Privacy, greed and gardens

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

There are no photographs heading this post, because there are NO PHOTOGRAPHS. The whole point of this post is that there aren’t any.

Some years ago I was interviewing a garden design colleague, a well-known one, who was complaining bitterly about how he was increasingly finding that clients would not let him have ‘his’ gardens photographed for publication. Its understandable that they might not want their names or locations used, and that for security reasons they do not want the houses featured, but he was obviously very annoyed that his work could not be published. A ban on publication makes the work of a garden or landscape designer invisible. They cannot use it to promote their work or ideas or to further the art more generally. Garden and landscape design progresses through publication. Pictures go in books and magazines – we look at them, talk about them, and other designers and private gardeners emulate or react to what they see. The whole process of ongoing creativity in our world is based on this constant visual dialogue. Without pictures gardening and landscaping would grind to a halt.

Interesting discussion after a Vista event at the Garden Museum the other night. Again the subject of gardens being made which are invisible. And the behaviour of the kleptocratic financial elite who are making them (it is mostly them, most of the overpaid brainless ‘celebs’ gracing the pages of Hello magazine only want very traditional gardens if they want anything more than an outdoor paved space to put a barbecue in). It was pointed out, by Tim Richardson I think, that in the great era of garden making in the 18th century, visitors to the new gardens being made by the (greedy and ruthless ‘Nabobs’) were welcome. Not all visitors of course, but anyone of the right social class. Rousham even used to have a public gate and little public toilet apparently. In the 20th century garden opening for the public was re-negotiated, either for charity, or for income diversification. We, the general public who paid our seven and sixpence or whatever got to see gardens. The current generation of extremely wealthy clients who are building enormous gardens seem to want to shut everybody out, and even (according to a landscape architect in this discussion) to close public footpaths running across their properties.

Meanwhile in the rest of Europe, gardens seem to be opening up. Slowly but surely. The idea of opening your garden to the general public (the great unwashed as they used to be known) was anathema to French or German garden owners. That is all now changing, with an increasing number of regionally-based garden open day movements developing. These countries of course do not have our particularly greedy financier class, never having adopted the catastrophic Anglo-American model of neo-liberal economics.

A witticism I came up with once was that “the rich are only excusable if they have taste”. Which is a way of saying that patronage of the arts has been a staple of cultural history over the centuries – the wealthy paying artists to paint, design, compose. Often they did not even understand what the artists were producing, but they saw it as in their gift to fund art. Art was a way of saying to the world that you were not just successful (and usually ruthless) but you were cultured and you wanted to leave something to future generations. You see this at work in the US in the way that the arts and increasingly, high quality public gardens, are funded by wealthy patrons. Those who wish to close off their gardens to any kind of public gaze are not actually doing their long-term reputations any good. ‘Let history judge’ as Russian historian Roy Medvedev said.

All rather depressing. There are plenty of decent people in the finance industry. But as we now know all too well, there are many who are just plain greedy. Their greed now seems to be beyond material avarice but a desire to shut out the rest of us too. Maybe after the revolution, when they have all been sent off to the salt mines, we can turn some of them into rest homes for the workers. To the barricades, Citizens!

See my own blog for an update on my very public gardening in Bristol.


And don’t forget the unique soap opera for gardeners – Dig, Plant and Bitch. Recently described by a colleague as ‘Jilly Cooper meets Geoff Hamilton’. (don’t know how to translate for American readers!)

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

Latest posts by Noel Kingsbury (see all)

15 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Country Mouse June 28, 2012, 11:44 am

It’s an unfortunate attitude these home owners have to be sure. I feel a bit guilty, a bit self-indulgent, for spending so much time working on my property. But if I can share it – share the joy of gardening for wildlife responsibly in a wilderness area – then I feel so much better! – and a little more socially worthy.

Susan in the Pink Hat June 28, 2012, 12:33 pm

This post begs the long debated question of whether the art belongs to the artist or to the person who buys it. The courts in this country side with the latter. Many collectors like to share their collections by leasing them out to museums for a fee, thus avoiding the privacy issue. As you point out, that is harder to do with a garden. Still not even allowing it to be photographed is a bit much. Why doesn’t your friend put rights for photographic exhibition of the finished garden in his work contracts?

Lisa at Greenbow June 28, 2012, 12:43 pm

This reallly strikes a chord with me. I traveled to Charleston to take a garden tour that is done annually. I had never been on one of these. I was scolded for taking pictures in one of the gardens. I didn’t know I was doing something wrong. I was told it was the designers not wanting their ideas stolen/replicated. Like I wouldn’t remember something really terrific. I was quite put off by that. If you didn’t want people taking photos why even open your garden??? It seemed very unfriendly. I live almost two zones colder and I couldn’t do what they do anyway.

Diana of Elephant's Eye June 28, 2012, 1:44 pm

Just saying – there will have been a large fee paid for the well-known landscaping service.

Is there still a campaign to keep public footpaths open? Another blogger wrote about the path, and its sign, being restored near her home.

Noel Kingsbury June 28, 2012, 1:50 pm

I agree with you, but it is courtesy to ask permission to photograph. Its possible that the owner was over-reacting to your failure to ask. Garden design is of course a great compost heap of recycled ideas.

Noel Kingsbury June 28, 2012, 1:51 pm

Here (in UK) it is actually quite difficult to close paths, – Englishman’s right etc. But that doesn’t stop some folk trying.

