Thursday, 19 January 2012

Quietly Excited - Visions of Johanna

There is a central paradox at the heart of the garden, which is created for human use and pleasure.  To fulfil its purpose it needs to bring you a sense of peace. Simultaneously, because human beings love complexity and novelty, it would be best if it could also excite, entertain, or stimulate.  Perhaps beauty lies where these two poles intersect.

Here's the entrance to Penelope Hobhouse's The Coachhouse, now sadly closed.  I remember breathing more quickly as I approached this green promise;  is it just me?

An overwrought garden lacks the harmony and peace we have the gall to demand of our outside spaces, and a garden with nothing interesting in it is probably also dull.  But a complex garden can also feel tedious and an empty one can be deeply stirring.  So we're exploring the two fighting arms of this contradiction in terms, hoping not to have to resort to chemicals in order to get the calm excitement which will draw us out to explore and relax.

Here's another lost garden, Magnolia House in Yoxford - it was open for many years, smallish, imperfect, but  in my view nicely placed on the calm/stimulation axis. You need both to be piqued and pulled through a garden.  It's nice to be fascinated and hopeful about what lies beyond, enchanted by detail and soothed by distance. Interested, not mindlessly zonked out in some kind of flowery cloud of unknowing.  Better to be alert and pleased.

Enter the song - Visions of Johanna, on the Blonde on Blonde album.  It retains an air of  mystery; each following verse holding the promise of greater clarity.  But it always recedes, you never quite get there. Your journey accumulates more images, some startling; casting different lights on what lies behind or before, never truly illuminating the whole.  But you turn and turn about, looking round, never quite able to leave the enclosed space. I don't hear the horror, or the despair, or even the acute loneliness that others seem to; to me it's a striving for creative transcendence, stuck in a room, stuck in a city, surrounded by what I can only call weirdos.

From East Ruston - below

And we do have the quiet/excitement axis.  The slippery protagonist traces alternative ideals, Louise and Johanna,"concise and clear" versus repeated "visions".  Of Johanna, obviously.  I'm thinking of Louise as the calm, and the  inexpressible visions as the excitement.  Sometimes they seem to change places, sometimes Johanna even changes places with the singer, who dissolves into his own visions. 

To succeed, the song, like a garden, needs to stay aloft, tensed between the contrasted forces.  And this is where the music helps - there's an  organ making horizontal lines of sound in the background and there are both sharp and gentle beats and tricklings of sound tying everything together, reinforcing the calm, amplifying the gradual crescendo of excitement towards the end.

So let's consider a particular rather extraordinary garden.  East Ruston Vicarage garden in Norfolk, UK, created by Alan Gray and Graham Robeson.  My photographs date from at least a couple of years ago, taken hastily, not that flattering but let's hope, illustrative.

The garden is a tour de force, containing tours de force, stimulating, exhausting, huge, complicated, probably over-designed, but triumphantly horticultural in intent. The enormous palette of plants and the density of variety need every peaceful trick in the book to help you stay interested.  Firm structure or clarity is the tool of choice, holding everything down.  Concisely put, clarity becomes calm.

If you can detect anything in the somewhat reflective photograph of the plan above, you will see that the garden around the buildings is a honeycomb of enclosed hedged compartments, all interconnected with tunnels and arches, filled with symmetrically patterned arrangements of topiary and flowers. Symmetry seen sideways becomes repetition, a lesson you can learn over and over again in this garden.

Here a tree fern compartment could be a glamorous suburban garden, without the very long complex view at either end obviously.  It's very calm, but rather out of this world. Ladies playing in an empty lot?

Long straight walks, other axes, stretch across the flat space.   They are varied longitudinally and horizontally with crosswalks.  The whole garden is enclosed with impenetrable shelter belts, probably much greater now than on the plan. The main lines are straight, but the woodland and the desert gardens are "informal", i.e. twiddly, or curvy.  Your eye is rarely free to wander; its movement is controlled by enclosure, though the spaces may be large.  There is a sense of looking for something, never quite finding it, but seeing extraordinary things on the way.

Here's a calm centre - the main axis away from the buildings.  Here there is width and horizontality from the retreating steps and lawn.  Horizontal lines are an excellent way to achieve visual stability.  But we have a few other soothing elements.  Tidiness, smoothness, work all done. These are prosaic qualities but, for the sake of peace, you can settle for them.  And pattern, our brains crave pattern, which seems to help them relax.

If you know the song, you can build your own connections.  I find them infinite, but simultaneously, not there at all.  The excitement of realising the self in creativity is the driving motor of this garden, and of the song.  For the singer, it seems to be better than sex, better than love;  why wouldn't he be excited?  You hear it in the last verse.  His conscience explodes, he's breaking new ground.  He fears what it will cost him, and loss and failure of this creativity even as he celebrates it.

Try this next one for hallways and little boy lost - don't be too literal; it's all atmosphere, atmosphere.  Anyway, perhaps she's really Alice.

Let's get out of these tighter enclosures.  The garden flirts with danger in the stony desert area where agaves, yuccas and cacti have gathered, presumably wondering how on earth that happened.  Pictures and visions of strangeness in Norfolk - a bridge like an upended dinosaur, endless twirly lines of bigger stones on a groundwork of smaller stones.  Jewels and binoculars on the heads of mules perhaps?

This is an entirely created world, but there's no visual reason to say it's out of place, for the internal connections are reasonably convincing and beyond the boundaries of the garden the flat agricultural land is invisible.  The stones and the repeated shapes make a unity, which is calming, but we're on the farther end of our conceptual axis and we can only hope the excitement feels good.  I'm not certain Johanna's to be found here.

Without doubt, this is a garden that strives.  I feel I have not begun to do it justice, there is just so much, and much is interesting.  Some is lovely and takes off.  Here are two simpler moments, with another way of telegraphing peace, somewhere to sit.

For a deeper contrast, on the margins of the garden, true otherness. A mirage of the garden that is not. And perhaps a release from all that creative self-expression. Louise is definitely here.

And finally, a sort of companion piece to Penelope Hobhouse's entrance courtyard at the top.  Compare and contrast, as the topiary does with the free growth.  Binary systems, oppositions and similarities, inside and out; these seem to be where we've arrived.  A crescendo to the beginning again.


  1. I will listen to the song now as I follow through this blog once more. We have a marvelous home and garden not far from me. The Mount, the home of Edith Wharton. I have no doubts you are aware of your landscape abilities and books. It is a peaceful environment, and the beautifully designed gardens called to me, this past summer, as I sat on the patio having lunch. "Ah, I am home," I thought. Thank you for this visit to a unique place.

  2. Lovely...putting this together with the song in the background make it perfect. Very creative! You are encouraging me again to sort out my ferns when they reappear. Caregiver...would not let me post again under my name. Crazy Google!

  3. Caregiver - what an extraordinary thing, I was planning a post on The Mount, which I saw a few years ago, somehow drawn to it after talking about East Ruston. It may have had more to do with the 150th anniversary of course, but anyway. I'll do it soon, not straight away. Thank you for your comments again, responses are lovely.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I wonder why I removed that comment? Listening to Visions of Johanna right now. Had to go out and buy several CD's to really get the most out of your lovely blog.