SCULPTOR Ewen Henderson and his friends have just had a jolly lunch. The kitchen table is littered with chunks of bread, bowls of olives and empty wine bottles; the air is filled with laughter and promises to meet again at the next art gallery private view.
With his flowing grey locks and bushy beard, Henderson is everyone's idea of an artistic Bohemian. The walls inside his house at Camden Town in north London are crammed with his framed sketches and paintings. But there are some surprises in store. The most important pieces of work he has created are not displayed reverently on shelves and plinths inside the house. They are out in the back garden, exposed to the wind and rain.
'I believe you can put art in a garden,' he says, leading me outside and waving an arm over his 60ft by 20ft backyard. 'Why should the creation of gardens be considered a lower art form than painting? Look at Arabic or Italian gardens, full of statues and sculpture. That's some of the best art in Europe.'
The view of his own garden, however, has little in common with the ornate splendours of the past. Grey-blue sculpted monoliths rise above the twisted stems of a witch hazel bush. Rusty iron bars support warped ceramic trophies. It looks as if the natural forms of stones, eggs and plants have been blasted by nuclear radiation and melted into new shapes. Here and there, 'found objects' such as empty crab shells and broken glass have been rammed into rock crevices or hung up from the branches of trees. The effect of these avant-garde 'ornaments' is unnerving rather than relaxing. This garden is not going to win a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Stared at in silent awe inside a modern art gallery these objects would be quite acceptable. But placed outside in a garden, they challenge established ideas of good garden design and ornament. 'Art is never comfortable,' says Henderson. 'It's like dry rot and rising damp, it happens in spite of you. Most people prefer to stick with what is safe and familiar.' You can see what he means from his kitchen. His startling plot is flanked on each side by gardens of pleasant but completely traditional design - lawns, daffodils, some modest trees. Where are the other forward-looking plots and their 21st-century ornaments?
According to Andrew Wilson, garden design director at the Inchbald School of Design, 'British people have never warmed to progressive garden design'. As for a brave new world of garden ornaments, the stumbling block was the modernist movement of the 1920s and 1930s. This may sound like a contradiction, but the severe design principles of the Bauhaus school in Germany and architect Le Corbusier in France dictated that 'form follows function'. This rule was translated in the garden as cubist rectangular pools and abstract patterns of concrete paving. The trouble with garden ornaments was that they had no real, practical function. At best, their use was limited to isolated pieces of geometric sculpture.
In any case, Britain dared to make only a few attempts to combine modernist houses with matching gardens. Landscape architect Christopher Tunnard's own garden at St Ann's Hill in Chertsey was one brave example. High walls and grid-patterned concrete paving were relieved by bold foliage plants and the occasional tree. Meanwhile, most new gardens being created here still followed the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement or Renaissance formality. Famous new gardens, such as Kiftsgate and Sissinghurst, used ornaments in completely traditional ways. 'Modernist gardens never really took off here,' says Andrew Wilson. 'One reason was the lack of interest these architects showed in the plants they were using. When the design dominated everything it just didn't work.'
If it was not working in Britain the modernist garden soon found a job abroad. Designers such as Christopher Tunnard and the Bauhaus school took their ideas to America, where they were greeted with enthusiasm. In California, landscape achitect Thomas Church evolved a serene and simple style using fluid lines, minimally ornamented with natural rock or clusters of moulded concrete. In Latin America, Roberto Burle Marx used bold architectural plants as pieces of living sculpture.
Back in post-war Britain, hurried rebuilding, the creation of new towns and general austerity had done nothing to encourage new flights of ornamental fancy in the back yard. The era of the vast landscape garden filled with elaborate antique ornaments was finally at an end. With new housing, more leisure and the welfare state, the small domestic garden was suddenly king. Its triumph was celebrated by trendy new books such as Peter Shepheard's Modern Gardens (1953) and Marjory Allen and Susan Jellicoe's The New Small Garden in 1956. But the new small gardens did not offer any new ideas in garden ornaments, which were still going nowhere fast. In traditional gardens, they had frozen in time in the classical style. In more forward-looking plots they were squeezed out by streamlined, super-efficient Sixties design principles.
