artist bill henson’s eye for a garden
Bill Henson is known for his darkly powerful photographs of landscapes and nudes, but the artist’s creative energies also have an outlet in his very private garden. Henson, 61, inhabits a sanctuary-like home and workspace behind high gates at the end of a quiet lane in inner-city Melbourne. Although just one block from a busy main street, traffic noise is replaced by the tinkle of trickling water from a hidden source. Henson, whose work is currently on exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, is quietly spoken, thoughtful in discussion, and refers familiarly to his plants by their botanical names.
His home and studio of 25 years was originally a factory; in 2004 he had the chance to buy the property next door and make a garden. The ground sloped down from the street, “so I dug the centre out of it, dropping the level by five or six feet. It tapers slightly to give it some perspective,” he explains. He built dry-stone walls to create planting areas, but says there was no real plan “except the plan the eye dictates”.
“I was impatient,” he says. “I’d been wanting to have a garden for many years so I trucked in a few things.” He means the peppercorn trees and six enormous date palms, one of which was more than 10m tall with a 3m-wide rootball. “I’m constantly seeing plants about to be bulldozed. I hate the disappearance of old gardens and their large trees, so quite a few plants are rescued.”
With limited soil space, many of the plants are in in pots ranging from French urns to terracotta pots that he scavenges from roadside throw-outs. Camellias, tree ferns,
Muse: Henson’s studio opens onto the garden
begonias, clivias, peace lilies and orchids are tucked in everywhere. Epiphytes adorn the tree branches, including a magnificent rock orchid ( Dendrobium speciosum) that bore hundreds of flower spikes last year. “It must be the biggest one in captivity,” Henson says proudly. “It came out of an orchid nursery that was closing down. I craned it up and attached it with chains. It seems pretty happy.” He also likes “hoiking up” bird’s nest ferns into the trees, he adds.
Although Henson’s mother was “a serious gardener” and he spent his childhood in a large, rambling garden, he says he isn’t a mad plantsman: “It’s more about the overall effect of the greenery. I just let it accumulate naturally.”
With its high walls and dense plantings, it’s too shady for a lawn, so Henson chose gravel, forming what he calls “a little inland sea”. A bonsai-like Japanese black pine and some hand-selected rocks build on the Japanese feel. “Some days I just lie on the gravel and look at the sky; other days I come out early and rake it – it depends on how absorbed I am in work in the studio.” He jokes that the small water bowl placed carefully on the gravel is his “ostentatious water feature”, but it’s for the many birds that frequent the garden.
His huge photography studio is open to the garden along one side, with pot plants inside and out. “I like being inside and looking out,” he says. “It’s part of my daily routine to see what the garden is doing.”
Gardening at its best is an art, he adds. “I like overgrown gardens, where nature is reclaiming the original structure. It’s that something in between a man-made garden and wilderness that interests me.”