The place of piety Posted on August 17, 2019

Is it the garden you respect, or the gardener? The question hardly arises in the other arts. The painter leaves a unique image, the composer a score. The performer of course interprets it, but the score is at least a clear instruction.

There is no score for a garden or a gardener. When a garden changes hands, its creator moves or dies, what the new owner inherits is basically a plot of land – cluttered, to be sure, with plants, paths, every sort of feature, and a maze of ideas. The successsor may think, or assume, that its creator was happy with the result. They may, for example, feel obliged to retain some feature the original gardener regretted, but never got round to changing. Could that cypress really have been planted there deliberately, when it throws the whole view out of balance? And that protruding bit of bed everyone has to walk round? Wasn’t it rather peculiar to plant pink roses with pink rhododendrons?

It is very easy, and often tempting, to build on the mistakes of our predecessors. Which raises the question: is there a place for piety in gardening at all, or should we always return to basics, analyse the site, survey the surroundings, assess the value of anything predominant, be it a tree or a pergola, and start from there?

The National Trust has to answer this question all the time. Where do you draw the line between garden and museum? How many history lessons do we need about Brown’s obsession with water and grass? The answer often lies with the house, if there is one. No one will argue with the classic picture: pillared façade, sweep of sheep-shorn grass, clutch of cedars, framing woods, water at the bottom of the slope. If a Victorian enthusiast knocked down the house and built a fantasy of turrets and pinnacles, what then? Gothic buildings need gothic surroundings: fir trees, gloomy shrubberies, exotic follies in keeping. The third viscount, let’s say, had a thing about animals: their likenesses crop up in various materials all over the place. Must they stay, all the monkeys and crocodiles? On a smaller scale, you inherit a rockery full of alpine rarities. Do you have moral obligations? Horticultural ones? Which values should we inherit from the previous generation? Judging by the social media conventions of today, none. I stand with Roger Scruton: we have everything to learn from where our forebears have been, if only so as not to copy their mistakes. If we recognise them.

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