When John Brookes published his book Room Outside in 1969, the garden was being seen simply as an extra room in which families in small houses could relax, eat, entertain and play. It could be strongly designed, like any room inside. Plants were less important than people. Ornaments, where they were permitted at all, put in a timid appearance as terracotta pots or a millstone bubble fountain.
'Ornament on its own is trivial,' John Brookes still says today. 'People who are getting the design of the garden wrong start to over-ornament it. It's like a barmaid who can't get her outfit right so she keeps adding more jewellery.' Since Room Outside was published, he admits to having become much more plant and environment-conscious, softening his geometric lines with luxuriant leaves and petals. But garden ornaments still remain in the dog house: 'They can be quite pompous,' he points out. 'Nowadays people visit stately homes and try to fill their own gardens with ornaments from the 18th century. But that was an era when people felt superior to the landscape, not a part of it.'
Wanting to feel part of the landscape became a powerful emotion in the ecology-conscious Seventies. European Conservation Year in 1970 saw mass public anxiety about the environmental effects of the Sixties development boom. Suddenly, the building of high-rise concrete blocks and urban motorways became a cause for alarm rather than celebration. Crowded, polluted cities and the damage inflicted upon the countryside by modern farming methods were loudly condemned. The effect upon gardens was to create a new fashion for organic growing methods and 'natural' designs imitating wild meadows, bogs and woodland. Fertile ground for birds and wildlife maybe, but this trend was a desert for the long-neglected garden ornament. It lived on only in the grand old-fashioned gardens of the past, which were now being lovingly restored and conserved as part of a new passion for the threatened British 'heritage'.
But there were some rays of hope for the future of the decorative garden object. The first to break through was the invention of the sculpture garden. This was pioneered by arts journalist Hannah Peschar, who started hers 10 years ago at her home in Ockley, Surrey (see box on page 68 for details). 'When I arrived here from Holland, I found I had a very large garden to care for,' she recalls. 'I wanted some ornaments for it, but when I looked in the best garden centres all I could see was the same old rubbish.' Frustrated in her search, she began to experiment by moving one or two pieces of sculpture from inside her house on to the front lawn. Visitors to the garden were intrigued, so she began to add to the
collection. 'Then I realised that I had created an ideal way for artists to show - and sell - their work,' she says. 'Sculptures need a lot of space and people prefer to look at them in a garden setting rather than in the bare white rooms of an art gallery.'
While Hannah Peschar established a thriving business selling outside art to adventurous people, her idea began to spread. There are now about half a dozen commercial sculpture parks in Britain, as well as countless private experiments such as Henderson's garden in Camden Town. During the Eighties, despite the yuppy vogue for all things Regency and classical, a new style and status for the garden ornament was finally emerging. Experiments in the use of new objects were also being made by established garden designers such as David Stevens. In 1991 he shocked visitors to the Chelsea Flower Show by unveiling his 'Vision of Tomorrow' garden, where plastic flooring replaced the lawn and the summer house was made of stainless steel wires and nylon sheeting. The ornaments in this futuristic garden included five glass 'plasma spheres' filled with miniature lightning, glass weirs, coloured marbles and brightly painted stones. In the previous two Chelsea shows, Stevens had won the Sword of Excellence for less controversial garden designs. But 'Tomorrow's Garden' was obviously too much for the 1991 judges.
'A lot of people hated that garden,' he admits, 'but that was OK by me. It meant they were talking about new ideas, even if they didn't like them. Gardeners are too timid in this country. We rest on our past laurels and cling to ideas that are 50 years out of date.' In his view, too many British garden-makers are terrified of joining the 20th, let alone the 21st century. 'The public has come to expect a garden to look traditional. There is no cutting edge here, no modern thinking about what goes into a garden.' In America and Europe he meets designers who create wonderfully bold landscapes. In Britain, he believes, we still train designers to reproduce the Edwardian style.
But however anxious and conservative many of our gardeners remain in the Nineties, the revival of the theatrical, humble or apparently functionless garden ornament is gathering steam. While firms like Haddonstone and Minsterstone make reproduction Greek urns and naked nymphs for traditionalists, daring and creative people like Niki de Saint Phalle and Ivan Hicks have filled their gardens with bizarre and dramatic objects. 'I use ornaments in my garden as symbols,' says post-modern designer Hicks. 'I don't see them as trivial with no function or meaning. In fact, they can express all sorts of important ideas and emotions.'
