Andrew Wilson on “Yes, Gardens can be works of art”

July 25, 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”

As an assessor and judge for RHS show gardens for the last 12 years, I found myself perplexed by Germain Greer’s response to this year’s Chelsea Flower which came to light on June 4.  “Having fled the show ground after a mere 20 minutes” she then at least tried to examine her state of “revulsion” at the horticultural spectacular.  Call me biased but I am sure there are many more revolting things on this planet.

Greer’s response belies a confused notion of the substantial differences between horticulture, gardening and garden design – a difficulty she shares with a significant proportion of the population.

Chelsea is a horticultural fest and undoubtedly the best celebration of its kind in the world but I would not visit especially to find gardening wisdom.  The show gardens are an increasingly important part of Chelsea, exploring garden design rather than horticulture or gardening – they are judged on spatial composition, scale and proportion, atmosphere and character as well as planting design and construction.  The show gardens that Greer dismisses as “bad art” are probably closer to art in conceptual terms than she might think and certainly share Ian Hamilton Finlay’s “glooms and solitudes”, which Greer obviously enjoys.

In relating these endeavours to her sister’s “beau ideal” Australian garden, some 20 years in evolution, Greer misses the point totally.  For Chelsea provides the catwalk of the garden design profession, an opportunity to show flamboyant new ideas, materials, planting design, planned for at least 1 year but built from the playing fields of the Royal Hospital in little more than three weeks.  These gardens have to sizzle rather than slowly evolve.  Showmanship may dazzle the eye but within each garden is a careful amalgam of science and art that certainly requires more than 20 minutes of anyone’s time.  As there were 20 show gardens in all, this leaves Greer with approximately 1 minute per garden to assess and criticise in depth before fleeing.

Gardens can be art but for the most part they serve as functional spaces which immediately renders them design.  To refer to them as “tarted up rooms” is somewhat philistine but in contrast, Charles Jencks and Derek Jarman are thrown in to the discussion to show that Greer is aware of a more aesthetic garden product.  These are designed spaces rather than any artful expression of gardening and it is important to draw this distinction – a little like comparing architectural design with painting and decorating.

All around us, garden design has changed dramatically with several significant shifts over the last decade away from pure horticulture and towards a more art based and conceptual development.  Before the Victorians, and outside the UK, gardens were much more atuned to the artistic movements of the day in contrast to the curatorial approach of most British gardeners over the last century, keen to acquire an ever more expanding plant collection.

I welcome this return to the art of garden design and to the conceptual thinking within it as a way of introducing innovative qualities into our domestic spaces.  We need to accommodate climate change within this as our planting palette changes, we need to accept that lifestyles and aspirations have changed and continue to change dramatically and that gardening is no longer the hobby of choice for a large proportion of people, we need to achieve a new and wider awareness of garden design and garden making as the provider of flexible, dynamic, artistic, expressive and uplifting outdoor spaces in whatever form they take.

Chelsea show gardens provide an unparalleled window for such exploration, from whence comes my enthusiasm.  Perhaps, next year, I could invite Germaine to the show for a more extensive viewing and a little more debate, giving me time to find someone already taking the piss with “gaudy Perspex windmills and bobbing plastic bags” to which I might exclaim “yes – but is it art?!”

Andrew Wilson – garden designer, writer and lecturer based in Surrey and Chief Assessor for Show Gardens for the RHS.

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