A glorious botch Posted on September 30, 2015

I wonder how many gardeners think about the style of their gardens. There are certainly a few historical restorations or reproductions or pastiches, but don’t most of us do what pleases us with our patch, without trying to put it in a stylistic box? If we employ a designer we say (or sometimes fail to say) that it’s in his or her style – rather than, say, the style of Jekyll, or Oudolf, or Gardenesque, or even Italian.

I am reading ‘Gardens in the Modern Landscape’ by Christopher Tunnard, an architect and landscape designer of the 1930s and ’40s who created a certain stir with his opinions and his designs for such modernist architects as Serge Chermayeff. He and his contemporaries were unlucky in that their attempt at revolution coincided with the Second World War. There was little business for them. They influenced the look of the Festival of Britain in 1952, but even that officially-sanctioned style found few takers.

You can see shades of it in Battersea Park, where the Festival gardens are being restored. You can even detect it in some of Russell Page’s designs. Its fundamental rigidity, though, its over-strict self-discipline, is foreign to our native gardening instincts. We are eclectic. If there is a plant we fancy, we find a place for it. We put a table and chairs where we want our drinks, and hang the designer.Tunnard’s book follows the history of English gardening since the Landscape Movement of the 18th Century, and doesn’t like most of it. He picks on Joseph Addison for a start. Addison wrote “gardens are works of art, therefore they rise in value according to the degree of their resemblance to nature”. That was certainly the way painting or sculpture was judged in those days – or in fact until Picasso put two fingers up to nature. It is worth reading Tunnard on the resulting confusion, leading to the Victorians and ‘their glorious, gaudy botch’.

2016 is apparently ‘the year of Capability Brown’. We are all to celebrate ‘the creation of the English landscape as we know it’. Landscape, perhaps; garden, no.

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