Food in the UK is like a historical map of migration to and from this country. Some things that we think of as being uniquely British, like a good cup of tea or fish and chips, are nothing of the sort. Tea came here originally from China; unlike the Far East, we drink it with milk because the stronger black teas that we started to produce in the Indian subcontinent were too bitter to drink without it. Fish and chips is most likely an adaptation from a Sephardic Jewish recipe, wholeheartedly embraced by many Italian families opening establishments here in the last century.
This cultural melding is not only commonplace, it is essential to the way in which culture develops and stays alive. As people from elsewhere move to this country and gradually become integrated, so do their recipes and ingredients. Yet strangely the same does not seem to be true of garden design, or indeed gardening generally (outside growing fruit and vegetables). Is this to do with climatic differences? Clearly, Caribbean families moving to the UK would not be able to grow some of the same things they did before. But I suspect there is more to it than this.
With food, we are and always have been cultural tourists. And although there is a lot snobbery in food, there is also an enormous appetite for new ideas and cuisines. Indeed, being able to understand and cook things from elsewhere is itself a form of privilege – a demonstration of wealth (through the ability to travel), education and open-mindedness.
Throughout our history, garden design has also been about snobbishness and privilege. As symbols of land ownership and leisure, gardens were always a demonstration of wealth and education. Having land that wasn’t put into production was the ultimate luxury; lawns and flower borders an impossible extravagance for most people.
And gardens are still being used to show how sophisticated we are. I recall a client from abroad who was building a large house in the London suburbs, and wanted a huge water feature in the front entrance courtyard. He was trying to ask me about the design of it and whether it was appropriate. Eventually, in vague desperation, he blurted out: “But will it make me look rich?” I have never forgotten the directness, but it is essentially the same question that so many clients are asking, in much more roundabout ways.
Certainly, Modernism in garden design has tended gradually to defuse this, and the fact that so many people in the UK understand the language of gardens and our rich garden heritage – the National Trust has more than 5 million members – means that we can have a varied discussion about gardens and garden design in a way that few other countries can.
There obviously is some cultural appropriation in garden design. It is different, however – in food, as well as fashion and music, there is constant, subtle mixing and melding, driven by travel and migration. But in gardens, we tend to just go the whole hog and design something in ‘the style of’. How do, say, Japanese people feel about our versions of Japanese gardens? Ouch. Not quite so comfortable when you look at it that way, right?
We have two aspects to consider. On the one hand, gardens are tied inextricably to property (and therefore wealth) in a way that other cultural forms of expression are not. On the other, gardens are part of how we define ourselves as a nation, just as the French partly define themselves by their cuisine. We have the biggest garden industry in the world, the pre-eminent flower show, the most famous garden designers. The danger is that this combination of ‘national treasure’ pride and links to wealth is making it, and us, resistant to outside influences. And that, in the end, cannot be a good thing.
[This was originally published as an article in the Garden Design Journal in January 2020 as part of the ‘Just Saying’ series.]