The erudite and charming Tim Richardson got in touch with me after my earlier post about my doubts over “conceptual” gardens and so I’ve been having a very absorbing chat with him via email about what is, and isn’t, a garden, the relationship between gardening and art and many other thought-provoking questions.
In case you’ve had your head under a hedge for the last few years, Tim is a stalwart champion of modern garden design, and the author of Avant Gardeners, which as I told him I have on my Christmas wishlist. He’s kindly let me reproduce his thoughts in response to all my ditherings, since I thought they cast far more light on the subject than I ever could.
On whether conceptual gardens are actually gardens…
“I know what you mean about the ‘garden’ definition but in some ways for me it’s like the discussion as to whether gardens are ‘art’ or not. Quite interesting but a bit of a cul de sac — perhaps the definitions are not so important after all? In a way we need to call them ‘gardens’ because calling them ‘art’ or suchlike would be like trying to jump up on the coat-tails, like a puppy dog, of something supposedly ‘higher’ up the artistic hierarchy. We should be able to rise above such matters! Perhaps art should aspire to the condition of the garden . . . [faced as we are with a global ecological conundrum, I am not joking]”
And on garden history and modernism…
“At risk of sounding like a self-publicising lunatic, on the Jekyll gardens thing — sometimes people imagine I am some kind of iconoclast dedicated to smashing down ‘old’ ways of horticulture [a recent letter to Garden Design Journal said I should be made to crawl on my belly all along the A road to Beth Chatto’s garden and pay homage..] but in fact I think I am only qualified to make any suggestions having made a serious study of 20th c planting styles, to be found in an earlier book: English Gardens in the 20th Century, which includes a reappraisal of Jekyll as an avant-garde artist coming from the Aesthetic rather than Arts and Crafts tradition. That book is a decade by decade, careful evaluation of the development of planting styles — so I am not in any way ‘against’ plants, which is what yet another leading designer [good -humouredly] accused me of only the other night. But designers are not always very interested in historical matters I find.
“For me, future potential can only be discerned via knowledge of the past; the two go hand in hand. But it is surprising how little crossover there is between contemporary garden/landscape design and garden history.”
Those who stick their heads above the parapet unfortunately get shot at, generally speaking. But I for one am very glad we have people like Tim to make us think, and occasionally move forward from time to time.