Beware the peeing cherub

It's easy to get it wrong when selecting a piece of sculpture for your garden. Georgina Simon offers some solid advice
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The Independent Online
Sacrilege as it may be, my highlight of the Chelsea Flower show was neither green, nor growing. She was small (4ft 6in), rustic (she was carrying a brace of partridges), old (150 years at least), a touch on the heavy side (pure lead), but perfectly proportioned with a lovely face. She stood head and shoulders above the throng, raised on a simple plinth, cool, calm and decorative. In a handkerchief-sized London garden, she would look a million dollars. Actually, she could have been yours for pounds 8,000.

A well decorated garden is not a matter of planting. Every garden needs a defined man-made shape to stand out against the blurry greenness. It can be subtly eye-catching, like the grey leaden-statue of the virgin who shelters beneath a silver willow-leaved pear in Vita Sackville West's White Garden at Sissinghurst; witty and thematic as in Rupert Goldby's ingenious kitchen garden at Chelsea, in which all paths lead to a bronze fountain of brussels sprouts; or it can be practical as well as pretty, like a cast-iron bench; it cannot ever be a gnome, not even as a bad joke. Pineapples are risky: unless genuine antiques and beautifully weathered, they look pretentious. And beware of peeing cherubs, which are irredeemably naff unless your garden happens to be an Italian piazza.

It is worth remembering that while the rest of the garden blooms, fades and withers, an ornament remains unchanged and your eye will always be dragged to it. Crowther of Syon Lodge is the place to start looking as it has the most beautiful booty from Europe.

Scale is all-important, but the tiniest yard deserves at least a terracotta oil-jar. Waist-high or taller, such a pot is visually strong enough to be left empty, but looks gorgeous dripping with pelargoniums. In a small garden, particularly a paved one, one ornament is enough to provide the necessary focal point. Two ornaments in a restricted space should always be a matching or complementary pair like obelisks, vases or urns.

A nice urn is an ornament in itself so you plonk it, unplanted, on a circle of camomile lawn. Unfortunately many so-called reproductions are clunking concrete-coloured bastardisations, and do not improve even when weathered. Treasures of Tenbury stocks the most attractive reproductions of classical designs. Even though it seems an extravagance, buy a plinth while you are at it. The more height, the better the outline, the bolder the statement. If you find an elegant urn without a plinth, create height with a topiary box spiral.

The less distinguished the pot, the more planting you have to do to make it look dramatic. Wider-mouthed urns, the biggest flower pots (available at garden supermarkets) and simple half-barrel tubs are best planted very densely with bulbs of one type such as black tulips, grape hyacinths or blood-red pansies. A giant-sized cauldron (architectural salvage yards are full of them) is less successful as a planter unless it has a plug or is naturally leaky, because it will not drain.

In the right space - ideally a courtyard garden - columns can be wonderfully theatrical, instantly evoking the moody atmosphere of a classical ruin. Renaissance Bronzes makes columns of golden reconstituted limestone. One on its own looks a little lonely, unless it is a deliberately broken one and is hugged by ivy. Two Corinthian columns, with an entablature on top, dribbling with wistaria, look glorious.

A bigger space is not necessarily a simpler space in which to place ornaments, although it allows you to create a structure - an arch or pergola - which controls the direction of the eye and neatly frames the object beyond. Plan your garden with your ornament in mind; it should never be treated as an unnecessary elaboration but as the point of your view.

Crowther of Syon Lodge, Isleworth (0181-560 7978); Renaissance Bronzes, London (0171-823 5149); Walcot Reclamation, Bath (01225 444404). For more ideas, read 'Container Gardening' (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 15.99)