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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.