Benedict Vanheems on “Girly Gardens – or not?”

February 12, 2008

in Uncategorized

Comment on Bridget Rosewell’s article by Benedict Vanheems


In response to Bridget Rosewell’s comments on the need for a balance between structure and the looser floral elements of a garden, I think she has made a very important point. Balancing the two will bring harmony to any garden — alleviating the austerity of an otherwise rigid, domineering space, or bringing order to what some might interpret as chaos.

The question of whether structure and line is male and flowers female requires a little closer examination, however, and although Bridget wished not to dwell on the subject, I think it merits further discussion. It is certainly true that the more architectural approach (along with ‘logical’ subject areas such as mathematics or the sciences) have tended to be the remit of the male, while the eye for detail and care over the finer elements of a garden might be the domain of the female (think ‘creative’ subjects like languages or art). On the one hand there is the highly methodical way of thinking, while on the other is the more creative ‘caring’ approach.

This isn’t stereotyping, it is just biological hardwiring that predisposes one sex to lean towards ‘black and white’ numbers and angles, and the other towards reading emotion and expression. This has been borne out in history: the hard landscape-dominated, zoned outdoor rooms of Thomas Church or Christopher Bradley-Hole juxtaposed with the softer floral eye of Penelope Hobhouse or Vita Sackville-West. The famous partnership of Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens worked a treat, combining his strong structure with her eye for colour and texture within these bones — the result is timeless and their gardens’ appeal endures to this day.

I reviewed the garden Bridget mentions. Is it significant that she found it to be a touch Spartan, while I found it deliciously balanced? Maybe, maybe not — and it is interesting that this arguably masculine design is by a female designer. But it could be true that there is certainly a more masculine side to some designs and a predominantly feminine side to others, irrespective of the creative force behind them. Consider his and hers watches (‘bold’ versus ‘elegant’) or cars marketed towards a male market (power/speed orientated with plenty of stats to boast about) and the female market (curvy and friendly). Does this open up the spectre of the his and hers garden?

Irrespective of this debate, it is a poor garden that lacks some sort of structure or is overpowered by its hard landscaping. Balance is everything and the hallmark of considered design.

Benedict Vanheems

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