Friday, December 23, 2016

Japanese Gardens - what are we actually looking at?

Still mulling over our recent trip to Japan, leading a privately-organised tour. It was my second trip, and the first for most of the people in the group – and probably their last – not, I hasten to add, because we had a bad time, but because the country is so far away for most of us, that it is one of those places that we probably won't go to again unless we have a special interest. This has a distorting effect on the way people see a country. Think of it the other way round – if you were a Japanese person coming to visit Britain, and interested in gardens, what would you do. Visit Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, London, maybe Oxford and Stratford on Avon, and of course Edinburgh, and leave the rest of the country unvisited. I once had a look at a Japanese book on visiting British gardens – several swathes of the map in the front were empty! Part of the thinking behind organising this tour was to try to avoid this effect, so after all the must-see Kyoto garden masterpieces we set off on a backroads tour, to visit places tourists don't normally get to (Matsue and Hagi for those who really want to know). 
Yuko Nagamura, my co-guide on the tour, at Kinkakuji

Here I would like to explore the theme of 'looking at Japanese gardens' a bit more, in particular the problems that those of us who are interested in garden and planting design can actually learn from them. The trouble with looking at gardens in Japan on a first trip, is that it can be very difficult to concentrate – Japan is so overwhelming in its cultural depth that the mind (and body) is constantly distracted, “have you seen that paper shop, ohmygod, it is amazing, I never knew...... was that really octopus ice cream in there? ...... ohmygod, I've just found a cat café, they really exist” etc, etc, etc.

The garden at the Kikuya house in Hagi, Yamaguchi province, a lovely little-known garden
The visitor also needs to 'get their eye in', to know what to look for, to know what not to look at. An art form like the Japanese garden is so profoundly alien to much of our experience of gardens, that we tend to focus on the surface, the immediate impact, and not be able to look deeper. We can also be quite undiscriminating. Kyoto is so full of gardens that it can be difficult to choose which to go to, or in what order. They also vary a lot – some are definitely 'also-rans'; maintenance can also vary, depending on who runs them; some I was alarmed to see have gone down the “let's get the punters in with some night time illuminations” road which results in obtrusive chunky lights and cabling, or even moss lawns being covered in a web of wiring for LED lights.

The Kinkakuji (Golden Temple). Incomparable, just because its gold doesn't make it flashy, its proportions and poistioning are perfect

My Little Kitty likes Kinkajui too

I have a tendency to react against the sticking of certain cultural highlights on a pedestal – I carefully avoided the Taj on my first visit to India, and on my first time in Paris (many years ago) I never saw the Eiffel Tower in a whole week! Icons are icons however for very good reasons. The Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji) is a good example I had not been to on my first trip: perfectly proportioned, with an unspoilt backdrop of wooded hills. It really is a breathtaking sight. However it is one of those places where you are liable to take your partner's/friend's photograph with the temple in the background and walk on. The people-watching has to be seen as part of the pleasure. The vast numbers of people who go there though prevent a real exploration of what is actually quite a complex garden, as many paths are closed off; so it cannot really be fully appreciated as a garden – its subtle interplay of water, islands and pines. Instead the garden and view become relegated to being a backdrop.

Appreciating Ryoan-ji
Amongst garden cognoscenti, it is the rock and sand landscape of Ryoan-ji which is the most famous of all, an abstract composition which has always fascinated western artists and commentators, who tend to see in it the essence of Zen, and of Japan, or of their idea of Japan. That Japan is more than abstract conundrums is shown by posters showing My Little Kitty in her kimono standing in front of the Golden Temple, a reminder that this country is actually more interested in colourful cuddly kitsch than conundrums and koans. At Ryoan-ji MLK makes no appearance and indeed this garden is nothing like as crowded as you might think. No-one is having their photograph taken posing in front of it, and no-one is waving a selfie-stick. Either this most intellectual of gardens attracts a different clientele, or the garden has a powerful effect on its visitors. It has to be viewed from a raised verandah type structure which somehow focuses everyone's attention on to the garden, and there are tiered steps to sit on, so it is possible to experience the garden one-to-one as it were.

