The garden of my new Suffolk home has been a considerable challenge, offering me since early in May the toil of ridding the quarter acre, surrounded by Leyland Cypress, of artificial grass-turf covering the site of a once useful swimming pool and a residue largely occupied by persistent weeds.
The solitary work through weeks of mild East Anglian weather, which failed to equal the deluges that fell over the rest of the country, provoked in me a philosophical thoughtfulness that sought out parallels between the work of the gardener and the world of the arts and how frequently a garden has inspired responses in poetry, painting and music.
Poets from Chaucer to Emily Dickinson, George Crabbe to Blake, Kipling and John Clare have all been astutely observant in their praise of the garden, and a range of artists from the Renaissance to those over-romanticized cottage garden images of Birket Foster, Coleman, Tyndale and, of course, Helen Allingham who were among many trying beautifully to persuade the Edwardians that life was an idyll behind the rose and honeysuckle arched cottage doorways.
Music has always celebrated gardens, much earlier than the vast Londonspaces of Handel’s time, where Vauxhall and Marylebone were such pleasurable and perhaps doubtful meeting places, or the Tuileries in Paris, or the much smaller private summer gardens landscapes portrayed by some particularly English devotees like Arnold Bax, Delius, the short-lived George Butterworth, or the immigrant Percy Grainger. William Walton’s widow has created an amazing hillside garden, La Mortella, at their home on the isle of Ischia, and Manuel de Falla explored several fragrant nocturnal gardens in his music. Guitar players are still tested by Francisco Tarrega’s impressions of the park of wild flowers, roses, oranges and myrtle that lies behind the Andalusian Alhambra in Granada, captured in his romantic little piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra. I recently received details of an invitation to composers to celebrate 200 years of the Wroclaw University Botanical Gardens in Poland – Muzyka Ogrodowa – by submitting pieces portraying colourful planting.
In a talk for the independent education charity The Edge Foundation at their meeting last October in the Serpentine Gallery’s Garden Marathon, composer and artist Brian Eno expanded at length on his belief that artists are now less architects than gardeners – they don’t necessarily create a complete picture of a work before it is made, but rather ‘plant seeds and wait to see what will come up’. I’m not so sure. It is not difficult to believe that the seeds of inspiration to which Eno refers fell into the creative perception of many artists while they either worked in or looked at a garden, but some architecture is needed to prepare the space and the ground for those beginnings.
The fight with the weeds, some strong and deep rooted which persistently reappear, others large and threatening but easily pulled from their flimsy anchorage, is a life parallel – the battle the artist has with the surrounding world and its population of subsidiary characters, critics and agents, managers, directors and advisers, waiting in the wings to temper and diminish, well meaning perhaps, but not intended by the careful planting that should fulfill the gardener’s dream.