Musical gardens

The garden of my new Suffolk home has been a considerable challenge, offering me since early in May the toil of ridding the quarter acre, surrounded by Leyland Cypress, of artificial grass-turf covering the site of a once useful swimming pool and a residue largely occupied by persistent weeds.

A Cottage with Sunflowers at Peaslake by Margaret Allingham

The solitary work through weeks of mild East Anglian weather, which failed to equal the deluges that fell over the rest of the country, provoked in me a philosophical thoughtfulness that sought out parallels between the work of the gardener and the world of the arts and how frequently a garden has inspired responses in poetry, painting and music.

Poets from Chaucer to Emily Dickinson, George Crabbe to Blake, Kipling and John Clare have all been astutely observant in their praise of the garden, and a range of artists from the Renaissance to those over-romanticized cottage garden images of Birket Foster, Coleman, Tyndale and, of course, Helen Allingham who were among many trying beautifully to persuade the Edwardians that life was an idyll behind the rose and honeysuckle arched cottage doorways.

Music has always celebrated gardens, much earlier than the vast Londonspaces of Handel’s time, where Vauxhall and Marylebone were such pleasurable and perhaps doubtful meeting places, or the Tuileries in Paris, or the much smaller private summer gardens landscapes portrayed by some particularly English devotees like Arnold Bax, Delius, the short-lived George Butterworth, or the immigrant Percy Grainger.   William Walton’s widow has created an amazing hillside garden, La Mortella, at their home on the isle of Ischia, and Manuel de Falla explored several fragrant nocturnal gardens in his music.   Guitar players are still tested by Francisco Tarrega’s impressions of the park of wild flowers, roses, oranges and myrtle that lies behind the Andalusian Alhambra in Granada, captured in his romantic little piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra.   I recently received details of an invitation to composers to celebrate 200 years of the Wroclaw University Botanical Gardens in Poland – Muzyka Ogrodowa – by submitting pieces portraying colourful planting. 

In a talk for the independent education charity The Edge Foundation at their meeting last October in the Serpentine Gallery’s Garden Marathon, composer and artist Brian Eno expanded at length on his belief that artists are now less architects than gardeners – they don’t necessarily create a complete picture of a work before it is made, but rather ‘plant seeds and wait to see what will come up’.   I’m not so sure.   It is not difficult to believe that the seeds of inspiration to which Eno refers fell into the creative perception of many artists while they either worked in or looked at a garden, but some architecture is needed to prepare the space and the ground for those beginnings.

The fight with the weeds, some strong and deep rooted which persistently reappear, others large and threatening but easily pulled from their flimsy anchorage, is a life parallel – the battle the artist has with the surrounding world and its population of subsidiary characters, critics and agents, managers, directors and advisers, waiting in the wings to temper and diminish, well meaning perhaps, but not intended by the careful planting that should fulfill the gardener’s dream.


  1. Olivia Irvine 23 August 2012 at 10:34 pm

    A nicely written piece about gardens inspiring creativity. I remember, as a child, reading ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’. Most of my early memories were of playing in the garden. (It seemed to be sunny all year round.)My father was a keen gardener, so we always had plenty of flowers as well as swings and sandpits and the mysterious bottom of the garden with its twisted trees and gooseberry bush. Later, memories of this first garden inspired several paintings. ‘Grown Up Garden’ was about how the centre of the garden changed from pond to sandpit to flower bed, as we grew up. Years later, I spent some time in Madrid. I fell in love with the Rosaleda garden in the Retiro Park. Its metal structires with roses climbing up them inspired paintings for several years. The themes, of love and loss, used lines from poetry and songs as titles. There was something so romantic about the place. I once applied for a travelling scholarship and got down to the last four applicants. My proposal was to travel to the east and paint gardens in Kashmir and other wonderful places. The interviewer asked if I liked gardening. I was shocked. Gardening! Surely that was a middle aged pursuit! I was a painter and a traveller. It seemed saying ‘no’ was the wrong answer. I didn’t get the scholarship. Now that I am middle aged, I love gardening. I was inspired a couple of years ago by the ‘Impressionist’s Gardens’ exhibition in Edinburgh. Many of the gardens were gorgeous. So many of these painters were wealthy and had fabulous places. Then, in summer, they rented even more fabulous places and took along the cook and the nanny. They spent all day painting in delightful weather. I have to make do with my humble garden and fairly poor weather. Still, something still inspires me to get out there and dream.

  2. Patricia Farrar 24 August 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Patric,thank you so much for this piece. I am just in the process of completing my final assignment for Painting 1 which I centred around The Garden. I have spent a couple of truly unforgettable months absorbing the sounds, the smells, the colours of the garden and responding to all of this experience in paint. But I think above all I have been ‘listening’ to the garden to develop a sense beyond the visual. Your words come at the end of another day of gardening with ideas, visual images and creative struggle.
    Many thanks

  3. Liz Cashdan 21 September 2012 at 11:57 am

    A late reply from a poet who also loves music and sings in Sheffield Bach Choir. It seems like there are several things going on here – a look at pieces of music(and other works of art) which have been inspired by gardens, but also the garden as metaphor for creativity in whichever art form. It reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging where he describes his father and grandfather digging potatoes and turf, and says he has so spade to follow them, but he has a pen and he will dig with that. And then there is the scenario of gardening being an art form itself.
    My own small and overgrown patches of garden provide physical exercise more than an opportunity to practise an art!


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