The Daitako-ji temple complex in Kyoto is the best 'one-stop' place to see some of the very best gardens
I had agonised for ages, and I don't think my group quite appreciated how much agonising went into this planning, about what gardens to go to, in what order, and on what day. Three days in Kyoto is hardly enough to even begin realising just how much this extraordinary city can offer. Last time I came, I spotted a guide to its art and craft galleries, it was the size of an old-fashioned telephone directory. Beyond the city, our attempts to 'get off the beaten track' led to some very complex train journeys. Since the trains run like clockwork, and there is a very comprehensive rail network, this can mean some terrifyingly tight connections – six minutes to get from platform two to platform seven etc. - 18 people, including one 86 year old. Every connection worked though.

The Okoji-senso villa in Kyoto is a relatively modern, more naturalistic, little gem
We do face a problem in how we look at Japanese gardens I think.We tend to see sand, stones, pine trees and not beyond. We also, inevitably, see them through a veil of our experiences of western copies of them. In the case of British visitors this is particularly unfortunate, as our historical experience of Japanese gardens is rather a kitsch one. Long ago I remember listening to a lecture by Jill Raggett who has made a study of the Japanese garden in Britain – her doctoral thesis and the study ‘Shadowy Figures’ Japanese Garden Designers in Early Twentieth Century Britain, is unfortunately not published, but is available through the Japan Society's e-library. There is some information from her here. It seems that many British examples were built by Japanese people in Britain who had no particular knowledge of traditional garden building, I may be exaggerating slightly, but I think one early 20th century garden builder had come off a ship and found himself at a loose end and got into it that way! Modern versions are mostly amateur built and are very kitsch, to the extent that they actually have a negative impact on how Japanese gardens are seen.

My belief about why Japanese gardens work, is that they encapsulate certain spatial relations which go directly to our sub-consciously hard-wired sense of aesthetics – a bit like the best abstract art. Because of their simplicity, the very best classical gardens, appeal to this directly. I bet if you were able to boil down the formal relations between plants in a Piet Oudolf border, the trees in a Capability Brown landscape or the entire space of a Russell Page garden, you would uncover the same basic relations. In fact there is a whole study available here which shows just this. and here is a news item summarising another study  Put people in front of a model of Ryoan-ji apparently, move the stones, and people will find it less 'attractive'.

The Ensui-ji temple in Hagi, its relaxed style is more typical of many smaller temples

Trouble is, actually appreciating any of this requires a lot of Zen emptying of the mind, trying to put aside the concerns of being a first-time traveller in this extraordinary country and seeing through and beyond the mere physicality of what is directly in front of us, the memory of the last green tea macha latté with a cat drawn in the foam on top, the complexity of this morning's breakfast (what do I eat first?) or fretting about whether you will be able to catch the next train. But, I firmly believe, that if we understood this most sophisticated of art forms a bit better, it would help all of us as designers.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

'A Garden Flora' - for Christmas reading all year round

Here we are, hot off the press!
My new book, which I was working on last year. A reference book, a dipping-in book, an ideal Christmas present of course.

While this is my shameless Christmas promotion, I've been wanting to write a blog post for some time about why I wrote it.

Why does anyone write any book?
Primarily because we see a gap in the market. I see 'we', but which I mean an author (potential), commissioning editor, or the publishers' sales team. The latter often know nothing about the subject matter, but they are good at judging trends, and when to leap in with a new concept, or (more usually) a re-visit of a trend already established.

