Urban gardener, Cleve West: Someone to watch over me

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The Independent Online

Rumour has it that Keith Gretton has a bigger bust. I suppose I ought to clarify. Keith taught me at art college many years ago and now, among other things, makes miniature ceramic busts, a couple of which sit patiently on shelves at home peering into the middle distance. Set on obelisks, they command attention in a quiet way and while they would cause an onlooker a major seizure if they were to so much as tweak a grin, you can't help imagining that there's life there ... somewhere.

This weekend, Keith, who inspired many of us to look at things from every conceivable angle, exhibits with other artists in an open-house weekend at 55 venues in south-west London. No doubt I'll be tempted to buy another head to join the others and, if the rumours are true, there'll be one big enough to warrant a place in our garden.

Busts have always appealed to me on a surreal level. Anything too abstract doesn't quite hit the spot and anything too real runs the risk of cheesiness. In large, grand gardens they are an accepted feature, usually of historical interest, but in an urban garden they can make quite a statement. Exactly why heads should be so alluring I can't say. By rights they should carry gruesome overtones, especially when stuck on a pedestal as they invariably are.

Animal heads have been trivialised by the ubiquitous lion faces that are used for wall fountains. Seeing them makes me want to commit wilful vandalism, so I urge all Royal Horticultural Society council members to ban them forthwith and save the nation from sliding even further into a fathomless sea of garden trivia. My interest stems from a fascination with gargoyles, the Green Man and Edward Gorey story books where dark and mysterious gardens are watched over by someone or something vaguely sinister.

It's dangerous ground. Just a hint of twee can ruin a garden designer's street cred. Fairies, goblins and elves abound at flower shows these days, but are far too literal to be anything other than sentimental and cute (in the negative sense of the word). Where heads are ambiguous, they become more memorable - like guardians of a place.

Heads in trees can be effective if alarming when you first encounter them. A clay head stuck in the cleft of a pear tree and weathered to the same silvery hue of the boughs made a striking, lifelike symbiosis in a friend's garden. Another, worked into a damaged trunk, bore the tortured grimace of a struggle for freedom. Too much torso attached is more difficult to place. The extra mass and wider base can make them look ungainly on a pedestal. My Green Man is placed in a border as if emerging from the soil. Gilbert Whyman, another artist who welds found metal objects to make garden sculptures, exhibited a metal Guy Fawkes last year. Ablaze in a garden on Bonfire Night, it turned a clever piece of sculpture into a bizarre Wizard of Oz- meets- Wicker Man happening.

When placed on their own, scale becomes important. A collection of Elizabeth Frink heads in the south of France were monumental, something akin to the Easter Island heads where the scale inspires a feeling of immense power and wisdom. A giant face filling the window of the 17th-century Manor House at Groombridge Place once made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end - I had a strange feeling that I was being watched.

It would be unreasonable of me to ask Keith to scale up to these proportions. Costs and logistics would be prohibitive and some of the character of each one could well be lost. Life-size busts, however, would work well in alcoves within our ivy-clad fence. His miniatures, dotted around the garden, would get lost - although a whole crowd of them together peering from the shed window or streaming from the undergrowth of Bergenia foliage would pack a powerful punch (albeit within the bounds of Lilliputian nightmare). Gnomes in the area will run for the hills, though they'd best be warned that there's nowhere to hide.

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