Garden blog

“Every garden is a replica, a representation, an attempt to recapture something, but the form it finds for the act is that of a mental picture, so in spite of its special properties a garden is just another of the images of art” (Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces, 1977, p. 3)

Olga painting
Olga painting in the garden

Here is a picture of Olga painting the flowers in our garden. I came downstairs from working on the computer, or from working in my studio, and saw her doing this. I got thinking about all the artists’ gardens I know of. Emil Nolde created several fantastic flower gardens, the final of which, at his house at Seebuhl in the far north of Germany, is still there. The flower beds spell ‘A’ and ‘E’, the initials of him and his wife. I’d like to visit some day. Derek Jarman created an elegiac Zen-like garden at his house on Dungeness, which is also still there and which I’d also like to visit some day. This garden is formed from the sparse shingle landscape of Dungeness and features strange driftwood pillars, recalling some prehistoric sacred site or a Zen garden. It seems to embody some of the spartan and somewhat melancholy feel that want to capture in my own painting. The feeling of making art at the remotest edge of the world; on the frontier between the world and eternity.

Ian Hamilton Finlay created a well-known garden, Little Sparta, in the hills south west of Edinburgh, which is also a work of art in the full sense. I visited it once, when I lived in Glasgow. I took my bike on the train to Lanark, then cycled the probably ten miles or so to Little Sparta. I hadn’t made an appointment, which you are supposed to, but there was a big group from Germany, or New Zealand, or somewhere (I forget), so the staff kindly let me in with them. The man himself was there, sat on a bench in the sun surrounded by his staff (who I seem to remember all wore blue sweaters and were young, though maybe I’m making that up). Someone was handing him a mobile phone with someone on the other end. “What? I can talk into this thing?!” the old man said, holding the phone away from his face, like it could harm him. Little Sparta is a lot smaller than it appears in the photos of it.

I must get some of those Chinese lantern plants. I saw some in someone’s front garden on Almsford Road. They are beautiful and have a feel about them which is at once uncanny and comforting, like childhood memories. Probably remind me of making stuff out of orange tissue paper in primary school about this time of year, or of visits to relatives.


It is now late September, one of my favourite times of year. I took the photos of Olga a few weeks ago now and several of the plants which are thriving in those photos are now dying back (though the nasturtiums and red pelargoniums are still going). It’s a bit odd, but I’m taking as much pleasure out of putting my old, spent tomato plants in the compost as I did out of watching them grow and harvesting the tomatoes. This morning I cut a big cucumber plant down and stuck that in the compost. It might be a manifestation of my love of tidiness: compost is tidier than plants. Plants grow all over the place and are ‘untidy’, but compost is homogeneous and rich. There is also a sort of comfort from the cycle of life. To know that putting dead plants in the compost bin is like burying a corpse that will rise again (a tomato reincarnated as a calendula). But I do have an inordinate love of putting things in the compost and of the process of rotting in general (I’m even pleased when a tomato goes mouldy in the bowl, so I can stick it in there), which is why I like this time of year, probably.

Other artists’ gardens? I wonder if Damien Hirst gardens. He moved to Devon, so he probably does have a garden. I wonder if he grows calendulas and dead heads them (probably has a gardener). Does David Shrigley grow peas? Austin Wright lived very close to me and had a garden, which, from the wonderful film about him on the Yorkshire Film Archive website, looks like it had that quality of picturesque neglect that you only get on farms. His sculptures were sited against old apple trees and overgrown shrubs. It was winter in the film, so maybe that accounts for the look of it. Maybe he grew calendulas in the summer, but all we see are snowdrops. The film reminded me exactly of my parents’ cine films of their garden when they first moved to their present house (in 1981, eleven years later and at the same time of year as the Austin Wright film), even down to the pond in the centre of the garden.(In my parents’ case the pond was six foot deep and got quickly filled in for safety).


Ioana’s family house in Agas, Romania, has a similar garden, with a railway line at the bottom. (In true Romanian style, the neighbours who live on the other side of the railway climb the steep embankment, cross the tracks, slide down the other side of the embankment and squeeze through the gap in the barbed wire fence and hawthorn hedge in order to use the garden as a short cut to the main street. Even though there is a tunnel and a road about twenty or thirty feet further along. They saunter past the house as if nobody gives a shit, say ‘Buna dimineata’ and let themselves out through the side gate). One of Wright’s sculptures (one of the ones with tall stem-like elements which wave in the wind) would look good in the centre of the Agas garden and, in fact, there is a decaying hay rick there which looks like a sculpture.

There are loads of garden spiders around at the moment. Everywhere. Big fat ones. They’re so round and cute I don’t even mind if several brush against my face as I try to make my way between the bushes and into the greenhouse. They’re a bit like odd ripe berries.


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