We have a cavernous gap beneath an old yew tree that is crying out for a sculpture

From grottos in grand landscapes to miniature Easter Island heads at home, sculptures and focal points can enhance a garden – or ruin it

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I am sure you have all had the same experience at one time or another. In a shop, antiques arcade, or in my case, garden centre, you have looked at some of the items on sale and said to yourself, “Who on earth buys this stuff?” And you then conclude that someone must or the retailer would not be offering it.

The notion came home to me recently because I have been looking for a sculpture to fulfil a particular role in the garden. We have a cavernous gap beneath a large clipped old yew tree that is crying out for an appropriate piece. Now I have to come clean and confess I have fixed views about inanimate objects in gardens, be they temples and grottos in truly grand landscapes or small sculptures in domestic settings like mine.

A tasteful and appropriate item can enhance its surroundings, an inappropriate one can ruin it and become not just a focal point but a focal point for ridicule. Which brings me back to “who buys this stuff”. One garden centre I visited during my search had for sale a large number of one metre high concrete replicas of Easter Island’s giant heads. Forgive me if I am being unadventurous or blinkered, but how such a thing can enhance an English garden is beyond me.

Which leads me to a much wider and more important issue. I am a huge admirer and supporter of the creative arts and artists of all kinds, and I know from personal acquaintances how difficult it is for anyone to earn a living as a sculptor. I suspect this wish to promote their work is what lies behind the trend among the owners of gardens to use the space as an outdoor gallery in which sculptors’ work can be brought to wider notice. So far, so good, but too often – and such magisterial gardens as Chatsworth, and some of those owned by the National Trust, are as guilty as any – the sculptures are plonked (I use the word advisedly) around the garden without regard to the fact that it was designed originally with specific vistas for sound artistic reasons.

The design can be wholly corrupted by these inappropriate intrusions. One of the worst examples I have seen was perpetrated by the National Trust at Hidcote in Gloucestershire – arguably the most important English garden of the 20th century – a while ago. Many of Lawrence Johnston’s wonderful vistas were all but blocked by modern sculptures that may have been intrinsically of great artistic merit, but were doing no favours either to themselves or, more importantly, the great garden in which they had
been deposited.

Nonetheless, focal points are hugely important in any garden design – and on a small domestic scale just as much as in an 18th century landscape, they can direct your attention and take your eye either to somewhere especially important (or, as crucially, away from somewhere less attractive). It is something garden owners rarely pay sufficient attention to.

For a short while, and whatever size your garden, forget about buying some more plants and then wondering where to put them. Give a little thought to the way in which a physical focal point could transform the way you see your garden.

But do be warned, like me, you may have to search long and hard to find the right one – unless of course, heaven forfend, you are content with a concrete Easter Island head.

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special