No, this is modern art

It's not a new shrub or tree you need for that dull corner in your garden, it's a decoy duck. Or a reproduction sphinx. Or a fibreglass donkey jacket. By Cathy Packe
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The Independent Culture
WHEN HENRY VIII redesigned the gardens of Hampton Court in the mid-16th century, his flowerbeds were filled with figures - not flamingos, but creatures with more royal connections, such as griffins, antelope and tigers - all attached to poles and stuck into the soil.

At Chelsea Flower Show this year, you could buy antique French decoy ducks on poles to stick in your own borders. Henry might have approved, though it's difficult to imagine what he would make of the arty objects on sale at the current Hampton Court Flower Show.

Beyond the designer gardens and the tents for specialist growers, a band thumps out a medley of songs from The Sound of Music, as you walk past acres of stalls selling everything from bent cutlery windchimes to miniature wooden wheelbarrows, nodding millennium bugs and gigantic plastic chess pieces. The idea steals into your mind that you have stumbled on an enormous car boot sale where the god of merchandising rules, unbothered by any notions of quality control. Which is a shame, because it's quite easy to discover eccentric and stylish objects with which to transform a dull corner of your garden, if you are prepared to look for them.

The idea of garden art came about as people began to travel abroad, especially on the Grand Tour. They were attracted by the art they saw, and wanted copies for their estates. It is those copies - of sphinxes, for instance - that are now being copied again and sold by companies like Architectural Heritage. The price of their reproductions is about 10 per cent of the cost of an original, a consideration when you might have to pay up to pounds 60,000 for the original itself. But although the owner of Architectural Heritage, Adrian Puddy, admits that he caters for a niche market, he points out that the huge interest in gardens is not only at what he describes as the Groundforce end of the scale.

Successful garden art depends on what you do with your object once you have got it, and that has nothing to do with the amount of money you spend.

Cotswold Decorative Ironwork is at the top end of the market, with items in its catalogue like a stone lion more suitable for the grounds of a stately home than a suburban semi. But their advice - to place it so that it is half-hidden and appears to be advancing out of long grasses - could be applied to any kind of ornament.

Joan Clifton, at Avant Garden, has noticed a move away from anything particularly classical in style, although admits that there is increasing interest in buying non-plant items for the garden. Her own taste is for everything in the garden to be useful, although some of her pieces are whimsical as well as utilitarian (see her grass armchair, left). Her best seller is a candle tree, which comes in several sizes including one that is 6ft tall, at pounds 380.

The work of Veronica Gosling, who has a studio in Gloucestershire, is fun and informal. Figures in fibreglass and chicken wire may not be to everyone's taste, but in the right location they are extremely effective. Walk into her garden, and you will find a donkey jacket lying on a wall, and figures sitting in chairs around the lawn - at a casual glance they could almost be real.

My own favourite is the bird she has made, perched casually on a fibreglass fork, which could stand in a bare patch in a flowerbed, or even upright in a tub. And at pounds 80, you can afford to buy some plants as well.

Architectural Heritage, Taddington Manor, Cutsdean, Cheltenham, Glos GL54 5RY (01386 584 414); Cotswold Decorative Irownwork, Marsh Farm, Stourton, Warks CV36 5HG (01608 685134); Avant Garden (mail order 0181-747 1794); Veronica Gosling, The Barn at Hay Farm, Clifford's Mesne, Newent, Gloucs GL18 1JS (01531 820068)