Anne Wareham on “Yes, Gardens can be works of art”

July 26, 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”

The Elephant in the Room

Indeed I do invite that intellectual discussion, and I would love that discussion to begin. So far it hasn’t – and perhaps that might once been for lack of a place to have such discussion. But now we have thinkinGardens, where uninhibited debate and discussion can and does happen. So – are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

So what is the question? My question, which I am attempting to answer at the Veddw, is this: how can we use gardens to communicate and express ideas and deep feeling in the 21st century?

Perhaps so far we are failing, but if that is the case we cannot move on without clarifying and exploring the causes of that failure.

When Noel Kingsbury wrote a review of the garden for Gardens Illustrated he said of the Grasses Parterre:

“…it is a representation of the 1848 tithe map of the Veddw area, with ‘fields’ represented by ornamental grasses and ‘hedges’ by the box. It is an interesting idea, but does not work. Nowhere is high up enough to read it as a map, and many of the grasses used are too large to be read as crops.”

Grasses Parterre at Veddw House Garden

© Charles Hawes

Contrary to some people’s belief this did not make me angry, but the literalism of it astonished me, and left me wondering whether anyone actually understands this use of an emblematic form in a garden? If not, why not? Is it intrinsically problematic? No-one has discussed this with me, not even when visiting the garden and seeing it in the flesh: a very strange and frustrating silence. Meaning and messages in the garden at the Veddw is the elephant in the room.

Maybe it really doesn’t work? Maybe it doesn’t work aesthetically? Maybe people don’t wish to say these things to me? But, brace yourselves: this is absolutely worthy of discussion, whether the garden is worthy or not.

Because we know that gardens can be used this way: we know because the 18th century led the way before it all petered out in a plethora of plants. But anyone who has attempted it knows that it is difficult.

One of the difficulties is that people have, in the past, used the classical world in their garden making, its stories, its gods and goddesses and myths, to send messages. This is keeping us with one foot in the grave perhaps, since this world is no longer familiar to the majority of even the well educated population. It may have worked well, but it only works now with a great deal of explication, and it that must lose resonance and depth. References of this kind only evoke a feeling response if they draw on images and ideas which are already part of the psyche.

It is not so much that explanation is needed: this is ordinary in a work of art. No-one who has read the Wasteland would deny the illumination which explanation can offer. Not many people who have studied a book or play would deny the increase in richness that that study brought to their pleasure in the work. But a work of art should also be of its own time. As Sara Maitland said in her review of East Ruston

“In any other field of art a major new work would be appraised, to some extent at least, on grounds of originality and development, not just on technique and execution: no one would be applauded for reproducing – however well – a George Eliot novel.”

Ian Hamilton Finlay also used the classical world at Little Sparta – a world still alive and full of meaning to him, and he used them in a great many quotations, overwhelmingly in Latin. And as a result there often seems to me to be an element of the Emperor’s New Clothes about admiration of this garden.

Stephanie Ross* describes it as a postmodernist garden:

“… while Stowe and Stourhead’s references to the classical world were part of the shared vocabulary of the Augustan Age, Finlay’s appropriation of neoclassical style is singular and savage…. (it) marks Little Sparta as a highly self-conscious work. Finlay uses the neoclassical garden to make an ironic statement: he doesn’t revive the garden as a viable twentieth-century art form. For this reason Little Sparta is a paradigm case of a postmodern work of art.”

Also the end of being able to use the classical world in this way?

I haven’t seen the Garden of Cosmic Speculation so I don’t feel confident to comment. But Tim Richardson describes it thus:

“it is a demonstration garden, 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.”

Perhaps the place where meaning in gardens is best exemplified is in show gardens: Chaumont, Chelsea? But there is no greater discussion of them in these terms than of any of the above, anywhere. Another elephant? These gardens ought to be a vibrant, exciting example of the use of gardens to communicate, but they’re not, are they? Why is there no discourse about this aspect of the gardens? The irritating ‘theme’ usually seems to be a invented raison d’etre, a bit of grit to create a garden around in the absence of real place – or commission? Sometimes it is simple nonsense, supporting a pastiche of Hidcote, for example. But some of them work and leave a lasting resonance. Do some speak to meaning better than others? Who’s to say? Us, please.

Stephanie Ross said:

“eighteenth century gardens were expected to perform the tasks of their sister arts, to offer messages visitors could ‘read’ and scenes they could savour.”

How are we to send our messages in the digital age?

*Stephanie Ross “Gardens, earthworks and environmental art” in “Landscape, natural beauty and the arts.” Ed Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell

Anne Wareham

Veddw House Garden website

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