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  • maxcrisfield

But is it art?

Updated: Jan 22, 2023


I recently interviewed Graham Gough, of Marchants Hardy Plants fame, for an article in The English Garden magazine. During our chat we touched upon something that resonated with me: the idea that the lifeblood of a garden is, above all else, its aesthetic. Above productivity, above plantsmanship, above ecology even. Furthermore, that if a garden is created and nurtured with beauty as the overriding motivation then this will imprint itself upon the visitor. It may not be something you can easily put into words, but you will feel it in your bones. For Graham this is key:

‘For me, the carrying thing was always the aesthetic and the beauty and really the rest was by the by. It is that aesthetic and that beauty that has always driven me; it has sated me and continues to do so.’

And this is true for many of us. It is why we garden and why we seek out other gardens – gardens that shorten our breath and quicken our blood. In the same way that art does – or can do – when it is created with love and grace and unwavering attention.

But can a garden, or an arrangement of plants, ever truly be described as art? In the same way that, say, a Vermeer painting can, or an Elizabeth Frink sculpture, or a Bach cantata?

I guess it depends how you define art.

If you take Edvard Munk’s claim that art ‘grows out of grief and joy, but mainly grief,’ then maybe not. Nor perhaps André Malraux’s vision of art as ‘revolt, a protest against extinction.’

But Georgia O’Keeffe’s definition – that art is a way of ‘filling the space in a beautiful way’ – could easily apply to a garden. As could Saul Bellow’s, which holds that ‘art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.’ Or Picasso’s even, in which art ‘washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’.

And what about the following from 20th-century writer and mystic Thomas Merton?

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time…’ he tells us, ‘…the mind … discovers a spiritual vitality that lifts it above itself, takes it out of itself, and makes it present to itself on a level of being that it did not know it could ever achieve.’

For me, this hits the proverbial nail on the head. This is exactly where art, when it truly takes flight, can send me. And it doesn’t take much: A single line of prose by F Scott Fitzgerald or Patrick Leigh Fermor can do it. As can Bill Evans’ piano playing on Miles Davis’s modal masterpiece Kind of Blue. Or Nina Simone singing just about anything. Or a Ben Nicholson painting. A Ravilious landscape. Every frame of Céline Sciamma’s movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The landscape art of David Nash. The nature writing of Richard Mabey. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. The list goes on and on...

I believe that garden-making, too, in the right hands and with the right creative vision, can bring about this same ‘spiritual vitality’ and can be equally transformative.

Earlier this year, Ben, my head gardener, who has an extraordinarily well-honed aesthetic sense himself, dressed two simple, pewter-coloured urns that flank the entrance to the house where we work. He planted them up with a central rosette of pale green succulents - Echeveria elegans, Sedum 'Burrito' and Crassula 'Hottentot' - edged with the trailing stems and velvety grey leaves of Dichondra 'Silver Falls'. They couldn’t have been less showy if he’d tried, but they took my breath away.

In the same way that visiting Keith Wiley’s extraordinary garden at Wildside did. It literally stopped me in my tracks: I had to recalibrate.

Or the first time I saw the walled garden at Parham House in Sussex (where I ended up working for six years) and where the overriding aesthetic was – according to our head gardener Tom Brown – ‘gardening on the edge of chaos‘.

Or the beautiful moon gate in the Arne Maynard-designed garden where I now work. One of my gardening buddies closely monitors the reaction of any visitor at this entrance point to the walled garden and can immediately gauge whether they ‘get it’ or not. (God help them if they don’t!)

Or the potagers of the Loire Valley. Or the bulb meadows at Great Dixter.

Or, of course, the enigmatic beauty of Graham’s own singular vision for the Marchants garden and nursery. Graham refers to such moments as experiencing the ‘genius’ of a place or object, an undefinable, possibly unknowable, but intuitively felt sense that you have strayed beyond the merely prosaic into the realm of the profound. I know what he means, and I know when I’ve experienced it – in a gallery, in a concert hall, in a garden. For want of a better term, let’s call it ‘art’.

Of course, this is all deeply subjective, and the garden (or piece of prose, or poem or painting) that lifts me out of myself and into the miraculous present might well leave you earthbound. And vice versa. And that’s fine; it’s as it should be. It’s personal and intimate, this connection, and that’s what makes it so special. It’s mine, and it’s yours and it speaks to our own deep-seated sense of self.

So next time you’re visiting a garden and find yourself contemplating the unfathomable beauty of a simple succulent display or the way that light briefly abstracts form in a particularly arresting border, maybe have a think about all of this, about how we both ‘find ourselves and lose ourselves’ in this single moment and how we transform the experience into ‘art’ by the simple act of seeing.

I think I’ll leave the last word on this subject to the estimable Sir Roy Strong, who, as well as being a prolific and celebrated garden maker is former director of the National Portrait Gallery and V & A. If anyone knows his onions on this topic surely he does.

‘Of course, gardens can be works of art,’ he says, ‘they may be vulnerable and they can be transient, but definitely art. Not all gardens – but then not all paintings are works of art either.’


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