Light, time and tradition

September 19, 2007

in Uncategorized

Comment on Peter Osbourne’s series of articles addressing some of the problematic aspects of reviewing/criticising gardens by Bridget Rosewell


Light Time Tradition - Image 1

La Mortella, Italy © Anne Wareham

This is the definition given by Peter Osborne in his recent excellent contribution to the debate on thinking Gardens. He goes on to use painting, theatre and tradition to pull out three themes in developing ways of talking about gardens.  I agree that these are all relevant but I want to add an element which seems to me to provide the extra dimension which makes gardening an art form of its own.

This element is that of the seasonal.  We might think of the garden as a stage set but it is also a performance which repeats itself every day in a different way as the light and the seasons change the backdrop.  The performance garden shifts in perspective both through the year and as it is experienced.  The view through the window in midwinter is a different experience than that of the stroll through the garden on a warm summer evening.  But a great garden should provide excitement and challenge on all these occasions.

Light Time Tradition - Image 2

Villa Cimbrone, Italy, at night © Anne Wareham

Sometimes gardens have been envisaged as the backdrop to ‘proper’ performances with the provision of amphitheatres or stages.  Masques and theatrical conceits were a garden use in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and garden based performance remains popular, whether of temporary installations or opera.  Harold Peto’s garden at Iford Manor has a cloister in which opera can be staged, for example.  However, this requires the addition of actors to make the garden do its job and for our purposes we need the garden itself to be the performance and the only actor to be the viewer.

Moreover, the garden differs from a painting.  To produce a painting, the painter has to go beyond the mood of a moment.  Although there may be an initial sketch, there will also be studies, trials and a process perhaps of sittings before a finished picture is produced.  Even the Impressionists drew as well as producing paintings ‘en plein air’.  Eventually the picture is fixed and presented to its audience.  It is done.  Some, maybe all, painters find this a difficult moment.  Many put it off.  Manet kept pictures in his studio for years, going back to them again and again.

Once displayed to its audience, that audience can judge what it captures about its subject and how.  Whether abstract, representational, figure, landscape or still life it sits in front of us.  But a garden can never be finished and must always be displayed as a work in progress.

To this extent the theatre analogy also fails us.  Different performances of the same work can vary, from night to night as much as from director to director.  Shakespeare’s plays have been presented in an immense variety of ways and not always in his language.  The production design nonetheless has parameters which remain circumscribed and controlled and the scenes parade in front of a viewer is location is known.  The shifting perspective of the garden viewer and the different seasons of their visit is remote from the theatrical experience.

Finally, a word on tradition.  Tradition is also about the meaning of reference.  A parterre is a reference to a tradition of formal gardening which also reflects a social and political period.  A challenge is to consider what a parterre in Brown’s Britain signifies.  Do we believe in social and political symmetry anymore?

Light Time Tradition - Image 3

© Charles Hawes

So we need to incorporate theatre, painting and tradition but also include another dimension.  Anne Wareham has talked about painting with light, and indeed the Impressionist revolution was about capturing light.  A garden is also about capturing time and making it bend to the wishes of the garden designer.  I love gardens in winter (not winter gardens).  When the palette is muted and the bones show, and it is not wise to sit for too long, the good garden gives a frisson all of its own.  Knowing this and having felt it, gives an added dimension in the summer, when benches are warm and breezes gentle.

Bridget Rosewell

Bridget Rosewell’s website

Read the first Peter Osbourne article – Some thoughts towards a critical language for gardens

Read the second Peter Osbourne article – Pretty as a Picture

Read the third Peter osbourne article – A Joy Forever?

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