When we think of garden design we usually think about gardens created by professionally trained designers. Gifted and qualified people who have studied traditional and contemporary design, and understand plants and landscaping. The more famous are often found on TV and at prestigious annual garden shows like Chelsea.
But there’s another quirkier, off-beat and fascinating type of garden. That is the garden that is created by an artist. These are a different thing altogether. The artist usually has no formal training in gardening, plants or landscaping. Whilst this may lead to a garden that seems lacking in some aspects it can also, thanks to the egotistical and driven nature of many artists, also produce a compelling and very unique kind of garden, a true one-off.
Artists’ gardens are highly focused on one core idea that everything else is subordinated to. This usually springs from their artistic preoccupations and produces an unforgettable experience.
In this blog we’ve gathered together some of the more successful and better known artists gardens. We hope you, like us, will come to love them, in all their eccentric, charming marvels. Let us take you on a tour.
Jardins Majorelle, Jacques Majorelle, Marrakech (aka Yves St Laurent garden).
A passion for colour
Jacques Majorelle, an artist from Nancy, France created his garden after falling under the spell of Marrakech and the vibrant colours found there.
Sometimes for an artist it can just be one single colour that floods their soul, and for Majorelle it was the Cobalt Blue found frequently on houses in Marrakech. In 1923 Majorelle bought 4 acres of land bordering a palm grove in Marrakech and began to create his vision. The intense shade of blue was used both on the cubist villa and the surrounding garden . It was so successful that this blue is now known as blue Majorelle and was patented by Majorelle prior to his death.
The garden proved too expensive for upkeep and Majorelle weas eventually obliged to sell it. After this it fell into neglect and disrepair. It was rescued and restored by Yves St Laurent in the 1980s and is now a complex of museums.
Little Sparta. Ian Hamilton Finlay, Stonypath, Lanarkshire.
Planting poems in a garden.
Ian Hamilton Finlay was already a famous and highly respected artist/poet when he began his garden south east of Edinburgh. His speciality was a very robust celebration of the idea of Arcadia which he embodied in tiny fragments of text engraved in stone. The text usually took the form of his own poetry or the names of philosophers, thinkers or cultural figures he admired.
Little Sparta is now famous the world over and widely recognised as Finlay’s greatest work of art. It has also been called Scotland’s greatest artwork. As with all the other artist gardens we’re looking at, it is a completely unique garden that is impossible to classify or pigeon hole. It may seem like a sculpture garden but, due to the way the works integrate with and become part of the garden and wider landscape, it is much more than this.
‘Tragedies of the Dido Class Cruisers’
Water Garden, Monet, Giverny France
Garden as canvas. Every aspect designed for Monet to paint.
In his later years Monet, now a hugely successful and wealthy artist, had a very special garden built in the extensive grounds of his property in Giverny, just outside Paris. Monet came to prominence from his plein-air paintings. This was the practice of making landscape oil paintings outside, in front of the subject in the open air (plein-air). At the time this was a very radical departure, only made possible by the invention of ready mixed oil paints in light and practical tubes.
His studies of haystacks and Rouen cathedral at different times of day and in different lights were shocking and disturbing. At first people couldn’t even make out what they were meant to depict. They seemed incoherent daubs of paint simply flung about on the canvas.
Trekking out to find suitable subjects and standing in a far flung field all day to paint them is a young person’s game. So it’s not surprising that in later life Monet turned the tables and commissioned a garden that would become his entire subject for his paintings in his final years. All he had to do to find his next painting was to walk into his garden. He could break for a comfortable lunch, receive visitors and even have a pleasant nap all whilst a few paces away from the current masterpiece he was working on.
Monet painting in Giverny by Frank Wright.
Prospect Cottage. Derek Jarman, Dungeness.
Creating a paradise in a bleak austerity.
Derek Jarman rose to prominence as an enfant terrible of the 80’s cultural scene in the UK. Openly gay, his films Jubilee and Caravaggio shocked audiences with their iconoclasm and hard hitting narratives that boldly faced the societal and political meltdown of Britain in the 80s.
Jarman was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. This prompted him to move to Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent, almost in the shadow of the huge nuclear power station. Here, in this bleak, foreboding landscape he fashioned a house and garden of exquisite beauty. He set salt-tolerant local beach plants and flotsam gathered from the shoreline against the bright, many-hued, shingle of the shoreline. In the centre was his cottage, a vernacular timber building with tar based roofing. It was almost as if in reducing his surroundings to a bare minimum on a desolate shore, overshadowed by a life threatening nuclear plant, he was reconfiguring the terrible crisis that HIV had wrought upon him. Proving that an artist can wrest beauty from the most unpromising materials.
An inscription of John Donne’s poem the Sun Rising is set on the side wall of the cottage.
If this has whetted your interest here are some other notable artists gardens we don’t have space to look at in detail.
Munstead Wood, by Gertrude Jekyll.
Inspired by the free use of colour as deployed by Turner and the impressionists.
Trewyn Studio and Garden, Barbara Hepworth. Here you can see the garden as a gallery, not unusual in itself, but here all is laid out by the artist herself, so we can see exactly how Hepworth conceived the relationship between her sculptures and the landscape.
Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo. A fierce expression of a powerful character. Mingling her joint heritage of Mexico and Western Europe.
Charleston, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
Inspired by the idea of total design the garden flourished, Quentin Bell observed, “as though the exuberant decoration of the interior had spilled through the doors”.