Would we consider having an exhibition in our garden during Rhododendron Festival, the sculptor asked. It is pretty last minute but we replied in the affirmative, though rather regretting the missed opportunities in the official programme which had long since been printed.
We have tended to be a bit iffy and sniffy about sculpture in gardens and it wasn’t until we saw it at Hilliers and at Wisley in England that we found a perspective we could live with.
The key issue is quite simple. In our eyes, gardens are about plants and they should be the stars. Even garden design is primarily a vehicle to carry the plants and to enhance the viewing experience. Drop a sculpture into a garden and in most cases the created object made by a human becomes the dominant feature. The plants and garden become the backdrop. That is fine if sculpture is your interest and you merely want a pleasing outdoor venue to display a collection. As long as the piece is placed well, the garden setting can enhance it considerably. But the reverse is rarely true and takes a great deal more skill.
Gardens are more usually dominated or taken over by the sculptural statement. If you doubt this claim, walk around a garden which has a significant sculptural installation. Do you look at the sculpture or the garden? I bet your bottom dollar that you look at the sculpture first (and longest) and the garden setting second but the detail of the garden slips into the background.
When we visited Hilliers famed gardens and arboretum near Winchester earlier this year, there was a sculpture exhibition in place. And even we, pretty dedicated as we are to the plants and gardening side, looked in the first instance at the sculptures. Don’t get me wrong. We really liked some of them and it was here that we figured that our personal tastes lean more to the organic forms which represent shapes in nature. This was a large exhibition with many artists involved so it lacked the cohesion and vision which are part of a solo display. It was also temporary and that was when we decided that there is a world of difference between permanent installations and short term exhibitions. The latter can add a great deal of interest to the experience of the visitor (which is why we said yes to the sculptor who approached us) without the commitment of permanence.
The RHS Wisley gardens just outside London had some charming, large, woven willow creations placed strategically in parts of the garden which were otherwise a little empty, almost barren. There is something about the ephemeral nature of woven willow which ages gently and will in time disappear entirely, making it fit easily to the surroundings. The whimsical nature of these works added appeal. But these were hardly Serious Sculpture or High Art – large woven toadstools and pieces of fruit don’t quite rank up alongside massive Henry Moore pieces.
In the end, garden sculpture is about personal taste and our personal tastes lean more to smaller scale, environmentally sympathetic whimsy which can gently blend in to our garden, rather than dominate. Others prefer much bolder pieces which shout out a statement and where the garden and environment curtsey to the power of the piece.
From what I can see from his list, Rangitikei artist Steuart Welch from Cannock Forge is bringing to us pieces from both ends of the spectrum – big bold statement pieces which require a truck to move and some which represent the whimsical aspect of his nature. We are really looking forward to seeing the effect of placing such strong pieces in our garden and learning first hand how to tread that line between enhancing a vision and dominating it. The works will remain in place throughout our Rhododendron Festival until the second week of November.