Saxon June 28, 2012, 3:06 pm

It is very common for the elite garden owners to not want their gardens photographed for publication, though unusual to not let it be photographed for the designers portfolio. However, the definition of “publication” now includes a designer putting images onto a portfolio website.

As a garden photographer, I have found the reason for no public photography is genuine concern for privacy not selfishness, on the owners part. Sometimes there is a no photography condition on public tours because the designer has “promised” the garden to a magazine that will not publish a garden if photos (any photos) have already been seen elsewhere.
This opens the discussion to a different sort of elitism – within the media that I, personally, have a very hard time with. I have personally seen many gardens that I had no strong feeling for, where the owner had been convinced by the designer that it would be in a fancy magazine, so no-one else should take pictures. Sometimes their dreams come true, more often nothing happens and the garden never gets professionally photographed.

I don’t know that this is any real loss to the art of garden design, certainly not as it applies to “the great unwashed”. Those high end gardens are on such a scale as the only “wow” are the hardscape, sculpture, and borrowed scenery. Plant people, us ordinary folk, don’t need to see those gardens to find inspiration.

Noel, as much as I professionally wish it were not so, surely you do not mean: “Without pictures gardening and landscaping would grind to a halt.”

retired architect June 28, 2012, 4:27 pm

I suggest that the ability to photograph be negotiated in the designer’s contract.

retired architect

Jan Johnsen June 28, 2012, 6:02 pm

I have a very famous client and cannot show any photos of their landscape anywhere…so depressing.

Martin Cole June 28, 2012, 9:11 pm

Susan in the pink hat’s suggestion as to the contract provision is a good one. But then it comes down to bargaining power. No doubt the elite can threaten to place his business elsewhere.

Perhaps it requires a collective response from the garden design fraternity. Can’t the Society of Garden Designers urge all its members to insert a ‘right to photographs’ clause in all its contracts?

Meanwhile viva la revoluccion. It can’t be long in coming.

Jess June 28, 2012, 10:30 pm

I find these points to be entirely one sided. As an owner of a Charleston house, where gardens are opened up every year, I also don’t want people photographing private spaces on my property, and I have good reasons. How many times have you been out in your back yard and have someone enter your property down the driveway and start taking pictures of your house or yard, without even bothering to ask while you are STANDING RIGHT THERE? How many times have you had people look at you as if you were a zoo animal after they have trespassed on private property, and fail to even have the decency to address you (or look at you) and apologize for the breach? Well, I have. Many times. Those who put their gardens on display for the good of their city, do so with great intentions, and if they don’t want you to take pictures, then have some respect for the nice thing they HAVE done for you. (though if the person was rude in the telling, I agree, that is uncalled for). Private property is private property. If someone lets you use it in any capacity it is a privilege, not a right.

And as far as jumping on the bandwagon of finance people somehow being different, more greedy, less giving, I feel its just ridiculous. I know lots of people in lots of professions. Some are greedy, some are nice, some are both greedy and nice: they run the gamut. Many people who have the money to do so give very generously. And some don’t. They are (the finance people so maligned), in my mind, what America and maybe the rest of the world is using as a scapegoat to ease our own guilty conscious of the fact that we all played a big part in the too much, me, me, me, buy buy buy mentality. On all these topics, its about time we all took some personal responsibility.

For what its worth, if my garden were professionally designed I would absolutely let them photograph their work as long as it didn’t make the property recognizable. If it was recognizable, I have so many more ‘citizens’ feeling like I somehow owed it to them to share my personal property with them whenever they felt like it.

Diana/ Garden on the Edge June 29, 2012, 7:47 am

Wow. Now I feel like a “reverse snob.” I garden in both the front and side (visible to the street) yards of my house on a well walked street. When people walk by and I’m out in the garden I try to smile at them and if they stop to look at something I am usually willing and eager to talk to them about my garden. Although some days it feels like I can’t get my garden chores finished because I spend so much time chatting with the hoi polloi.

Of course it’s not “designed” (it’s “barely controlled chaos”) and I’m not a landscaping professional but if someone wants to photograph it and use it for inspiration they’re welcome to it.

Amy Beam June 29, 2012, 8:41 am

I love your blog but I live in California and I’m quite confused about “public footpaths” and opening up your garden to the public. I assume that these are estates and that public footpaths are a way to get from one area to the next ank were put in place while many people walked for transportation? Or were they put in so that people could look at the gardens themselves?

Where I live the idea of a private residence being required to be opened up for public viewing seems odd. Then again we have a law that allows the beaches to be public for all and private beach front properties are required to provide access. Is that similar to the laws surrounding public footpaths?

Ramsay Harik June 29, 2012, 8:41 am

What a wonderful synthesis of gardentalk, politics, art, and economics! And of course, they do all belong together, in so many ways. Thanks for these very thoughtful and pointed observations. To the barricades, indeed!

Anne Wareham July 3, 2012, 11:16 am

If people pay for a garden design surely that doesn’t mean they have to share pictures of it with the world?
When art patrons commission a painting I think they buy it outright and can display it in their homes without other people having to be able to see it?
It’s great to be able to visit people’s gardens and see film or pictures of them but not yet a human right. And not many people have footpaths through their gardens or would like that if they did..The British are a bit big on privacy generally.


[shareaholic app=”recommendations” id=”13070491″]