Friday, 24 June 2011

Stories told by gardens

For a book event organiser, the AGM of a society founded to celebrate buildings might not seem an obvious way to pursue an interest in story-telling. But yesterday's AGM of the Georgian Group proved me wrong. The guest speaker was Richard Wheeler, billed (wrongly, as he explained - he has a more complicated NT remit now -) as Curator of Parks and Gardens The National Trust. With the help of a series of slides, he showed how features placed in a landscape, such as towers or temples, demonstrate the garden owner's allegiance to philosophical or political ideas, or versions of history, as at Stourhead and Stowe. An axis leading, for instance from the front of a house to a distant church spire across a cruciform body of water mimics that at Versailles, symbolising the Christian vision of eternity. Afterwards, I asked him what he makes of the sudden outcrop of gigantic features in the British landscape, from the Angel of the North to the White Horse in Kent, and those proposed or in course of construction, such as The Great Unknown at Gretna and Charles Jencks's Northumbriana on the east coast. Do these monuments have a philosophical purpose, and if so, what ? Land Art is another way of telling our story, or stories, posing questions or suggesting answers. My own modest contribution to the genre is an installation I have commissioned, to be placed in a ruined sheep 'stell' (drystone shelter) at Crookedstane: an engraved round slate pavement bearing lines from the poem by Joachim du Bellay 'Heureux qui, comme Ulysse' - appropriate because of its reference to the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece which the artist, sculptor Peter Coates, will reference with a small central medallion inset with lines of fleecy gold. Peter did much of the work at Ian Hamilton Finlay's wonderful sculpture garden at Little Sparta - one of Scotland's greatest (perhaps the greatest) works of 20th century art, as well as the pavement engraved with the names of British trees and their Latin botanical names, retrospectively dedicated to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, at the entrance to the Serpentine Gallery in London's Hyde Park - or does the garden become Kensington Gardens on that side of the road? Probably. The story behind my pavement installation is that I learned the poem by heart at school, and kept myself going during a pilgrimage to Canterbury from St Martin in The Fields by reciting it over and over again when the going got tough.

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