Nature and culture come together in the garden. An exhibition at the NSW State Library called Planting Dreams explores that patch of fertile ground through paintings, prints, maps, plans, cartoons, catalogues, magazines, posters and more, primarily drawn from the voluminous treasures of the State Library. Leading garden historian and author Richard Aitken curated the exhibition and has written a companion book, Planting Dreams: Shaping Australian Gardens.
Aitken is more interested in the social and cultural impacts of gardens than garden design. The book tells stories about Australian interactions with nature and gardens from the first contacts of Europeans with a land they simultaneously recognised as park-like and failed to recognise as the result of the work of the locals, through to the Backyard Blitzes of the early 21st century and the meanings and opportunities of gardens in an increasingly urbanised world. Like the book, the exhibition asks questions about what gardens, plants and nature mean to us, but shapes them through a giant cabinet of garden-related curiosities.
Sydney’s fabulous Garden Palace, here in watercolour and ink by JT Richardson in 1879, burned down in 1882, in just 40 flaming minutes. The site becomes part of an installation by Wiadjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones called barrangal dyara (skin and bones) from September 17 until October 3, as part of the 200th birthday celebrations of the Gardens.
Inspired by the Great Exhibitions of the 19th century (that’s it in gorgeous ink and watercolour above), Aitken arranges his material across themed courts rather than chronologies. Each section is packed with treasures that interrogate the fashions, fads and enduring feelings associated with private and public gardens and parks.
The section on designing with plants, for instance, explores fashions in plant life through one of the earliest books on plants for pleasure, a florilegium from the 1560s; Joseph Hooker’s book of rhododendrons, published at the height of 19th century plant-hunting adventures; images from the great subtropical garden boom of the late 19th century; and a drawing by Jean Walker, a Sydney pioneer of bush gardens in the 1960s.
As unlikely as it sounds, in 1902 the American Tobacco Company commissioned botanical artist Margaret Flockton to produce a series of posters that smokers could collect by sending in cigarette pack labels, specifically ‘100 Premium Certificates from Vanity Fair and Old Judge Cigarettes’. This is her Acacia pycnantha and Lambertia formosa, Broad-leafed Wattle and Honey Flower.
The section that celebrates the depiction of plants in gardens explores the way we record gardens, and what we choose to focus on when we do. There are woodblock prints from Japan and China and the first nursery catalogues printed in the blazing colours of chromolithography. Edna Walling’s limpidly romantic watercolour plans find a home here as do Kodachrome images of Sydney’s public spaces and private gardens in the 1960s and ’70s, from the collection of an amateur suburban photographer.
Suburban order and lots of colour in this Eastwood garden, photographed in 1968.
Also in this section are digital images of the National Arboretum in Canberra, a project which for Aitken sums up the thinking behind the whole exhibition. “The Arboretum is a public space that is going to mature over the next century. The thing about gardens,” he says, “is that they are dreams about the future.”
National Arboretum Canberra, ACT – Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects (TZG) Photographer – John Gollings
And what of the future of gardens? “What strikes me as most important now,” says Aitken, “are public open spaces and public gardens. We are living in much more cluttered urban spaces, and are going hell bent for selling pubic land for private use. Once you have got rid of public land it’s very difficult to get it back. We sell that at our peril.”
The exhibition reveals how fashions in plants, gardens and gardening change and how what endures is our need for gardens, our desire to experience nature shaped by culture.
Planting Dreams: Shaping Australian Gardens is at the NSW State Library from Saturday September 3 2016 until Sunday 15 January 2017. Entry is free.
The image at the top of this post is National Arboretum Canberra, ACT – Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects (TZG). Photographer – Craig McDonald Landscape Photography
It’s time to
See garden design
Grand Garden Designs is a companion exhibition to Planting Dreams at the NSW State Library. Curated by Howard Tanner it’s a photographic exploration of some of the most influential 21st century gardens in NSW. Entry is free.
Admire cherry blossom
The Golden Wheel Buddhist Retreat in Galston opens this weekend, Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 September for the Galston Spring Blossom Spectacular. Enjoy peach and cherry blossom, citrus, and camellias, as well as the temple itself. 405 Galston Road, 9.30–4.30. Tickets $5. There are other private gardens to see in Galston this weekend. Pick up info and tickets at Golden Wheel.
Floriade opens next week in Canberra for a month-long celebration of spring, promising to go back to basics with more than 100 species of tulips in colour-coordinated beds. Commonwealth park, September 17 – October 16. Entry is free.
Petana is a lovely wild garden with fantastic veiws, outside Milton on the South Coast. ‘Sculture at Petana’ opens next weekend with a BYO picnic on Saturday. Local and South Coast artists are showign more than 50 works. Open daily 10am-4pm, til September 26. 408B Woodbrun Road, Morton. More:www.petanagardens.com.au
It’s a marvel how fast weeds grow in spring. Get on top of them before they seed, honouring your grandmother’s saying: one year’s seeding; seven years weeding.