Theatre set design in the garden

Not Duquette’s garden. Just a photo from a NZ garden I have in my files.

Mark and I were sitting watching Monty Don’s series on American gardens when he came to the garden of the late Tony Duquette. Think Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s, a flamboyant set decorator, costumier and interior designer with extreme, international magpie tendencies who crammed much of what he collected into his own, quirky garden. Google him if you want to know more. Monty Don referred to some of it as being cobbled together with ‘cardboard and string’.

Not The Laskett, either. Just another example from a NZ garden

It started me thinking about those who approach their gardens as a theatre set. We have never been to The Laskett, the much-acclaimed UK garden of Sir Roy Strong and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman. It too, comes out of the land of theatre design, I understand. It is not a garden style that we feel an affinity with so we tend to seek out other gardens when we travel.

A much loved local garden that belongs to Sue

But it is a style that some people enjoy. At its best, it may be described as quirky, eclectic, imaginative, flamboyant. At its worst, tacky, veneer gardening. I shall try not to be judgemental. It is just that at times, I wonder how very different set design in acclaimed gardens is from the folk art that abounds in some of the more loved gardens in my local town. They seem to me to be on the same continuum, at times distinguished as much by social prestige, acreage and financial resources as by flair. Some people just really like heavily decorated gardens.

The D.I.Y trompe l’oeil, constructed from trellis timber

I think what worries me at times is when this theatrical approach to garden design and ornamentation brings rather too much of the two-dimensional, temporary nature of the theatre into the garden. I prefer gardens where features are well made, substantial and underpinned by quality. The 10cm deep pond lined in plastic is never going to delight me like a well thought-out pond, constructed from permanent materials where consideration is given to its longevity and sustainability. More substance, less illusion. Preferably not constructed out of tanalised plywood, either, and three dimensional as befits its outdoor setting.

Not for the faint-hearted, the Dawson garden 

The orchid theatre, based on the auricula theatre and it certainly was… theatrical

That said, the one theatrical garden that did surprise me and make me laugh out loud is in Auckland. Or it may be ‘was’, in the past tense now. When I last saw it, it was on the market and it was such a very personal garden that it is hard to imagine new owners coming in and leaving it in the same state. The first time I saw it, it was a private visit with its creator, Grahame Dawson. The second time I visited as part of a busy garden festival. The place was jam-packed with visitors and the two owners were leaping around, hosting with the most. It was indeed like watching energetic producers directing a cast of many in a theatre scene.

The theatre curtain in tillandsia 

There was such a crush on the second visit that this was the only photo I took

What set the Dawson into a different class for me was the underpinning quality. Yes it was quirky and individualistic. But it was executed with attention to detail. It was solid and three dimensional, a garden designed to be lived in and enjoyed by the owners and their friends, not done for show. To me that matters but others may be perfectly comfortable with the ephemeral nature of theatre set design in a garden.

Sometimes, theatrical touches can fall short. NOT from the Dawson garden.

9 thoughts on “Theatre set design in the garden

  1. Paddy Tobin

    For the most part, decorations in the garden make my blood boil and spoil my enjoyment of a garden. I prefer the garden to be as close to natural as possible with as little “hard landscape” as is only necessary. Re decorative elements: my visit to a beautifully designed and beautifully planted garden was spoiled by coming on a full-sized gorilla “statue” sitting on the lawn along with a few similar dogs. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It is a matter of personal taste and style, I think, Paddy. What worries me about the theatre set genre – as opposed to general garden ornamentation – is that it is so often done poorly in terms of construction. I appreciate garden features and styling that are authentic and well executed. Garden ornamentation is another can of worms entirely and I am not enthusiastic about much of that, either.

      1. tonytomeo

        I can’t ‘like’ that comment, but I would if I could. Some theatrical ‘stuff’ is fun for show, but too much interferes with the function of the landscape. That is what I dislike so much about the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, and other shows like it. They are all about the theatrical, rather than the horticultural. I know that my style is much to plain and utilitarian, so I try to be polite with the opposite extreme.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        Garden shows are different. Very much short-term *garden theatre* which, I admit, holds little interest for Mark or me. That is why we have never timed a visit for Chelsea. Turning one’s home garden into garden theatre? Sure, go ahead if that is what you want to do, I say. Just don’t expect everybody else to like it. Too often, these things are done ‘for show’ rather than personal delight.

  2. Mosaicdesign

    I beg to differ. Im biased having designed and built two show gardens in NZ and worked as a planting designer at Chelsea. Yes, the show gardens are staged and temporary. But there is much to be gained from viewing beautifully designed and executed horticultural exhibits, both in terms of innovative landscaping ideas and planting combinations. And of course, talking to the nurseries and growers and seed suppliers.
    If Im travelling in the UK, I mostly visit the permanent public gardens and private gardens (through NGS) and the big RHS parks. However, if you haven’t been to any flower shows, I would recommend Hampton Court. It is vast, relaxed and spread out across the Castle grounds, which were open to view on the same entry ticket in 2019, and you can walk through the individual show gardens (which tend to be cordoned off at Chelsea) talk to the designers who give you the plant lists for their exhibit.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I am not dismissing flower shows. Just saying that they are of little interest to us, personally. We have been to Ellerslie and Melbourne. Other people clearly enjoy them more than we do and that is fine. Our interests lie more in private gardens and/or in tracking the different work by individual garden designers and tracking how they mature over time. It is just a different focus.

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