Thursday, 29 July 2010


It can be a difficult call.  When is figurative sculpture in a garden setting good, and when is it just wrong?  Sometimes it is easy  - if the setting is grand and the sculpture of the highest quality, preferably antique, located in a grove of established trees, as above, then the whole thing feels right.  The gardens of ancient Rome, the huge vistas of the English Landscape tradition and the magnificently ordered spaces of Renaissance Italy all set the precedent for great sculpture, often derived from Greek originals.  The forms of an idealised humanity are pressed into service drawing the eye, sending a message, populating the scene.  We are in our own Arcadia.
With modern sculpture things get a bit more problematic - for me at least.  The huge number of poor quality reproductions in cast stone from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards started the trend for garden statuary in gardens of all sizes, and the habit continues today.  Shepherdesses dressed up like Marie-Antoinette and coy children feeding Disneyesque birds from their hands can still be bought from the average garden centre.   I'm struggling to imagine the setting that would benefit from these all-too-literal presences.
There is plenty of good figurative modern sculpture, however, that suits modern garden styles well - unheroic, relaxed, in a variety of materials that separate them from the traditions of Parian ware and cast concrete. This trend towards figures engaged in the simple activites we ourselves enjoy in a garden - perched on benches, lying supine reading a book - makes them clearly distinct from the gods and titans of Classical sculpture, and equally far from the later tradition of boys holding birdbaths.

At the extreme of this spectrum are figures such as the above - created from biodegradable materials, assembled on site and with a short life, temporary presences inhabiting the garden, Green men.
Paul Ridley Design
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Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Working in Macro

Since buying my Nikkor 105mm micro lens my interest in macro images has rocketed.  I have always been drawn to detail and structure, but with the ability to get in as close as this plants take on a completely new aspect - their colours fade into one another on an almost cellular level, the refinement of spines and stamens is apparent in a way that is impossible to appreciate with the naked eye.  If you have seen some of these images on my other, photographic blog, here is another chance to see what is making my photographic synapses fire at the moment.  Hope you enjoy the images...
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Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Spiky Plants

I love the drama of big spiky plants.  As the summer moves to its later stages, the many garden plants that have a thistly habit reach their peak, and their jagged outlines and often grey-silvery colouring are a good antidote to the mounds and cushions of more vibrantly coloured perennials.
Some varieties are perennial - the globe thistles (Echinops), artichokes (Cynara) and bear's breeches (Acanthus) are among these, but some of the most eye-catching are biennials which, having spent a year looking decidedly underwhelming suddenly sprout into amazing Gothic candelabra.  The Scotch Thistle (Onopordum acanthium) is one such - eight feet tall, with felted white leaves in huge sheaves around its winged stem, it branches wildly to bear tomato-sized thistle heads of blue-purple.  It is invaluable as an accent in larger schemes, but give it room - the leaves make uncomfortable close-quarters partners in small spaces.  Once you plant it you have it forever - it self-seeds like crazy.
One family of garden-worthy plants has a wide range of forms that run from something the size of the Onopordum down to much less threatening two-footers.  The eryngiums, or sea hollies do have some perennials among their number, such as the stately E.pandanifolium (widely branched flower stalks to about seven feet, with, in the dark Chelsea Physic Garden form, rusty claret buttons at the ends) - the most elaborately formed flowers belong, however, to the biennial Eryngium giganteum, commonly known as Miss Wilmott's Ghost. 
Green in bud, the whole plant reaches its peak in a blaze of silver, the extravagantly jagged ruff to each flower veined with pale buff as it dries.  The blue flowers are loved by insects, including wasps, and once they are over the plant decays beautifully, holding its structure throughout the winter, the deeply cut and thorny flower heads never better than when frosted on a sunny morning.  The story goes that the Edwardian plantswoman and gardener Ellen Wilmott surreptitiously introduced this, her favourite plant, to other gardens by sprinkling the seed as she visited.  Like the Onopordum it is a vigorous self-seeder, favouring hot situations and gravelly soil.  Besides the species, there is a selected form with even more flamboyant costume, E.g. 'Silver Ghost', but either plant will reward you with a glamorous late-summer display to set against daylilies and grasses, with which they associate particularly well.
Paul Ridley Design
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Friday, 16 July 2010

A Sunny Courtyard 2

The planting in my own small courtyard garden is rapidly establishing itself - just ten weeks after planting some of the healthiest stock I have ever seen, courtesy of Orchard Dene Nursery, the garden is a leafy haven, with wonderfully coloured perennials picking up the colour of the Cor-ten steel tank and, incidentally, its fish.  Bronzy-green Carex testacea, fantastically varied Heleniums and purple punctuations from the bomb-proof salvia, S. nemorosa 'Caradonna' are thriving in the sun and heat, with necessary shade at times from the pleached hornbeams at the end of the plot.  These were an extravagance, but worth every penny and stubbed toe in getting their 4m lengths through the house - they screen a pretty ugly view and bring the garden up to first floor level.  As the living accommodation is on the first floor, the extended and newly-canopied balcony leads to a view of this flying hedge, and the glass screen to the balcony allows the view to be appreciated from the interior.
The fish have doubled in size during our two-week absence, thanks to our assiduous house-sitters, although I think we are one down in number - Monty, visible in the top photo, is the likely culprit.
Water plants grow exceptionally fast, and I am looking forward to the first water-lily flower.  As a novice to water gardening I was worried about algae filling the tank up, but over the past three weeks the water has cleared beautifully, without any intervention.
There will be bulbs to plant this autumn, then the spring show to look forward to after a winter admiring the skeletons of the grasses and fennels that surround the garden. 
You can see more images of the development of this garden, from plan through to build, on my website here.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Enduring Design

Buildings that still function in their original form and serve their original purpose don't come much older than the amphitheatre in Nimes, southern France.  Two thousand years old, give or take a decade or two, this structure still hosts spectacles to enthral the crowds - gladiatorial combat has been replaced with concerts by Pink but whether this represents an evolution of human endeavour is for each of us to decide for ourselves. 
The amphitheatre has regained something approaching its original form, having been converted into a fortress in the Middle Ages and served various other uses since.  Now restored to a limited extent, the layout and routes of flow through the building show the genius of this design - a building that allows for huge crowds to enter and leave quickly and safely (through the 'vomitoria'), and have a clear view of the arena whilst sitting in the tiered seats.  It is probably the fact that the structure has been capable of conversion to different uses throughout its long life that has ensured its survival, and its place now as the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre is assured.
Derived originally by simply placing two semicircular theatres (an existing successful design) together, the amphitheatre is one of the iconic building forms of the ancient world - the scale and the (in part) gory drama associated with these buildings has guaranteed the continued interest in them and in the society they represent. 
Wild beasts fighting each other and lightly-armed fighters, public executions, sea-battles conducted in specially constructed arenas and, the high-point for the audience, the hand-to-hand combat of paired gladiators have given way to concerts and opera but, in Nimes, the arena still hosts contests between animals and man.  A staple spectacle of many southern and Mediterranean cultures since ancient times, the various forms of bullfighting were regular entertainments in the arenas of the area.  Nimes is the capital of French bullfighting, and whatever your feelings about the activity, it can't be denied that there is something remarkable in the continuity of such spectacle in the same building for two thousand years.  There is still blood in the sand, and we are, perhaps, not so different from our Roman forebears as we would like to think.