James van Sweden, The Artful Garden

I first met James van Sweden in 1995 when I was in America to take photographs for a book I was writing at the time on ornamental grasses. Not only was he the perfect host, introducing me to his office and current projects, but we shared a fine lunch together. He eagerly accepted my invitation to come over to the Netherlands the following year to speak at a symposium I was organising entitled Perennial Perspectives and so began a long association during which I have visited many of the gardens his firm has designed, both public and private. Most recently I visited his fabulous weekend house in Maryland and together toured some of his most successful garden projects. At the time he was working on a new book which has finally appeared; entitled The Artful Garden it explores how art in all its forms can inform and inspire garden and landscape architecture.

James van Sweden

James van Sweden relaxing on a client's veranda

Turning its pages what I discovered was a souvenir, of sorts, of familiar places and anecdotes together with a tantalizing glimpse of how the artistic mind thinks and goes to work. Needless to say, you cannot expect from me an unbiased review of this new book as so much of its contents are familiar and triggers happy memories of garden landscapes which have long inspired me. However, it is still something I hope many readers of this blog will find time to read.

The Artful Garden

The Artful Garden: Creative Inspiration for Landscape Design

This book does not pretend to be a garden design manual and the tips and tricks it does discuss should be already familiar to those of us who might read it. In truth it is not a book you are likely to read over and over again as its aim is to encourage one to start thinking about why you are designing a landscape and what it might offer you. James van Sweden draws on his own project portfolio to show just how he has used art as a starting point for some of the many gardens he has designed, but the expectation is that you will find your own vision and sources of artistic inspiration be they paintings, sculpture, textiles, photography, literature, music or dance.

The strengths of this book probably lie as much in its weaknesses as they do in the stimulating solutions presented. Each of the chapters focuses on a different aspect of landscape design such as space, form, light versus shadow, rhythm, movement, texture and layering and following a general discussion of each, shows how one or other of the arts might inspire and inform a particular design solution. Sometimes I felt the solutions too obvious and simplistic to be worthy of their sources of inspiration, and in other places the garden projects did not fully exploit the ideas they were said to be illustrating. But here is precisely what makes the book worth reading; it makes you think, it makes you find your own answers and on a few occassions you feel sure that there must be a better example to illustrate the very valid points being raised.

The first chapter about Space and Form is excellent and not surprisingly so from a leading landscape architect. The quote at the start of the chapter attributed to Lao Tzu in many ways sums up everything that follows:
‘We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends’.
Within a discussion of positive and negative space and the importance of scale, James van Sweden’s own words also rang out to me – ‘It is the interaction between land and the experience you hope to construct there that should dictate the garden’s lines and forms’.

He goes on to decry plant driven design and authors such as myself who aim to guide readers towards effective planting soloutions for their garden’s conditions, but whilst I agree with the actual point he is making I had to laugh, as this is a point easily made by someone who is in partnership with one of the world’s leading experts of perennial planting design – Wolfgang Oehme.

A significant chapter on Rhythm and Movement discusses the work of Roberto Burle Marx and follows with a discussion of musical form and ballet as sources of inspiration. Throughout the book there are a number interviews with designers and artists who garden. I don’t think that they contribute much to the book as a whole, but the one in this chapter with Yo-Yo Ma the cellist and Julie Moir Messervy the garden architect who collaborated together on a park project in Toronto stands out. Based upon a suite by Bach for unaccompanied cello Messervy describes how she translated the music into a series of garden spaces. Unfortunately the photograph accompanying the text shows an aerial view of the most literal part of their design – a spiral path leading to a maypole – rather than illustrating the  experience of movement they were attempting to develop for people as they passed through the different garden spaces. No doubt this is the case of a publisher picking the nicest picture rather than the most appropriate.

van Sweden Maryland

The Perennial Meadow surrounding James van Sweden's home in Maryland

A chapter on Texture promises more than it delivers, but the story of the garden surrounding James van Sweden’s own home is perhaps the highlight of the book. Here we can see how someone who has potentially the resources to make any changes possible to create his ideal landscape has shown such restraint to create a truly dramatic setting for himself and his home. Texture within a design must surely go further than the discussion of leaf shapes, harmonies and contrasts covered in the rest of this chapter, and that very thought has certainly started me thinking deeply about this particular aspect of my own designs.

I want to encourage every thinking gardener and landscape professional to read this book. Not only is the writing style of James van Sweden and his co-author Tom Christopher engaging and informative, but also humorous in parts as well as here and there bombastic as Americans can all too easily sound to the european ear.

At one point Jams van Sweden says that “The difference (between a garden) with sculpture is that it is conceived, made and viewed from outside – a garden is experienced from within”. If I might extend his meaning of within to include ourselves then this book’s true value can perhaps be appreciated.

James van Sweden is  a great communicator and the other books he has written are all worthy of your attention.

Architecture in the Garden

Gardening with Nature

Gardening with Water

And of course everyone must have read Bold Romantic Gardens from 1991. This was his first book and I remember at the time I bought it that it was the most expensive gardening book I had ever purchased. The money was well spent as I have read and reread it over and over again and probable know every photograph and drawing by heart. Looking at the internet today I see it is still available, but the price has gone up! A paperback was issued later, but that is even more expensive. But it is a classic book we all must own.

Bold Romantic Gardens

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One Response to James van Sweden, The Artful Garden

  1. Charlotte says:

    A great review – thanks! Think this is one to add to my “Wish List”!

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