Can a garden be a work of art?

This week’s Hampton Court Flower Show will see high-concept installations side by side with more genteel designs. Is gardening losing touch with its roots? Victoria Summerley grasps the nettle

Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together,” wrote John Ruskin. We British like to describe ourselves as a nation of gardeners. With typical insular arrogance, we appropriate all the credit for horticultural skill and landscape design, as if the Arabs, the Japanese and the mainland Europeans had never laid out an Alhambra, or a Ryoanji, or a Versailles.

We also have a terrible tendency to applaud the (often aristocratic) amateur and despise the professional. It is as if the art of creating a garden must be ascribed to a mystical ability that is acquired only by some accident of genes and circumstance, rather than at art college or architecture school.

Above all, we revere the cottage garden, the ultimate celebration of artlessness, a jumble of flowers and vegetables which has everything to do with charm and culinary utility, but has nothing to do with forethought and conception.

The ultimate accolade for a traditional English garden is: “Lovely!” The idea that you might treat a garden like any other work of art and – Heaven forfend! – subject it to criticism is enough to make the conventional gardener choke on his or her homegrown courgettes.

Increasingly, however, this traditional thinking is being challenged, and the Royal Horticultural Society’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, which opens today, has come to be one of the showcases for conceptual garden design (wacky gardens, in traditional British gardenspeak), and is certainly the one with the biggest mainstream audience.

Last year’s winner in this category was It’s Hard To See, designed by Rebecca Butterworth, Victoria Pustygina and Ludovica Ginanneschi. By conceptual garden standards, this was quite accessible, metaphorically speaking, consisting of a planted square (with flowers, no less) buried in a kind of pavement, the two representing the tension between culture and nature.

More controversial was the 2008 winner, Ecstasy in a Very Black Box, designed by Tony Smith for MDF The BiPolar Organisation. Smith suffers from depression and used his experience to create the garden, which consisted of a black, walled space in which the only colour was a wave of lettuce seedlings punctuated by shards of coloured Perspex. You could hear the muttering from the floral frocks brigade 100 yards away.

This year, the conceptual gardens will include The Pansy Project, by the artists Paul and Tom Harfleet. Paul Harfleet travels the country planting pansies at the sites of homophobic abuse. The garden consists of shattered slabs of concrete, representing Britain’s streets, underplanted with 4,000 pansies to represent the disruptive effect of homophobic abuse on our society.

Like conceptual art, many conceptual gardens are intended to elicit a reaction from the spectator which is as much a part of the artwork as the materials with which it is made. They throw up philosophical problems, however, and I think this is where the British – who unlike our European neighbours do not tend to spend their youth sitting around in cafés discussing Nietzsche and Sartre – recoil from the debate. The thought of having to use the brain to analyse abstract concepts is enough to send the average British gardener scuttling in search of a nice cup of tea. Gardens grow, change, mature. They are subject to weather and pest damage, to the germination of weeds, and the depredations of wildlife. So, if a garden is an art form, is it still the same art form 10 years down the line? In the case of Tony Smith’s Ecstasy in a Very Black Box, the lettuce would have bolted within weeks and would need to be resown. Gardens might be art, but could you describe this particular piece of art as a garden?

James Alexander-Sinclair, the garden designer and writer, is on the RHS’s judging panel for the conceptual gardens category. “The gardens do not have to be sustainable,” he says. “And there is an artist – Hayley Skipper – on the judging panel, alongside a designer and a horticulturalist.” This year, the conceptual garden designer Tony Heywood will be on the panel as a “designate judge”, a sort of trainee. As for the concepts, they must have some relevance to gardening, or plants, otherwise the huge crowds who attend the Hampton Court show would wonder why they were at a flower show.

Frank Ronan, the novelist and columnist for Gardens Illustrated, takes what he calls the Heraclitan view when it comes to comparing gardens to other art forms. In the June issue of the magazine, he argues: “Every garden has the potential for perfection because it will never be finished, because the elements that make it a garden … are in constant flux and you can never step into the same garden twice.”

Cleve West, whose garden designs have won gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show, says: “I used to think that landscaping was the ultimate art form, but now I’m not so sure. Conceptual gardens are probably the nearest we can get to art, in that they often sidetrack nature to focus on a feeling or a theme without always relying on plants. There is more control. They are a bit like an installation. I remember being fascinated by Louise Bourgeois’s installations at Tate Modern and could see how they might translate as gardens.

“You need artistic talent to be a good garden designer. The best gardens are a successful composition: a series of shapes, forms, colours, textures that work in harmony. Often, the actual drawing might be considered much more a piece of art than the finished garden itself.”

Sir Roy Strong is the creator of The Laskett Gardens in Herefordshire, which opened to the public this year. His garden is full of references and allusions – tributes to histories and personalities that have inspired both him and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman. There’s an arbour in honour of the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, for example, and a sundial from Cecil Beaton’s garden.

