Spontaneity Posted on November 4, 2010

Spontaneity. Is it more than a positive gloss on indecision – or indeed on a mistake? Positive it certainly is; it suggests warm-hearted effusions. Spontaneous malice is just conceivable, I suppose, but Iago and the ugly sisters seem to have the monopoly. No: if spontaneity gets into a review it counts as a plus – even in gardening.

So how do you recognize it? There is no forethought in spontaneity, but nor is it a synonym for afterthought. Afterthought: you stand back, survey your handiwork, and decide that a splash of orange would set the blues and purples singing. Spontaneity can’t undo: to move something out of the picture would be an afterthought. But spontaneity implies more: it is self-created, like combustion in a haystack. The elements present reach a point in their relationship where equilibrium breaks down, or fizzes up, with surprising results. It is sudden, inevitable and unarguable. It is also a quality desired by the Dutch Wave school being celebrated at the moment in an exhibition at the Garden Museum.

Says its leader (or one of them), Piet Oudolf, ‘inside I want to be spontaneous.

But I know I must control.’ The resulting tension is the attraction of the Dutch Wave style – even if its influence on this country is still only recognized among the hortiscenti. And perhaps in the number of grasses offered in garden centres.

Christopher Woodward, the Garden Museum director, has published a fascinating little booklet to accompany the exhibition. While in this country, he writes, we ‘languidly elaborate on old patterns’, Oudolf and company ‘wash their eyes’ to see everything afresh.

Working as they mainly do on the modest scale of Dutch domestic gardens, their medium is usually restricted to herbaceous perennials – or indeed annuals – with hedges playing a vital structural role.. The essence is focus on plant details (they love, for instance, the structure of unbellifers) and above all colour. They evoke watercolours, with their transtional wash-passages – if there is such a term – and their interwoven patches and bands of grasses and astilbes and thistles and knotweeds. In his contribution to the booket Stephen Lacey says he originally found the new Dutch planting ‘wild and scruffy’ – before he realised it could be ‘revolutionary, highly refined’. “Scruffy’, ‘spontaneous’: could they amount to the same thing?

The style began in the 1980s in nurserymens’ gardens in Holland, inspired, at least in part, by the work of Jacques Wirtz ten years before in Belgium. Wirtz re-invented the hedge to make memorable, even monumental, landscapes for the Belgian haute bourgeoisie. He used grasses and massed perennials to powerful effect. But Wirtz gardens belong in Belgium’s most prosperous neighbourhoods. The Dutch school were humble nurserymen, starting with little money and working on a small scale – just as the Impressionists did. And it was the Impressionists’ little canvases that found a world-wide market.

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