Planting Dreams

Sunday, 04 September 2016

The State Library New South Wales is celebrating gardening. Artist: Lynne Adams

How relatively rare it is for gardens to be placed front and centre of a major public exhibition. Thanks to the Royal Botanic Garden turning 200 years old in 2016, we currently have TWO free exhibitions on at the State Library New South Wales celebrating gardens and garden-making! The events have been several years in the planning and are well worth visiting.

Anderson & Co., Sydney, Catalogue of Seeds and Plants, 1897, pages 32 and 33, presented by Richard Clough, 2014

Using a display of more than 130 items, including much material from the State Library's collection, the first exhibition, Planting Dreams: Shaping Australian gardens, curated by Richard Aitken, explores a number of thought-provoking themes relating to the making of gardens within a historical context, revealing how complex and multifaceted the concept of gardening actually is. When we innocently set out to make a garden, we have no idea of the myriad factors that will shape our creation! The many influences on Australian gardens - including Indigenous Australian concepts about the land and the waves of various immigrant cultures since the arrival of the English in 1788 - are explored. Even the places where early ships happened to stop off on the way to the NSW Colony had an impact on our gardens, because of local plants taken on board in warm-climate ports such as Rio de Janeiro ... which grow so brilliantly in Sydney. Indeed, my own garden is full of them!

John Glover (artist): Hobart Town, Taken from the Garden Where I Lived, 1832, oil on canvas, presented by Sir William Dixson, 1938

Themes in the exhibition include the utilitarian uses of plants in shelter, food and medicine through the ages; the development of the scientific classification of plants and the expeditions of the early plant hunters in search of botanical treasures that enrich our gardens today; how plants and gardens are represented and used in human society, art and culture, and how these in turn influence gardening; and the philosophical conception of plants and gardens as a way to improve and enhance the experience of human life both on a domestic and public level. Our complicated relationship with nature as we make gardens - trying to subjugate it totally to our will in fiercely formal designs versus modern notions of actually taking inspiration from it for our gardens - is also examined.

Robert Thornton (author), The Blue Passion Flower, in The Temple of Flora, 1799-1807, self-published, London

An exhibition such as this based on archives also provides the enjoyment of the records themselves. What a joy to be able to see the treasures chosen to tell the story of garden-making, including exquisite prints of plants from woodblocks, lithographs and copper engravings in priceless old volumes. There are some wonderful paintings of early Australian gardens and an original Edna Walling garden plan done in watercolour. Old plant catalogues in the exhibition, such as one featuring a colour plate of pansies (shown earlier in the blog), were poignant reminders of the ones my grandparents used to pore over to choose their plants and seed orders. Such catalogues had a huge influence on gardeners of the day. Another gem in the exhibition is an extract from Governor Lachlan Macquarie's diary dated 13 June 1816, about the establishment of the Royal Botanic Garden. These exhibits all made me wonder about how future generations will see records of our 21st century gardening efforts - I hope the mass of digital material will survive, but somehow it won't have the same impact as seeing these evocative physical documents produced by their original creators.

Part of The Garden, an interactive installation by Lisa Cooper and Benja Harney

An impressive interactive installation by florist, artist and author Lisa Cooper and paper-engineer Benja Harney, commissioned for Planting Dreams, features a stunning array of paper flowers, including intricately folded strelitzias and desert peas. Those attending the exhibition are invited to construct a paper pansy (no cutting or pasting required!) to add to the artwork.

Seaside garden, Berrara, South Coast; lead designer: Miles Baldwin, photographer: Sue Stubbs

The second exhibition, which is adjacent to the first, is called Planting Dreams: Grand garden designs, coordinated by Howard Tanner. It is an apt foil for the first one, showcasing photographically some of the innovative large gardens and public parklands created in the state since 1980, which were recently surveyed by the State Library of NSW to document the work of key NSW-based landscape designers. This exhibition marks both the bicentenary of the Royal Botanic Garden and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects. The magnificent photographs reveal a rich diversity of stunning gardens, which inspire as well as wanting to make one weep with the inadequacy of one's own plot. The public gardens depicted offer some suggestions for excursions for Sydney-siders, and reveal some excellent work by their overseers.

In a city where home gardens are fast disappearing and we are all seemingly supposed to live in apartments from now on, I hope that these exhibitions will reinforce the universal truth that nature, gardens, garden-making and plants are not just optional in our lives: they are, and always have been, essential for our health, sanity and wellbeing!