As the former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Roy has experience on both sides of the fence, as it were, and his view is unequivocal: “Of course gardens can be works of art. They may be vulnerable and they can be transient, but definitely art. Not all gardens – but then not all paintings are works of art. Take the Villa Lante in Italy. It’s never been restored to the way it was originally, but it’s so strong that you know immediately you are standing in a masterpiece. I think that gardens that are based in geometry and scale do work better than say, the landscape school. But I notice that the average garden visitor has no conception of what a garden really is, beyond the plants. It will only be a very few people, like Mary Keen [the garden designer] who will say to me, ‘Oh, you should do this or that.’ Gardening is a very gentle world; people don’t really do a Brian Sewell.”

A Brian Sewell? What does the broadcaster and London Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell think about criticism vis-à-vis gardens? Well, he disagrees with Sir Roy Strong about the beauties of geometry for a start. “I hate geometrical |gardens. It’s so mathematical – I hate maths in all its shapes and forms. I hate gardeners who torment their gardens. At the Chelsea Flower Show, year after year there are examples of the torment to which nature is subjected. You want to say, ‘Why have you done this? Why have you cut this back? Why is there such a sharp edge between the lawn and the herbaceous nonsenses?’”

Neither is he impressed by the icons of British gardening (“I’m dead against Sissinghurst – all those bloody Bloomsburys”), but he is uncharacteristically cautious about the idea of a career as a garden critic. “We’re very uncritical about people’s houses too, even if they exhibit bad taste – not even ghastly good taste – and you dare not say anything about the garden, or the motor car, or their clothes. My advice is for God’s sake, stick to the status quo. Otherwise no one will send you any Christmas cards.”

Anne Wareham, however, who with the garden writer Stephen Anderton set up the critical forum Thinking Gardens ( thinkingardens.co.uk), believes criticism and analysis is vital to help any art form evolve. Yet finding someone prepared to criticise a garden is very difficult. Impugn someone’s spouse and they may even agree with you; disparage their garden, and you face being hung from the nearest Davidia involucrata.

When Anne opened her own garden, Veddw, in Wales, she says she thought, naively, people would come and say things like: “I really like this bit, but I think that bit would be better if you did x, y or z. But all anyone ever said was, ‘Lovely garden. What’s that plant?’” Frustrated, she tried to set an example, writing a “review” for the RHS journal The Garden of East Ruston Old Vicarage, in Norfolk, a fascinating, eclectic garden created from scratch by Alan Gray and Graham Robeson over the past 40 years. She liked the garden, but she made criticisms – and there was a shocked response.

“Ian [Hodgson, the editor] said we’d better let the dust settle. It’s been settling for 10 years,” Anne says. She’s wary of the idea that conceptual gardens are the only gardens that can be considered art. She feels that they have gone in one particular direction, in the same way that conceptual art seeks either to challenge complacency or épater la bourgeoisie, depending on your point of view. Both Anne Wareham and Cleve West are keen to make a distinction between gardens that are art, and gardens that contain art, such as a sculpture garden.

Cleve says: “I like to use art – sculpture mainly – in gardens, but I don’t really consider the garden as an art piece. For a garden designer the art is in the process, not necessarily the finished product. I’ve often thought that David Hockney’s garden in Los Angeles was about as close as it gets to a work of art as it had all the hallmarks of one of his paintings. Barbara Hepworth’s garden in St Ives also benefits from the artist’s work.”

Perhaps we find it odd to think of gardens as art because many of the great gardens of Britain, are underpinned by some sort of materialistic raison d’être. The concept of beauty for beauty’s sake is a relatively recent one. The landscape movement of the 18th century, led by designers such as William Kent, Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton, based their depictions of pastoral idylls, complete with Greek temples and grottoes, on the paintings of Claude Lorrain.

But the sweeping pastures would not have been nearly so popular with their noble clients had it not been for the fact that enclosure of common land – which reached unprecedented levels following the Civil War – had ensured that the rents for agricultural land were now very high. How much more satisfying to look out across your parkland and find it not only aesthetically pleasing but financially rewarding too. The introduction of exotic or foreign plant species, has for centuries been driven both by commercial concerns and by one-upmanship on a royal scale. When William and Mary began their collection of “exotick” plants at Hampton Court in 1689, it was one of many symbols of British superiority aimed at rivals such as Louis XIV. Orangeries and succession houses for fruits such as grapes and peaches were as much indicators of status and wealth as basement swimming pools and helicopter pads are today.

The snobbery that rates the artist above the craftsman may also be to blame. The physical creation of gardens was left to hired help. It was these men and boys who grew the bedding, mowed the lawns, pruned the roses, tended the kitchen gardens and weeded the paths. Rudyard Kipling paid tribute to them in his poem, The Glory of the Garden:

“Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing, ‘Oh, how beautiful’ and sitting in the shade

While better men than we go out and start their working lives

At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.”

In Anne Wareham’s garden at Veddw, there is a tribute to the local people and landscape in the form of a parterre inspired by a local tithe map. Hedges reproduce the boundaries of the fields, while crops are represented by grasses and perennials. Headstones commemorate local place names in the same way that the names of local families are prominent in any churchyard.

She points to the gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries – in which statuary and classical allusions were used both as focal points and a reminder of the frailties of human life – as examples of design that can be as intellectually stimulating as they are visually attractive.

Perhaps we need to go back to that approach if we want to understand the art of gardens. Could we start to see them with our minds as well as our eyes? As Sir Roy Strong remarks, sardonically: “Hope springs eternal.”

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