Tag Archives: garden sculpture

Classic style statuary in New Zealand gardens – yes or no?

In an Auckland garden

Sunday mornings here are not for lying in and relaxing. My weekly radio spot with Tony Murrell on Radio Live sees to that. It takes quite a bit of thinking our way into the topic of the day and this morning we were talking about classical statuary and whether it has a place in New Zealand gardens.

Of course it has a place here. If you like classical statuary in your own garden, go for it. It is your garden so do what you like and enjoy. And stop reading here because I am not so keen on it and that is for historical and cultural reasons as much as the aesthetics.

Eden Gardens, Auckland. No further comment

I have only been to Greece once and that was to the limited area of the Dodecanese island chain but I have seen Greek originals in the British Museum. The Elgin Marbles, in fact. I struggle with British museums. On my first and only visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in my late thirties, I was gobsmacked at the sheer quantity of treasures from around the world. But I have never managed to shrug off the queasy feeling that what I was viewing was theft, acquisition and the dominance of a ruling empire on a grand scale. Pillaging. It is the same with the Elgin Marbles which should in fact be referred to as the Parthenon Marbles. And I still feel that the use of classical reproductions that have no relevance at all to this country is somewhat a case of cultural misappropriation from the same tradition that stocked those museums of Britain. But feel free to disagree with me on that political opinion.

Baroque glory at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. The lovely dark haired young woman at the front is she whom I often refer to as Second Daughter, to preserve some level of anonymity (I rarely use photos of family here).

I have been to Italy more often and have seen a fair amount of sculpture, both original and more recent re-creations of lost originals. I will never forget the emotion of awe at seeing Bernini’s work close up at the Borghese Gallery. The rendition of human flesh and bone was so breathtakingly realistic I found it incomprehensible that it was sculpted from cold marble.

I am no expert on the traditions of sculpture that have given us the so-called classical statuary and a fair smattering of fountains in New Zealand gardens, but it occurred to me that they could be loosely classified into three different periods.

Villa Adriana in Rome but these are modern re-creations of classical statues. And a distinctly modern couple in the middle.

The first wave originated in ancient Greece and Rome where they were part of religious traditions, public art and a display of wealth. These were often the beautiful simplicity and grace of form that we associate with classical times. The second is the Baroque era of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly the point where it became even more extreme with the over the top Rococo style (as exemplified in the Trevi Fountain in Rome). It continued to use the classical figures of the ancients while still rooted in a wealthy, religious tradition but with much more flamboyance and ostentation.

More Victorian, I think, than pre-Raphaelite in Te Henui cemetery, New Plymouth

The third strand I see must surely date back to the pre-Raphaelites of 1840s England with their nostalgia for the pre-industrial era and the desire to bring back romanticism. At its best, some of that domestic style of romantic statuary is charming. More often, I see it crossing over to Victorian sentimentality. Mawkish, even. My theory is that it is pre-Raphelite amalgamating with Victorian sentimentality that most often decorates our old graveyards.

The bottom line with the original sculptures is that they were all conceived by sculptors – practicing artists. What ends up in our gardens does not have this origin. They are derivative reproductions of varying quality, depending on the budget. And in New Zealand, there is no cultural connection to the ancient traditions. However, it could be argued that the pre-Raphaelite influence has an echo in our past, given that the British early settlers were coming from Victorian England. And that romantic look is far more domestic, personal and better suited to a smaller, private garden.

We have not gone in for statuary in any form in our garden. Overall, we are very lightly adorned compared to most. Part of that is because this garden was created with the smallest of budgets at the time. More recently, both Mark and I feel that garden decoration, statuary or sculpture must be relevant to us personally and to our environment, both the physical and the cultural environments. So classical statuary will not find a place here.

The pieces I have admired, I realise now, are more likely to date from the pre-Raphaelites. I would like to own the female figure from Gresgarth garden (above right). At least, I think I would. That garden is in the north of England and I remain uncertain how this style would transfer across the world.

The modern sculptures in the Barnett garden near New Plymouth are surely an artist’s extension of that domestic, romantic tradition of figures. The two children have an edginess to them with that slightly unnerving balance of pose. I really like them. They are relevant to a garden that is strongly family and leisure-oriented. For me, they speak far louder than any reproduction classical statue can ever be expected to in a New Zealand context.

Judging by the plethora of statuary I see in gardens here and for sale in garden centres and other purveyors of gardening bric a brac, mine is a minority opinion but I can live with that.

As a postscript and loosely related at best, I will never forget a conversation with a colleague in my teaching days. We were both young, married and female but there the common ground ended. I was of the hippie persuasion while she was prim, proper and religious. I have no idea how we got onto the subject of art in the bedroom but she declared that they could never have a picture of people in their bedroom. It had never even occurred to me that the bedroom was a place for landscapes and still life paintings only and that a two dimensional representation of the human body could be an invasion of personal privacy. Be careful what you do in front of your garden figurines. They may be watching and judging you.

For an earlier post on related thoughts, I wrote about ‘prole drift’ in 2011. 

