IF I WAS A GARDEN DESIGNER I would be a bit miffed by the fact that every list of iconic or outstanding contemporary gardens comprises special places which have, in most cases, been created by people who are not professional garden designers. Jarman, Jencks, Finlay, Strong/Oman at The Laskett and Wareham/Hawes at Veddw – all of these have been made by individuals who have come to gardens or landscape relatively late in life via other artistic disciplines or interests.
In every case the garden doubles as an integral part of their own home, as an extension of their personality and aesthetic vision. In the face of this onslaught of pure personality and emotional intensity, professional garden designers who have been helicoptered into spaces and then helicoptered out again (so to speak), cheque in hand, seem to have little chance of making something of comparable power.
Perhaps that’s not fair? We should tease it out.
First, the owner-made ‘art garden’ is not a phenomenon peculiar to this country: artist-designers strut their stuff in their own backyards all over the world, from Edward James at Las Pozas in the Mexican Jungle, to Niki de Saint Phalle’s wonderful Tarot Garden in Italy. Such places cannot be easily assimilated into other movements or strands in contemporary garden design. To call them sculpture gardens does them no justice at all. They are what they are, and it takes rather special individuals to be able to make them, coupled with an extraordinary personal compunction to create in this particular way.
There is historical precedent for this kind of garden, and it is English: the landscape gardens of the early to mid 18th century. Landscapes such as Studley Royal were made by individuals, sometimes with help from professionals, who had something specific to say with their estates, whether that was political, artistic or dynastic, or all of those things. The main distinction to be made with regard to contemporary examples is that in the 18th century the design vocabulary was more uniform, in the line of classical temples, Gothick hovels and the like. But otherwise the thought processes and compulsions are not dissimilar. The professional designer William Kent was singularly well placed to hone this landscape look into something with aesthetic unity, a design methodology he could take from place to place.
Today’s professionals face a similar dilemma: how to create something that amounts to considerably more than the sum of its parts. The solution is the same as it was in Kent’s day: create a personal design vision which accumulates strength over the years and in varied situations, so that in the end its inherent power is comparable to that of places made by the most talented owner-designers. How many achieve this? Very few – Lutyens, Luis Barragan, Burle Marx and Thomas Church are a few that spring to mind.
The reputation of planting designers must be assessed using slightly different criteria, for what they produce are not so much places or gardens which epitomise their style, but a legacy in print and in the personal experience of garden visitors; of a tone, a look, a style or feel which is quintessentially theirs.
These are high achievements for professional designers to aim towards, but perhaps they are worth bearing in mind for those who are aiming high.