Can you imagine such a scene? And the vibrant conversation that ensues: are gardens art? What was the creator's brief? How to judge, whether to judge? Was it beautiful? Was it right? Does it matter? Was this the point? Was that the point?
|Ephrussi De Rothschild, Nice, France.|
No, that's not really how it works. Gardens don't seem to invite artistic or philosophical discussion with any ease. That's not to say they don't sometimes get it, and there are many who feel an aesthetic of gardens should be encouraged, helping us all to develop better gardens and better understanding of them. I sometimes feel this too. And then I turn round and feel the exact opposite. So I'm not to be trusted, but, as ever, I'm willing to toss a few opinions about.
In any case, a garden mostly means itself. Like a landscape, it means that here was considered a good place to grow this or that. It means that the people who made it thought this thing or that thing were worth doing. It means society, history, fashion, art, money, labour, aspiration and practicality. It can mean leisure, class and memory. These things can be read in it, but they may not be intended as meaning.
The Pursuit of Paradise by Jane Brown gives us the complete low-down on the social history of gardens in the UK. I highly recommend it, if you enjoy detail and illumination. Few pictures but lots of evidence for interesting assertions. Threads of influence and expectation woven through our understanding of what a garden is or ought to be.
A garden often represents some pretty simple aims; pleasurable control of nature and contact with beauty. It might also present a point of view, or a set of thoughts, it might mean an insult, or a dream. But it means all these things in a rather gardeny way - it can never really be free of being a garden, it's hard to understand why one would want it to.
|The Garden House, Devon|
Proper art, whatever that is, has greater freedom. It's chains are self-imposed by the creator's desires and capacities. A wild and irritating generalisation, of course; nothing is free, or all that easy.
The gardener's volatile materials are growth, place and weather; prone to tempers and unreasonable behaviour, they demand deference. The Wicked Fairy of fashion steps through, just as exigeant and forceful. Time tarnishes and then, with luck, softens.
But there are routes to beauty. Effective placing of lovely plants only emphasises their inherent charms and interest; a sense of scale and all the other design mantras all look like the absolutely obvious when they're right. The decisions of the garden-maker disappear as the branches spread.
|Naumkeag in Massachusets.|
Not true of a combination with striking architectural elements, like the steps above, of course. That's the way to make your mark.
There's another thing that happens. As a garden-visitor, you create your own experience, because it's a whole environment, you're in it and part of it, seeing what is visible and meaningful to you. The garden-maker may focus your gaze, but not your active attention. Gardens are often sociable baths of sensual leisure, thinking seems out of place and criticism mean-spirited.
Guess who can shed a little acrid light on the role of the critic, it's Dylan of course, singing Ballad Of A Thin Man. I chose this next photograph because of the slightly weak, disconnected look on the defensive, but defenceless face. And there he was thinking he was the Emperor Tiberius.