Boyd Tonkin: Green poetry with avant-gardeners

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Sails and seabirds float above a forlorn Channel-side landscape of sea-strand grasses. Alpine flowers sprout in clefts amid jagged honey-coloured rock from which a waterfall tumbles. Pastel plantings flank a sombre funerary monument; above it, petunias and euphorbias explode in deep colours of blood and grief. These are gardens, but also poems. To be exact, they are three of the six "English Poets' Gardens" on display at this week's Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. After the acclaim for last year's Shakespeare gardens, six designers have been invited to interpret individual poems. I mentioned Heather Appleton's version of "My Boy Jack" by Rudyard Kipling, Jayne Thomas's response to "Mont Blanc" by PB Shelley, and Yvonne Mathews's take on Byron's "Love's Last Adieu". Until this Sunday, poems by Lewis Carroll, Keats and Wordsworth will also assume a horticultural form.

Poetry has always seeded the other arts: most notably music, across the centuries of settings, but also painting, sculpture, film and dance. The contest between poetry and painting to demarcate their separate spheres prompted one of the most celebrated of all aesthetic studies, Lessing's Laocoon in 1766. About that time, the arts of the garden also joined the party. English landscape gardening – the tradition referenced in miniature at Hampton Court – not only carved up the countryside into approximations of canvases by Claude Lorrain. It dotted grand estates with features that brought classical poems and myths to stone or marble life.

When one art enfolds another, a rule of thumb seems to hold across all the metamorphoses. Works that actively interpret their sources succeed more than those that simply mimic them. Better re-imagination than illustration. That applies at Hampton Court, I think – but make up your own mind about which designs manage most powerfully to transform rather than transpose the poems, via the images on the RHS site, www.rhs.org.uk

A pre-show Sunday spent nosing about the Hampton Court grounds as designers put the finishing touches to their work also makes one think hard about the status accorded to the various arts. Apart from the poetic plots, the "Conceptual Gardens" here – a sought-after competitive space, with nine designs selected from an "overwhelming" number of entries – root modern (and post-modern) art firmly in the ground. Or above it: Anoushka Feiler's upside-down pots in "Excuse me while I kiss the sky" reflect in an Anish Kapoor-style steel globe and fan-like circular border, gazed at from soil level by an army of agapanthus (flower of the summer at Hampton Court, it seems). Melissa Jolly's enigmatic "Picturesque" updates but downsizes the 18th-century pictorial landscape into white boxes whose plantings match (or mock?) famous paintings by Mondrian and Monet, Kandinsky and Rousseau.

Most boldly, "Enduring Freeedom?" by Nete Hojlund and Corinne Sharp interprets war in Afghanistan, and its costs, by pairing a dusty desert strip and sinister doorway into danger with a poppy field that floods visitors with collective memories of the Western Front. Apart from the need for soil, water and sunlight, there seems no good reason why art buffs should not come across these installations at Tate Modern, the Hayward or the Saatchi Gallery.

Historians of art and design from the Renaissance to Romantic eras – with Roy Strong as an endlessly fertile pioneer – have long known that the study of gardens allows you to dig deep into the evolution of ideas. Critics of more recent culture should also get dirt under their fingernails. Some already do. Alexandra Harris enlivened her ground-breaking study of art and place in 20th-century England, Romantic Moderns, not only with obvious green-fingered aesthetes such as Vita Sackville-West, but figures such as 1930s "avant-gardener" Christopher Tunnard.

The extraordinary architect-thinker Charles Jencks has just published a beautiful, stimulating book about his richly symbolic "landforms", The Universe in the Landscape (Frances Lincoln, £40). I can't quite imagine what Alan Titchmarsh might make of them, but they do stand – or grow - in a long line of cerebral land designs. And today's concept-driven bushes, beds and borders would have seemed nothing new to Andrew Marvell, most philosophical of garden poets. In the 1650s, he envisaged the cultivated plot as a model of the human mind itself, "Annihilating all that's made/ To a green thought in a green shade."

Amazon engulfs its tributary

Funny how online capitalism, heralded as a new era of diversity, turned so fast into the same old monopolistic story as its steam-powered or plug-in predecessors. Amazon (right), which already controls more than 70 per cent of UK internet book sales, this week acquired its rival, The Book Depository. TBD was thriving, with deep stocks, global reach and annual revenues set to hit £120m. So the top predator pounced. At least the Office of Fair Trading has promised to investigate the competition issues raised - but with only a few days, until 18 July, allowed for submissions. Given the OFT's spineless form on book retailing, don't expect a squeak of protest out of them.

An artful interlude at Number 11

Jeremy Hunt has had a dismal week. The phone-hacking horror seeped into the corridors of power, threatening to extinguish both his tentative green light to Rupert Murdoch for a complete takeover of BSkyB – and, if it gets worse, the Culture Secretary's prospects. Art can prove such a solace in sticky moments, though. On Monday, the Chancellor lent Hunt 11 Downing Street for a non-partisan bash (with Labour ex-minister David Lammy present) to launch a book about the once-hidden gems of the 13,500-strong Government Art Collection. Art, Power, Diplomacy (Scala), which ties in with shows at the Whitechapel, is masterminded by Penny Johnson, the collection's director. By all accounts, she tells ministers what to hang. My scan of the Osborne pad confirmed the impression that she favours edgy modern-British work. Anyone at the sharp end of Treasury-led cuts may care to know that on one No 11 wall hangs a 2005 inkjet-on-acrylic print by Mark Titchner. It carries the words: "Everything Beautiful Is Far Away".

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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