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.
I find this debate fascinating. I was going to comment on your first post on this subject, but found that other people had already said what I was going to say.I do think Tim Richardson is wonderful: he’s made me think about this in a completely different way. I think he’s right about bypassing the comparison with ‘art’, partly because it’s distracting and partly because there are so many factors that affect gardens (plants grow, landscaping weathers, leaves fall etc etc) that a comparison with art is, I believe, meaningless.We need to feel confident enough about garden design to think of it as a subject worthy of critical evaluation in its own right.
i think Tim should definitely be made to crawl all the way along the A road to Beth Chatto’s, but I would let him have some sort of protective suit and maybe some sweets to keep him going
It’s good to have people like Tim who question the status quo, even if we don’t agree with everything being said. After all, we don’t all go for the same plants or styles of gardening do we? If we did wouldn’t gardening be rather boring!
James A-S said:
Tim is good on sweets. He wrote a whole book about the delights of Sherbert Dib-Dabs, Lemon Bon-Bons, Fruit Salads, Blackjacks etc
Oooh, I love Sherbert Dib-Dabs. Maybe I’ll buy myself that book for Christmas instead of Avant Gardeners.
Benjamin Vogt said:
I think a conversation comparing art with gardens is important, but not essential. It’s important, in part, because there so litle on gaden theory, and connecting it to other fields, and seeing the interplay, and learning from that interplay (I try to do this in part in my book manuscript I’m working). I’m generaly NOT a theory guy, especially on my home turf of literature and writing, but I think the debates, thoughts, and expansions it can foster are important–and not so much for the everyday gardener. Art should aspire to the garden though, no doubt. This conversation, in part, reminds me of Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’ book Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History, which I highly endorse.
The Constant Gardener said:
oh poor Tim… you try and be all serious and look what happens.I’m sure the book on sweeties is much fluffier and pinker but the book on Avant Gardeners (which I got out of the library at college the other day) is a lot less fattening. Plus it’s dead interesting, thought-provoking and inspiring. Which I bet even you lot would struggle to say about sherbet dib-dabs.