People glibly and carelessly refer to gardens as “art.” Well, maybe gardens could be art – but not until we get some serious garden criticism. No art form can thrive without the serious discussion and dialogue which criticism offers: it raises standards, informs, educates and promotes intelligent debate. It is the very lifeblood of any high art. However, if you want to make garden professionals fall off their seats in alarm and incredulity, try suggesting that gardens should be subject to critical scrutiny.
Part of the problem is the dual sense of the word. The dictionary clarifies the ambiguity –
1. the act or an instance of making an unfavourable or severe judgement comment etc.
2. The analysis or evaluation of a work of art, literature etc.
It is, of course, the second use of the word that concerns me here, though the definitions are not mutually exclusive.
It is quite true that “an analysis or evaluation” may come couched in quite damning terms. Most people in this country affectionately think about gardening as an absorbing, satisfying and unusually wholesome activity. There is something reassuringly innocent about taking a pleasure in working with the soil and with plants, creating a personal retreat from the world. But this is hobby, not art, and one result of seeing gardening this way is that no-one wishes to make any demands of gardeners – it is a private, personal activity, and how it is done is of no general interest. A stamp collection, a plant collection – who would dream of demanding standards of display?
But gardens do stray outside these private worlds. Some open to the public and charge money. This changes the whole nature of the enterprise, giving the rest of us a legitimate interest in and concern about the quality of those gardens.
Unfortunately garden visiting is virtually monopolised by the National Gardens Scheme and the National Trust. The consequences are not all beneficial. If you want to open your garden at all, perhaps to help fund it, you have to open sometimes for the NGS, – unless you can afford to advertise on national television, – because the Yellow Book is the source of almost every garden visit. So garden visiting is predominantly a charitable exercise. This clearly has to inhibit the serious criticism that could raise standards. No one wants to hurt the feelings of someone doing a good deed. And people tell me that garden owners wouldn’t open if they thought the garden might be subject to criticism – whereas authors, playwrights, artists and musicians long to be taken seriously enough to get reviewed.
All this helps to keep us locked into amateurism and all the downsides of that culture. We are stuck with a popular image of garden opening as a genteel activity focused around jolly nice teas, and gardening as a dull hobby for the middle-aged. It would be flattering to my audience if I could offer a suggestion that garden design could be separated off as an identifiable art form. But garden design is process, and as in music or drama, the performance is as critical as the original score or script. Last winter I visited The Thames Barrier Park in London. Winter should have been an ideal time to appreciate the Green Dock, with its patterns of hedges reading off one another like the waves in the original dock. But imagination is not enough, and dead and dying yews alongside messy plant remnants was a miserable sight. An unmade bed is an unmade bed, and if that is what is presented, that is what the critic must respond to. It is hardly possible to venture into any activity in a garden without affecting the aesthetic, as anyone employing help in the garden will know. Designing is not separable from gardening.
Imagine if the garden preoccupations of the media were translated to the world of novel writing. A critic would devote most of their attention to the words the novelist used: “in the first chapter the writer used many words of Germanic origin. He has a particular enthusiasm for collecting such words and has made many word collecting trips to Germany.”
The critic would be fascinated by how the writer produces the work – does he use a Mac or a PC? How does he deal with his computer viruses? And everyone knows that a critical aspect of being a good writer is that you write organically and encourage wildlife in your text.
Many of us have actually had experience of writing essays about books at school, and learned the rudiments of criticism. For many of us studying books in this way was a revelation, the dawning of an understanding that a book might be doing much more than simply telling a story. Yet our consideration of gardens is stuck at the story book level. And this is no help to anyone making a garden.
For the past fifteen years I have been making what I hope is a serious garden – in the sense that I hope it is worth taking seriously, even where it may entertain, amuse or fail. Because of our polite silence about the quality of gardens, calling them all “lovely” and never saying why, I have been making my garden in isolation, with no exchange with my peers. This lack of dialogue must affect the quality of what I make.
It is actually easy enough for an amateur to learn “how to garden;” long before Alan Titchmarsh there were the “Expert” books. It is even easy enough to learn the rudiments of garden design from books. But that is not enough for those of us below genius level to learn to make a garden which might merit the term “art”. We need to live in a world where that art is taken seriously.
I know that my plea for knowledgeable garden professionals to visit my garden is taken for a simple desire for attention and admiration, not for a stimulating and illuminating dialogue about what I am doing. (Of course, I might like both…..) I need a world with lively discussion of ideas about gardening and how they are impinging on my work if my work is to be first class. Some people argue that making and enjoying a garden are their own reward, needing no audience or dialogue. I feel, on the scale that I have been working, that this would be gross self-indulgence. More important, the garden has also always felt to me like a form of communication. Without an audience and peer review it becomes quite absurd.
I have introduced thinking into the garden with references to the banality of current concepts of “natural” and “wild”. One garden visitor has discussed this aspect of the garden with me, and this helped me develop the theme. Once someone pointed out to me that a tree at the end of our yew walk behind the trompe d’oeil urn was confusing to the eye, creating distraction from the focal point of the dove. I could instantly see that he was right. The tree came down, the garden benefited. I have been grateful ever since, and felt bereft in the absence of any further, similar illuminations.
This kind of discussion may well take place in garden design circles, but it is time it came out of the closet, to enlighten and delight the rest of us. I recently saw an argument that a work of art should “interest the eye, excite the brain, move the mind to reflection, and involve the heart“…and, ideally… “come at us from an unexpected angle and stop us short in wonder.” This is a great aspiration; our gardens currently don’t meet it. We need a gigantic injection of excitement, debate, and – criticism.
Published in the Garden Design Journal (best garden magazine currently available) in June/July 2002