Garden Flora is a book which I think, fills a gaping hole in the market; Timber Press fortunately agreed with me. There are shelves of books of the A to Z 'how to grow it' variety. Almost nothing about the 'non-horticultural' aspects of plants - their history, their ecology, their uses, etc. Increasingly I find keen gardeners wanting to know about where their plants are from, in terms of their ecology and heritage. It's like the whole heirloom vegetable trend, wanting to know the context of a plant, where it is from, how come it is in cultivation, who first introduced it, who produced the cultivars and hybrids we all grow today? So, this is what Garden Flora aims to do for around 150 general of ornamental plant genera: mostly hardy perennials and popular annuals, quite a few shrubs, a few trees, and a very few non-hardies.
Begonias, from the 1959 catalogue of the Dutch bulbå company N.V.L.Stassen Jnr
First of all - where do garden plants come from? Many of the A-Z reference books do give some vague idea of geographical origin, but I wanted a bit more precision, particularly about the kind of habitat and plant community they came from. This sort of information can be very useful in helping get a picture of the kind of place it might grow in the garden. More crucially, I wanted to bring in a body of knowledge we have been building up over recent years about plant longevity and survival strategy: are they short-lived pioneers, long-lived competitors or wiry survivalists in difficult conditions? All that needed quite a bit of explanation, so that went in a fairly lengthy introduction, starting with the rather stern injunction to "read this first".
A boxwood parterre,  on the Hampton estate, at Towson, Maryland. The photograph was taken c.1915 by Frances Johnston Benjamin, 1864-1952, who was one of the first woman professional  photographers in the US.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Actually, even more fundamentally, for some entries I was aiming to give a general overview of the genus. Some plant genera  are amazingly confusing: if there are bearded irises, are there also clean-shaven ones? what are 'aril' or 'oncocylus' irises; ok. there are zillions of rhododendrons divided into confusingly titled 'sections', but where do you begin?; what's an old shrub rose? as opposed to a modern one? etc, etc. So part of the aim of each genus entry was to give a very rough account of how botanists and horticultural taxonomists actually divide up those really big, complex genera. Just to shine a little light into the nomenclatural darkness, and in particular to give new gardeners a little bit of an insight and confidence.
An extract from 'Still Life with Flowers on a Marble Tabletop' by Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750), a highly regarded painter of flowers, one of the most prominent women artists of the Dutch Golden Age; indeed during her lifetime her flower paintings reached considerably higher prices than Rembrandt's work. Oil on canvas, dated 1716.  Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
I also tried to cover a little on the evolutionary history of garden plant genera, but since this is much better known for woody plants than herbaceous perennials (which do not fossilise well) then the information tends to be patchy. This involved doing a lot of digging through material in the extraordinary new field of evolutionary phylogeny, working out what is related to what through both DNA and other forms of analysis; there is a whole new language here, and the non-specialist (like myself) inevitably finds it very difficult to extract useful or digestible information. There is some fascinating stuff though, particularly about the deep dinosaury origins of certain plant genera.
An illustration showing the many uses of bamboo, with a caption in Malay and Dutch, produced in The Netherlands between 1868 – 1881. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Part of the original intention of the book was to include material on the uses of garden plants, or their relatives. Many plants have had uses in traditional societies or in some cases, have close relatives which serve, or served, some day to day function. As an example, did you know that there was a brief go at growing hollyhocks commercially for fibre in Victorian Wales? They must have made a spectacular field crop. In the end I did not go into too much detail here, especially for medical uses, which is such a minefield; many medically-useful plants have been prescribed for so many conditions that the information becomes almost worthless, especially since much has no scientific backing.
What are clearly very similar to modern large-flowered clematis can be seen in this Japanese book, 1755. Courtesy of Chiba University Library.
 In the end the bulk of the book's text is about garden plant history, and I think this is the area most people will find the most interesting. There is really very little in English on this subject; Alice Coats wrote a couple of very interesting books around 1960 - scholarly, but livened with a dry wit (Flowers and their Histories; Shrubs and their Histories, all readily available second-hand). In German there is a book called 'Crown Imperials and Red Peonies', very scholarly, but rather drying up by the time the author gets to the 20th century.
Fritillaria imperialis in Iran, Baktiari Province. Credit: Bob Wallis.
As you might have gathered from this posting, the fun part of this project was the illustrations. Well, it wasn't fun to begin with - one of those situations where "if only I knew then what I know now". I said I would do all the picture research, so I was given a budget, which I rapidly realised was totally inadequate for getting more than a few pictures from commercial sources. Libraries and museums try to make money by charging licence fees for reproduction of stuff in their collections, as they should, but they seem to have very little understanding of the laws of supply and demand, and effectively price themselves out of the market for more specialist titles. The Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library in London has some fantastic material, but very little of it is digitalised, the catalogue is a nightmare, so you don't know what they have got unless you know what they have got, if you know what I mean. The staff do their best, but in the end the place was a disappointment.
Avena glauca in a public planting in a housing estate in communist East Germany during the mid-1950s. From Karl Foerster's Einzug der Gräser und Farne in die Gärten, of 1957. Courtesy of Verlag Eugen Ulmer. To which I might add - life in 1950s East Germany might have  been grim but at least you would have had Karl Foerster's students doing some of the planting!
So, how do you get images for free? Scrounging for a start. Part of my intention was to include images of garden plants in the wild, which is actually a tall order, as plants in the wild don't often look that spectacular. I had some quite nice stuff from Kyrgyzstan and from Japan but I don't get out into the wild at the right time of year nearly often enough, so thank you very much to Larry Mellichamp for his photographs of eastern US natives, and to Bob Wallis for his wild bulbs in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Then I realised that you can get old nursery catalogues online, from ebay; most nurseries and seed companies that existed in the 20th century are (sadly) no more, so making their images usable. Some of the 1920s and 1930s images are pretty crude but have a charm of their own, and of course are so much a part of our garden history.
A page of phlox varieties in Foerster's Gartenstauden Bilderbuch, illustrating a technique occasionally used in German catalogues of the period to show off a wide range of cultivars. Painted by Escher Bartning. Courtesy of Bettina Jacobi.
I also realised that a lot of material could be found as prints, again available on ebay or illustrations in old books, but with the proviso that the artist, if named, had to have been dead for over 75 years, for the images to be out of copyright. Some of the finest images I found were in Gartenschönheit, the magazine Karl Foerster edited in the 1920s until December 1939, when the magazine closed down during the war. All the colour pictures were painted by one woman, Escher Bartning. She was part of a big artistic family, so the descendents were not too difficult to track down; Bartning's niece, turned out to be in Leipzig so a few emails brought me permission to use the pictures.

