Chelsea Flower Show: conceptual gardens require good plot

The past 10 years have seen an explosion in the popularity of gardens that might loosely be labelled as conceptual – where the theme or message of the garden is more important than any horticulture. But conceptual gardens can be tricky. A designer needs to formulate a sufficiently subtle narrative that bears up to daily reading.

I think back to the first truly modern and conceptual garden that appeared at the Chelsea Flower show, designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole for the Daily Telegraph in 1997. (He returns to the show again this year, and must be a hot favourite for the top prize.) Entitled “Latin Garden”, it was designed around the idea of the three stages of Virgil’s life. I was enraptured by the subtle and complex manipulation of space, the arresting modernity, the sparse planting. But Virgil? He was hiding so deep in the gravel mulch I must have missed him.

Did this garden – and do gardens generally – need narratives of this sort to have meaning and depth, or should they remain, as they are for many gardeners, a robustly anti-intellectual territory, places to relax, enjoy the view and grow a few nice plants?

As a designer of gardens I have no doubt that the narrative device is as vital as it is to a writer of fiction. Without some carefully articulated plot, mush beckons. The genius of the Latin Garden was that it was sufficient without the back story. But, if you discovered it, the cumulative experience was even better.

With many historic gardens, what we think of now as belonging to some soft-focus Elysium were in fact carefully crafted vehicles for the kind of unsubtle instruction or boasting that is best avoided. Consider the Renaissance garden of Villa Lante in Italy; water through the middle of the garden dividing it so precisely into halves that even the house is doubled up. We look at it today as one of the consummate expressions of humanism, man perfectly in balance with nature.

But the garden is also crafted as a tableau for the greater glorification of its maker, to whom subtle and not so subtle references abound. As the water begins its decent from the upper part of the garden it debouches from between the stone claws of a crayfish (gambero in Italian), rushing in volutes down a catena d’aqua (a water staircase) before plunging into the next fountain one level down. Contemporary visitors would have understood the not so subtle pun on the owners’ name, Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambera – and the implication that, with the very essence of the garden flowing through his body, he, rather than Vignola, a mere architect, was the presiding genius of the garden.

Villa Lante’s stone table with rill

A remarkable composition of garden and landscape designed five years ago, by architect Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai, updates the Villa Lante sequence for today but manages to do it with minimal of means and certainly no signposting by crayfish.

At a private house south of Mumbai, water arrives in the garden via a low aqueduct, from where it feeds into a pool slightly above the ground like a ceremonial tank. The pool, like the water at Villa Lante, divides the living quarters of the house into two pavilions, placed either side of the axis, delicately askew. In front lies a plantation of coconut, then a low wall and the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea. So the sense that we, as visitors, are secondary to the inexorable momentum of the place is overpowering. It is a masterpiece of understatement, drawing on indigenous patterns of land use and cultivation, arranging itself around the ceremony of bathing and the transformation of water. The landscape runs right through its midst, so the progression from enclosure, protection and control to exposure, randomness and infinity becomes the presiding genius of the place.

It stirs up thoughts of other places entirely. The view to the sea reminds me of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and his pale moonlit wastes. The beauty of it is that I am free to do this and dream of Villa Lante, too, without being bossed around by a designer intent on making a point. As in great fiction, in a good garden you are given certain facts but you are not told what to think, where to walk, what to feel. There are moments, as in a novel, where you are constrained and directed but then there are equally times when your imagination is let loose, and it is the balance between this constraint and liberty that above all sets the tenor of the place. So the narrative device is there; it is just well hidden until you go looking.

When you start to look at gardens like this, in terms of narrative and authorial voice, they can become as fascinating as fiction. Is every turn in the path heralded by a bright shiny object showing you the way or telling you something? Or are you allowed to wander, imagine and be?

Tom Stuart Smith is a former Best in Show winner

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