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The Subtle Science & The Exact Art of Colour in English Garden Design.

Why Gardening can rank as Fine Art.

Presented by Timothy Walker

13th June 2023

Timothy Walker, our lecturer for the evening, gave us a fascinating and very entertaining talk on the use of colour in English garden design, illustrated with a wonderful selection of slides, showing examples of gardens at Rousham, Nuneham, Hadspen Gardens, Barrington Court and East Lambrook Manor, amongst others. 

He started the talk by quoting Gertrude Jekyll, the 19th Century British horticulturist and garden designer, who believed, “gardening that may rightly claim to rank as a fine art”.  Timothy’s talk looked at seven principles of using colour to help to design a garden and the parallels between the use of colour in art and in garden design with influences from artists such as Turner, Monet, Rothko and Jackson Pollock

Colour Is Beguiling.  The use of colour through the ages in art is also reflected in the use of colour in a garden border.  The earliest gardens were green and were designed with no desire for colour.  The monochrome look meant that viewers of the garden were able to concentrate on the shapes and outlines of the plants and borders.  Over time, colours were introduced into the garden design and with colour came emotions which had an affect on the viewer and how they saw the garden.

How to describe Colour and What is Colour?  Timothy described how through the ages colour has been described in differing ways and with different palettes using the examples of descriptions by Issac Newton, Werner, Penelope Hobhouse and Andrew Lawson.     Many philosophers have found it hard to explain colour and Picasso is one of many artists who have asked the question.  Timothy’s explanation was to break colour down into chemistry (use of pigments), physics (reflection/refraction) and biology (colour is seen in a series of signals, such as a warning or camouflage). 

Gardening and Art.  Gertrude Jekyll urged her readers to “remember that in a garden we are painting a picture” and that it is a three dimensional picture which can be looked at from all angles, with the use of natural light changing its shape and distinction.

The Living Palette.  Timothy explained how different colours are used for different reasons both in art and in the garden.  For example, English gardeners love the use of the colour blue in all its shades and tones, the colours green and red, similar to the colours of Autumn, can be used as a contrast.  Yellow, often thought of as a colour for warning, is the first colour that can be seen in a garden and can pull the eye into the space and the use of white in a border helps to make other colours look more saturated. 

Harmony and Contrast.  Jekyll believed in harmony when designing a garden and that contrast should be used sparingly.  Timothy showed examples of gardens such as the harmony and contrast in the borders of the 2012 Olympic Park, designed by James

Hitchmough, who was influenced by the artist Jackson Pollock and his splashes and movement of colour across the canvas.

Plan-Change-Visit-Change. To summarise, Timothy explained that the creation of a garden is a process not a product. Ultimately, the garden is a personal work of art and it is only you, the creator, who needs to like it.

Vicki Cowan

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A member of The Arts Society
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