Bridget Rosewell responds to comments on “Girly Gardens – or not?”

February 19, 2008

in Uncategorized

By Bridget Rosewell

When I was a resident of West Oxfordshire – flat Thames plain – I became very interested in the hortus conclusus perhaps as an escape and contrast to that boring agricultural landscape in which Didcot Power Station is visible from practically everywhere.  And I wanted detail, planted order and planted cornucopia to give me variety.  Now I live in London and Monmouthshire amid very different landscapes. And it is true that garden styles have to respond.  I too will be interested to see how Ann Pearce’s gardens evolve under the pressure and challenge of different stimuli.

In London, the need for a serene oasis is clearly more apparent than in the middle of a Monmouthshire wood…and yet, and yet.  In each and every one of these places there are principles that apply.  I think it is too much of a cop out to say that we seek happiness and that this is a personal response to the environment in which we find ourselves.  If this were all there was, we would all have to start from first principles every time.  Not only do we not do this, but the shared terms of reference in which we operate are able to inform how we design, paint, sculpt, write and whether something is seen or interpreted as calm, exciting, novel or boring.

The recent Kandinsky exhibition at Tate Modern illustrated this very clearly.  It started with paintings which we could recognize and moved to ones which utilized his own grammar of paint which he tried to develop, but which no one else ever managed to learn.  Although they are interesting and challenging, for me the later paintings lacked the richness of reference – which is one interpretation I would like to give to ‘gorgeous’ – that I can get from, for example, Lucien Freud.

I am absolutely in favour of conveying the desired message in the most parsimonious way.  Over decoration is glop, and too many plants in a garden confusing.  But we stand on the shoulders of others (whether giants or not).  Making the references work and fit into the cultures we find ourselves in, while at the same time extending them into new areas is the real challenge.  Then a work, garden or otherwise, is greater than the sum of its parts and can speak beyond its borders or intention.

What makes me most sad is that we are in danger of losing that richness, because we are currently denying the basics of Western liberal culture not in favour of anything more rich but in favour of some so called multicultural shallowness.  When I consider what I mean by gorgeous, happiness is far too weak.  Indeed happiness is not even relevant.  What I want is richness of reference, of subtlety, and cross reference where needed to.  I have to say that the Garden of Cosmic Speculation is not what I mean by this, since for me at least it lacks subtlety.  I think Ian Hamilton Finlay’s might provide it, but I would need to visit and haven’t made it.  I should also say I have never achieved this myself.

The recent Kandinsky exhibition at Tate Modern illustrated this very clearly.  It started with paintings which we could recognize and moved to ones which utilized his own grammar of paint which he tried to develop, but which no one else ever managed to learn.  Although they are interesting and challenging, for me the later paintings lacked the richness of reference – which is one interpretation I would like to give to ‘gorgeous’ – that I can get from, for example, Lucien Freud.

I am absolutely in favour of conveying the desired message in the most parsimonious way.  Over decoration is glop, and too many plants in a garden confusing.  But we stand on the shoulders of others (whether giants or not).  Making the references work and fit into the cultures we find ourselves in, while at the same time extending them into new areas is the real challenge.  Then a work, garden or otherwise, is greater than the sum of its parts and can speak beyond its borders or intention.

What makes me most sad is that we are in danger of losing that richness, because we are currently denying the basics of Western liberal culture not in favour of anything more rich but in favour of some so called multicultural shallowness.  When I consider what I mean by gorgeous, happiness is far too weak.  Indeed happiness is not even relevant.  What I want is richness of reference, of subtlety, and cross reference where needed to.  I have to say that the Garden of Cosmic Speculation is not what I mean by this, since for me at least it lacks subtlety.  I think Ian Hamilton Finlay’s might provide it, but I would need to visit and haven’t made it.  I should also say I have never achieved this myself.

This conversation appears to have strayed away from the contrast the concept of girly gardens where it started.  But this is nonetheless still relevant.  A complete garden like any complete work of art has universal elements and transcends any simple gender descriptions.  However, if gardens fail to be fulfilling, one way of describing that lack is in these terms.  Fashion is often responsible for a leaning in one direction or the other.  And who will deny they have ever been a fashion victim.  Garden fashions can last a long time, though architectural fashions show their evidence for still longer.  The best examples of any trend can often make you forget how bad the generality was (though I never found a good kipper tie).  We are currently, it appears, in the middle of a vogue for simplicity.  This is partly driven by a fashion for town gardens, and the kind of instant gratification that hard landscaping and plants in pots from foreign nurseries can supply.

Tell me I am not cynical!

Bridget Rosewell

Bridget Rosewell’s website

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