GARDENING: ILLUSIONS OF GRANDEUR

With plywood and packing cases, George Carter will transform a backyard into Versailles. Continuing her series on futurist gardens, Helen Chappell meets a playful postmodernist

"I'VE NO IDEA what this is," says the garden designer George Carter, wielding a large knife. "A friend made it for me." He is cutting through a mysterious blackened brick on an elegant china plate; the brick falls open to reveal a perfectly decent fruit cake. My host smiles at my expression of surprise and begins to pour the tea.

We are sitting on a bench in the garden behind his house in a small Norfolk village. While nibbling my tromp l'oeil cake, I am trying to decide if the collection of intriguing objects in front of us is equally illusory. Is that rusticated pyramid by the boundary hedge really made of stone? How about the flame finial on top? "Oh, no, I cut it all out of plywood and old packing cases and stained it blue," he says. Commissioned as a garden prop for the celebrations at Gainsbor-ough's house to mark the bicentenary of the painter's death, this object is typical of George Carter's approach to garden-making. Impressive, but not what it seems. Never mind the materials, feel the effect.

"Surprise is one of the chief delights of a garden," he tells me. "I think of gardens as a form of theatre, you know. You have to create the right atmosphere." There's certainly no shortage of atmosphere here in his own backyard. We set off on a tour, wandering down the geometric pathways between rectangles of lawn, lines of clipped box, poplar trees and hawthorn hedges. It becomes clear that the owner of this garden doesn't hold with the banality of flowers. We approach the packing-case pyramid where I find a row of shell-shaped footlights. "I have those lit up for parties," he explains merrily, "to create a sort of stage." We press on through a gate to an area he calls "the green theatre". A semi-circle of laurel hedge is dotted with (flat, plywood) urns on plinths, painted to give a 3D effect from a distance.

Pausing only to point out the various lines of perspective for which these objects are visual punctuation, he leads on to the next visual joke - a gate fashioned from crossed garden tools - all real this time. So is the obelisk at the end of the hawthorn alle behind it. Just when you were sure you wouldn't, you find flint and mortar rather than paint and plywood. A squiggle of chrome set into the pathway to symbolise a water jet is also deceptive. It turns out to be an inexpensive plant support purchased from a German garden centre.

On past a line of pollarded limes we go, to arrive at a pair of mysterious sentry boxes, a trio of sheds dressed up as baroque pavilions and the hub of all his operations - the workshop.

Stepping inside the enormous (real) barn where he creates his garden effects is more like visiting the prop room of a theatre than a gardener's shed. Next to the electric jigsaw which shapes his wooden scenery, a vast proscenium arch with curtains leans against the wall. A giant striped tent stands in separate pieces, waiting for the summer.

"I'm very keen on the idea of moving things about in a garden, to avoid getting bored," he says. "Why not be flexible and change your garden to suit your mood or the changing seasons?" In his view, garden-owners ought to treat their plots like the rooms inside their houses - redecorating regularly and dressing them up for parties and special events. But the gardens he designs usually involve the simplest of geometric layouts to provide a harmonious backdrop for what really interest him - the garden ornaments. He's also a fan of imaginative lighting effects, favouring floodlights and dramatic flares. Why ignore the garden just because it's dark outside?

It is no surprise to hear that George Carter began his career by designing exhibitions for museums and art galleries. After working for the Geffrye Museum in east London (where his art deco room survives) and for the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, he turned his attention to the great outdoors. His slot-together sculpture adorned the first British garden festivals in Glasgow and Liverpool and he began to attract a variety of clients with gardens great and small.

Tiny urban backyards were soon laid out like Versailles and their sheds disguised as splendid pavilions. Aristocratic or wealthy clients ordered whole gardens, more ordinary gardeners bought a bench or a (fake) urn. Even the down-to-earth Geoff Hamilton of the BBC's Gardeners' World featured (and imitated) his plywood obelisks and Palladian chicken coops. People have been happy to let him have fun at their expense.

This playful attitude is one of the main reasons his admirers now label his work "postmodernist". Does he agree with them? "I'm all for ransacking history and taking the bits that one likes," he says, "so I suppose you could see it that way. I enjoy visual jokes but I don't think I'm creating a pastiche of the past."

