Sculpture in a garden needs careful positioning, but while there are some basic things to consider, pretty much any style goes as long as it gives you pleasure, says Jane Moore
While one person’s great work is another’s objet horrible, I’m very inclusive when it comes to matters of art. I like to think I have a good eye, but then don’t we all? At the end of the day as long as you like it, it gives you joy when you look at it and the rest of the family can live with it, you go ahead and treat yourself to that piece of art.
Having said that, art adorning walls is a given in most households, but art, especially sculpture, in the garden, is another beast entirely. While I’m rather fond of the monumental Henry Moore sculptures, they would simply not work in the average domestic setting. So while I won’t presume to influence your own artistic leanings, I can perhaps give a few pointers towards selection of pieces and their positioning in the garden.
CHOOSING A SCULPTURE
Pick something you really love. Don’t get swayed by what’s trendy or what you think you should like – go with your heart. Modern, classical, an ancient old farm implement – if you love it, it will have a place.
THINK ABOUT STYLE
Selection of pieces can be so easy if your garden has a particular style. Japanese gardens call for stone lanterns, bamboo water features, buddhas and so on. Classic English gardens will suit cherubs, sundials and urns, whereas a contemporary garden can accommodate a more abstract piece.
Don’t get too bogged down in these themes though. There are no rules – a starkly contemporary statue could look wonderful set against the billowing borders of a classic garden, just as a more formal statue may find a niche among the grasses and perennials of a modern garden.
Practicality matters in the rough and tumble of the English weather and sculptures need to be robust. Bronze, fibreglass, resin, metal, stone and concrete will all stand the test of time reasonably well although you have to expect some weathering. I positively welcome some aging – I really don’t like new and shiny in the garden and can’t wait for pots and benches to get that ‘lived-in’ look.
Over the years we have had some ‘ephemeral’ sculptures in the garden at The Bath Priory – meaning those that only last a few years – and these are usually wooden items. I was fond of the pair of woven willow gambolling deer that made their way into the garden after Christmas one year and spent several happy seasons frolicking in the spring bulbs of our little glade.
Placing a piece is crucial. With smaller artworks you can simply move them about until you find a good spot, but not so with granite or bronze, where the setting needs to be agreed from the outset.
Large sculptures are always going to be a focal point, so position them accordingly. You want a large piece to look good from several angles, from the house, the bottom of the garden, the entrance and so on. But remember an artwork will also look bolder and more imposing in the winter months when it’s not softened by foliage and plants. A friend of mine creates plywood faux sculptures to try out various positions in the garden for the owner. You could easily do this with a couple of cardboard boxes.
Smaller sculptures look lovely nestled in the border, ready to surprise and delight. We use our Victorian cherubs at The Bath Priory in this way, tucked away with the hellebores growing at their feet like the Babes in the Wood fairy story. Remember that these will stand out more in winter.
The size of a sculpture can make your garden feel smaller or larger. Don’t go for some gargantuan behemoth in your tiny town garden but likewise don’t opt for a little pimple if you have rolling acres. Use the cardboard box trick to get the scale right before you buy.
A lone sculpture is lovely, but siting it so it is reflected in a pond or in a pool as a water feature adds something special. Lighting, too, can transform a small sculpture into something very atmospheric.
Besides placement, planting is the most important thing. A good garden sculpture in the centre of sympathetic planting is a sure-fire winner. Choose plants that will act as an effective backdrop to show off the piece – stately shrubs or small trees, either evergreen or with dramatic foliage tints. In the foreground go for softer, shorter planting so the statue is nestled in its space. Take into account flowering times and winter interest – it may be that the red stems of dogwood would be just the thing with that stone sculpture or perhaps the mounds of box balls could echo the curves…
Make the most of an autumnal day out at The Courts Garden, Holt, near Bradford on Avon. Not only can you enjoy the lovely gardens but there is the Coexistence Sculpture Exhibition which is nestled in the arboretum until mid-October. There is also a striking collection of highly finished metal and glass sculptures by artist Ruth Moilliet, inspired by the plant kingdom and set amid the glorious autumn colours of The Courts Garden. Take a look at the website for more details: thenationaltrust.org.uk/the-courts-garden
Closer to home, Helen Hughesdon often hosts sculpture events in her garden at Newbridge Hill. This year’s events are over now, but next year’s Sculpture to Enhance a Garden is on 6 and 7 July with In Celebration of the Arts following in September. Take a look at the website for more details: thehiddengardensofbath.co.uk
Jane Moore is an award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel. Twitter: @janethegardener