My Thoughts – Art VERSUS Nature or Art AND Nature

I read with interest the review of William Robinson’s book by Helen and felt I wanted to add my own thoughts.

A couple of comments before I begin:

1.      A garden, a book, a painting must be considered in relation to its time.  Certainly Robinson’s revolt against the “formal” planting style of his time led him to promote a more natural style; but in reality if we looked in detail at his designs now we would probably think them VERY FORMAL indeed.

2.      I teach the history of Italian Renaissance Gardens so my views are informed by this period when ART and NATURE were the very watch words of every garden.

A garden is never natural.  The hand of man (or more likely woman) is what defines a garden from a natural environment.  However beautiful Nature is (and don’t misunderstand me I often find nature sublime) that beauty rarely lasts for more than a short period.  The poppies that delight us for a month or so disappear leaving what? Here in Italy usually the end of the poppies is the end of greenness – the time when everything is parched; in other places they may just be replaced by grass.  The wild bulbs seen in Turkey only cover the hillsides for a short time – there is no succession planting.

So a garden is a controlled space however much we are aiming at mimicking nature – nature is not what we truly want.  Yes, yes, place plants together that have similar needs, they will certainly look better together than putting something that requires damp shade next to something that needs full drained soil and sun.

Ask Beth Chatto if her garden is Natural; I think she would say that it is a controlled space as much as the formal gardens of the past.

The current trend for ‘Meadow’ or ‘Prairie’ planting is also not natural as anyone who has tried to establish one will tell you.  They are not easy to maintain. I remember talking to the Head Gardener at Hatfield House who said that the Meadow, there, needed more maintenance and more time than any other part of that wonderful garden.

For a landscape designer of the Renaissance the Balance between Art and Nature was crucial.  A villa needed to be constructed in a Natural (untamed) place so that the architect could demonstrate by his design the natural laws that were present in nature.  Man’s control over nature in a garden showed that he was civilised, that he had moved on from the Medieval view.  Unfortunately when we visit a Renaissance Garden now, what we see is what remains – architecture, formal planting of hedges of Box (actually box was dismissed as a nasty smelling shrub in the early Renaissance and hedges were often of scented herbs like Salvia, Hyssop or Rosemary)  Box was added later because it lived longer and was easier to maintain.  The hedges were cut so that they cast shadows like stone (Nature as Art)  but the beds would have been filled with all the new exotic plants that were being discovered.  From letters and descriptions we know that for the patron of the garden it was just as important, as it is for us, to have a flower blooming every day of the year.  We know too that the sound of birds and the inclusion of delicious fruits was also important for them; the Romans encouraged birds into their gardens too by placing fountains that doubled as bird baths – just look at the frescos at Pompeii or Livia’s Villa (now in a museum in Rome).

I heard a wonderful definition of a garden at a conference and for me it is true.  “A garden is an outside space designed for the enjoyment of its owner and his guests”; and no, it doesn’t have to contain plants but for most peoples enjoyment there will be plants, water, perfume, sound and maybe something to engage the intellect as well.

Here are some images of the wonderful gardens that I visit with my students:

Fountain of the River Gods, Villa Lante, Bagnaia, Viterbo

One of the Sphinx that welcome us to the Sacred Wood at Bomarzo, Viterbo

The sphinx at the beginning of the garden (Sacred Wood) at Bomarzo poses a question about Art and Nature:
You who enter here put your mind to it part by part
And tell me then if so many wonders
Were made as trickery or as art.

– We must use our intellect to decipher the meanings of this garden.

10 thoughts on “My Thoughts – Art VERSUS Nature or Art AND Nature

  1. I love your definition of what a garden is – exactly so. You are right Robinson’s gardens are very formal compared to what we would consider natural but I like his attitude and I found it interesting that he was prompting an approach that many of us have now, although slightly modernised. The idea of the right plant in the right place etc

    • I think you have started a discussion that could run forever. i also believe, that as in most things, it is great that there are so many different ways of thinking of things. A garden is no different in this, maybe that’s why we all enjoy blogging so much – to see others views of what a garden can be.

