceptual landscape design (Martha Schwartz and her disciples], people ask whether the Jencks garden — as it is more familiarly known — is going to be in there. It is not going to be in there, and perhaps I ought to explain why.
I first visited this astonishing place in 1996, in order to write the first magazine article to be published on it (for Country Life). Charles Jencks was a benevolent host and I will never forget standing on top of the giant wave form at the heart of the garden, as low-flying RAF jets whizzed past on maneouvres. Apparently this was unusual but it only increased my sense of other-worldly excitement, as Mr Jencks, clad in a black suit replete with electric-blue shirt and matching electric-blue handkerchief, clutched me by the shoulders and yelled above the noise: ‘Can’t you see? We are in a dialogue with the universe!’ Inside his extraordinary house he offered me tea before exclaiming: ‘Perhaps we should have champagne!’ And so it was.
At that point the garden was barely known, a thrilling revelation. The cosmic theories which underpinned everything were held in balance with the decorative qualities of highly original features such as the Symmetery Break Terrace or Soliton Wave Gates. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the single most effective part of the garden then and now — the huge wave form in the shape of a fractal — is the feature least burdened by theory, in that a fractal is an expression of pure energy which physicists do not know but assume might be S-shaped.
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is not a conceptual or even a symbolic garden — it is a demonstration qarden, in which features are created in order to replicate physical expressions of cosmological theory in a highly literal manner, in the way of those little red molecule balls connected by sticks, so beloved of chemistry teachers. In this sense the garden has more in common with a taxonomically arranged Renaissance botanical garden (Pisa or Padua) than an artistically nuanced place such as Little Sparta.
It has to be said that as time has gone on, the slightly hectoring tone of the garden has only increased. It verges on absurdity in the new cascade, for example, which purports to tell the story of the entire universe in its terraces, much as an evangelical 1 8th-century garden owner once tried to tell the story of Pilgrim’s Progress in his domain. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is no longer a dialogue with the universe, it is a monologue about the universe. It is becoming The Garden of Comic Extrapolation, and someone needs to say it.
Tim Richardson’s recent books are “Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden” and “Avant Gardeners: 50 Visionaries of the Contemporary Landscape”
This piece was originally published in the Garden Design Journal November 2007 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor.
Society of Garden Designers, Katepwa House, Ashfield Park Avenue, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire HR9 5AX
T: 01 989 566695
F: 01989 567676