Gardener’s Notes: Beautiful things

Perhaps it’s the cold weather, perhaps the days of rain, but for whatever reason there’s no denying it: discussion at our office has definitely taken an esoteric turn recently.

OrangerieGrand designs: A view over the Orangerie towards Swiss Lake at Versailles

Not infrequently I’ve found us debating what exactly makes a landscape beautiful. If I’m honest I’m not entirely sure what prompted such a discussion in the first place, but I’ve got a feeling that it’s a by-product of spending years designing landscapes. For a budding designer the obvious starting point is to take inspiration from other beautiful things: existing great gardens, the wider landscape and art. However after a while, just designing beautiful gardens isn’t enough any more. You realise that the beauty you are trying so hard to embed in your designs is largely a beauty that is often borrowed from and measured against other people’s standards and that to truly raise your game you need to look deeper to understand what it is within the landscape that triggers our appreciation of beauty. It dawns on you then if you can better understand the subtle ingredients in a landscape’s beauty that you will better harness these in your work.

I’m sure even those that would consider themselves as having little or no natural affinity with gardens react in a similar manner as the rest of us garden lovers when they first see an outstanding landscape. It’s something that talks to you on a deep subconscious level, that appeals to your sense of the aesthetic and just looking at it makes you feel good, raising your spirit and lowering your pulse.

The question is though: What is it in these scenes that elicits these reactions? Is beauty really as banal as a common cultural agreement on what is beautiful? Surely not. Is there a “true” beauty that supersedes all cultures and times and speaks to us on a deep subconscious level? Probably. I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to those questions lies somewhere between the two.

In the beginning

Perhaps it’s sad that so many enthusiastic young designers choose to go to school to “learn” garden design. Not only does this tend to impose stale principles of design but it also leads to a rather over-simplified paint-by-numbers approach to designing a garden. The accepted “rules” reflect arbitrary preconceptions such as “avoid straight lines” and deal only very superficially with the principles that underpin good design. I would go so far as to say that they are actually obstacles to becoming a truly good designer as they offer an easy escape from having to think it out for themselves and work out in one scene after another what is beautiful, and most importantly, why. I will accept, that when these guidelines are followed, it invariably leads to the production of a well-organised design, but think for a moment of all the truly ground-breaking gardens you’ve seen, and not just the ones by famous garden designers. There are gardens all over the world designed by totally untrained gardeners that are absolutely outstanding, and they have all one thing in common. The designer has managed to capture beauty, in some small way, in the same manner as that of an artist. This relationship between art and the landscape is not accidental: so many of the best landscape designers have a background in art that it is more than just coincidence. I remember being amazed that the iconic Gertrude Jekyll had no formal training in landscape design. What I found out later was that she had trained as an artist, and this magical combination is probably the best of both worlds. Being trained as an artist gave her the tools she needed to be able to interpret what it was that added beauty to a landscape, and the absence of a training in the landscape design left her gloriously free from preconceptions and the constraints of the consensus on “good garden design” of the time. On visiting her gardens one realises that every element was selected and placed by someone with a deep understanding of the aesthetic.

Beauty as a principle

Beauty as a principle has puzzled philosophers over the ages, and it remains one of the discipline’s most fascinating enigmas. Beauty and pleasure go hand in hand, and probably the most surprising aspect is that it is the very act of deciding for yourself what is beautiful that increases your awareness, sharpens your perception and, ultimately, your potential enjoyment of the scene. I’m always taken aback at what, in a large beautiful garden, a photographer will select to take shots of. In some cases a large garden will only produce a couple of usable images, while a smaller garden might produce many. This alone is very telling.

Landscape design draws on so many areas to create beauty (and that is part of its fascination to me), but I’ve come to my own conclusion on what is the most important principle in creating a beautiful garden, and you might be surprised to hear that it has nothing to do with colour. For me, the best compositions are those that draw on well- crafted compositions of plants and structural elements, where the shapes and textures simultaneously contrast and support each other. While this certainly applies to the materials that are used in the garden, never is this so important than when dealing with the plants.

Photo by: Urban

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