Amanda Patton on “Yes, Gardens can be works of art”

July 28, 2007

in Uncategorized

Comment on Germaine Greer’s “Yes, Gardens can be works of art, but you’d never know it from the Chelsea Flower show”

Anne Wareham states that conceptual references “only evoke a feeling response if they draw on images and ideas which are already part of the psyche”.  I would agree, but I also think that the best of our contemporary creativity draws heavily on our long tradition of the Arts without us necessarily being aware of it, whether it’s in music (Mika’s classical training, for instance), advertising or any other field of popular culture.

Art, in its broadest sense, is constantly evolving, and in order to create something new and valid, we have to be aware of where, creatively, we have come from.  We need to study it, learn from it and adapt it to make it relevant to modern life.  Given that the digital age has enabled the Arts to be far more accessible to far more people than ever before, and given that a broad range of popular culture is already heavily influenced by tradition, I would like to think that the psyche that Anne refers to is actually far broader than she might have us believe.

One of the most interesting books, for me, of the last few years has been Diarmuid Gavin’s “Outer Spaces”.  What I find compelling about this book is not the gardens themselves, but rather the double page spread preceding each that shows a montage of Gavin’s inspirations for that particular garden.  These embrace both classical art and popular culture, from prehistoric carved stones to daleks – images and ideas that are part of our collective and current psyche, images and ideas that we should all be drawing on to create diverse, personal and sometimes controversial spaces.

I believe that gardens can’t be truly successful if they are created in isolation from the Arts and the culture of our society, and that they must refer to this in order to have depth.  I don’t think we should necessarily have to understand or even be aware of the depths of meaning within a garden to appreciate it (though as with ‘The Wasteland’ our experience of the garden would be enhanced by the knowledge) but I think without these depths gardens are in danger of being bland.

This is where Show Gardens come in.  Nothing is more of the now than these, nothing gives as much scope to expand ideas and challenge current thinking.  Show gardens allow the perfect opportunity for our wilder inspirations to come to the fore in a way that isn’t always possible in ‘real’ gardens.  They should stretch the boundaries of our thinking and feeling, they should have an element of theatre about them.  Like the fashion catwalk, they should excite, or show something new or daring; and, as with the catwalk, ideas that initially seem bizarre very often find their way into the mainstream a few years later.  It isn’t an indulgence – if we don’t stretch the boundaries then garden design will become stagnant.  This is why I get so particularly upset when show gardens are no more than pastiche, or recreations of other gardens or other times.  Yes, clever maybe, technically competent, but not relevant.  The public loves them (so reinforcing the desire to stage them) but the public also loves magnolia paint – both are safe, familiar and boring.  However, like a house painted in magnolia, those show gardens will not live on in memory, or inspire us, because ultimately they have no depth.

In September last year, having not been before, I visited the gardens at Bury Court.  I saw first the Piet Oudolf plantings, the convex path of setts, the very beautiful planting.  I thought many parts of the garden were delightful, especially the large drifts of Molinia and the contrast with sculptural blocks of box and yew.  However, I then moved on to the Christopher Bradley Hole garden and was suddenly deeply moved.  It was scruffy in areas, there were gaps in the planting, it wasn’t ‘pretty’ in the way that the Oudolf garden was, but it had a distinct atmosphere that held me entranced and when I think of Bury Court now, that is what I remember.

There are lessons for all of us in the way that Bradley Hole works – his disciplined use of classical proportions, the way he applies physical layers in the creation of each garden, but most importantly I am quite sure that it is his depth of creative knowledge influencing his design decisions that allows the creation of memorable spaces.

So perhaps this is the important issue, that garden designers should have a vast internal library of creative influences from all the Arts and popular culture, a creative vocabulary far deeper than a love of particular plants, in order to produce gardens that do have meaning, that will live on.  If we can talk about it, so much the better.

Amanda Patton – writer, designer, illustrator

Amanda Patton’s website

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