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    Sculpture and the Garden

    Posted on January 25th, 2010 by Charles Boot

    Patrick Eyres and Fiona Russell (eds), Sculpture and the Garden (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 196 pp., 85 black-and-white illus., 16 colour illus., £60.00 (hbk), ISBN 0-754-63030-7

    Sculpture can focus attention and add layers of meaning and expression to parks and gardens in varying ways. The particular significance may well change from one period to another, with some sculptures having a limited time for their message. It is, accordingly, a challenging subject, yet the study of sculpture in the garden has received less critical attention than other elements. This book sets out in some measure to rectify the situation. It comprises a series of essays based on a conference held at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, in 1998. The contributors come from various backgrounds — university teaching, gallery curating, the Parks Agency and freelance research and writing — which provides a number of different approaches to the subject. Part 1 covers ‘The Georgian Landscape Garden and Victorian Urban Park’; Part 2 ‘Modernism, Postmodernism, Landscape and Regeneration’. Such a division enables the reader to appreciate the enormous and radical differences in the form and role of sculpture in the garden or landscape pre- and post- the First World War.

    Each part starts with an introduction by the two editors, which admirably encapsulates the purpose and essence of sculpture in the two respective periods. It is regrettable that the first essay itself has no place in the book. It considers Studley Royal, West Yorkshire, as a sculpted landscape, which even the author admits could apply to any landscape garden. Although there is some thought-provoking sculpture per se at Studley Royal, this is ignored, a lacuna that the editors have quietly filled in their introduction. A case is made out for William Kent as the designer responsible, for which there is no shred of evidence. The author’s argument is based on Kent’s designs for gardens elsewhere, which is hardly convincing. After this blip, however, we are into sculpture proper. The representation of George I, with its implications of establishing the Hanoverians, is considered, to be followed by Wendy Frith looking from a gender and political perspective at the Venus de Medici in the landscape garden, returning to territory she has covered before.* Strangely, she omits reference to a paper on the same subject which, although it appeared after the 1998 conference, came out six years ago.**

    The final pair of essays in Part 1 deals with public statues in Victorian parks, one in the Manchester region, the other a more general disquisition on the heterogeneity of such sculpture, which is by no means confined to promulgating a single, readily comprehensible set of Victorian ethics. As one would expect from David Lambert, this is a fresh and insightful piece.

    In Part 2 another set of five essays covers a case study of Henry Moore’s Recumbent Figure (1938), made for Bentley Wood, Sussex, though it has subsequently belied its recumbent posture and travelled; modern sculpture in the public park (‘A Socialist Experiment in Open-Air “Cultured Leisure”’); Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture collection at St Ives, Cornwall; forest and garden sculpture parks and trails; and the late Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta near Edinburgh. This furnishes a good range of modern and postmodern approaches to creating and experiencing sculpture in the garden — also to redefining what sculpture is. The authors have a feeling for their chosen topics and can communicate it.

    The span of the book, with its contrasts and changes of focus from close-up to wide-angle, enables plenty of interesting material to be covered, with perceptive contributions from the vari-talented team of authors. It does not purport to be in any sense a history of sculpture in gardens, yet one comes away with an understanding of the great differences between traditional and modern by following the historical route through. At £60, however, the book is grossly overpriced. For the size and quality of production and, in comparison with other illustrated works on garden history, one would have expected to pay half that sum. Unfortunately, this means that the final recommendation must be for readers to borrow rather than purchase it.

    Michael Symes

    * For example, New Arcadian Journal, 49–50 (2000).

    ** David Coffin, ‘Venus in the eighteenth-century English garden’, Garden History, 28:2 (2000), pp.175–93

    35:1 (Summer 2007)

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