Tim Richardson’s The New English Garden and the Personal Intellectual Garden

I have just acquired Tim Richardson’s The New English Garden. One of his bugbears is that the art world won’t take gardens seriously as art, a theme he develops in the introduction. I was reminded of my own Gardens and the Death of Art article in Journal of the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes (one of the world’s worst journal titles) which expresses much the same point of view, coming from the direction of the Getty Garden, though I don‘t imagine anyone has read it. Richardson is very good on explaining subtexts in the English gardening world that can baffle the uninitiated. He points out why (apparently; I did not know this) such gardens as The Laskett by Roy Strong and Julia Trevelyan Oman get the British back up—too autobiographical, too many incidents, and he’s not the right class anyway. Apparently the National Trust (in which Richardson has a role) was sniffy about taking it on (it is now a private foundation). I tried to visit it but they only take groups. It is in fact hard to find anything useful written about it, other than little articles mostly written by Strong himself, but Richardson sets it into a critical framework that would otherwise be absent.

Richardson also explains a certain sniffiness in reactions to Prince Charles’ Highgrove—not on class grounds, but because it, too, has too much incident. This is a theme that I need to return to, because the really creative gardens are not the designer gardens—which can afford to be cool and complete and not too busy because they stop at the creation stage, and the designer moves onto something else. The really interesting gardens are both personal and intellectual: Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta (the only garden I know acceptable to the art world, because Finlay was an artist first and gardener second); Charles Jenck’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation; The Laskett, and Highgrove, all of which are highly personal creations by people who have something they want to say but don’t care whether or not they have an audience. (All, have been wholly private for much of their existence.) The fact that you can disagree with the point of view expressed is what they are all about. It is hard to disagree with a designer garden, which gradually modulates into the suburban once the garden makeover world takes notice. Naturally the creative gardens get added to and become more cluttered, because their creators don’t move on, which is what makes them interesting.

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