A print by the great master of the Edo period woodblock print, Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849), made between 1800 – 1805, showing Fujiyama through a veil of mist and cherry blossom. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Japan was quite a big part of the story. I have long been fascinated by the way that western growers fell with glee onto Japanese nurseries when Japan opened up to foreign trade in the
mid-19th century, taking advantage of, but rarely giving the credit to what Japanese growers had achieved with variety selection and hybridisation during the Edo period from 1600 onwards - even discovering the principles of heredity first credited to Gregor Mendel a hundred years later. I had one very good Japanese source, a privately published book (again thank you ebay!), but also the help of my friend Ayako Nagase who was able to get me copies of some book illustrations from a university library in Japan.

Primula sinensis  as the 'fruit fly of plant genetics' – a diagram by a John Innes Horticultural Institution artist, made in 1929. John Innes Archives, courtesy of the John Innes Foundation.
One of the most mysterious stories in the book is about Primula sinensis, similar to, but rather more spectacular than, the winter pot plant, P. obconica. Like this, it has allergenic hairs on the leaves, which probably accounts for its fall from grace. During the early 20th century it was a very common pot plant in British flower markets; during the 1930s a workhorse for plant geneticists, but since then has become effectively extinct in cultivation in the west.
A variety of flowers in a Greek vase, painted as an Allegory of Spring.  Rhododendron ponticum is prominent as is Kalmia latifolia. Oil on canvas, by Georgius Jacobus Johannes van Os (1782 – 1861), a member of a renowned family of Dutch artists. Oil on canvas, dated 1817. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The very best source of images though has been the new system of Creative Commons, where institutions make digital collections available, for free, only seeking accreditation. Mostly the images are far too small to publish but the US Library of Congress has got a fantastic collection, which can be downloaded and used as large file sizes - there is a great collection of early photographs of Gilded Era gardens there, as well as yet more Japanese material. Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, under its previous director has also put its entire collection on line - you can ask them for large files for publication and they'll email them to you. Almost the most enjoyable part of this book was cruising Rijkstudio, where you can create your own virtual galleries to source pictures. It has been an incredibly generous policy and one which has done much to cement the museum's global reputation.
This has been a wonderfully enjoyable book to work on, and one which I hope one day to return to, to fill out the number of garden plant genera I have covered, and fill in gaps. One of those never-ending projects. I hope lots of readers will enjoy it too.

A Garden Flora, published by Timber Press