And should you happen to own a garden with several, maybe even many, examples of European statuary, be very afraid that you may be judged as a godwotter

“Not exactly the Trevi Fountain” – statuary in the New Zealand garden

The real thing, the Trevi Fountain

The real thing, the Trevi Fountain

The slowdown in posts of late is not an indication of lack of active gardening here. Far from it. But I subscribe to a few gardening blogs and have come to the conclusion that there is a limit to how interesting it is to read the day to day minutiae of somebody else’s garden. When I had to come up with three new stories a week for the Waikato Times, I was constantly alert to potential topics and thinking ahead. Without that discipline, my attention has wandered.

However, my Sunday morning conversations with Tony Murrell on Radio Live have me focusing my thoughts again. I have to. Going to air live at 6.30am means I must rise with some thoughts already formed. We agree to a topic or two in advance but then allow the conversation to flow as it may. This morning it was about sculpture, garden decoration and the difficulty of placing these well in a garden setting.

The whole topic of garden decoration is enormous, of course. But it did have me thinking about the difference between sculpture and ornamentation and searching out some of my many photos to send to RadioLive. For someone who owns a garden that is very light on decoration, I sure have a lot of photos of examples of these from other people’s gardens. Today’s post brings you the good – and the bad – of people. We have no human figurines in our garden, let alone larger figures which may pass as statues. “There is,” as Mark says, “nothing armless, legless or white in our garden”. The same cannot be said of Eden Gardens in Auckland. Maybe their figures were bequests, as much of that garden depends on memorial bequests.

Armless and white in Eden Gardens

Armless and white in Eden Gardens

The armless or legless white figures presumably allude to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, though the debt is rather distant. I have only seen the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum and did not look at them that closely but I have seen Italian marble sculptures up close and personal. Some created by Bernini, even. They were so astounding in their exquisite execution that I just had to touch them to make sure they were marble. It is a mystery to me as to why some gardeners think that this style is appropriate to reproduce in the palest of pale and coarse imitations across the world in the antipodes many centuries later. After all, it is not as if New Zealand gardens have anything at all in common with the likes of the Trevi Fountain.

abbie statuesMuch of the white domestic garden figurine decoration here probably has a closer debt to the pre Raphaelites and Victorian sentimentality, but personally, I remain unconvinced as to what it adds to home gardens. Especially as so many garden owners appear to feel the need to repaint their figures every year or two, to maintain that pristine whiteness. Each to their own, is all I can say.

Gresgarth (37)Gresgarth (39)
It took a visit to Gresgarth, the wonderfully romantic garden of Arabella Lennox-Boyd in Lancaster, UK, to make me reconsider statuary. Her two figures in a sloping meadow were quite simply charming. And subtle. They didn’t shout “look at me! Look at me!” They sat so comfortably in their setting and added interest without dominating the area. Would they look better scrubbed free of their patina of age and lichen and painted white? I think not.
IMG_4430In a similar mould, I think I could even find the right spot for this unloved figure of the harvest maid that is marooned in the area serving some equally unloved apartments in Auckland. By the Countdown Supermarket on the corner of Dominion Road in Mt Eden, if my memory serves me right. But Mark may disagree. “Why,” he says, “must we import the art and history of other countries? Can we not evolve our own?”

Barnetts (10) Barnetts (11)
Evolution into a modern time and place can be seen in the two figures in the Barnett Garden near New Plymouth. These are one-offs, sculptures by an artist. In a large garden where the owners are very family-focused, they are delightfully apt and contemporary with just that touch of edgy tension in their balance.

021Similarly, the Holyoakes in New Plymouth are strongly family oriented and told me that their large Lego man makes them smile and acts as a constant reminder of the delights of child rearing. While uncompromising as a piece of garden sculpture, they have placed it in a small courtyard visible only from their living room, surrounded by the grandeur of the very large bird of paradise plant – Strelitzia nicolai.

IMG_5749By no means can all garden statuary be called sculpture. Some is more akin to craft than art although at its best, crafty efforts can cross over to folk art (more on this another time). Figures made from terracotta pots are found relatively frequently, usually created by the garden owner. This is affordable garden decoration, not sculpture or art.

Finally, I offer you the flat planes of figures. Whether you find the first charming and the second amusing is entirely a matter of personal opinion. Indeed whether you even find them decorative in a garden setting, adding to the scene, is similarly determined by personal taste. I could not possibly comment.

IMG_5781177

 

Finally, as a complete afterthought, I give you Headless in Giverny. Not in Monet’s garden but at the converted millhouse where we stayed.

Giverny (230)Giverny (231)

Post-postscript. I will stop soon. But I have just found Armless, Headless and Legless but not entirely lacking in body parts in an Auckland garden I visited during the Heroic Garden Festival.
215

Garden adornment

Soaring herons

Soaring herons

The owners of this garden admitted to me that they were very nervous about what I would think of their garden, given my strong opinions about over-ornamentation. This did not stop them from urging me to visiting. They are opening their garden to the public for the first time this spring and want all the input they can get because they are determined to do things properly and ensure they deliver an exceptional visitor experience.
026
The garden is still having a lot of work done on it but the garden sculpture and decoration were a revelation. They have some really lovely pieces. I even coveted some myself and ,from an under-ornamented gardener, that is something. What made me stop in my tracks was the exceptional skill shown in placing these pieces so that they enriched the scene without dominating and without the transparent connivance of creating the dreaded “focal points”. To place an eclectic collection of art works so that they enhance and belong in the location is a rare skill. It made me realise that it is not that I don’t like sculpture or decoration in a garden. It is that it is rarely placed well to benefit the garden and the location as much as the work itself.