  2. I confess I steer clear of the “garden as art” debate. I don’t, personally, find it very useful – one person’s art is another’s pile of bricks or random daubs that “my two year old could do better than”! I do embrace the idea that by understanding the natural home of the plants we choose to have in our gardens we can combine them better, by which I mean so that their needs don’t clash and they create a beautiful flow – or an exciting jarring, if that is what we are after.

    Of course gardens are constructed places, we combine plants from different continents that happen to like similar habitats and that we think look good together. You are so right, we attempt to do what nature rarely achieves, successional interest. We decide that one colour does or does not go with another, when quite frankly nature doesn’t care. In doing so we create, for ourselves, sometimes for others, something that we consider pleasing. I enjoy visiting gardens with ornate statuary, immaculate topiary, great created vistas à la Capability Brown. I would never want to try to emmulate them, and not just because I am not capable! (Though maybe I would enjoy them more if the formal edging was created from Thyme and surrounded exciting and exuberant planting!)

    I suppose philosophically I am in the camp that sees gardening as part act of creation and part stewardship of an area of land and its ecosystem, where not trying to force things to grow where they don’t want to and taking in to account the needs of wildlife etc. are almost as important as creating something I enjoy. But only almost! It is still “my” garden, the place I continually strive to improve, evolve, sometimes change quite radically to suit my mood and needs. I don’t want to emulate nature – I can go for a walk and see it for myself!

    Oh dear, and now I have written an essay, not a comment! Fascinating debate though, and I enjoyed your perspective as someone who teaches about a very formal style of gardening indeed.

    • I think that the concept of Art in the garden in the Renaissance, especially the late Renaissance or Mannerist period, was really just as a contrast to ‘Nature’. So every garden is ART wther we want to think of it that way or not. If I had an estate instead of a garden there would probably be a lot more areas where nature was in control but then it wouldn’t be a garden! All of England has a landscape shaped by man for farming, planting woodlands or grazing as well as the ‘designed’ natural landscapes of Capabilty Brown that most people think of as being the natural landscape of England. Other countries have more true wilderness and these are wonderful to visit but are often only full of the plants we admire for a short time. I love gardens that look natural but I don’t pretend to myself that they are natural. I do agree with you about stewardship but I think of that in terms of the environment (the earth) and what I can do to have as small a negative impact on it as I can; the positive things are just plain good sense to me – like your thoughts about not heating the greenhouse unless it’s with solar power – but perhaps that’s another issue. AnywayJanet, thank you for your thoughts, its what makes blogging worthwhile. Christina

  3. Quite right that gardens are art in the sense of artifice – but they can also be amazing creations, full of imagination, ideas, questions and confrontations as well as plants! And amen to that I think.

    Note – re meadows – I really don’t know where this idea comes from. The creation of a new meadow, perhaps. I hope it doesn’t deter people from preserving and maintaining meadows in the UK. We need to do that and from my own experience I’d say it’s one of the easiest part of the garden to maintain.


    • Anne, thank you for your comments especially about meadows; I have heard so much about the difficulty of starting a new one. I agree that all exisitng meadows should be retained and maintained; perhaps I feel that many people expect too much and are therefore dissapointed.

  4. There is a confusion in the UK between growing large areas of the weeds of arable fields and cultivating the predominantly grass based meadow.

    I think some people mistake the former for the latter, in which case you might very well be right: it’s not easy sometimes to grow weeds! (I have tried.)

    Very good to meet you, Christina.

    • The link to your blog didn’t work, but I found you eventually. You have a most interesting site, I didn’t have much time to read everything this time but I will return. You are right about my confusion, I think my concept of a Meadow is actually what most people think but I realise that you are correct so it would be great to get more information out there. Certainly most people I talk to want the meadow to be “full of flowers” – and this is difficult. Most of the books on the subject also talk about the flowers so your correct concept needs explaining fully. I love the idea, if you have the space, of the kind of meadow you’re talking about. Very good to meet you too. Christina

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