Yesterday I had the very great pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on my book, Sister Arts. Several of my graduate and undergraduate students were there, including Max, an especially engaged member of my lower-division Introduction to Creative Writing class. Max asked the first question and it was probably the most productive of the whole discussion: "If gardens are art, who is the artist?"
In some ways this is a very American question. There is a long and distinguished tradition of English garden historians who have made careers out of studying gardens as art, an equation that is rarely questioned in English academic or museum contexts. When I participated in a workshop at Sir John Soane's Museum to help plan the Mrs Delany and Her Circle exhibition, the group of about twenty curators and academics included a specialist in the history of grasses, one who studied shellwork, and Mark Laird of Harvard, who had just finished re-creating the eighteenth-century plantings at Painshill Park.
But by the same token, the English themselves make a distinction between garden designers, whose work is studied by historians of landscape architecture like Laird, and gardeners, those who carry out the "simple job" of maintaining the garden. I've written here and here about the status of gardening as England's national pastime; working-class men who in America would be fixing cars on the weekends instead tend their roses,
or as in the case of this 2009 winner of the Scarisbrick Parish Best-Kept Garden Competition, their petunias. At most, this work is regarded as craft rather than art; at least, as property maintenance, a kind of outdoor housework. In the sister arts tradition of confounding the line between amateur and professional, art and craft, garden and landscape, we want want to claim these blokes as sister-artists. (Wouldn't they be surprised.)
In answering Max's question I talked about three kinds of garden makers: the wealthy patron of taste who envisions and funds the project of a major garden, such as Jane, Duchess of Northumberland, whose Alnwick Garden, which I wrote about here, is the most ambitious contemporary landscape design in Europe:
One of my favorite examples of how this third, often overlooked garden artist can affect meaning is on the UT campus just outside the English department. UT's landscape is liberally strewn with statues by Pompeo Luigi Compini, dating from the early twentieth century; many of them are of rather dubious figures from Confederate history. On the plaza in front of the Main Building, topped by the infamous UT Tower, two statues face down the quad to the Texas State Capitol a few blocks away: Woodrow Wilson to the east, and Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederacy, to the west.
The plaza's axial design means that the statues were meant to be a matched set, equally visible from the quad. But over several years of teaching a course called Sister Arts in which I take students around campus to look at its design features, I've noticed that someone has trimmed the trees beside the Davis statue so that branches obscure its face when viewed from the quad. You can see Woodrow Wilson just fine, but Davis has been literally thrust into the shadows by the anonymous garden artists of the UT groundskeeping crew.