|I could look at Heleniums all day!|
Entering a garden, either public, private or domestic, is like stepping into a work of art. Certain differences are obvious: paintings, sculptures etc are finished pieces of work and once completed they never change. A garden on the other hand is never finished, and in fact should never be so! Its un-finished nature not only draws the visitor into the garden, but gifts the sightseer a portion of the space, allowing him or her the right to be its co-creator, completing the picture with their imagination for potential.
I guess I visit gardens for the same reasons as many. I see it as a journey into art, beauty, and a natural aesthetic. I also go looking for the meaning in a garden… and maybe also for meaning in life too? As I walk around a garden, I try to pull as many strands together as I can in order to make the most of the experience. My experience of a garden is built on the two pillars of art and science, and is always underpinned by both appreciation and knowledge.
No doubt I go looking for what Alexander Pope (in 1731) called ‘the genius of the place’ or what the Romans referred to as its ‘Genius Loci’.
My own personal interest in garden history has always focused from around the English Landscape Movement onward. Personally, I can’t really see how anyone with a love of plants and natural landscapes could be that interested in design styles which have taken pleasure in dominating nature (e.g. from Louis XIV’s Versailles to the garden rooms of John Brooks) and which have imposed architectural rules onto an ever-loving, ever-nurturing Mother Nature. Somehow, I can’t imagine the exploitation of nature, say the gross splendour of a renaissance garden, as having anything to do with the Garden of Eden as portrayed by Milton in Paradise Lost:
‘A happy rural seat of various view; Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balme. Betwixt them lawns, or level downs… flours of all hue’ (book 4).
|Stowe Garden - steeped in symbolism.|
So, when I visit gardens, and what compels me to do so, is a motivation far removed from all the pretty flowers that I might see there – although pretty flowers are always a massive bonus! It’s the aesthetic, the natural beauty, the ideology behind its design; its allusions to (and maybe its reactions against) certain artistic movements, along with its historical and cultural context, as well as the mythology and spirituality I may encounter there.
As mentioned above, to experience a garden – as with any art form – a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. You don’t have to be a garden historian to appreciate a garden, but a little piece of prior research might just add to your appreciation of where it sits in the history of garden design. Is it an artsy-craftsy, cottage-muddle style of garden? Is it trying to mimic a natural landscape somewhere? Is it formal, informal, or an intelligent/creative mix of the two?
|The formal and the informal at Bury Court.|
So again, appreciation and knowledge underpin the art and science of a garden. I guess, being a gardener myself, I can also appreciate the skilled work and toil (blood, sweat & tears) that have gone into making a garden. A garden that offers up all-year-round interest, with plants that rise and fall, compliment and compete with each other, that offer harmonious and contrasting colour schemes, with variations of size, structure and texture doesn't just happen all by itself.... or maybe it does?
|Some people (Nigel Dunnet) seem to make it all look so effortless.|
To walk round a garden and only notice the pretty flowers is to miss out on witnessing a natural community of organisms, who, like us, simply want to get along with each other without too much trouble and whose only wish is to actualise their full potential.
Tim Richardson, garden historian, critic, author of around 20 (really great) books, and all-round horty brainiac, believes that garden design styles tend to move in cycles of decades and half decades. I’ve never really agreed with that opinion. Apart from the annual show gardens, that no doubt demonstrate certain ebb-and-flow trends, the average domestic garden of the UK hasn’t changed much in at least 100 years. We still garden trying to mimic in miniature the mixed cottage-muddles we see at places like Great Dixter and Sissinghurst: trees, shrubs, roses and herbaceous borders.... and maybe a few annuals for the gaps.
|Munstead Wood from 1912. Look familiar?|
The history books will always apportion roughly two hundred years of Italian influenced renaissance gardens across Europe, and will give approximately the same amount of time to the English Landscape Movement that followed it. Then, apart from outgrowths and diversions into the Picturesque and Gardenesque, history documents the next design chapter (let’s scurry past Victorian bedding schemes) as the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1900’s…. and we’ve been gardening the same way ever since! So, apart from the occasional pendulum swing between the formal and the informal – a foray into modernism that never quite took hold in the UK – we’re all still pretty much locked into our mini Munsteads!
Anyway, I digress… back to our mystic garden.
Now, I’m not particularly religious…. but I know a man who is! Douglas Swinscow’s The Mystic Garden (1992) is an amazing book in which he writes about his search, and discovery, of the various spiritual meanings to be found in a garden. In the book he manages cleverly to weave aspects of garden history with advice on garden design, drawing in examples from many a famous, and some quietly hidden gardens, throughout history. As a committed Christian, allied to a strong belief in Taoist philosophy, Douglas takes the reader on a journey, his journey, as he explores how gardens can bring meaning into one’s life. Like most of us I guess, he is of course, trying to find a way back to that Garden of Eden: ‘the mystic garden shows us the way, or one of the infinite number of ways, by which we can attain a deeper knowledge of our existence….. the mystic garden itself has no place on the map: it lies in the soul of each of us’.
I would certainly recommend the book as something very different from all the usual gardening books (historical or otherwise) out there. It was my holiday read recently, and my pencilled notes were written in the margins of almost every page! Cheap as chips on Amazon – do check it out. It helped me consider and consolidate what I’m searching for with my love of gardens: my art form of choice.
And as for me, in my own garden, the ‘spirit of place’ is to be found in the joy of its creation, the nurturing of its development, and the love of what it’s become… and yes, the toil in the continued labour of its maintenance.
Thanks for reading.