I think both garden owners (and they are clearly a close team) have an exceptional eye. A working life spent in upper-end retail must have assisted in developing skills in display and design. They also give credit to their architect son and placing these decorative pieces is clearly a matter that warrants considerable thought.
016029
The one piece I really coveted was this structure from super-heated stainless steel. The reflections and colours were simply lovely. I would have this in my garden. I could also be be mighty tempted by the herons above. “Tell me you don’t have coloured ceramic balls,” I said. Over the years, I have developed considerable dislike for the use of these mass produced and thoroughly useless items from the villages of Asia which are widely sold in this country by purveyors of cheap ornaments. Blue has always been the most popular colour in the area where I live, but you can have red or orange, too, I found. I am unconvinced that these items justify the grandeur of a plinth but it all comes down to personal taste in the end. Yes, these people did have colour balls but they were not at all like this threesome I photographed in other people’s gardens

Hirst Cottage (3)042049

Theirs were considerably larger, hand crafted, detailed and placed discreetly.

019

008The ceramic detail amongst the simple planting of Ligularia reniformis, set against a stark white wall, added an understated detail that enhanced an otherwise predictable scene.
021The large lego man was a pretty strong statement and not, I admit, one I could ever imagine in my own garden. But the owners love it. As parents of five children – all now adults – lego featured very large in their lives and this sculpture is placed in an intimate and enclosed section of garden which opens up from the family living area. Its placement was superb and it brought great delight to the owners.

In a setting with a large, modern, sharp-edged, architecturally designed house and a heavily structured garden, the decision to leave the old rusted garage in place as an installation was simply inspirational. It gave a tension to the scene which anchored the modern into its past. The owners commented that people either responded with horror at them leaving something so old and scruffy or they were delighted as I was.
025
This garden is open for the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular in the first week of November this year. Visitors might like to go and learn from their skills in integrating sculpture and ornamentation into the garden. It is done as well as I have ever seen and considerably better than most.

 

Garden decoration 2: contemporary colour and bold statements

A few weeks ago, I looked at a selection of somewhat subtle garden ornamentation, understated even. Returning to the topic today, it is some more colourful statements that have caught my attention.
???????????????????????????????1) The box with its flat planes of colour is by Coromandel-resident artist Michael Smither and has found its permanent home at Puketarata Garden near Hawera. It has echoes of a child’s play house but the simplicity is deceptive. So too is the placement. It becomes the absolute centre of attention in the middle ground but is also successful in drawing the eye to the large landscape beyond.
???????????????????????????????2) In a similar vein, the whimsical pavilion created by garden owner, Clive Higgie at Paloma Garden near Whanganui makes an undeniable statement as a focal point in an otherwise natural environment. The reflection is an integral part of the picture. As with the Smither box, it is the combination of a vibrant creation with thoughtful placement which makes this a successful installation. What appears to be a blue ceramic ball topping the roof is arguably the best use I have seen of one of these mass produced decorative items.
???????????????????????????????3) The freestanding, two dimensional yellow cow was on temporary display in our garden, the work of Joep from Arttoi (www.arttoi.co.nz) so we won’t mention the placement. The gentleman in the very purple jersey posed so willingly, adding a certain ambience, I felt. The cow may or may not be to your personal taste (I would have preferred it without the map of New Zealand). The purple jersey, the man’s wife told me, had been found in a skip and became an instant favourite for the wearer. Each to their own.
???????????????????????????????4) At the same temporary installation of Joep’s work, the stainless steel sculptures were beautifully executed and caught my fancy. The reflective qualities of the highly polished stainless steel were a great deal more subtle than a garden mirror. While there is a tendency to put this type of work in a hard-edged, minimalist, modern garden, I admit I was surprised by how well they fitted in to our own setting which is anything but that. We placed them in positions with relatively plain backgrounds where they could star and the reflections made it a two way interaction with their surroundings.
???????????????????????????????5) While not keen on reproduction classical statuary in a New Zealand garden context, these modern interpretations made me smile. In a very family-oriented garden, they fitted thematically. The frozen moment in time captured with the balance of their poses gave the contrast of tension with the subtle placement against the nikau palms. I could see these ageing gracefully down the decades.
???????????????????????????????
006 insert - Copy - Copy6) When out and about garden visiting in spring and I could not help but notice a plethora of parking meters as garden ornaments. I am sure this was a result of the market being flooded with old meters in this particular area, which had moved to an electronic sensor parking system. The customised triple meter installation was perhaps more witty and striking than those single ones which had simply been placed as a relic of the past decade.

First printed in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.