STANDING GUARD IN THE YARD
Sculptures add stately elegance — and surprise — to a garden
For me, a casual visitor to this garden near Portsmouth, U.K., on a sunny day in 2005, it caused me to pause and to ponder, just one of the reasons artwork is created.
Artworks in the form of statuary and sculptures have long been used to elevate the sometimes prosaic nature of gardens. The ancient Greeks and Romans had their peristyle courts – enclosed gardens where classical sculptures of heroes and gods would be displayed, typically reflecting philosophical or religious motifs and set on pedestals to be gazed at in awe.
During the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century, when gardens became larger with a symmetrical design, there was always classical statuary. The Italianate style found its way to Britain, particularly during the 19th century when travellers returning from a Grand Tour of Europe developed their own Renaissance gardens and filled them with statuary.
Travel to the great gardens of Britain today, built long ago by the aristocracy or early industrialists, and it’s soon apparent statuary was big business in the 18th and 19th centuries. Materials had been traditional marble, stone or bronze, but now all garden owners of note wanted to enhance their estates. The need was met by the introduction of composite materials, though often of inferior quality — parts of Michelangelo’s David crumbling away would be unlikely to inspire or impress anyone.
This was resolved about 1770 when an enterprising businesswoman named Eleanor Coade invented a unique material to be used for moulding neoclassical statues and garden ornaments. It was of such high quality it was virtually impervious to the eroding effect of weather. It outperformed natural stone, but by the 1840s other artificial materials using Portland cement came on the market and the more expensive Coade stone was largely phased out.
Lost over time, the original secret recipe, a form of ceramic using crushed flint, fine quartz and crushed glass, was rediscovered and further refined by sculptor and stone carver Stephen Pettifer. In 2000 he founded the Coade company in London, England, which continues to produce all forms of statuary. These days what may appear to be an original piece carved from stone could well be made from Coade stone.
By the start of the 20th century, the popularity of classical sculpture waned somewhat with the advent of modern sculpture, beginning with the work of Auguste Rodin, who exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900. Following this explosion of imagination, every form of abstract artistic expression produced in every possible medium has appeared in galleries, public installations and in gardens.
Just as the Greeks and Romans created places to display their sculptures, there are parks today created specifically to display sculptural works. Somehow, the placing of sculptures in a natural setting enhances the moment and is a way of introducing such works to the public.
Locally, Cambridge has its lovely Sculpture Garden on Grand Avenue South alongside the Grand River. At the Homer Watson Gallery in Kitchener, there are whimsical works by local artist Glenn G. Smith on display in the small garden there.
The Seattle-based blown-glass artist Dale Chihuly exhibits his revolutionary work in gardens around the world with multicoloured pieces that can be mistaken
for plants and trees of the natural world. At Kew Gardens in London, his work was once exhibited both in the gardens and inside the majestic palm house because, as he said, he always wanted to show his glasswork in a glasshouse.
His pieces have also appeared at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Ariz. On my visit, I could easily have mistaken his spiky, chartreus cactus for a rare saguaro if it hadn’t been sparkling so in the bright desert light.
I’d much rather wander a park or garden than a gallery or museum, and it was in those large stately gardens of Britain where I first kindled a love of sculpture.
Renishaw Hall and Gardens in the north of England is typical of the 19th-century style with its stunning Italianate gardens. Statuary graces the pathways, stairs, between garden rooms and within them, where they stand in the shade of topiary hedges five metres high. Sometimes the topiary works are sculptures in their own right.
In the south of England at Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the American millionaire and philanthropist William Waldorf Astor added a magnificent Italian garden. Beginning in 1906, he filled it with a collection of statuary from his European travels.
More a park than a garden, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park was developed specifically for the display of sculpture, including a number of Henry Moore pieces. Not sure how Moore would feel about sheep wandering around his art, although the park does honour his commitment to having his work placed in the open air.
It was in a more formal part of the park I discovered the “Moon,” a piece I’d perhaps unfairly describe as a large-scale version of a Victorian gazing ball. Hand-blown glass garden accents were first recorded as being produced in Venice in the 13th century. In the 16th century, the English philosopher Francis Bacon commented that a proper garden would have round coloured balls for
the sun to play upon, and by the Victorian era they became a popular garden feature and still are. They are intriguing, reflecting and shimmering as the light changes, but I’m happy to gaze at them in someone else’s garden.
The “Moon,” however, by Swiss artist Not Vital (a confusing name in English) is something I’d covet if my garden were large enough to house it. “Moon” is a highly polished sphere in stainless steel replete with tidy, random dimples representing, I suppose, the more ragged craters of the moon.
Three metres in diameter, it sits on an expanse of lawn, and like the real moon’s gravitational field, it draws viewers to touch, to marvel and to observe the distorted reflections of the tree-filled park. It now has its own Saturn-like ring, formed by the circling footsteps of a captivated audience.
One of the finest, though fleeting, exhibitions of garden art can be found at the Chelsea Flower Show held in London, England, in May. Here designers compete for gold medals in garden design.
The gardens are imaginative wonders, works of art in their own right, and typically contain sculptural pieces to complement and enhance the experience.
At the 2016 show, a garden by Russian designer Tatyana Goltsova explored the complex relationships between Russia, Ukraine and the U.K., though not in the current political sense.
A work by Ukrainian sculptor Victoria Chichinadze embodied the spirit of the traditional lace makers of Eastern Europe and was allowed to beautifully dominate the garden. Crafted from 600 kg of aluminum, the white, lace-like form, in sharp contrast with the surrounding green, swirled through the garden to skim the surface of a water feature called “River of Time,” culminating at a transcendent female figure.
Also at the 2016 show, a gold medalwinning garden by Chris Beardshaw prominently featured a haunting, contemplative face in verdigris bronze. Named the “the Fallen Deodar,” it was one of a limited edition of six by sculptor Jilly Sutton.
At 1.5 metres across, the original was carved from, and inspired by, a massive Deodar tree (Cedrus deodara) that had fallen on bleak Dartmoor, not far from Sutton’s home in Devon. The original work now resides in a garden somewhere in Tokyo, fittingly owned by one of the treeleaping Japanese actresses who appeared in the movie “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.”
ABOVE: Bronze girl, at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. LEFT: Artist Dale Chihuly depicts plants and trees in blown glass.
The “Fallen Deodar” on display at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.