Stones among the roses

Sculpture can make or break a garden. A garden can make or break sculpture. One of those who helped to shed light on this conundrum was the late Sir Peter Smithers, diplomat and spy. He was a model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, a celebrated gardener and friend who created a plantsman’s garden on a south-facing acre above Lake Lugano in Switzerland. What is less appreciated about Smithers is that his plantsmanship was matched by an equally thoughtful approach to sculpture.

His philosophy is summed up in a tract he wrote, in 1988, for the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden in Palm Beach, Florida, emphasising the importance of balance between gardens and sculpture – the importance of making sure that one never competes with the other.

Balance is certainly one key to placing sculpture, and so is a narrative or anything else that creates a connecting spirit between the sculptures, and between sculptures and their surroundings. In Palm Beach, Ann Norton’s sculpture is the connecting spirit and her and Smithers’ planting the connection between the sculptures and their surroundings. The planting is as bold as the sculpture.

Inconveniently, the single-artist rule alone does not solve the garden/sculpture problem. The late Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden (near the Italian coast between Rome and Grosseto) looks, at first glance, like a glittering theme park. The monumental multicoloured figures rear out of the landscape. Gleaming female figures, their huge breasts picked out in reds, yellows and blues, loom beside mirrored rooms that owe more to nightclubs than landscape. The sculpture overwhelms rather than connects to its surroundings.

Concrete geese at Daniel Spoerri’s Sculpture Garden

North of the Tarot Garden, near Castel del Piano, is the Swiss artist and writer Daniel Spoerri’s renowned collection of his own and other artists’ sculptures, which are scattered throughout the mountainous wooded landscape. The iron gates leading into Spoerri’s property identify the place as “Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri”. According to the website, “the name is derived from old maps which call the area Il Paradiso ... Thus it is the Garden of Eden.” But even when the serpent did his worst there is no record that Eden included a four-metre high set of aeolian tubular bells or a herd of goose sculptures. More to the point, what makes this, or Niki de Saint Phalle’s place, a garden? This may seem a picky point particularly to artists and to those in the garden world who have given up on trying to define “garden” (does it have to be outdoors? no; does it have to contain plants? no; etc) but, as a garden maker, I would like the garden world to reclaim the word, however nebulous.

Why not call these breezy sculpture collections outdoor galleries rather than gardens? Better still, sculptors and collectors should work with a garden designer or landscaper to create a resonance between the sculpture and its surroundings.

‘Gateway 5’ (1977) from the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden

Still in Tuscany, 16th-century Bomarzo is an inspiration for both de Saint Phalle’s and Spoerri’s efforts. The mysterious landscape of monstrous, petrified figures is a mishmash of forms and ideas: the wobbly house with dizzy-making sloping floors, the gaping stone mouth opening on to a full-sized dining table, the woman riding a tortoise, a giant tearing someone in half ...

Stone surprises wait around every turn of the hillside paths. Bomarzo is, in one sense, a sculpture park and yet it is an accepted part of the great canon of garden history and it continues to influence garden makers and artists. What makes this place acceptable as a garden, what makes it balance so elegantly with its surroundings, is partly the single material for the sculpture – stone – and partly the uniting vision of Vicino Orsini.

Bomarzo also ticks the garden box because of the traditional, romantic association between gardens and mossy stonework. Or as George Reresby Sitwell put it, in 1909: “As the years pass by and no rude hand disturbs the traces of her presence, Nature become more daring. Flower-spangled tapestries of woven tendrils fall from the terrace ... the niches are curtained with creepers, the pool choked with water-plants, blossoming weeds are in every crevice ... Softly the Triton mourns, as if sobbing below his breath, alone in the moon-enchanted fairy-land of a deserted garden.”

Fountain in the mannerist garden of Villa Lante near Viterbo, Italy

Enchantment is a good word here and appropriate for one of my favourite gardens: Villa Lante, the mannerist garden near Viterbo, which is still remote enough that visitors can find themselves alone wandering up through the splashing jets, fountains and rills to the magnificent dripping grottos at the top of the garden.

The formality of design should make it at odds with the surrounding hills and forests. Instead, the classical and Renaissance ideas and narratives that inspire the garden – stories like Ovid’s Metamorphoses – are packed with enough references about the natural world that the garden and its surroundings meld happily together.

Edith Wharton is instructive here. In her early 20th-century collection of magazine pieces, gathered together to create her seminal book Italian Villas and their Gardens, she writes: “The Italian garden does not exist for its flowers ... the result has been a wonderful development of the more permanent effects to be obtained from the three other factors in garden composition – marble, water and perennial verdure – and the achievement by their skilful blending, of a charm independent of the seasons.”

Cleve West’s 2006 Chelsea show garden

That skilful blending is demonstrated in some of the better Chelsea Flower Show gardens where a chunk of artwork is now just about de rigueur. Cleve West, designer of the 2012 best in show garden, has worked closely with sculptors for the past 20 years, but in his award-winning garden this year he created his own sculpture/bench.

“Sculptors are sometimes precious about sculpture because they don’t want planting around it,” West told me. “With some people, placing sculpture is intuitive, it’s an emotional reaction that comes from experience and from seeing other people’s gardens. Planting has either to be submissive – like a foil to the sculpture – or bold and challenging.”

Sculpture at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli near Rome

The relationship between planting and sculpture is as important now as it was five centuries ago when the Villa d’Este near Rome was being created. Thanks to a skilful balance of stonework and trees, mosses, ferns, grass and liverworts, it is an exciting, enticing plot rather than an alarming mix of automata, classical references and wannabe papal ambition. And there is an awful lot to blend at Villa d’Este as one small part of the English diarist John Evelyn’s description in the mid-17th-century shows:

“Descending thence are two pyramids of water, and in a grove of trees near it the fountains of Tethys, Esculapius, Arethusa, Pandora, Pomona, and Flora; then the prancing Pegasus, Bacchus, the Grot of Venus, the two Colosses of Melicerta and Sibylla Tiburtina ... The Cupids pouring out water are especially most rare, and the urns on which are placed the 10 nymphs ... a noble aviary, the birds artificial, and singing till an owl appears, on which they suddenly change their notes. Near this is the fountain of dragons, casting out large streams of water with great noise. In another grotto, called Grotto di Natura, is an hydraulic organ; and, below this, are divers stews and fish-ponds, in one of which is the statue of Neptune in his chariot on a sea-horse.”

Last time I visited the gardens, the glories that Evelyn describes had been joined by some 21st-century abstract sculptures. What a mess. I mentioned this to Smithers the 007 gardener. Diplomatic as ever he made no comment.

For professional advice on garden and landscape design, the Society of Garden Designs has members who work internationally,

Many Italian gardens that are open to the public can be found on

Jane Owen is the editor of House & Home, the author of several garden books and a Chelsea Flower Show gold medallist

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