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Gardens Blog

Art for Art’s Sake

Beauty in the garden

Did you read that wonderful quote in Helen Dillon’s article in the January 2018 issue of the RHS Garden magazine? She mentioned that she had left all her sculpture behind when she moved house because a friend had said that “Statues are just the gnomes of the upper classes” at which I roared with laughter -and then I started to think, which is one of the achievements of good writing, to provoke amusement and consideration in equal measure.

My thinking turned to the reason why we have statues, sculpture and indeed gnomes in our gardens. Setting aside those items with a functional origin (bird baths, sundials and the like) and any which are erected in memoriam of event, person or favoured animal, we are left with those with,to a greater or lesser degree, artistic or decorative merit.

In my opinion, when it comes to sculpture, like planting, it is very much a question of right piece, right place. Just as one has an emotional response to a plant or tree, so one should respond to the piece of art which is to be given a home in your garden. It should be borne in mind here that plants are ephemeral and trees mostly alter with the seasons, but a piece of bronze or marble, whether it comes from Praxiteles, Henry Moore, or eBay, is always there, unchanging and constant and is generally not particularly easy to move once it has been winched in and cemented onto its plinth. You really do have to love it.

So what’s it all for? My expeditions to various gardens in different countries lead me to believe that different cultures have different views about art in the garden. Some manage to place one exquisite piece in exactly the right place to focus the eye down a walk or ride while others have so many figures scattered about that one starts to experience a sense of irritation (and if you have been round the gardens at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons you might understand what I mean – it’s all just too fussy and contrived). In the grounds of chateaux the statuary may have a theme of gods or warriors at which point it assumes the proportions of a collection – just outside rather than inside a gallery (Versailles) while domestically if you can see more than one figure at a time the eye struggles to know what to look at first and starts to bounce back and forth, which is unrestful. A study in success has to be the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent where small statues have been positioned with enormous care and the high hedges which create the celebrated ‘rooms’ ensure an atmosphere of enclosed serenity and allow the individual figures to be admired amongst the planting, and indeed act as focal points, leading us further into the grounds to explore.

But what of sculpture in the domestic setting? A walk around the stands at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show offers works both ancient and modern, in materials ranging from the permanent (stone) to the temporary (willow). I know of a garden in Gloucestershire where the owner has installed a life-size figure of a dog-fox in steel which has rusted to that perfect lupine shade of russet so that a glance out of the window inevitably leads to a double-take before one realises that of course it is a statue ‘running’ across the field beyond the garden. I also have a client who has wire sheep in the tiny orchard I designed for her and they look absolutely delightful all year round, positioned as they are at some distance from the rest of the garden in slightly longer grass. Indeed we have two life-size bronze guineafowl from South Africa, peering out from a border, which means that one comes across them rather than seeing them all the time. So I agree that realistic animals even in metallic materials work if they are in the sort of setting where they would generally be found.

What do not work for me are scaled down replicas – the classical lady with her water-pouring urn or the scantily clad damsel coyly whisking her composite stone draperies, in an urban front garden. Scale and setting are all important and these are simply wrong pieces in the wrong places and they make my teeth squeak. Travel seems to bring out the worst in some people – I have seen Easter Island heads, numerous Asian deities, sphinxes – and occasionally some downright dreadful, mass-produced, composite articles (robins, bunnies, fairies and the like) which should never have been allowed to see the light of day. Though I suppose much of the sculpture we see in today’s stately homes and royal palaces are the result of the Grand Tour of their owners – souvenirs from the top end of the market – and presumably these provoked a range of responses when they were unpacked too.

But finally what of gnomes? Very much ‘Marmite’ items in the garden, which you either love or hate, perhaps put there to provoke or annoy as much as anything else, to me they lack attraction of any kind whatsoever and would be in my Room 101 along with wind-chimes and bright blue fence paint.

Which leaves us with those items of little artistic value but which make us smile all the same. Here at home we have a small bronze whale tail in the garden pond, a father’s day gift from a very long time ago, which both prompts happy memories and makes people look twice before giggling at it. Art it most certainly is not, but it is firmly in the right place and we love it.

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