In his own garden at Stansted House in West Sussex, a mind-boggling array of surreal objects appear to have sprung from his unconscious. A lobster sits smugly on a lawnmower. Shop-window dummies are painted with blue sky and clouds. Tall columns of coloured drainpipe offer up open books for the birds to read. 'You can get away with anything in the garden,' he says, 'and anyone can experiment.' Put an ornament somewhere unexpected, he advises, take it out of context. See how the plants and the objects change one another. Design your garden according to 'chaos theory' or any other concept that excites you. Design purists of the old school may gasp with horror, nostalgia-addicts may question your taste. But while the neighbours may complain today, they may be tempted to follow suit tomorrow.
That is the whole point, in fact. As Richard Bisgrove concludes in The National Trust Book of the English Garden (Penguin pounds 14.99), 'the post-Modern garden recognises that gardens are for people, and that people come in all shapes and psyches and live in widely different circumstances.' If today's garden-owners feel
a sudden urge to sprinkle their plots with
giant plasma balls or pagodas made from rusty bicycle wheels or even a Greek urn painted fluorescent pink, they are finally free to do so. There are no rules except the limit of the human imagination. Garden ornaments, the
furniture of our horticultural dream worlds for centuries, have survived both our ancient reverence and modern neglect. Unknown and
unpredictable, they are lurking in the undergrowth, waiting to be found.
The Hannah Peschar Gallery and Sculpture Garden, Black and White Cottage, Standon Lane, Ockley, Surrey RH5 5QR, tel 0306 627269, contains more than 100 pieces of sculpture and ceramics, many by talented college-leavers, in a six-acre rainforest setting. They include work in ceramic by Peter Hayes, fountains by Barry Mason and bronze by Geraldine Knight. Avant-garde to traditional, prices range from pounds 500 to pounds 20,000. Phone for opening times, appointments and entrance price details.
Roche Court Sculpture Garden, East Winterslow, near Salisbury, Wiltshire SP5 1BG, tel 0980 862204, is allied to the New Art Centre, 41 Sloane Street, London SW1. Features large sculptures made from rusted farm-machinery by Paul Roberts-Holmes and includes ceramics - some with crevices to double as bird baths - by Jean Lowe. Prices from pounds 600 up to pounds 200,000. Open from 1 May, 11am-5pm Saturday and Sunday, weekdays by appointment.
Quin Hollick, Brock's Close, Swayne's Lane, Comberton, Cambridgeshire CB3 7EF, is a sculptor and was trained by a pupil of Eric Gill at Bryanston. He works to commission, making striking sundials incorporating details about the buyer. His portable Split Equatorial sundials, made of slate, can be tilted to the latitude of any country around the world. Also works in marble. Prices between pounds 500 and pounds 5,000.
Robert Hutchison, East Lodge, Touch, Cambusbarron, Stirlingshire FK8 3AG, is an architectural draughtsman and blacksmith. He does a lot of work for the National Trust for Scotland, working in copper, steel, brass and wood. He designs and makes fountains, rotundas, arches and sundials, working to commission. Prices depend on the piece.
The Studio, Farm Cottage, Puttenham, near Guildford, Surrey GU3 1AJ, tel 0483 810352. Marion Smith's 'Country Sculptures' of children and animals have been shown at the Royal Academy and the Chelsea Flower Show. Bronze resin limited editions can be made from the master sculpture. Her work includes herons (to scare the real things from expensive fishponds), tree fountains, foxes and goats. Only 100 numbered copies of each child-figure are made. Prices begin at pounds 390, plus VAT.
Stonecare Restoration, 167 Kendrick Road, Mapperley, Nottingham NG3 6EY, tel 0602 621934. To prevent theft of a valuable garden statue, fit an alarm. This company makes a battery-operated alarm (106 decibels) for pounds 25. Additional statue alarms can be attached to the main unit for pounds 4.
Ivan Hicks's 'Garden in Mind' at Stansted House, Rowlands Castle, West Sussex is open from 2 May onwards, 2-6pm. Tel: 0705 413149.
Ivan Hicks's 'Garden in Mind' at Rowland's Castle, Hampshire, is open on Sundays only, 2-6pm, not daily as reported two weeks ago.