While some of his fellow garden designers may see his work as narrow and historically limited, many others passionately defend it. The designer Jill Billington insists he is "never nostalgic" and praises his lightness of touch and the confidence with which he handles space. "He's tremendously decisive," she says, "and achieves real fusion of hard and soft with ornaments and plants used as walk-in sculpture. The way he uses light - daylight and artificial - creates strange, ethereal and powerful images." The staunch modernist David Stevens is also a fan, citing his "strong architectural bent" as a particular advantage.

It is true that George Carter's heart belongs to the 17th-century garden with its austere architectural lines subverted by statues of baroque river gods, gilded automata, joke fountains and early theme-park grottoes. While he also enjoys Tudor and medieval styles, his favourite British gardens are the strictly formal ones at Ham House in Surrey and Hazelby House in Berkshire. Abroad, he rates highly the drama of Schloss Heidel-berg in Germany, Bel Oeil in Belgium and the Villa Marlia near Lucca in Italy.

It is also true that he detests any notion of a garden as natural, environmental or picturesque. "It's a false notion," he insists, "because gardens are always artificial. Before we invented the idea that a garden should imitate nature, we had a much more simple and honest approach." In his view, the picturesque and landscape movements of the 18th and 19th centuries did us a great disservice. "They actually invented the sentimental way we see nature, which we are still clinging to today."

His gardens are too knowing and tongue-in-cheek to be tied to the past, however. It is clear, whether wandering around his own garden or flipping through his portfolio of work for clients, that he has an eye to the future and is filtering history through completely modern eyes. His "sampling" of past styles is closer to current trends in pop music, fashion and graphic design than to dry historical reconstruction. His training was in sculpture rather than horticulture and he refers to his works as "installations" or "performance art". He sees his type of approach as one of the strongest strands in garden design in the present and into the next century. If, when wheeling his trolley through the Supermarket of Style, he generally ignores the shelves marked "Post-1750", he feels surprisingly strong links with modernism.

"People find that early style which I love so alien that it strikes them as modern," he points out, "and there is a connection. Early modernist gardens harked back to past formality in their geometry and discipline with designers like Thomas Church and Luis Barragn. Unfortunately, modernism never really caught on in this country." While the Bauhaus school decamped to California between the wars to create some famously modernist gardens, English architects began siting futuristic buildings within flowery Gertrude Jekyll-style plots. It was a failure of nerve which, he believes, has dogged British gardens ever since.

"I agree with people who say our garden design is 50 years behind the times," he says, fingering a gilded lavatory ballcock masquerading as a finial on one of his pieces. "In fact, it's more than 50: innovation dried up with Gertrude Jekyll and her artist's-eye borders. There are much more exciting things being done nowadays in the gardens of Europe and America." He sees one solution to this problem in better education in the visual arts. British children, he says, should be encouraged to understand and enjoy the arts - fine and applied - from an early age. That way they might grow up to appreciate garden-making as an art form of the future, just as it was in the past.

He is sure it would also help if an alternative to the Chelsea Flower Show could be established, as a forum for really innovative garden design. Such shows exist in Europe and the USA, but here would need to be run by a body other than the plant-centred RHS, he feels. "It would help to make the public more confident about trying new things, too. People could see the endless possibilities of owning a piece of land and having a completely free choice in what to do with it. They could do anything they liked, as long as it meant something to them. I'm all for people doing bizarre things in gardens."

He certainly intends to carry on being bizarre with his garden installations. In his own garden he is planning a spectacular water feature, involving major hydraulics, to include a fountain that rises up from beneath a lake, opens up like a flower and sends jets of water in all directions. For parties, clients are now commissioning him to construct arches, temples and amphitheatres made from bales of straw. These make an impressive sight during the day and an even more awesome impact when they are set on fire as darkness falls.

If your garden is big enough, why not? "It's the cheapest way to create a piece of theatrical architecture," he insists. "And it looks even better if you have fireworks afterwards."

Adventurous readers can contact George Carter at Silverstone Farm, North Elmham, Norfolk, NR20 5EX (tel: 01362 668130). !

NEXT WEEK: The ecological garden

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum