Chelsea Flower Show: sculptor’s object lesson

Cleve West's Bupa garden from the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show

Almost 20 years ago, taking a tentative lurch into the world of garden design, I built my first show garden at the Hampton Court Flower Show. Ill-prepared and without a sponsor, I dug plants from my own garden, begged more from clients and asked favours from suppliers and contractors to realise “Homage to the Green Man”. The design was sound, the plant associations passable, but the trump card that got the garden noticed (and the award for most innovative garden) was sculpture by Jennifer Cox and Brighton-based artist Johnny Woodford.

It was the opening I’d hoped for. A love of art (I’d worked briefly for fine-art publishers Petersburg Press) and garden design seemed the perfect combination. Collaborating with Woodford on several more show gardens and a few private gardens cemented the idea that it wasn’t just a case of plonking something anywhere in the garden and hoping for the best.

As metaphor, focal point or historical reference, sculpture can strengthen familiarity and bonding with a garden and this, especially with a piece that is at odds with the surrounding landscape, can be electrifying. Used well, sculpture can take even the most average garden to a higher level, providing focus and a sense of harmony. Striking a balance between the planting and a selection of the many elements that we associate with gardens (from paths and terraces to water and garden buildings) is the key to successful design. Sculpture is a powerful uniting tool. But used thoughtlessly, sculpture can ruin a garden.

Sculpture has continued to play an important part in the gardens I design, from my work in collaboration with French artists Serge Bottagisio and Agnes Decoux to the garden I created for Brewin Dolphin at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show, where I created my own sculpture for the first time.

The influences that I have unwittingly soaked up over the years have made a handy mental reference library. Sculptors such as Brancusi, Hepworth, Moore, Chillida, Giger and Serra formed an eclectic foundation to my “library” of influences. Sutton Place in Surrey (now closed to visitors), the gallery Fondation Maeght (south France) and various sculpture gardens taught me about mood and working with the site, not against it. Exmoor National Park (my back garden as a teenager) and virtually anything to do with the natural world continue to inspire. The work of Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy are still benchmarks showing a potent connection between art and nature.

Sourcing sculpture with enough integrity to work in a garden has always been a challenge. Collaborating with Woodford during the concept stage of any projects in those early years afforded the luxury of making site-specific pieces that, through repetition of form, bolstered a theme or narrative, becoming more relevant to the space than if they’d been thought of in isolation. The plant palette I chose – the colour and form – aimed to provide a foil for the artwork or have enough dynamism to match it and maintain balance and harmony.

For my Brewin Dolphin Garden at Chelsea last year I wanted to shift the emphasis towards a very traditional, formal setting with just a hint of modernity to see how little you need to create that sense of timelessness, for some of the most memorable places are those where such energies gently collide.

Topiary, with its own sculptural qualities, had already been chosen to play a key role, but a main focal point was needed. I kept thinking of a 250-year-old limestone wellhead that I’d seen at a reclamation yard two years earlier. When the owner decided to prop it upright in a field, I was immediately transfixed by its energy, particularly its asymmetry and imperfections that, along with the subtle differences in topiary forms I had selected, helped challenge the potentially stifling symmetry of the garden. Rusted bolts, stains of concrete where grilles once lay, all traces of the stone’s history, kept its integrity intact. Reinvented as an abstract wall-hanging, this antique suddenly had modernity thrust upon it.

The plan was to mount the wellhead and make a concave void in the stone wall supporting it. I was confident it would work, but as I grew to know the piece, on site during Chelsea’s build-up, I suddenly saw how it could be improved. Standing at the front of the garden and considering how the void would look, a blue tarpaulin sheltering drystone-wallers from driving rain flapped in the wind and showed me clearly that the void should be rendered and painted dark blue. It was obvious. This seemingly slight change in the treatment of the wellhead improved the garden significantly.

The sense of knowing when you’ve got something right is a difficult feeling to articulate. Some might say it’s the quiet working of the subconscious or simply a gut-feeling. In a series of lectures for the Mahindra Humanities Centre, the artist William Kentridge touched on this process. He said that there are “usually two ways of looking; through making the image and by looking at the image”. He went on to propose that there is “a third way, by way of separation, one’s other self, (not the unconscious), that makes you see or know or discover something. A different intelligence allied to some unspecified, unclear understanding.”

When the blue tarpaulin flapped behind the void in a rainstorm, the garden suddenly came alive. It had that extra layer which gave the whole space the reason for being while at the same time offering a sense of uncertainty, mystery and the otherworldliness that I’d been looking to achieve. As Kentridge observes, the immediate reaction is not one of self-congratulation but one of stupidity – “Why didn’t I think of that before?” The process of uncertainty that one goes through to arrive at the moment of “knowing” can be frustrating, but this should be seen as a positive as it means you are thinking it through. When sculpture sings and the garden sings back, that’s quite a fix.

During the week of the show, and under public scrutiny, another thread running through the garden surfaced, suggesting that the garden was overtly sexual with its phallic yews and dark mysterious void, not to mention the moist rill, columns aflame and red poppies. The Financial Times’s news pages covered this last year – and triggered some interesting reactions from readers.

I cannot tell you how conscious or otherwise it was to bring eroticism into the design. After all, the garden would never have been accepted by the Royal Horticultural Society if it had been named “Invasion of the Phalli”. Intended or not, it’s interesting that when the spoils of the garden were divided and sold off at the end of the show, the yew topiary and what affectionately became known as the “Vagina Monolith” were inseparable and are currently residing happily together in a private garden not far from Glasgow.

Cleve West’s designs have won many gold medals at Chelsea and, last year, won Best in Show

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